Henry Higgins a Republican? Pshaw!


I was cable-surfing this afternoon and came upon the delightful “My Fair Lady” on Turner Classic Movies.  It was the scene where Eliza Doolittle drops in on Professor Higgins and Colonel Pickering seeking their help to become a “lady”.

I had never connected this story of social engineering to politics before.  But it suddenly occurred to me how ‘Republican’—in the contemporary American sense— Henry Higgins is.  His creator, British playwright George Bernard Shaw was an irredeemable Socialist. A polemicist as well as an literary genius.   The late Gore Vidal might be the closest  thing to him.

But Henry Higgins has more of  the Conservative Right-winger about him.  I absolutely could  imagine him in attendance at that Florida fund-raiser, applauding with relish Romney’s put-down of the 47% shiftless Obama supporters.

In Shaw’s narrative, Higgins, a professor of phonetics,  is a member of the privileged upper class.    We would say today that he was born on third base. He enjoys  the benefits of a cultured upbringing and a university education. He has been providentially spared the privations of the  much less fortunate.  And he  is smugly  cognizant of his superior station. He is a snob who despises the social classes beneath him.

When Eliza first approaches him to transform her into a lady, Higgins has no qualms about treating her with contempt. He refers to Eliza as ‘this baggage’ and asks Pickering if  he should ‘throw her out of the window’. He calls her  ‘a draggle-tailed guttersnipe’. Eliza is ‘so deliciously low—so horribly dirty’.  She is only  an object  he will use to win a bet.

When Eliza’s dustman father, Alfred, visits Higgins later  to make a financial ‘arrangement’ with him, Higgins affects moral outrage.   Asked if he has no morals, Dolittle candidly admits , ” No! I can’t afford ’em, Governor. Neither could you  if you was as poor as me.”  He is living proof—in Higgins’ words— of the blackguards of the working class.

The idealized family model of the Republican, according to cognitive scientist, George Lakoff, centers around the strict father. His authority “is absolute and unchallengeable. He sets the rules and is, in short, the decider. Physical discipline is necessary to produce moral discipline. Love is tough love; discipline is a form of love.  To be prosperous, one must be fiscally disciplined. Thus if you are not prosperous, it must be because you are undisciplined—which is itself a form of immorality—and so you deserve your poverty.” 

When  Higgins adopts  his guttersnipe protege, he assumes this strict father role; he relentlessly tutors Eliza in the finer points of cultivated enunciation and in the decorous forms of polite society. He disciplines her with ramrod firmness.  Their relationship  is the apotheosis of tough love.

I don’t want to stretch this analogy beyond  credibility though.  After all, Higgins does end up sacrificing his confirmed bachelorhood to the softer side of love.  

I don’t know what Romney is willing to sacrifice for the love of his country. It sure ain’t  the loot he’s buried in Swiss bank accounts.




Filed under: literature, Movies, politics

Leave a comment