The philosopher John Rawls, that poet of liberalism, asked us in his seminal book A Theory of Justice to perform a little thought experiment. Imagine that we are designing the perfect society. In order for this society to be fairest to all its citizens, we should do so behind what he called a “veil of ignorance.” That is to say, we should design a society where we couldn’t know beforehand what our economic or social situation would be. This would cause us to consider what kind of society we would want to live in if, once the veil of ignorance was lifted, we found ourselves to be in the least well-off position. We would be forced to ask ourselves what the minimal living requirements would be for someone who might find themselves in the least well-off position in this imaginary society. A few things come to mind: food, shelter, clothing, education, health care, and the opportunity to support oneself through gainful employment. Using the veil of ignorance as a tool, we could potentially design a society that guaranteed liberty and justice for all.
Conservatives since Ronald Reagan have been very adept at convincing Americans that people who are down on their luck and who find themselves in the least well-off position that Rawls asks us to consider are simply not working hard enough, are lazy, or in some other way gaming the system. I remember having a conversation with a clerk at Zumiez, a skateboard shop in the Maine Mall. He told me about his past struggles with unemployment and how he resented the prevailing attitude that those who accepted unemployment benefits or other public assistance were simply lazy, preferring to sit at home and collect their checks rather than look for work. He said before he got his job at Zumiez, he collected about $200 a week in unemployment benefits. His rent was almost $600 a month, which didn’t leave room for much else, even food. He desperately wanted to work, and luckily he found a job. But as we know, millions of other Americans haven’t been so lucky.
The paradigm that conservatives have been using to scare middle-class white voters for the past 30 years, and that echoes even today with the demonization of our first African-American president, is the concept of the “welfare queen.” This is somebody, probably a member of a minority, who would prefer to sit at home collecting a check instead of getting a job. This tired conservative strategy to get votes, continued with vigor in the Tea Party movement, is that the government is taking your money (white, middle-class, hard-working, people) and giving it to Those People (lazy minorities or illegal immigrants). As the political battles over collective-bargaining rights in Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin have demonstrated, teachers, police officers, firefighters, and other public-sector employees have also been lumped into the welfare queen’s family by conservative politicians. These valuable public workers have been rebranded as lazy, greedy underachievers who bilk the taxpayers out of their hard-earned money. As long as conservatives, and this would include every single current GOP presidential candidate, can continue to convince potential voters that there is one group (the true hard-working Americans) who have been duped by another group (the lazy minorities, illegal immigrants, and public employees), the strategy will continue. But this ignores the wisdom of Rawls’ thought-experiment, and provides conservative politicians and voters with a lazy intellectual justification for cutting social programs.
I would counter that most Americans, in fact the vast majority of them, want desperately to work and actually feel some shame in collecting unemployment benefits. Yes, there will always be folks who work the system to their advantage by cheating. Cheating exists at all levels of our society and, I would argue, is much more prevalent and devastating in the upper economic classes. (Take just one example: Richard Fuld, the CEO of the now-bankrupt Lehman Brothers, received over $483 million in compensation during the eight years between 2000 and 2008.) But one can’t make the logical leap, as conservative politicians have done, that the existence of cheating implies that everyone who needs help in our society is a cheater. Our social safety nets, the ones that fiscal conservatives are so eager to do away with, were wisely created to help our citizens survive the vagaries and whims of global capitalism. Tea Party aficionados love to rail against the evils of socialism. But do you know what really let us down these last ten years? Capitalism. Capitalism let us down. The kind of unbridled capitalism that conservatives love to talk about. The kind of capitalism that completely devastated the world economy. We had unrestrained, unbridled capitalism under George W. Bush, and look where it got us. We are still feeling its painful effects today.
All this a precursor to say that we seem to have lost one of the most vital elements of our, or any, society: compassion. Tea Party politicians are eager to complain about the supposed shredding of our Constitution under Barack Obama. But I fear that another document has been shredded: the social contract we have with each other. I see this in Washington, and I see this right here in Bath, Maine. In ten years, we have devolved from “United We Stand” to “Leave Me Alone.”
Conservative politicians have been very, very good at dividing us. But actually, we have divided ourselves. We have been too quick to believe their rhetoric. One of the great weaknesses of human nature is that we very quickly make up our minds without all the facts. Why do we automatically assume the worst about our fellow Americans? Because it’s the easiest position to take. Then we don’t have to think, or to open our hearts to the suffering of others. We believe in the value of our hard work and success, and don’t understand why others just can’t follow our lead. But life is uncertain, and nothing is permanent. We could be rich and successful one day, and need public assistance the next. Why? Because one of the cruelties of capitalism is that it always, always puts profits over people. Capitalism is not intrinsically patriotic. Capitalism goes where production costs are lowest and profits are highest. It’s true that capitalism has created great prosperity for our country. But capitalism and greed need not be synonymous. We can have capitalism without the unrestrained greed that toppled the world economy and caused millions of Americans to lose their jobs and their homes. All we have to do is remember the wisdom of John Rawls. What kind of society would we want to live in, knowing that we could one day be the ones on the very bottom? In such a society, we are all Those People.
