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So, how about that election, huh? I'm so glad it's over and I promised myself I'd move on to other things but this was a Big One-- maybe the most consequential election since Prop 13 passed in California in 1978-- and I didn't want to let the moment slip by.

To see why I think this election was such a Big Honking Deal we have to take a quick detour into the past. Alas, I'm not a Time Lord and we don't have access to a TARDIS so we're going to have to make-do with what we have and what we have is this great Annenberg/CBP series called Ethics In America.

Filmed in 1988, the series brings together an ideologically diverse group of prominent public figures-- politicians, reporters, doctors, judges, military brass, lawyers, clergy, etc.-- to probe deeper ethical questions on subjects ranging from human medical testing and criminal justice to the laws of war and community responsibility. It's meant to teach about the process of ethical reasoning and takes the form of a Socratic dialog where a moderator delivers a simple hypothetical question then complicates it with further questions to illuminate the boundaries of the panelists' moral positions.

It's a great series and I could babble for days about the questions that the series explores (many of which we're still struggling with today) but that's not why I bring it up. I mention it because, in demonstrating the mechanics of moral reasoning with many of the public thinkers of 1988, the series gives us a perfect time capsule of American social norms a time when our society's default assumptions were very different (and in many ways more Liberal) than they are today. Don't think times have changed? Watch episode one and observe Antonin Scalia speak passionately and at length about the individual's public responsibility to care for the young (!!!). It's not a TARDIS but it's the best time machine we have available, so, "Allons y!"

We join the discussion later in that first episode. The moderator, Charles Ogletree, is probing the boundaries of the panelists' ideas about community responsibility by asking if they would give a homeless man a dollar. When Dr. Willard Gaylin of the Hasting Center says that he wouldn't, the moderator asks him why, Gaylin responds:

I guess its the last vestige of my Marxist prepubescence, in which we were taught not to give to private charities because it tended to encourage societal ignoring of problems.

It doesn't mean that if i found someone shivering in the street, lying without a blanket, i might not do more. You're talking about the street person who asks for a dollar. I don't know what is served except a cheap service to my conscience.

Expanding a bit, Dr. Gaylin's reasoning goes something like this: it's the state's responsibility to care for its citizens and private charity only masks the symptoms of a broader, systemic problem that needs fixing. Giving the guy a buck might help the giver feel generous but it's like putting a Band-Aid on severed limb. It does nothing to address the real problem and in fact it makes things worse by casting the government's burden onto private citizens and diverting attention and money away from the programs that can more fairly and effectively distribute the necessary resources.

If the idea that the government bears such an absolute responsibility to intervene in the fortunes of individual citizens seems crazy-radical now, remember that Welfare still existed in 1988 when Dr. Gaylin was speaking and that 20 years earlier Dr King's Poor People's Campaign prescribed a guaranteed annual income and demanded a commitment to full employment for all able citizens. 30 years before that, the Federal government created millions of jobs through the Works Progress Administration, Federal Art Project, and Civilian Conservation Corps to help people weather the Great Depression. From within the set of social norms that so deeply accepted that it was the government's duty to help, the idea that private charity should be avoided is perfectly logical.

It's also perfectly monstrous in practice.

Monstrous because it privileges principles and process above people. It requires people to deny aid to the real-life, flesh-and-blood human being standing right in front of them based on some abstract notion about how society should work. The underlying idea-- that it's government's job to administer mutual aid-- may be valid and even praiseworthy, but by choosing logical fidelity to an ideal over the visible needs of living people Dr. Gaylin loses his way.

To their credit, several of the other panelists (including my teenage years' biggest crush and Fake TV Girlfriend™, Linda Ellerbee) push back against Dr. Gaylin's ideas and when he senses he's losing the argument he gets visibly grouchy and all but accuses his opponents of being self-congratulatory bourgeois squishes who just just. don't. get it.

Returning to 2012, take a gander across the conservative media following Barack Obama's re-election on Tuesday. Not the obvious lunatics, but the army of gobsmacked and disillusioned molar-grinders who just don't understand how so many Americans could be so very wrong about America.

"It makes me wonder who my fellow citizens are," said Marianne Doherty of Boston.  "I've got to be honest, I feel like I've lost touch with what the identity of America is right now.  I really do."
Her faith in Mitt Romney's election chances notwithstanding, Marianne seems like a pretty smart cookie. Though, I'd argue it's not America's identity she's lost touch with but our social norms-- that mostly-invisible moral framework that informs how we think about our interactions with one another, including our public institutions.

I don't want to put words in her mouth but as a top Romney supporter it's pretty safe to assume that Marianne subscribes to the set of social norms that were already on the rise when Dr Gaylin was speaking in 1988 and which have formed the default assumptions of American society since the mid-90s. According to those norms, the free market is the source of all good things and government is always the problem. A person's wealth (or lack of it) is a dead-cert indicator of their intelligence, industriousness, and character. If someone is wealthy, they built that. If someone is poor or struggling, it is evidence of laziness, moral decay or market failure and any attempt by the government to intervene is just papering over the real problem. In fact, it's making things worse because it is both a tyrannical imposition upon that person's autonomy and provides a perverse incentive to keep them stuck in the moral tarpit.

