Thursday, January 25, 2018

An Orgy of Hypocrisy

Today's New York Times devoted no less than four articles to President Trump referring to some other countries as "shitholes." Why the uproar? We knew that the President is a crude and vulgar person. He expresses himself in ways that offend many people. But many people also agree with the sentiments he puts into his unpleasant language. His contempt for most foreign countries, except Norway, and their inhabitants is simply an expression of nationalism that has been a serious component of his platform from the very beginning.

This nationalism consists of two major theses. The first of these describes the United States as one unified nation. Politicians constantly talk about the wishes of "the American people" as if we all wanted the same thing. But that is an obviouspropaganda move to assert that all citizens want what this Senator's or Congressperson's campaign donors want. The politicians speak for the donors to their campaigns and try to persuade the people who vote for them that they want the same thing.

This being, as we keep repeating daily, a nation of immigrants we are, in fact, fairly uncertain about our identity as one nation. Why else would we make our school children repeat five mornings a week that ours is "one nation indivisible"? The original author of the Pledge of Allegiance project was a retired admiral and then public school educator concerned to inculcate nationalism in the children of immigrants. (Among later versions of the pledge one was the brainchild of a man who wanted to sell American flags to schoolchildren.)

The talk about this one united American nation is, moreover, telling a big lie. Native Americans are not members of this American nation, neither are African-Americans, immigrants from south of the Rio Grande, chicanos. The President who advocates nationalism does not pass a day without bad mouthing his Black predecessor for no other reason than he is Black. For years he asserted that Barack Obama was not an American. The unified American nation leaves out many who dwell on this North American continent.

Even those included do not speak with the same voice or speak quite the same language. There are many deep cleavages between the inhabitants of Northern New England and the folks who live in the south of Louisiana , Mississippi, or Alabama.  “One nation indivisible” has always been wishful thinking.

This first thesis of nationalism, that there is one unified American nation, is as false as the second one, namely that this nation is the most perfect nation history has ever seen. The bumper sticker "USA # 1” is an especially inarticulate expression of that belief. But we encounter it anywhere when people tell you that our educational system, our health care, our standard of living, or what have you, is better than corresponding institutions anywhere else in the world. A quick look on Google will show you that on the different dimensions of education, of health, of quality of life, etc., ten or twenty countries in the world are ahead of us. Given the amount of money we have and spend, we are actually not doing very well.

Nationalism rests on colossal self deceptions. It can maintain itself only by constantly reiterating falsehoods and that of course is what the President is doing and why so many people love him. Hearing him repeat the lies about national unity or how we are better than anyone else reassures people who have their secret doubts about this.

All the people who are nice nationalists, who don't swear when journalists hear them, who don't use vulgar names to refer to other countries, at least not publicly, have a complete fit if the arrogant nationalism so pervasive in this America is phrased vulgarly. They don't want their belief in American superiority put in the barnyard language.

But the truth is that there is no way of being a nice nationalist because to be any kind of nationalist you have to be a hypocrite and a liar and that is definitely not nice.  You have to lie about America being one unified nation. You have to be a hypocrite when you ignore the failures of our health care and large parts of our education system. You have to be a hypocrite to denigrate foreigners as well as inhabitants of this continent while bragging about our dedication to equality and democracy.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Should the Poor be Made to Work?

Many Americans answer this question in the affirmative. The poor, they say, should not be allowed to receive assistance from the government without doing some kind of work. Recent government attempts to force work on recipients of Medicaid illustrate that conviction. If someone receives government financed health insurance, the common opinion goes, they need to have a job or work in some other way. 

People have different reasons for this opinion.

A certain number are plainly racist. When they hear the word "poor" they have the image of a black person in front of their inner eye. They think that people of color are lazy ne'er-do-wells and they do not want their own taxes to support them. That reason for advocating work for the poor does not deserve discussion.

A similar reason moves those who believe that their poverty is the fault of the poor. If only they had paid better attention in school, had not gotten pregnant in their teens, had not become addicted to hard drugs. If only they had worked hard as I have always worked hard, they would not be poor. But poverty has many different causes. This kind of uninformed blaming is completely unhelpful.

