American political discourse is so broken that it seemingly takes a lifetime of work to correct all of the glaring errors. It’s a strong statement, but I think that it’s worthwhile to consider how deeply it’s true and to correct each ludicrous stretch of logic, abuse of language and distortion of reality that we base even very basic political debates in this country on. After all, in this year, we have a country voting for a man (Donald Trump, in case it wasn’t eminently obvious) who was associated with the Mob in one of the most serious cases of organized crime in history, yet that country has viewed Hillary Clinton as the criminal in the race. We are having an election where the Republican candidate is openly baiting anti-immigrant hysteria, even though in the past he brutally exploited Polish immigrant labor. This election is seeing a serial liar being openly supported as a straight shooter, apparently because too many can’t tell the difference between someone making up a lie and someone speaking the truth, seeing only the spontaneity of statements and assuming that spontaneity means sincerity. Decades of the media openly practicing Orwellian tools of manipulation and confusion of language has led to people confusing up for down and topsy for turvy.
Similarly, in a recent interaction I had with a conservative woman online, the notion of the “nanny state” got brought up. Now, to be clear, this woman had valid concerns: she didn’t want anyone to be infantilized or given an unfair advantage over anyone else. She assumed that Hispanics, black and any other minorities living in the United States or choosing to immigrate her wanted a fair shake and not to be welfare sponges. She didn’t act like a bigot or a jerk.
Yet she seemed to view the idea of welfare as some kind of imposition. How dare the government give resources to the poor! We should have a fair system!
This made me eventually ask her a simple question: Does anyone force seniors to file Social Security checks at gunpoint?
Does anyone force people to apply for food stamps, or federal loans for students, or subsidized housing loans?
Is anyone sitting there with a jack-booted thug watching over them, being coerced into filling out a FAFSA or a TANF form?
If anyone has ever experienced this or heard of it, I’d love to hear about it and see documentation! I won’t hold my breath. It doesn’t happen.
Rather, people are facing eviction: they need a place to stay with reasonable rent. They’ve asked their friends and their family for help. They’ve looked at the Help Wanted ads and found entry level jobs that required experience, in defiance of what the word “entry-level” means.. They need to cut back some hours at work in order to go to school so they can get a better job, and they try to find help to do that.
Sure, there’s undoubtedly even some parasites who calculate that it’s worth it to fill out a lot of paperwork, deal with people being jerks to you in grocery stores, and dealing with a government bureaucracy in order to try to avoid working for it.
The right-wing constantly talks about welfare as if giving people food is some kind of act of psychic warfare. David Horowitz asserted in a debate with Tim Wise that the left promotes “self-pitying attitudes” and that the “political influence of the left is crippling black America”, a specifically racial version of the dependency argument that, as Wise points out, is fundamentally racist because whites have also been exposed to the “political influence of the left” and to welfare and yet don’t suffer the same negative consequences that the right attributes to welfare (not to mention the lack of such apparent effects in Scandinavian welfare states), so that the only way one could believe that this was true is if one believed that African-Americans or people of color more generally are more credulous somehow. As a Foundation for Economic Education (a libertarian-leaning outlet whose name is sufficiently Orwellian given the paucity and ideological blinders of their economic analysis) analysis against welfare argued, Henry Ford once stated that “the recipients of charity are usually destroyed—for once you give a man something for nothing, you set him trying to get someone else to give him something for nothing”. Never mind that Ford was an anti-Semite and, while he treated workers fairly well and thus can’t be accused of being especially antagonistic to workers, certainly benefited tremendously from government investing into roads as well as direct benefits from German slave labor during World War II as well as the U.S. government rebuilding the Ford factory in Germany. That pattern, of rich and powerful people sneering at welfare-dependent individuals until those self-same rich come hat in hand for a bailout, purchase of troubled assets, or disaster relief, holds remarkably constant: take Matt Bevin’s attempt to rebuild his factory with resources from government agencies ranging from the EPA to FEMA (ultimately receiving state loans to rebuild), all while Matt posed as a small-government conservative and opposing Medicaid expansion in his state. Down the line, conservatives pose as if they are the champions of the common man, courageously offering to… take stuff away the common man can choose to get.
But no one is being forced to do anything. These analyses honestly seem to indicate that people would be better off if they had fewer choices, if they didn’t even have the option to choose to go onto welfare. Welfare recipients are not passively being laden down with resources: they are making a choice to accept resources. How does that infantilize anyone? Giving an adult a resource that they ask for is to treat them as an adult. Denying them that resource on the grounds that it is bad for them to be dependent is to infantilize them. It’s to say, “You can’t manage your own life. You can’t manage your own choices. If we give you a resource, you’ll get dependent and abuse it. So we won’t even give you the option”.
See how this works? Telling the poor that they can’t manage their own choices is treating them like adults. Giving them the option to ask for resources is to promote dependency. War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery.
In fact, welfare dependency is an absurd notion. People can’t miraculously manufacture a job out of thin air when there isn’t one in the area. Disabled people can’t just buck up and try to get up and walk. Depriving already desperate people of resources isn’t going to prevent them from trying to panhandle, or beg, or ask friends and family for money, or turn to churches and charities, nor will it prevent them from doing self-destructive things. In fact, any human being who thinks with a moment’s worth of empathy will realize that it’s often when we are not getting the help we need that we turn to the worst kind of self-destructive behavior or lashing out, either shutting down or turning our frustration outwards. And, surprise surprise, analysis after analysis has debunked the notion, and even a brief look at the welfare rolls shows that most people on welfare need temporary assistance and have worked in the recent past and will work again in the near future. As is so often the case, the notion that giving people help will make them dependent on that help is an empirically testable notion about human psychology, and conservatives get it wrong, again. It’s okay to help people, especially if that help is done with the kind of support and empowerment that gives people a meaningful chance to take the temporary resources and turn them into permanent options.
No one I have ever met, read the work of or even heard of on the left has ever been against trying to expand job training programs, give people on welfare or unemployment support and access to resources to get work, make it easier for the unemployed to go to community college or otherwise learn a new skill, or make it easier to get the dignity of work. We just happen to respect people enough to think that, when they’ve exhausted every option, we should give them the help they need.
Next week, I’ll be tackling another example of how the right-wing choke rational political discourse, this time regarding race issues and the notion of personal responsibility there.
This article was written by Frederic Christie, a writer for dusk magazine.