Coincidentally, I was glancing over this bit from Upton Sinclair's The Profits of Religion last night.
It is a vision I have seen: upon a vast plain, men and women are
gathered in dense throngs, crouched in uncomfortable and
distressing positions, their fingers hooked in the straps of
their boots. They are engaged in lifting themselves; tugging and
straining until they grow red in the face, exhausted. The
perspiration streams from their foreheads, they show every
symptom of distress; the eyes of all are fixed, not upon each
other, nor upon their boot-straps, but upon the sky above. There
is a look of rapture upon their faces, and now and then, amid
grunts and groans, they cry out with excitement and triumph.
I approach one and say to him, "Friend, what is this you are
He answers, without pausing to glance at me, "I am performing
spiritual exercises. See how I rise?"
"But," I say, "you are not rising at all!"
Whereat he becomes instantly angry. "You are one of the
"But, friend," I protest, "don't you feel the earth under your
"You are a materialist!"
"But, friend, I can see--"
"You are without spiritual vision!"
And so I move on among the sweating and groaning hordes. Being of
a sympathetic turn of mind, I cannot help being distressed by the
prevalence of this singular practice among so large a portion of
the human race. How is it possible that none of them should
suspect the futility of their procedure? Or can it really be that
I am uncomprehending? That in some way they are actually getting
off the ground, or about to get off the ground?
Then I observe a new phenomenon: a man gliding here and there
among the bootstrap-lifters, approaching from the rear and
slipping his hands into their pockets. The position of the
spiritual exercisers greatly facilitates his work; their eyes
being cast up to heaven, they do not see him, their thoughts
being occupied, they do not heed him; he goes through their
pockets at leisure, and transfers the contents to a bag he
carries, and then moves on to the next victim. I watch him for a
while, and finally approach and ask, "What are you doing, sir?"
He answers, "I am picking pockets."
"Oh," I say, puzzled by his matter-of-course tone. "But--I beg
pardon--are you a thief?"
"Oh, no," hie answers, smilingly, "I am the agent of the
Wholesale Pickpockets' Association. This is Prosperity."
"I see," I reply. "And these people let you--"
"It is the law," he says. "It is also the gospel."
I turn, following his glance, and observe another person
approaching--a stately figure, clad in scarlet and purple robes,
moving with slow dignity. He gazes about at the sweating and
grunting hordes; now and then he stops and lifts his hands in a
gesture of benediction, and proclaims in rolling tones, "Blessed
are the Bootstrap-lifters, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven."
He moves on, and after a bit stops and announces again, "Man doth
not live by bread alone, but by every word that cometh out of the
mouth of the prophets and priests of Bootstrap-lifting."
Watching a while longer, I see this majestic one approach the
agent of the Wholesale Pickpockets' Association. The agent greets
him as a friend, and proceeds to transfer to the pockets of his
capacious robes a generous share of the loot which he has
collected. The majestic one does not cringe, nor does he make any
effort to hide what is going on. On the contrary he cries aloud,
"It is more blessed to give than to receive!" And again he cries,
"The laborer is worthy of his hire!" And a third time he cries,
yet more sternly, "Render unto Caesar the things which are
Caesar's!" And the Bootstrap-lifters pause long enough to answer:
"Lord have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this
law!" Then they renew their straining and tugging.
I step up, and in timid tones begin, "Reverend sir, will you tell
me by what right you take this wealth?"
Instantly a frown comes upon his face, and he cries in a voice of
thunder, "Blasphemer!" And all the Bootstrap-lifters desist from
their lifting, and menace me with furious looks. There is a
general call for a policeman of the Wholesale Pickpockets'
Association; and so I fall silent, and slink away in the throng,
and thereafter keep my thoughts to myself.
Excepting possibly the last-mentioned group, the priests of all
these cults, the singers, shouters, prayers and exhorters of
Bootstrap-lifting have as their distinguishing characteristic
that they do very little lifting at their own bootstraps, and
less at any other man's. Now and then you may see one bend and
give a delicate tug, of a purely symbolical character: as when
the Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Bootstrap-lifters comes once a
year to wash the feet of the poor; or when the Sunday-school
Superintendent of the Baptist Bootstrap-lifters shakes the hand
of one of his Colorado mine-slaves. But for the most part the
priests and preachers of Bootstrap-lifting walk haughtily erect,
many of them being so swollen with prosperity that they could not
reach their bootstraps if they wanted to. Their role in life is
to exhort other men to more vigorous efforts at self-elevation,
that the agents of the Wholesale Pickpockets' Association may ply
their immemorial role with less chance of interference.
I haven't, as they say, Read The Whole Thing, but that's a pretty marvelous little bit of writing, even if I did trim it down a tad. I'm reading Sinclair's Oil! right now, and will do a full booklog on it soon, but it's full of the kind of perspective you see here.
(A historical note, apropos of nothing here: Libertarian hero Robert Heinlein was deeply involved in Upton Sinclair's 1934 campaign for governor of California. Granted, this is before Heinlein became a science fiction author and before he turned more right-wing during World War II, but it's an interesting little factoid, isn't it?)