fresh voices from the front lines of change







For all the noise they make extolling small town America and Main Street as the epitome of American values and the touchstone of morality, conservatism’s world view is much closer to that voiced by Phil Gramm, who once called Wall Street a “holy place” — because of all it has “done for the working people of America.” Little more than two years after Gramm uttered those words it seems righteousness of a deregulated financial sector comes not what it has allegedly done “for” working Americans, but what it has done to them.

That is, if you’re a conservative — because, then, we are not in the middle of a crisis, but rather a correction.

Crisis v. Correction

Gramm’s statement, let alone his reverence for Wall Street, is even more perplexing now than when he said it two years ago, when read with the the understanding that (as Robert Reich most recently pointed out) Wall Street bears some responsibility for both the crisis itself and it’s severity. (Yes, there’s plenty of blame to go around. But let’s not pretend that everyone deserves an equal share.) Take into consideration that millions of Americans have suffered disastrous consequences, caught in a crisis they’re not powerful enough to stop, let alone start, and Gramm’s veneration of Wall Street seems downright crazy (and more than a little creepy).

It is, however, completely consistent with conservative’s response to a disaster of a different sort, and the people who suffered in its wake.

Five years ago, Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana, heaping devastation upon New Orleans, and leaving a trail of destruction from Florida to Texas. Nearly as devastating as the storm itself was what happened to those left in New Orleans, unable to get themselves out the way of the storm and its aftermath.

After Katrina’s deluge came the rhetorical deluge from the right, as conservatives responded with as much anger and outrage as many others witnessing the footage and hearing the stories from post-hurricane New Orleans. But their comments made it clear that where most people were concerned with the failure of the government to step in and help people who were unable to escape the storm and its aftermath, conservatives seemed to reserve their anger and outrage for Katrina victims.

Barbara Bush’s nervous discomfort with the possibility that Katrina refugees might stay in Houston — where she lived, and Tom DeLay’s bizarre “Isn’t this fun?” question to a group of boys living in a shelter after the hurricane, gave way to remarks like those of Rep. Richard Baker, who declared, “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.” Yet, even Baker’s comment seems benign compared to; Glenn Beck calling Katrina victims “scum,” as he declared his hatred for them and the families of 9/11 victims; Republican strategist Jack Burkman dismissing Katrina deaths with the familiar conservative refrain, “These things happen”; Newt Gingrich blaming “uneducated and unprepared” Katrina victims for not being able to get themselves out of the way of the hurricane; and then Sen. Rick Santorum going Gingrich one better, and suggesting a “a need to look at tougher penalties on those who decide to ride it out and understand that there are consequences to not leaving.”

But, as one of many bloggers posting about Katrina at the time, conservative pundits Bill O’Reilly and George Will offered a clear conservative frame of Katrina and the events that followed.

Let’s take a look at two such conservatives who at least came close to saying something like the above in public recently.

There was Bill O’Reilly, for whom disaster and human tragedy is also a “teachable moment.”

American middle and high school students everywhere should be required to watch video tape of the poor people stranded by Hurricane Katrina. Teachers should point out that many U.S. citizens without the financial means to get out of New Orleans wound up floating face down in the water or, at the very least, were subject to gross indignities and suffering of all kinds.

The teachers should then tell the students that the local, state and federal government bureaucracies failed to protect those poor people, even though everybody knew the storm was coming days in advance. The lesson should then segue into how the most powerful nation in the world was powerless to stop 9/11, and scores of other natural and man made disasters throughout our history.

After presenting those undeniable facts, the teachers should then present two questions to the students: Do you want to be poor? And do you believe the U.S. government can protect you if you are poor?

…Then there’s George Will, who thinks that Barak Obama — who described Bush adminsitration officials as unable concieve of people who couldn’t (as O’Reilly says a professor pal of his did) hop in the SUV and head for higher ground — missed the point.

America’s always fast-flowing river of race-obsessing has overflowed its banks, and last Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” Sen. Barack Obama, Illinois’s freshman Democrat, applied to the expression of old banalities a fluency that would be beguiling were it without content. Unfortunately, it included the requisite lament about the president’s inadequate “empathy” and an amazing criticism of the government’s “historic indifference” and its “passive indifference” that “is as bad as active malice.” The senator, 44, is just 30 months older than the “war on poverty” that President Johnson declared in January 1964. Since then the indifference that is as bad as active malice has been expressed in more than $6.6 trillion of anti-poverty spending, strictly defined.

The senator is called a “new kind of Democrat,” which often means one with new ways of ignoring evidence discordant with old liberal orthodoxies about using cash — much of it spent through liberalism’s “caring professions” — to cope with cultural collapse. He might, however, care to note three not-at-all recondite rules for avoiding poverty: Graduate from high school, don’t have a baby until you are married, don’t marry while you are a teenager. Among people who obey those rules, poverty is minimal.

