I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Conservatives/Republicans think that the poor — even those who find themselves in the path of a hurricane, with no escape — generally deserve whatever they get. Most conservaties won’t come right out and say it. Some will express a thinly veiled contempt for the poor (working or not), but only a handful will come close to saying "good on ’em" and "maybe it’ll learn ’em something."
Say what you will about George Lakoff and his theories. He’s dead on about this one. These folks equate wealth and well-being (basically being middle class and up) with virtue. Quite simply, if you have the right values, you will have enough wealth to provide for your well-being, and that of your family; perhaps more. If you don’t, then you won’t. It’s really that simple.
For them there is no "cycle of poverty," and no socio-economic factors that people stay in poverty (except for attempts to help the poor that conservatives will claim end up "weakening" them). The better off are so because they are better people. Thus if the poor were better people they would be better off. Therefore, there are very few good people who are poor, and probably even fewer well-off people who are bad. What we saw in the post-Katrina suffering was simply bad things happening to bad people. Most, if not all, of the good people had the means to get themselves out of the hurricane’s path and did so.
Let’s take a look at two such conservatives who at least came close to saying something like the above in public recently.
There was Bill O’Reilly, for whom disaster and human tragedy is also a "teachable moment."
American middle and high school students everywhere should be required to watch video tape of the poor people stranded by Hurricane Katrina. Teachers should point out that many U.S. citizens without the financial means to get out of New Orleans wound up floating face down in the water or, at the very least, were subject to gross indignities and suffering of all kinds.
The teachers should then tell the students that the local, state and federal government bureaucracies failed to protect those poor people, even though everybody knew the storm was coming days in advance. The lesson should then segue into how the most powerful nation in the world was powerless to stop 9/11, and scores of other natural and man made disasters throughout our history.
After presenting those undeniable facts, the teachers should then present two questions to the students: Do you want to be poor? And do you believe the U.S. government can protect you if you are poor?
People for the American Way has the video, for broadband and dial-up, if you need the added effect. O’Reilly extends the metaphor a bit to reveal that conservatives live in a world where everyone — everyone — can at least attain middle class, and those who don’t have no one to blame — no one — but themselves. Of course and what O’Reilly leaves out is that this point of view conveniently absolves the better off (the better people) from helping the less fortunate (the less worthy). In the picture O’Reilly paints there’s no one who’s obligated to help. In fact, if anything, the problem is that there’s been too much help and there really ought to be less. So, we don’t need to maintain the status quo, but we actually need to push it back.
Then there’s George Will, who thinks that Barak Obama — who described Bush adminsitration officials as unable concieve of people who couldn’t (as O’Reilly says a professor pal of his did) hop in the SUV and head for higher ground — missed the point.
America’s always fast-flowing river of race-obsessing has overflowed its banks, and last Sunday on ABC’s "This Week," Sen. Barack Obama, Illinois’s freshman Democrat, applied to the expression of old banalities a fluency that would be beguiling were it without content. Unfortunately, it included the requisite lament about the president’s inadequate "empathy" and an amazing criticism of the government’s "historic indifference" and its "passive indifference" that "is as bad as active malice." The senator, 44, is just 30 months older than the "war on poverty" that President Johnson declared in January 1964. Since then the indifference that is as bad as active malice has been expressed in more than $6.6 trillion of anti-poverty spending, strictly defined.
The senator is called a "new kind of Democrat," which often means one with new ways of ignoring evidence discordant with old liberal orthodoxies about using cash — much of it spent through liberalism’s "caring professions" — to cope with cultural collapse. He might, however, care to note three not-at-all recondite rules for avoiding poverty: Graduate from high school, don’t have a baby until you are married, don’t marry while you are a teenager. Among people who obey those rules, poverty is minimal.
You don’t need glasses to see the frame. In fact, you see the frame before you get the picture. Again, the people standing on roofs in New Orleans (or floating face down in its flood waters) are right where they deserve to be. In fact, you can infer from his use of quotation marks that leaving them there for a while might just have been be the best thing for them; certainly better than wasting time in "caring professions" and taking money from the better off (better people) to help the less fortunate (less worthy).
Why? Because having the wrong values put them where they are, and removing or alleviating the consequences of those bad values merely reinforces them. Seen through that frame, the government’s failure to evacuate the poor or to send them relief after the hurricane becomes a kind of "tough love." Maybe that’s the compassion in "compassionate conservatism."
Got it? Let the poor drown. It’s their fault they’re poor anyway. It’s nobody’s job to save them. Besides, it might be the best thing for them. What happened in New Orleans is exactly what should have happened. That’s the way it ought to be.
But what’s left of the pictures painted by Will and O’Reilly? Well, for starters, many of us were born on the particular run of the economic ladder that we and our families occupy. In fact, most of us are where we are economically not because of some individual virtue, but because we inherited the economic status of our forebears allong with the advantages that status affords.
The same can be said of many of the poor, except they inherit the disadvantages of their forebears economic status. Take George W. Bush and regress him back to infancy (short trip, I know), strip him of the Bush name and fortune, drop him in the middle of any one of the families left behind in New Orleans, and tell me the odds that he’d achieve the same level of wealth and power — let alone the presidency — with no more than the brains and ability he currently possesses. I’ll refer you back to the Mediocre Fratboy Syndrome.
Will, O’Reilly and the rest like to pretend that we live in a near-prefect meritocracy, and that the "cream always rises to the top." But, as anyone who’s ever seen a regular old pond can tell you, so does scum.