I’ve seen a few bumper stickers around the city where I live that read: “Annoy a Liberal: Work Hard and Be Happy.” But it would seem that conservatives are the folks who are most annoyed right now. Henry once wrote “Surely joy is the condition of life” and I wholeheartedly agree. I do work hard and I am happy. And I am a liberal. So I guess that means that I am annoying myself. It reminds me of that wonderful Sprint commercial where The Man is sticking it to himself. Conservatives are upset because we might actually pass a health care reform bill very shortly. It’s Communism! they shout. It will be the downfall of our republic! The fear-mongering has reached a fever pitch. But really, we’ve seen this all before, haven’t we? The political tactics that have been used by conservatives since before Reagan can be summed up in one sentence: The government is going to take your money and give it to Those People. Those People are the lazy ones. Those People are the ones that can’t get an education, a job or health insurance because they just aren’t working hard enough. Conservative pundits love to shout from the rooftops that they are only saying what they are saying because they love this country. But what they really care about is selling advertising. That is their primary motivation. Unfortunately, reasonableness doesn’t sell. But racism, bigotry and fear always rake in the benjamins. I know that most Americans are reasonable, and that our country has a wonderful way of correcting itself. If the laws that are enacted reach too far, we have a perfectly good and time-tested way to change them. It’s called our government. Vote the Bums Out! Isn’t that what we hear every two years? And guess what? It works. I survived Nixon and Reagan and both Bushes. But I also survived Carter and Clinton. Sometimes my taxes went up and sometimes they went down. Otherwise, my life was my own. I am sure I will survive the Obama years as well. Why? Because I work hard and I’m happy. If believing that some of my money should go to helping poor people, then I guess that makes me a Communist. I just wish we could get back to a world where we all viewed one another as friends and neighbors, not as enemies. As a Zen master once said, “Once you make distinctions (between good and bad) you are already in hell.” I would love to have a reasonable, quiet conversation with Rush or Glenn someday, but I also know that a “Fireside Chat with Glenn Beck” won’t pay his light bill. Though it pains my liberal soul to say it, the truth is that the Sean Hannitys or Bill O’Reillys of the world don’t really want dialogue, but neither do the Keith Olbermans or the Rachel Maddows. To perpetuate your own view only so that you get to stay in your TV host’s chair certainly makes for good ratings and lucrative advertising dollars, but it might not be the best method for civilized public discourse. Only if we can begin to view each other as human beings first, Americans second, and whatever political party we belong to a distant third can we even begin to fix what ails us. Please remember: Those People are Us.
I’m still amazed by the bicycle. It is a miracle of human ingenuity and design. In its ubiquitousness the bicycle is easy to take for granted. But is there a more perfect invention? If there is, I can’t think of one. When idle, it humbly stands by, waiting only for the application of human energy to spring to life. As I was riding my bike to work this crisp morning and the pickup trucks and SUVs with the American flag decals were blowing past me, I smiled to myself and felt secretly superior. It’s amazing how your perspective changes when you’re on a bike. When I’m driving my car, I feel relaxed and safe. The world floats before me as I glide down the road in my cocoon of steel and glass. Nothing can touch me. But when I’m on a bike, all motorists become my enemy. I sometimes get the feeling that they are actually trying to drive as close to me as possible, just to give me a scare. In this way, riding a bike while others around you are driving seems like an almost rebellious act. During my commute this morning I was thinking about this notion of energy independence. It’s a phrase that gets tossed around quite a bit these days, especially due to the current crisis we’re in. As Americans, it seems that most of us equate freedom with the ability to do whatever we want. More specifically, to drive whatever we want. We have come to expect cheap gas as a God-given right. Somehow the ability to waste things (money, gas, food, energy, etc.) is the luxury we have of living in a wealthy country. But the fact that the fuel crisis has made its way to places like Costco, where they are limiting the amount of rice you can buy, should show us that we’ve been on the wrong track for quite some time. I’d like to abolish the notion that patriotism equals gluttony. I know energy independence to some means drilling for more oil in places like ANWR so that we can power our ever-increasing armada of heavy, lumbering gas-guzzlers. Criticizing SUVs is old hat and so I won’t get into that here. But I wonder if we’ve turned a corner in our thinking about energy independence. To conservatives, a country full of solar panels, wind farms, and geothermal plants, with armies of tree-hugging, bike-riding hippies cruisng around and using their goddamn hand signals might seem like some kind of Ralph Nadar-inspired Hell. But isn’t true energy independence the most patriotic, conservative position of all? So declare your energy independence! Leave your car at home and bike to your destination. You’ll feel very patriotic. Flag lapel pins optional.
That’s what we call it in my house. As in, “When the Bush money gets here, we can do (fill in the blank).” When I first heard that Congress passed legislation authorizing the rebate checks, I was ecstatic. Dreams of a sunny beach vacation for my family or a few new shirts from the Patagonia outlet danced in my head. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this money would be spent almost before it made it into my bank account. Unless I can somehow convert my ancient Accord’s engine to burn old socks for propulsion, I’ll be spending it on $4-a-gallon gas, and all the other bills that stem from this fact (food, electricity, water, heating oil, etc) The President has said that he’s simply giving Americans back “their own money,” but how can that be, when we are borrowing the money, probably from China, in the first place? There are some Buddhist organizations that I am fond of, and I would love to give a chunk of that money to them to help them build a stupa or make an addition to their meditation hall. I may still give $50 or $100 of “my own money” to these worthy causes. But the truth is that even though this is borrowed money, my family needs it too desperately to be able to give much of it away. We’ll use some of it to pay for our rather modest weekly vacation rental cottage on an island off the coast of Maine this summer, but other than that, we’ll pay bills, which is probably what most Americans will end up doing. Sorry, Ocean Palm Motel and Patagonia; I need to eat.
War is Peace, anyone?