In my work-related news reading this morning, I came across an interesting take on Obama’s exchange with “Joe the Plumber.”
The truth is that Obama in Ohio spoke the language of American democracy, which has always included a perception that wealth is a form of power, and that stupendous inequalities of wealth produce an undemocratic inequality of power. His questioner, angry in anticipation that he could not hold onto all of the $300,000 he might hypothetically earn in a year, spoke the language of righteous self-interest; and he cited as his irrefutable authority “the American dream.” If I follow that dream, said the Joe of today, hoarding the wealth of the Joe of tomorrow, why should I ever pay a higher tax?
Obama’s answer was simple and Christian. Once you have been helped by a tax break to prosper and to grow relatively rich, it seems fair to give others lower down the ladder the same chance that once helped you.
You’d think so. But once again, depending on how you you believe faith and finance relate to one another.
I think George Lakoff hit the nail on the head when he said one of the beliefs of the conservative mindset is that well being — in this case, financial well being — is a sign of moral virtue. The lack of well-being — again, financial well-being — must then be a sign of moral failing. The better off are better off because they are better people. Those who have less would be better off if they were better people.
Worldly success is an indicator of sufficient moral strength; lack of success suggests lack of sufficient discipline. Dependency is immoral. The undisciplined will be weak and poor, and deservedly so.
… The role of government is to:
* Promote unimpeded competitive economic activity so that both the disciplined moral people and the undisciplined immoral ones are able to receive what they each deserve, based on their own choices;
… The Economy and Business: Promoting unimpeded economic activity means favoring those who control wealth and power, who are seen as the “best people,” over those who are unsuccessful, who are seen as morally weak. Corporations are more heavily favored than non-corporate businesses, because big businesses (like wealthy people) have gotten big precisely through working hard and being disciplined.
I’m not saying it makes sense, or that it’s anything that Jesus would recognize as even remotely related to his teachings, but it goes a long way towards explaining things like the response to Katrina and the financial meltdown. It also could explain the strange union between religious fundamentalists and “market fundamentalists.” Toss in the “prosperity gospel” and you’ve got the beginnings of a world view.
So, it might seem “simple and Christian,” to help those lower down the ladder, but not so much if you believe that those lower down on the ladder should be well on their way up the ladder, if they have the “right values.” If they’re not on their way up the ladder then it’s because they don’t have the right values, and thus it’s their own fault. It’s a view in which history doesn’t exist, discrimination isn’t even addressed, equality is irrelevant, and inequality is divinely ordained.
There are no overriding socioeconomic factors that impact one’s ability to climb the ladder, and if there are the onus is not one society to address those factors, or change them, but entirely on the individual to overcome them on his/her own. It absolves society of any responsibility to change the status quo, or even address the injustices of the status quo, as illustrated by the “model minority” stereotype.
The term “model minority” was coined in the mid-1960s by William Petersen to describe Asian Americans as ethnic minorities who, despite marginalization, have achieved success in the United States.
The purpose was to provide a comparison of capitalist and socialist economies: as capitalism was equated with inequality, particularly in reference to poor African Americans, Asian Americans were chosen as an example of a minority group who could succeed by “merit” alone. Modelminority.com writes: “While superficially complimentary to Asian Americans, the real purpose and effect of this portrayal is to celebrate the status quo in race relations. First, by over-emphasizing Asian American success, it de-emphasizes the problems Asian Americans continue to face from racial discrimination in all areas of public and private life. Second, by misrepresenting Asian American success as proof that the US provides equal opportunities for those who conform and work hard, it excuses US society from careful scrutiny on issues of race in general, and on the persistence of racism against Asian Americans in particular.”
You can hear it in “Joe the Plumber’s” reaction to Obama’s explanation of his economic plan.
In an exchange captured on camera, Mr. Wurzelbacher had told Mr. Obama he was preparing to buy a plumbing company that earns more than $250,000 a year, and said, “Your new tax plan is going to tax me more, isn’t it?”
Mr. Obama stopped and explained his plan, acknowledging that those who earn more than $250,000 a year would see their taxes rise to 39 per cent from 36 per cent.
“You’re going to be better off if you’ve got a whole bunch of customers who can afford to hire you, and right now everybody’s so pinched that business is bad for everybody and I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody,” Mr. Obama said.
Many Republicans, including Mr. McCain, seized upon the notion of spreading “the wealth around,” criticizing Mr. Obama as a steal-from-the-rich advocate of higher taxes.
