Friday, November 02, 2012

Left Side of the Aisle #80 - Part 1


I've mentioned a few times recently what I and a number of others have come to call classism. This is a form of bigotry, one that could be defined very broadly as regarding yourself as superior to those who are of a lower economic class than you - but which really refers to bigotry against the poor.

This is what lay at the heart of Witless Romney's deservedly infamous "47 percent" blather. Just in case you've been living on the Moon the past several weeks, this is what he said at a private fundraiser on May 17:
There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. ... These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. ... And so my job is not to worry about those people - I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.
A lot of the attention went to his reference to saying that people who pay no federal income tax "are dependent upon government" and "believe that they are victims." We Americans like to think of ourselves as very independent, self-reliant people and it's a real insult to say to someone "you think you're a victim." What's more, there have also been a good number of smackdowns of the specifics of his claims, pointing out that federal income tax is just one form of tax; that over 60% of those who don't pay that tax are employed and so pay federal payroll taxes; that the rest are essentially all either retired or disabled or on active military duty; that people also pay sales taxes and excise taxes, pay state and local taxes, pay property taxes and so on. And it was rather pointedly mentioned by the Tax Policy Center that an estimated 4,000 households with incomes over $1 million and 14,000 more with incomes between $500,000 and $1 million paid no federal income tax in 2011.

For my part, I said on this show when the video came out that, yes, those folks are entitled to health care, to food, to housing - because we all are, every one of us, just by being human beings. And I noted that the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which the US is a signatory, says that in so many words.

But there's a line in Romney's little rant that has gotten less attention but which I think goes to the heart of it, to the heart of Romney's attitude, one that he felt so comfortable expressing among his fat cat friends: "I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."

That's it. That's the core: People are poor, people need help, people are hungry, people are cold, people have no health care, all because they won't "take personal responsibility." It is the age-old - and it is age-old - notion among those who have food to eat and warm beds to sleep in and doctors and nurses and hospitals for when they are sick, the notion among those who are not afflicted that those who are deserve their fate, deserve their condition - because they are lazy, there are indolent, they are shiftless malingerers with no self-control, they will not "take personal responsibility."

Here's an example from last year. Newt Grinch was in one of those hundreds of GOPper primary debates last November and he proposed putting an end to child labor laws. Why? Because then poor children could be in the labor force and learn responsibility! Just like the good old days!

At the debate, he lauded the idea of 5-year-olds working.
If you take one half of the New York janitors, you could give lots of poor kids a work experience in the cafeteria, in the school library, in the front office, in a lot of different things. I'll stand by the idea young people ought to learn how to work.
With that, the Republican audience erupted with applause.

So why was the idea of revoking "stupid" child labor laws so popular among GOP primary voters? Because of the adjective which they clearly heard but which has been overlooked in most commentary on the event: "poor." They're not applauding the idea of children working, they're not applauding the idea of five year-old children working, specifically not their dear sweet little things working, oh, no - they're applauding the idea of five year-old poor children working.

The next month, Grinch made it explicit:
Really poor children, in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works. So they literally have no habit of showing up on Monday. They have no habit of staying all day, they have no habit of I do this and you give me cash unless it's illegal.
Poor people don't work - unless it's criminal.

And note that he specifically referred to New York. You think that when he talked about "young people" learning "how to work" that folks in the audience were conjuring up images of the children of some white dirt farmer in Appalachia or Mississippi? Or even some down-on-their-luck white family in Indianapolis? You know damn well they weren't.

Because, y'see, it's them. It's those people. Those other people. The "not us." You know who we mean. They have no work ethic. They don't know how to work like we do. They are all shiftless, lazy. And so their kids are the same.

So yes, there is a great deal of racism in classism - but there is also an overlay of contempt for the poor no matter their race. It's not just poor blacks: it's "white trash," it's "trailer trash," it's "the great unwashed," the "riff-raff," the whatever we can call them to make it clear we are above, we are better than, them.

I recall some years ago having an argument with my in-laws - I never really understood how my wife at the time came out of that background as the gentle, loving, clear-headed soul she is - but I remember having this argument in which they insisted that "people on welfare" - and they were very insistent that, even though they imagined that most people on welfare are black, that they meant all people on welfare - that people on welfare are "laughing at us" because we work. When I said that I didn't see much to laugh about in living on a welfare budget and suggested that if folks on welfare had it so good, my in-laws might want to change places with them, the answer I got was "Oh, no, we'd hate it. But they don't know any better."

That contempt is classism, and the bigotry, that socioeconomic bigotry, that bigotry that denies the poor their humanity, that reduces them to a mostly undifferentiated mass marked for the most part as shiftless, greedy, moochers and at best as humble supplicants, shuffling their feet and tugging at their forelocks, gazing down while we decide if we will deign to condescend to throw a nickel at them, that bigotry distorts our politics and twists our morals. It denies what is best in us - compassion, understanding - and embraces the lowest, the basest, the lizard brain of our worst natures.

And what's worse is that I believe classism is growing. I believe it's getting worse. In some ways, that's not surprising: Long periods of economic retrenchment, long periods of economic stress, can often lead people into a defensive, "me-and-mine" posture. And there certainly has been enough of that sort of stress and I don't mean just the past couple of years, I mean the past 30-plus years, a time over which real median family income has gone more or less nowhere despite more two-income households and more hours worked. For decades, we have been working harder and longer just to stay where we are and have gotten paid for it in shrinking futures and reduced job security. In a race, it's always easier to resent those coming up from behind rather than those in front even if they are pulling away - because it's those coming up from behind who are a threat to your position. In the same way, it's easier to resent the poor who are, you imagine, lazing about on your tax dollars than it is to question the rich who daily enrich themselves further by sucking the life out of your economic hopes and draining off the economic gains your more work has produced.

So yes, it may not be at all surprising that classism is growing. If you want another measure, ask yourself how many times in the entire presidential campaign was the word "poverty" mentioned? Other than Newt Grinch waxing nostalgic for the days of child labor, how many times were the poor mentioned? Instead of concern for the poor, we got calling Obama the "Food Stamp president" as a supposedly debilitating slammer, as saying that the fact that there were a lot more poor people wasn't the problem, the fact that they were actually getting help was.

You know, my blog is called Lotus - Surviving a Dark Time. I called it that because I hold out hope that we will survive this dark time, the dark time of the past couple of decades, that at some point we will recover our morality, that we will rediscover - and again be shocked by - the persistence of poverty, of hunger, of homelessness, in our nation. But even as I wrote that in preparation for today's show, I recalled writing much the same thing even in much the same words over 20 years ago. That rediscovery has not yet happened. The Occupy movement, with its focus on the right target - the one percent - came close, but it has not yet happened. Sometimes I despair of it ever happening - but for reasons I can't explain I still maintain the hope.


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