Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Romney and the 47%

It's always a kick to discover what other people say about your kind of people behind your back. My best find was a student conversation overheard at my campus. "The professor was wearing a tee shirt," said the first student, "a striped one." The other said, "We're paying to be here: you don't have to stand for that."

So now we know what Romney and the Republican donors who had the bucks to kick in for a $50,000 a plate Republican fundraiser, think of the rest of us--or at least 47% of us. They believe that we're chronic whiners who imagine ourselves victims and are unwilling to "take personal responsibility and care for...[our] lives."

The remarkable thing about Romney's pitch, and the audience at which it was directed, is that in spite of being educated and presumably competent, they were so utter lacking in imagination. That is a characteristic of primitive people--people in "traditional" societies and the lower classes. They just don't get counterfacuals. Ask a bigoted redneck or working class white ethnic how he would feel about things if he were black and the response is invariably, "But I'm not black." Ask it again, "But what if..." and the answer will be the same. They're not capable of achieving the level of abstract thought that makes it possible to understand counterfactuals--including the Golden Rule. They just don't have the imagination. But maybe that's because they can't afford imagination: they're too busy scrounging and fighting for survival.

Uneducated people behave themselves--when they do--because they're afraid of punishment--in this world or the next. Apart from that, they can't imagine any reason not to lie, cheat and steal or, if they're young men, rape and pillage. And that is why the lower classes are so keen on get-tough policies and religion: they simply can't imagine why anyone would behave themselves if it weren't for fear of punishment, in this world or the next.

Remarkably Romney and his supporters--rich, educated people who have the time and leisure to reflect--are just as unimaginative. They can't seem to imagine what it would be like if their circumstances were, though no fault of their own, different--if they'd been born dirt poor, or black, or on the opposite side of the southern border, or in any of a number of circumstances that would have put them at a serious disadvantage. And they can't or won't understand the extent to which circumstances beyond their control including pure dumb luck were responsible for their privilege.

I'm happy--in fact, delighted, with the life I live. I'm not a victim--indeed I'm vastly privileged--and I'm not whining. I've got a much better life than I ever dreamed I'd have. All I've ever wanted in life was to avoid boredom, and in particular, to do a work that was challenging and interesting. I got that. But it was a matter of pure dumb luck--because my family had money, because I lucked out in getting an academic job, because, most fundamentally, I won the genetic lottery and turned out to be smart. But all this is dumb luck. I didn't make it. It is simply a matter of pure dumb luck that I'm a professor and not a Walmart cashier, or a freeway entrance beggar, or a citizen of the Global South living in extreme poverty, or the child of such a citizen, dying of malnutrition in early childhood.

Romney is now pushing the self-serving self-deceiving idea "we made it." We didn't. We got it--from the government, from biology, from fate, from a variety of circumstances beyond our control. And if we have the ability to understand counterfactuals we should recognize that if our circumstances had been different we'd be members of the 47% that Romney has dismissed as irresponsible whiners. If my fate had been different, if I hadn't been able to go to college, I would have gone on welfare. I'm not interested in promoting socialist policies for the sake of the lower classes, whom I detest, but for my sake--because I could have been in their position. I want to see these policies in place because I want to live in a world where no one has their back against the wall with no room to maneuver, because I escaped a life that I would have found intolerable by the skin of my teeth. I don't care about the poor--I care about myself and people like me, people who are a hair's breadth away from being trapped in an intolerable situation.

I don't have any problem supporting the idle poor--because if I were in their situation I wouldn't want to be forced to do work. I don't begrudge them their idleness because it is exactly what I'd choose if I were in their position--one of those counterfactuals. I'm still amazed though at Romney and his followers. Can't they imagine the hell in which the 47% live--choosing between poverty and agonizing work, and most often ending up with both? Can't they imagine what work is like for most of us? In the morning, it's like you dive into deep water and see how long you can hold your breath--how long you can do the job before you start going mad, crying, cracking up. That's the way it was for me when I did "real work"--by 10:30 every day I was crying. Yes, I'm a stinking spoiled brat. Yes, most people cope. But I don't want them to have to cope--I don't want them to do what I myself couldn't do. I want them to have the good life that I have because it's a matter of pure dumb luck that I do and they don't. Why is this so hard to understand?

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