I thought a little about this when reading a recent blog post by Bruce Ross at the Record Searchlight. The post itself was straightforward: Ross detailed some of the results of a mock statewide election amongst schools in California. The upshot? The President won handily statewide, and lost in some of the local rural schools.
Then my eyes strayed to the “comments” section.
Unprompted by anything in the six-sentence post, commentators began unloading. “How do you spell indoctrination?” emil shue remarked snarkily.
Metalmike57 raged, “When these school age children grow up and have real jobs and pay real taxes they will change their minds about the way they voted real quick. Our educators teach our children that government needs more taxes to fix all our woes. So sad”.
And so on.
While this commentary might not represent mainstream thinking, it captures what has become a dominant narrative in our politics, and one which is keeping Mitt Romney’s campaign on a level with the President’s. But the character of Mitt Romney’s campaign aside, what do these remarks, and the others like them that you have undoubtedly seen in newspapers, on television, and online during the past months, say about our society? Something heartbreaking, from my perspective, as embodied when the call for education funding is answered by the retort, “When will you finally admit that the time for a gentler, kinder California is over?”
What is the rush to force the grim world that we, in our selfishness and bitterness have created, onto children? Why is idealism such a bad thing, the subject of contempt, of hatred, and of loathing? Why do we want children to abandon the idea that we should help each other out, and create institutions that allow us to do so? Why must every call for progressivism, for communitarianism, for communal welfare, be greeted with the rejoinder of “indoctrination”? Why do so many obsess about their tax level rather than think about how they can aid others?
Who derives grim satisfaction from inequality? Who revels in the idea of a world in which many people have to suffer? Who enjoys shattering idealism? Who is attracted by the idea of a bleak society in which every person must fight and compete, bitterly and cynically against his or her neighbours, for every right, for each advantage, and for survival?
The anger is there in Romney’s language as well. He is fond of using the term “illegals” to describe migrants from the south who have arrived in the United States outside of purview of the law, to find work, to provide for their families, or to escape persecution.
Are their actions, under U.S. law, illegal? Yes. Are their actions, under the laws of free trade and movement which supposedly characterise the liberal economics embraced by the Republican Party, wrong? No. Are their actions, under laws of decency and morality and humanity, wrong? No. But even setting aside the latter two points, to reduce the travails, ambitions, motivations, and humanity of people who arrive in the United States to “Illegals” is to make their “illegality” the defining attribute of their personhood. This reduction of people to law-violating entities, to unprotected legal categories, to the subject of resentment and hatred on the part of their hosts, is the classic move of ugly nationalists and totalitarian regimes throughout history. When you need a scapegoat, you find a group who you can reduce to non-persons, and you make them, as Republican commentators increasingly do of Mexican and other immigrants arriving in the United States, the source of all that is wrong with the country.
Anger also arises from creating internal threats, based around the delegitimation of traditionally mainstream political critiques.
Take Romney’s infamous 47% comment. This was not, as many of his defenders have tried to suggest, about the fact that he would never convince these people to vote for him because they’re die-hard Democrats. It was that “I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives”. So in Romney’s mind we have an external threat which is undermining the U.S. by dint of its “illegality”, and we have an internal threat, characterised by people who refuse to take responsibility for themselves—never mind that these people, as has been since noted, comprise veterans, the elderly, and the ill, and that they pay payroll taxes, state taxes, and sales taxes into the common pot.
And if you’re really angry, you attack the foundations of democracy by suggesting that some debates are off-limits for the public, and by assaulting the motives of your “opponents”.
Romney was once asked by an interviewer, “I’m curious about the word ‘envy’. Did you suggest that anyone who questions the policies and practises of Wall Street and financial institutions, anyone who has questions about the distribution of wealth and power in this country, is envious? Is it about jealousy, or fairness?” Romney replied, “You know, I think it’s about envy. I think it’s about class warfare”. The interviewer replied, “Are there no fair questions about the distribution of wealth without it being seen as envy, though?” And Romney, unfazed, came back, “I think it’s fine to talk about those things in quiet rooms and discussions about tax policy and the like. But the President has made it part of his campaign rally”.
So fairness, honesty, the distribution of wealth, the provision of services through that fairness and distribution, the basic question of equity...none of these are questions for a democratic society? They are not questions that can be asked in public? It’s hard to know how to respond to a comment as offensive as this one. How do you respond to someone who sees no problem with a small number of people living a life that is better and richer than most of us can imagine at the same time that people, in the same society, in the same nation which is supposedly so great and special, in which people are supposedly so equal, live in poverty, have to fight hand over hand to see a doctor, breathe polluted air, drink contaminated water, cannot afford to attend a university, and struggle to live?
Criticism of that world is not based on envy or greed or resentment or any of the other motives that Romney and his Republican colleagues would like to ascribe to the public. It is based on a desire for fairness, and by distress at seeing people struggle when there is such wealth in our nation. And to suggest otherwise, to suggest that this isn’t something we can debate in public, is offensive, an affront to democracy, and part of a calculated ploy to stir up anger in our society, to grind down idealism, and to make our already-tragic inequality seem like the natural way of the world.
If we believe that we, as human beings, as citizens, as participants in democracy, can shape our livelihoods and the world around us, we should foster rather than kill the idealism embodied in notions like equality and justice. We should reaffirm that this debate is not about punishing some people with taxes, but about creating a society in which everyone has access to services and opportunities and the economic and social advancements that go with these things.