Never mind that it takes an utter lack of an “irony gene” to speak of “steal-from-the-rich,” when only after the taxpayer-funded $1 trillion bailout of the financial sector that got us into the current economic mess — welfare for the wealthy, essentially — was passed has Washington started talking about a stimulus package for the rest of us. It takes Joe himself to bring it on home.
On Good Morning America Thursday, Mr. Wurzelbacher admitted that he does not make $250,000.
“No, not even close,” he said.
But when asked why he does not support increased taxes for the wealthy, he stood by his critique of Mr. Obama.
“Why should they be penalized for being successful?” he asked. “That’s a very socialist view.”
It’s easy to miss, but it’s the kernel of the McCain campaign’s latest contortion of conservative economics. Tax cuts for guys like Joe? Socialism! Main street socialism! Tax cuts for the likes of financial “Masters of the Universe” who brought us to the bring of economic disaster (and who are lining up for bonuses, even as more Americans are pushed over the ledge into homelessness and worse)? Just good economic policy.
Why would guys like Joe vote for this kind of thing? Or for a candidate whose economic policies are clearly not in their interest. I won’t pretend to know or attempt to explain, but listen to this woman explain why she just can’t vote for Obama.
There’s more, much more, to her interview, and I plan on getting to it in another post. But in her answer, you can hear the bedrock of something I posted about earlier, and that I like to call “complacent conservatism.”
Individuals with conservative ideologies are happier than liberal-leaners, and new research pinpoints the reason: Conservatives rationalize social and economic inequalities.
Regardless of marital status, income or church attendance, right-wing individuals reported greater life satisfaction and well-being than left-wingers, the new study found. Conservatives also scored highest on measures of rationalization, which gauge a person’s tendency to justify, or explain away, inequalities.
The rationalization measure included statements such as: “It is not really that big a problem if some people have more of a chance in life than others,” and “This country would be better off if we worried less about how equal people are.”
To justify economic inequalities, a person could support the idea of meritocracy, in which people supposedly move up their economic status in society based on hard work and good performance. In that way, one’s social class attainment, whether upper, middle or lower, would be perceived as totally fair and justified.
No matter how bad things are for someone else, you can rationalize it as just and right, and rest assured that things are as they ought to be. So you’re not bothered by inequality or discrimination. Because the one doesn’t matter and the other is divinely ordained.
In fact, if it’s divinely ordained, then intervention can be immoral. You can see a kernel of that in the brand of “compassionate conservatism” that prescribes “time in the pit,” and requires conversion (to the beliefs of whomever dispenses the help) before aid is given or as the price of receiving aid.
Read the part about the architect of Bush’s faith-based initiative, who believes “An emphasis on freedom should include a willingness to step away for a time and let those who have dug their own hole suffer the consequences of their misconduct. …The early Calvinists knew that time spent in the pit could be what was needed to save a life from permanent debauch (and a soul from hell).” Remember this is the who thinks conversion is an important part of the process, or should be, when it comes to social services; like the Bush funded conversion-for-parole prison program.
On paper, InnerChange was open to any inmate who wanted to take part. The reality on the ground was something else. The program was so saturated with the conservative, biblically literalist form of Christianity favored by Prison Fellowship that members of other faiths found it inhospitable. During the trial, several inmates testified that they found InnerChange impossible to reconcile with their own religious beliefs.
One inmate, Benjamin Burens, who practices a Native American religion, participated in InnerChange for a while, even though he is not a Christian. Burens testified that InnerChange staff pressured him to become a born-again Christian and criticized him for taking part in Native American rituals, labeling them a form of witchcraft. Burens was eventually expelled from the program.
According to the court record, non-evangelical Christians were commonly referred to by InnerChange staff as “unsaved,” “lost,” “pagan,” those “who served the flesh,” “of Satan,” “sinful” and “of darkness.”
…Pratt found this reliance on conversion clear evidence of InnerChange’s sectarian character.
“To anyone well-acquainted with the program — as are the state Dept. of Corrections management team and the InnerChange staff — the object of the InnerChange program is to change inmates’ behavior through personal conversion to Christianity,” he wrote. “InnerChange’s position that no one actually is required to convert to pass through the program is mere formalism. Every waking moment in the InnerChange program is devoted to teaching and indoctrinating inmates into the Christian faith.”
…But InnerChange inmates got an even bigger benefit: access to special classes that made parole much more likely. Treatment classes are a condition of parole in Iowa, and most inmates must wait until they approach their release date to take part in them. InnerChange inmates got the classes earlier, significantly increasing their odds of being granted parole.
Otherwise, providing help — as Bill O’Reilly and George Will, and Neal Boortz have made clear — might be immoral in and of itself, as it perpetuates and and rewards “bad values.” Because bad values are the only thing responsible for a lack of wealth. Certainly, no socioeconomic factors, cultural or historical influence plays a part.
