Monday, October 15, 2007

Kicking Them While They're Down

Digby, in her blog Hullabaloo, wonders why it is that conservatives so often seem intent on blasting to smithereens the character of anyone receiving public assistance.

She writes:

Ridenour's post (among others) reminds me of a well-off acquaintance of mine who agreed to give an aging relative a hundred dollars a month. He made sure that everyone knew how generous he was and then he would regale us all with stories about how he would go over to the old fellow's house once a month and inspect it to make sure he wasn't doing anything "bad" with the money. After all, he gave him a hundred bucks a month. He forced the old guy to stop buying cheap beer and made him quit smoking a pipe and pored over his bills to make sure he wasn't overusing the utilities. He had a right, you see. The man was taking his money.

The question to me when he would tell me this stuff was why this very well-off man (a Republican, by the way) took such pride at controlling the behavior of one sad old man through a meager offering of a hundred dollars a month. I could only conclude that it was because his sadistic joy at making someone else miserable was coupled with his inflated belief in his own goodness and pride in his superiority. He was allowed to deny this man his freedom in the name of helping him. The authoritarian's path to heaven.

In telling this anecdote, Digby is referring to the case of Graeme Frost, the 12-year-old boy recruited by Congressional Democrats to make the case for the S-CHIP program. Frost had had the misfortune to be in a car accident with his parents and sister; he suffered a brain stem injury, she a cranial fracture. Surely harrowing enough, right? But the point of his story was somehow a positive one: low-cost health insurance worked for his family. With an income of only $46,000, it was the only insurance they could afford. When catastrophe struck, they were covered. Whew.

But now, thanks to some over-the-top conservative bloggers, we need to hear about how the family should never have been eligible for this bit of social help, because after all, its kids all went to an expensive private school (though on scholarship, it turned out), and lived in a nice suburb in a decent house, and hey, why should we, the overburdened and much-abused taxpayers of America, have to pony up for people who aren't all that bad off? (And if they were bad off, it would no doubt be their own damn fault, but that's another issue.)

Aside from impugning the integrity of a family that has endured such unimaginable tragedy, this line of attack is notable because of what it says about our fundamental differences as human beings. What's the conservative-liberal split really about, and where does it come from?

Digby looks deep into the conservative psyche, finding the old Puritan need to control unseemly and unproductive behavior through social mechanisms. (Which often translates to financial mechanisms, of course.) The attitude goes thus: If poor choices and sub-standard behavior got you into this mess, I'm not bailing you out. Unless you change. And even then I'll humiliate you, because you're such a loser to have gotten into trouble in the first place.

And since conservatives don't like or believe in the social compact, their gripe is personal: My money belongs to me, and I really, really hate giving any of it to you.

But I think the real attitudes that lead to this kind of thinking are even more primitive, and are rooted in the tendency of each individual to cast himself either within a group or outside the group. We either acknowledge the reciprocal arrangements we have with one another, accepting that at any given moment some individuals will get more out of the deal than others, or we reject them, scrutinizing every social transaction as though the circumstances that necessitated it must by definition be pathological. Because we're not supposed to need each other. Are we?

Well, leaving the supposeds out of it, we in fact do need each other. That includes conservatives, who, in my experience, are perfectly happy to push their snouts into the government trough whenever they smell something tasty. In fact they do it all the time, pausing only to squeal when desperate parents with banged-up kids tap them on the haunch to get a nibble themselves.

So please. Let's get serious. Low-cost insurance is a good thing. Slam a 12-year-old with a brain stem injury if you like, but ... be sure to take a good look in the mirror while you're doing it.

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