Many of us felt anger and frustration over the seemingly endless reports and horrific stories coming out of New Orleans, because on some level we shared a basic value similar to the one expressed by an anti-poverty activist in the previous post in this series.

Other anti-poverty experts say the record caseloads are a necessary response to economic hardship. “We should be there to support people when the economy can’t,” says LaDonna Pavetti of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal-leaning think tank.

Our anger and frustration was a result of the obvious failure of government to come to the aid of those without the resources to get themselves and their families out of harm’s way.

The anger and frustration of conservatives was effectively summed up by conservative commentator Neal Boortz, just a couple of years after Katrina:

BOORTZ: I like this: “Edwards’ campaign will end the way it began 13 months ago, with the candidate pitching in to rebuild lives in a city still ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. Edwards embraced New Orleans as a glaring symbol of what he described as a Washington that didn’t hear the cries of the downtrodden.” Cries of the downtrodden, my left butt cheek. That wasn’t the cries of the downtrodden; that’s the cries of the useless, the worthless. New Orleans was a welfare city, a city of parasites, a city of people who could not and had no desire to fend for themselves. You have a hurricane descending on them and they sit on their fat asses and wait for somebody else to come rescue them. “It’s somebody else’s job to get me out of here. It’s somebody else’s job to save my life. Not mine. Send me a bus, send me a limo, send me a boat, send me a helicopter, send me a taxi, send me something. But you certainly don’t expect me to actually work to get myself out of this situation, do you? Haven’t you been watching me for generations? I’ve never done anything to improve my own lot in life. I’ve never done anything to rescue myself. Why do you expect me to do that now, just because a levee broke?”

And then Edwards said, yeah, it was Washington’s problem, it was all Washington’s problem, it was all George Bush’s fault. You had a city of parasites and leeches, and that’s George Bush’s fault? So, boy, I need to slow down. I’m saying too many of the things I actually believe today.

What Baker, Gingrich and Santorum implied, and what O’Reilly and Will suggested, Boortz said very explicitly: it’s not that the government can’t help people, especially the poor, who can’t get themselves or their families out of harms way; it’s that the government shouldn’t help them. Their poverty itself marks them as undeserving of help.

In fact, the government must not help, because it would be helping the wrong people. By stepping into a what many of us see as a crisis, government effectively gets in the way of the what conservatives see as a much needed correction.

Moral Hazard

O’Reilly, Will and Boortz aside, I can’ t think of anyone who has distilled the conservative world view than George Lackoff, author of Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think. Lakoff’s take rings true for conservatives on the current economic crisis.

Competition is necessary for a moral world; without it, people would not have to develop discipline and so would not become moral beings. 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.

Strict Father Morality demonstrates a natural Moral Order: Those who are moral should be in power. The Moral Order legitimizes traditional power relations as being natural, determining a hierarchy of Moral Authority: God above Man; Man above Nature; Adults above Children; Western Culture above Non-western Culture; America above other nations. (There are other traditional aspects of the Moral Order that are less accepted than they used to be: Straights above Gays; Christians above non-Christians; Men above Women; White above Non-whites.)

Since to participate in the promotion or preservation of immorality is itself immoral, it is a moral requirement to eradicate immorality—through “tough love” if possible but through punishment if necessary—in every aspect of life, both public and private, domestic and foreign.

In other words, it is not only better to let the poor drown in the stagnant waters left in Katrina’s wake, but it is right. After all, they’re poverty is solely their own fault. Not only should the government not help them, but as Boortz suggests, individuals have no particular obligation to do so either. If they were better people they would be better off, and better able to pile the family into the SUV with a few cases of bottled water, and head for higher ground. What’s happening to them is no more than what they deserve.

It’s not a stretch to compare conservative rhetoric around Katrina to the current recession, which has all the makings of an economic Katrina, as Dean Baker described in a column last month:

The middle class is getting whacked by the Great Recession. Fifteen million people are out of work, another 9 million workers can only find part-time jobs, and millions more have given up looking for work altogether. Those lucky enough to be employed are unlikely to see any substantial wage gains for years to come.

Millions of homeowners are facing the loss of their home and more than 10 million are underwater in their mortgage. Most of the huge baby boom cohort is approaching retirement with little other than Social Security to support them, now that the collapse of the housing bubble has destroyed their home equity and much of the rest of their savings.

Like those left behind in Katrina’s wake, millions of unemployed and under-employed Americans have been essentially abandoned in the middle of an economic disaster, figuratively standing on the roof tops (of homes with underwater mortgages), waiting for help to arrive — three years into the crisis.

And, as with Katrina, conservatives in Congress and the media reserve the bulk their anger for those Americans suffering the most in this crisis.

When conservatives, after months of blocking unemployment benefits for millions of Americans, started talking about extending tax cuts for the wealthy it seemed counterintuitive. But in the conservative world view it made perfect sense.