That’s the bridge, actually, over what ought to be a yawning chasm of cognitive dissonance. If you can rationalize someone else’s low economic status as justified, how do you rationalize your own economic status if you’re as bad off as your neighbors or the “sinners” across the street?
Easy. “God will take care of you,” because you are righteous and have the “right values.” Even if you worse off than those sinners across the street or those lazy, shiftless backsliders wherever the next hurricane hits. You can even vote for guy whose policies are likely to make you and a whole lot of people like you much, much worse off. Because “God has made you rich,” already. You just have to pick up your check.
It’s appealing, for sure, to be told that “God has made you rich” because of your righteousness. It’s even more appealing to be told that “God wants you to be rich” and that all you have to do is believe and wait for the blessings to hit your bankbook.
…But that’s the power of belief, and the power of distraction. As long as the Anderson’s believe that God bestows wealth on the faithful, and that wealth is a sign of moral virtue, their failure to achieve the same wealth as others is as much a sign of their “backsliding” or character failings as the wealth of others is a sign of their moral and character strength. Not to mention God’s favor. So, they have only themselves to blame. Or possibly Satan. But never any other factors. Know what I mean?
…We buy into the culture of domination inherent in all of the above, especially if we believe that doing so is the path to gaining power within that paradigm. If we believe, then we’d be loath to abandon it, even it it’s as troublesome as it is tantalizing, because it’s what we know. The ambiguity inherent in abandoning it to build a new system, the outcome of which we can only guess, is too great a risk. Even for some Democrats.
Abandoning that paradigm might require us to come up with something else.
No one likes to be reminded of their privilege — whether it’s white privilege, heterosexual privilege, male privilege, or class privilege — because acknowledging that privilege commutes responsibility for that privilege, and the day-by-day, moment-to-moment decision to perpetuate that privilege or know — while knowing the consequences it imposes on others.
Whether we asked for our privilege or not — acknowledging it, if we don’t want to be responsible for perpetuating it and the injustice it perpetuates, means changing how we are in the world, day-by-day and moment-to-moment.
That is difficult and never-ending work, to be honest. It’s easier not to acknowledge it. It’s even easier to pretend it doesn’t exist. In fact, the first essential rule of perpetuating privilege is to pretend it doesn’t exist. That becomes difficult when the voices of those who can confirm the existence of that privilege, because they (a) do not possess it and (b) live with the consequence of its existence every day, become unavoidable.
So much easier if you can rationalize it away with everything else.
If you can rationalize your privilege, and rationalize related inequities on the flip-side, then you don’t have to change how you are in the world; because all is right with the world, no matter how bad it is for somebody else.
In fact, your privilege — whether it stems from your race, gender, sexual orientation, economic status, etc. — doesn’t even exit. The whole world is suddenly a meritocracy. What you have, you deserve, basically because you have it. And the “have-nots”? Well, if they deserved it, they’d have it.
Essentially, the have-nots deserve whatever they get. It’s an aspect of conservatism that we saw play out during Katrina. We’ve heard it paraphrased by the likes of George Will and Bill O’Reilly, as well as Neal Boortz. Still I haven’t heard anybody put it any better than George Lakoff.
And I already quoted George. So, lets return to Barack and Joe.
Is the American dream a selfish dream? Obama’s questioner in Ohio seemed to believe that it was, and that it was always meant to be. It is clear the McCain-Palin campaign is doing everything it can to encourage that belief. In the latest ads, they are cultivating the fear of “socialism” much as Barry Goldwater in 1964 cultivated the fear that Medicare was a harbinger of “socialized medicine.” This is a subject on which Americans some day soon will have to choose between Goldwater and Reagan, on the one hand, and Lincoln and Roosevelt on the other; and it is a consequential choice: between a selective dependency on government which cuts out the uses of government for persons less well off than oneself, and acceptance of the value of limited government that does “for a community of people” (as Lincoln said elsewhere) “whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or cannot so well do, for themselves–in their separate, and individual capacities.”
The American dream has sometimes meant the selfish gamble that everyone takes and that all expect to win. But of the American dream when it comes in this questionable shape, we ought to begin to be wary. Not because all dreams, like all hopes that assist people in living their lives, are not to be sympathized with, but because it is possible for a platitude to acquire such an air of sacredness that the mere mention of it aborts all understanding and all thought.
The hope for America, in this election, is that more Americans see that choice clearly, and begins the slow turn away from the course of the last 30 years or so.