Whose ‘Filthy, Rotten System’?

Feb. 18, 1970, edition of National Catholic Reporter (NCR photo/Toni-Ann Ortiz)
Brian Terrell has a great column in the National Catholic Reporter (April 16, 2012) tracing the origin of one of Dorothy Day’s most famous phrases: “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.” And he found a surprise! The Occupy Movement has taken up Dorothy’s phrase as one of their slogans to indict an unjust economic system. But for people of faith, we need to dig a little deeper into Dorothy’s original intent. Here’s an excerpt from Brian’s piece:

My efforts to find the origins of this quote were inconclusive. The archivist for the Catholic Worker papers at Marquette University, Phil Runkel, could find no reference to the quote earlier than the poster itself, which was published by WIN magazine in 1973.

One of Dorothy’s biographers, Jim Forest, did a search of the word rotten and found this in a column by Dorothy from 1956: “We need to change the system. We need to overthrow, not the government, as the authorities are always accusing the Communists of conspiring to teach to do, but this rotten, decadent, putrid industrial capitalist system which breeds such suffering in the whited sepulcher of New York.”

Tom Cornell, former managing editor of The Catholic Worker, offered a promising lead: “My clear recollection is that [Day] said these words in an interview in the offices of theNational Catholic Reporter in Kansas City, that she did not expect to be quoted, and that when she saw the words in print she was offended to be quoted using language which she considered vulgar and crude.”

By this time, though, I was tired of the whole matter and gave it up.

The ringing denunciation of the filthy, rotten system as the source of our problems could not be quieted, though, whatever its origins. In the intervening years, as if doubts cast on its authenticity breathed new life into it, scholars and Workers alike used the quote more than ever, attributing Dorothy’s authority to it without question. In the last few months, moreover, the analysis that “our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system” has found resonance in the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Encouraged by images of hand-lettered placards attributing this scathing critique of the system to Dorothy Day popping up at Occupy encampments, I decided to renew my search of its genesis and forwarded Tom’s recollection to a friend on the staff of NCR, Joshua McElwee.

Joshua found the interview Tom remembered in NCR’s Feb. 18, 1970, issue, in which the editors interviewed Dorothy and writer Gary MacEoin and presented their conversation as a Lenten reflection under the headline “Money and the middle-class Christian.”

The editors put a large box in the body of this article with a subhead proclaiming in large, bold type: “Dorothy Day: Our problems stem from the acceptance of this lousy, rotten system.”

Here, I am convinced, is the “smoking gun”! …

Read Brian’s whole article.

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