Just as it was “a tragedy of the first proportion” for the government to hold BP responsible for the consequences of it’s oil leak, spending tax dollars to extend unemployment benefits is “punishing” the wrong people. At least according to Rand Paul, taxes are a “punishment” rather than paying ones fare share for the public infrastructure that we all use, but that the wealthy use to varying degrees to increase their wealth.

Listen carefully to the what conservatives — media spokespersons, office holders and office seekers — have been saying about Americans caught in the unemployment crisis: that helping them with unemployment benefits will make them not want to get jobs; that people are unemployed because they want to be; that they’re choosing not to work; that there are jobs available, but the unemployed are too lazy and too busy using drugs to bother applying for the jobs that are out there just waiting for them; that they should just go work at McDonald’s; and so on.

It hardly matters that unemployed workers outnumber lob openings, or that unemployment benefits don’t discourage job hunting, because the benefits are nowhere near enough to replace a paycheck. And it hardly matters that millions of Americans are struggling to survive on unemployment benefits, living day-to-day, not knowing how they’ll survive when benefits run out again.

It makes perfect sense to cut taxes for the wealthy while cutting benefits for the unemployed, as well as the government programs that serve those in the most need, and it’s easy to do so without thinking of the consequences those already in desperate need. It just depends on the context in which you view all the realities above.

It should come as no surprise that candidates like Sharron Angle — who opposed extending unemployment benefits and also opposed Katrina relief funds — have become the rising stars of contemporary conservatism. Three years later, Neal Boortz suggestion that he’d said too much seems almost coy. There are, however, a still a few limits. As far as I know, conservatives have not yet embraced NY Gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino’s idea to use prisons as dorms for welfare recipients.

Republican candidate for governor Carl Paladino said he would transform some New York prisons into dormitories for welfare recipients, where they could work in state-sponsored jobs, get employment training and take lessons in “personal hygiene.”

Paladino, a wealthy Buffalo real estate developer popular with many tea party activists, isn’t saying the state should jail poor people: The program would be voluntary.

…Asked at the meeting how he would achieve those savings, Paladino laid out several plans that included converting underused state prisons into centers that would house welfare recipients. There, they would do work for the state — “military service, in some cases park service, in other cases public works service,” he said — while prison guards would be retrained to work as counselors.

“Instead of handing out the welfare checks, we’ll teach people how to earn their check. We’ll teach them personal hygiene … the personal things they don’t get when they come from dysfunctional homes,” Paladino said.

Paladino’s idea would effectively bring the workhouse of the Victorian era into the 21st Century.

As counterintuitive as it seems, just like those Americans who needed help during Katrina and its aftermath, Americans who are in need of help in this economy (help getting back to work, help keeping their homes, help putting food on the table, etc.) are undeserving of help precisely because they need it. If they lack sufficient resources to whether this particular storm, it’s because they are “lazy,” drug addicted,” or just choosing not to work. If they were better people, they’d be better off right now.

Just as mortgage relief that might have kept people in their homes was opposed because it might have helped the “wrong” people, and health care reform was vehemently opposed because it might help the “wrong” people, so have any efforts to alleviate the suffering of millions of unemployed Americans — let alone serious investment in job creation — run into intent opposition from conservative.

It all boils down to the supposed danger of “moral hazard,” and the belief that people in need of help might not change their ways if they don’t suffer enough for their moral failings — failings which are indicated by their need for help in the first place.

Hazardous Morals

Conservative opposition to keeping people in their homes, expanding access to health care for the uninsured, helping the unemployed, and investing in job creation are at least party based on the belief that it’s a “moral hazard” to help the “wrong” people. But in each conflict over the above in the last two years, the line between the “right” people and the “wrong” people seem arbitrarily drawn. It’s not a straight line either, but one that winds its way around the familiar territories and battlegrounds of race, gender, class, and a few others. An example of this are the unemployed tea baggers who receive social security and Medicare benefits even as they rage against health care reform, unemployment benefits.

It clear that the “right” people vs. the “wrong” people is simply the same an “us” vs. “them” dichotomy that has run like a motif through this country’s history. Most recently it’s raised its head in the form of the controversy over the proposed Park51 Islamic cultural center at “Ground Zero.”

In his response to the Park 51 controversy, President Obama again gave voice to the opposing progressive value: that Americans are all on the same side; that there is no “us” v. “them,” but just “us.”

President Obama closed his longest-ever press conference Friday by saying that Muslims who are fighting for America should understand that all Americans are on the same side.

“I’ve got Muslims who are fighting in Afghanistan in the uniform of the United States armed services,” he said. “They’re out there putting their lives on the line for us, and we’ve got to make sure that we are crystal clear, for our sakes and their sakes, they are Americans, and we honor their service.”

“And part of honoring their service is making sure that they understand that we don’t differentiate between them and us,” he added. “It’s just us.”

That leads to the third and final of the questions that launched this series of posts: What do we mean by “We”?

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