Friday, March 12, 2010
We waste so much effort in this country arguing about whether or not some government program or another is effective. But the simple answer for an increasing number of conservatives is that government is not only incapable of solving social problems, but only creates more! To this movement, all are perfectly able to help themselves, and only by our helping them do we actually create injustice. Beck made this argument powerfully at CPAC when he told the audience that in his own darkest moments, if there had been someone there to help him up, he never would have gotten low enough to see his way out, to see how far he had fallen. He was thankful that no one had helped him. "The freedom to fail" he called it.
This is some seriously crazy shit. But it’s pretty well the norm among conservatives. Suffering is actually good because it makes you stronger. There’s a flagellistic quality to it, as if sin is something through which we achieve greater things. So social justice, in which people are given help via social programs, whether kicking addiction, taking night courses, getting kidney dialysis… actually forces people down. And not only is misfortune... unfortunate, in this magical version of capitalism, it is a sort of redeeming gauntlet through which life lessons are not just learned but earned. So when one gets cancer while working full time at a job that doesn't offer health insurance, it is through that experience that one learns not to ever again settle for a job that doesn't offer health insurance. Let that be a lesson to you!
There seems to be a very twisted view of behaviorism at the root of much conservative logic. Consciousness or enlightenment is not something that can be delivered – it must be discovered. And no matter how much we might want to help (if only we could redistribute our income!), they must find it on their own. Obviously this is absurd. It requires some magical belief that no government or church program ever works. Something so demonstrably false it’s bizarre. Of course, social programs don’t always work, or work well. But to say they don’t on principle is crazy.
Yet if one believes this, then… ta da! – one is no longer responsible for anyone but themselves. Any guilt one might feel is absolved! What a miraculously liberating delusion.
There seems to be something deeper at work here. Yet I can't put my finger on it. But it somehow involves a belief in divine justice. Just as a televangelist will occasionally explain disaster as the devil seeking his punishment on the sinful, there seems to be an element of religio-social harmonization going on. How could such suffering exist in the world - in such a perfect world - if not to be explained by somehow blaming the victim? And so much more so if such suffering arises from the society of man. And more still if the result of an apparent lack of adherence to time-honored traditions of behavior.
The junkie should not have been using drugs. The young mom should not have gotten pregnant. And she should have treated her man better so that he wouldn't have run off. Or she should have found a better man to begin with. And one should have picked a better job. Or one should not have so on, etc.
But they did. And all of this is probably true. But should we not be able to help them just the same? Should we not be able to assist them in finding their way toward some more righteous path?
I have occasionally heard the claim that helping the unfortunate is actually a simply more effective technique for solving any problem of social justice that does exist. The argument is that the suffering individual acts as a sort of deterrent from dysfunctional behavior. And that by healing the individual, you are removing the example of "how not to act".
There is somewhat of a legitimate argument here, in so far as any negative behavior can act as a deterrent. One frequently does the right thing simply to avoid the perceived consequences of acting otherwise. But choices are rarely so black and white. Negative behaviors are often accompanied by a great deal of reward, usually short term, with long term negative consequences. And to the individual who has trouble with long-term thinking, negative behaviors can seem like very good bargains. Generational poverty has many elements built into it that would seem to be greatly deterrent, and yet for many reasons they rarely turn out to be sufficient to the task. There are individual exceptions, but they don't prove the socio-economic rule.
Or is there something more still? Is the desire something more basic, something darker? Should they be punished? Should they suffer? Should we not help them not because we can't, but because we should not? Should we allow them to suffer through their misfortune, even if we are able to help, not because they will learn dependency instead of self-efficacy, but because they deserve to suffer? Vengeance is in fact a human emotion. Our desire for revenge is a powerful element in our arts, and often an entirely codified element of the criminal justice system. The death penalty is regularly spoken of as a punishment. And I doubt our tolerance of sub-human conditions in prisons has much else to do with than vengeance. There is a fine line between punishment as deterrent and punishment as vengeance. And yet what is vengeance other than a sating of emotional need, or more simply, pleasure.
It is no coincidence that conservatives, quickest among us to admit to desiring pure vengeance when wronged ("If that was my daughter I'd skin him alive"), are also the ones decrying social justice. Yet is it wrong to draw a line from vengeance for a personal, violent crime, and one that more broadly harms society, or even merely presents a subjective, debatable harm to society? And could we somehow form a framework that ties a sense of vengeance - a personal feeling of resentment and injustice - to a desire for vengeance against those
who violate the larger social order?
This is a new arena within which to consider such a raw and dangerous emotion. No longer simply an expression of passion in a personal sense, it has become transcendent, opening up widely into the affairs of state. In this light it becomes more clear why such base rage seems to envelop the conservative mind. Anger and resentment have arisen not just out of frustration with policy, but as a manifestation of a desire to punish one's liberal opponents, along with the dysfunctional ne're-do-wells they seek to aid and give comfort to.