But there are reasons that deserve taking seriously. One of them we often referred to as the "work ethic." Many of us believe that everyone should work. Perhaps we owe this belief to the Puritans but it is certainly true that many people in America today work a great deal. Many complain of being overscheduled, of being too busy and being stressed out by working so much. In spite of all those complaints, however, many of us believe that not working is in some way morally objectionable.

Let's look at that.

Government aid to the poor should only be given to those who work , we say, because work is what makes you a respectable citizen. But we don't have the same feelings about the errors of rich people not working. There are obviously many Americans who have inherited a great deal and can spend their days running nonprofits, going to charitable teas and cocktail parties, being photographed for the Sunday paper and sailing their yachts to the Caribbean when winter is inclement in the northern United States.

I have never heard a proposal that we should make these playboys and playgirls do an honest day's work. Our abhorrence of life without work seems to apply mostly to the poor.. Are we wanting to punish the poor for their condition when we insist on everyone working? I'm not sure.

Think some more about this moral rule that people should work. Does it matter what sort of work people do? Can one gain respectability by cleaning toilets? There are literally armies of people cleaning offices in huge skyscrapers every night. Does their life gain moral value behind their vacuum cleaners?

Not all work seems to me to be valuable. Good work is. If your working makes someone's life better, if it makes you feel that you contribute to the well-being of others, that what you do is truly worthwhile and contributes to making the world better than it is, then work is good. But not all work makes that sort of beneficial contribution to the world around you. Much of it is routine, if not downright unpleasant and it's only contribution is to make money for some corporate stockholders.

Does Sisyphus gain moral stature from his work. Working, as such, is not morally valuable.

Many people hate their jobs with a passion. They would be glad to give it up but they are not willing to leave the poor life one gets by relying exclusively on government assistance. So they go back every Monday morning looking forward to Friday night and being miserable in between and envious of people who managed to survive without the pain of a job. Why should they have to do a job they hate so much and others not?

I don't think the work requirement for the poor can be justified in that way by envy and wishing one's own pain on others.

Here another principle enters our reflection. Many people believe that one needs to be self-sufficient. There are elderly persons in our country who refuse

Social Security which they actually have paid into for most of their life, because as a matter of principle they do not want to accept government assistance. Nor would they accept assistance from their church or a club they belong to.

    One can respect that attitude but it is, of course, ill-conceived. "No man is an island" as the poet said. The people who refuse government assistance will certainly call the fire department when their house is on fire, and they will call the police when a burglar breaks into their house. They may have fond memories of teachers who helped them learn their letters and parents and ministers who helped them become upstanding citizens. We all depend on each other. If you are richer than I you may pay more taxes. You may therefore contribute more to the upkeep of the roads which I nevertheless use even though I contribute hardly anything to fixing the potholes at the end of winter. Many citizens are proud of America's military might even if they have never served or if no one in their family died in America's wars. They are dependent on the military service and perhaps the death of others for their pride in their country. They sing our national anthem with tears in their eyes even though they have not written it and are perhaps completely tone deaf.

    No one can claim to be independent of the support of others. Why impose that requirement on the poor?

    The work requirement for those who receive government assistance cannot be justified

Monday, January 1, 2018

Why we do good?

In our dealings with each other, human beings make assumptions about what others are interested in, what they will react to. We need to have some ideas of how we can get others to respond to our needs and desires. Say, we live in the same apartment building and you like to play your music really loud at 3 AM. How can I make you be quiet in the middle of the night? I could come upstairs at 3 AM with my assault rifle and threaten or actually shoot you. I could come upstairs with a plate of cookies hoping that that will make you turn the music down. I could come and ask you what I could do for you so that you would let me sleep.

Human beings have different theories about this. Some people believe that all relationships are about power and violence is an effective way of being powerful. Some believe, on the other hand, that being kind and generous will persuade others to be kind in their turn. Then there are the believers in social life as a grand bargain. You will choose to do what I want if I give you something in return.

Different people are inclined to different theories about human interactions. It is a common belief that if you want something from someone else you have to pay them in some way to get what you want. People will only work if they get paid – that's a piece of common wisdom. With that goes the opinion that we value only things we pay for. But this bit of common sense is very incomplete. Men and women who believe strongly that everyone needs to get paid in order to work, still spend many hours generously playing with their children or caring for their elderly parents. They never notice how their actions are not consistent with their beliefs about human interactions. Their belief that everyone needs to get paid for working, is modified by the other belief that some things should be given without payment. Different human beings have different rights. Children are entitled to loving care. The elderly, the parents that raised you with considerable effort, are now entitled to have as comfortable an old age as possible.

Between conservatives and people on the left of the political spectrum there are disagreements of what sorts of things our fellow citizens are entitled to without working for them. Most Americans, left or right, believe that everyone should work and should contribute to the society. (Some of us believe that work should be fulfilling, but that is definitely a minority opinion.) But there is considerable disagreement as to how much everyone needs to work in order to have a reasonably comfortable life.

We all agree that children should not have to work and should receive good care without paying for that care. There is widespread agreement that children are entitled to a secondary education to age 18. There is disagreement as to whether they should pay for their college education or whether it should be available free of charge to anyone who wants it and is qualified. Children should have enough to eat. They should have a clean and comfortable space to live. Most agree that children are entitled to health care without payment. When we come to adults disagreements are more serious. What are homeless people, who have no jobs, entitled to? Should those of us with some money pay for health care for the poor or should they simply work longer hours to earn their keep as you and I earn ours? Should taxpayers pay the rent for people who are unable to pay for their own apartment? The poor have done nothing for me, why should I help them?

The obvious answer is: your children have done nothing for you either. Your infants eat and sleep and soil their diapers. But you take care of them anyway. To that you reply: "that is different." But whether it really is different and in what way is a matter of permanent controversy. Some rewards should be earned, we tend to agree and others we receive without making any effort or earning the rewards we get. What belongs in each category is open to serious disagreement.

These reflections lead up to another question. It being the end of another year, I am inundated with requests for charitable contributions. My Congressman promises to change the balance of Democrats and Republicans in Congress in the new year if I give him five dollars. Well meaning Americans offer to get justice for Palestinians if I send money to their specific non-profit. Some other organization will help country folk in India or in Africa to dig wells or build schools for their children.

Should I respond to all these requests even though I know the promises are extravagant? My car is fifteen years old and shows its age. I can keep my money and buy a new car and look more respectable when I drive down the street, not to mention be more comfortable. What reasons do I have for giving my money to others, however well-meaning their efforts might be, rather than spending it on myself? I earned this money. I worked for it. I should be allowed to enjoy it.

I have no problem supporting my Congressman. He provides faithful and reliable service and, given our political system, I need to pay for the possibility of retaining him in his job. He works for me. I pay him. But what right do Palestinians have to ask me for money? What have they ever done for me? Every so often they attack my Jewish brothers and sisters in Israel. Why in the world should I pay for wells or schools in places I have no connection to, places I would not even be able to find on a map. When I am old and in need of help will these country people come and feed me, or help me to the bathroom? Fat chance.

How I decide these quandaries depends very much on how I think human beings function in relation to each other. If I believe that most human transactions are bargains of one sort or another, where you do something for me and I reward you for that, I will not give any money to dig wells in India or in Africa. If I believe, on the other hand, that all human beings are entitled to decent lives including a source of potable water, I might put off buying a new car and send some money in this nonprofit that deals with water problems in faraway places.
How can we settle this disagreement?

We could try to take the easy way out and say that everyone should follow their best wisdom and leave this controversy unresolved. But we need some sort of accord when it comes to passing legislation and deciding what amount of public monies will be used to care for the indigent, the sick and the old. We could try to persuade those who are reluctant to spend taxpayer money on charity of one sort or another by accusing them of being racist, of violating the supreme maxim of Judeo-Christian morality, love your neighbor as you love yourself. We could ask our opponents what sort of world they would want to live in. Would they not prefer a world of little suffering as possible? They would respond by opting for a just world where people are rewarded for their efforts, not allowed to be lazy and of indulgent. Efforts at persuasion are not promising.

These reflections recall us to reality. After a season of sending each other cards calling for peace, calling for goodwill towards all men and women, we need to remind ourselves that this goodwill is actually in short supply. Love of their neighbor is not valued by all. Advocates for a world where everything needs to be paid for ridicule proponents of neighborly love as "bleeding heart liberals."

Welcome to 2018.