This, too, is completely monstrous in practice and for the same reasons that Dr. Gaylin's doctrinaire Marxist view of private charity was: It places ideas over people. It demands we turn away from the real-life suffering of actual humans in the name of an abstract ideal about how things ought to work. The underlying ideas may or may not have some validity (not much, IMO) but by choosing consistency with those ideas over the visible needs of living people we once again wind up in crazytown.

Conservative talkers, politicians and writers gassing on about "rebranding" and doing a better job at reaching out to Hispanics or women or some other demographic group are entirely missing the point. To the majority of Americans, conservatives' "we're cutting off your food stamps because freedom" sounds every bit as inhuman and divorced from reality today as an aging 60s radical's "I'm not going to give a homeless guy a dollar because poverty" did in 1988. Both cases illustrate how manifestly wrongheaded ideas find a place in the mainstream based on their logical consonance with the social norms of the time; and how, once those norms change, their wrongheadedness becomes so apparent that people wonder how anyone was able to believe them in first place.

Social norms are shifting again. Finally. Thankfully.

I'm wary of overgeneralizing based on the the results of one election so it's worth remembering that every Liberal ballot initiative that passed, every progressive candidate who was elected, represents years of patient organizing and outreach. What happened last Tuesday was neither a beginning nor and end but rather a snapshot in time of our shifting ethical landscape. And that landscape is  unequivocally shifting in a more Liberal direction.

Conservatism isn't going away. But conservatives need to internalize the fact that society at large no longer accepts the assumptions of Gingrich-style "movement conservatism" as the default and that many of the arguments and policies that have grown out from those assumptions over the last 20-odd years now sound to the majority of Americans like virulent madness.

Liberalism is ascendant. But it's a new kind of liberalism that is still being formed and we must treat society's acceptance of more liberal norms as a sacred trust we must earn every day by putting the practical well-being of real people ahead of abstract shoulds. Many have labored for years, even decades, to regain the nation's trust and we have it now. But that trust is always fragile and always provisional. Let's get to work.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Movements that begin by stirring up hostility against a group of people end by denying to them all human qualities. --John Dewey

    by kingubu on Sun Nov 11, 2012 at 01:53:48 PM PST

  •  Excellent analysis and consideration (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    To be honest, I'm not sure what this new liberalism entails, or what the contours or outer boundaries are. But something you said made a great deal of sense: "We've internalized this idea that the free market is the only solution. That government can't fix a problem."

    Even now, I'm still thinking in the old mind set. It's difficult for me to grasp what 2012 means because I thought we had "won" in 2008, only to lose in 2010. That's why I'm so much more cautious about what 2012 represents. I don't think we'll really understand what we have till 2015 at the earliest, after the midterms. That'll tell us what road we are walking.

    •  Yeah, elections are only snapshots... (0+ / 0-)

      in time but it's so tempting to think of them total vindication or total defeat when in reality all you've really won or lost is the chance to work your ass off.

      I think the larger shift has been going on since 2003. Two things happened: 1) lots of people with broadly Liberal opinions, but who weren't all that involved in politics, were activated and started learning how to get involved, 2) the GOP lost the public's trust as the disaster in Iraq became too obvious to spin away. Put those two things together-- the erosion of trust in the "movement conservative" norms, a bunch of new people offering offering a different way-- and maybe you have the subtext of everything that's happened since, including last's week's election.

      Movements that begin by stirring up hostility against a group of people end by denying to them all human qualities. --John Dewey

      by kingubu on Mon Nov 12, 2012 at 07:51:34 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Gotta understand where Gaylin was coming from. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    As a physician, Willard Gaylin had very personal experience with the reality of public social services versus private charity, and the relative (in)effectiveness of each. It's not being Marxist to recognize that putting a used overcoat in the Goodwill bin is not comparable to universal access to health care.

    And saying no to charity as the alternative to genuine effective social service support, including universal access to medical care and humane housing, is not "monstrous in practice". The bottom line, the end result, is precisely the point. By enabling and facilitating charity as some kind of acceptable alternative to systematic and effective social welfare programs, we guarantee an ongoing level of homelessness, malnutrition, inadequate access to health care and simple grinding poverty that is, well, monstrous.  

    •  I understand his position... (0+ / 0-)

      and your point and I don't think it's invalid. Two things, though:

      Are we really sure that private charity crowds out public social services? How does it do that?  Charitable tax breaks notwithstanding, it's not like there's a limited pool of dollars labeled "social programs" and every dollar spent on charity is one that's not spent on public services. It might work that way but where's the evidence that it does?  Why is it either/or instead of both/and?

      Even if that analysis is true, how many people have to suffer and for how long until sufficient public services are built to handle the myriad of needs (food, shelter, medicine, education, etc)? 5 years? 20? A generation? That's what I have a problem with. People suffer needlessly while we figure out how to fix things the "right" way.

      Don't misunderstand, I absolutely think the government's job to provide all of those things. I think of public services as mutual aid, a minimum duty of civilization. But democracy demands that we convince one another how to do that and if some person or some organization can fill a concrete need while we figure out how to do that then that seems like they're fulfilling that duty too.

      Movements that begin by stirring up hostility against a group of people end by denying to them all human qualities. --John Dewey

      by kingubu on Sun Nov 11, 2012 at 04:06:02 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  It's not that charity crowds out public services; (0+ / 0-)

        That's not the issue at all. Rather, it's that charity is a generally ineffective gesture that makes grotesque levels of poverty and inequality 'acceptable', because, well, we're doing "something". Charity makes donors feel good, perhaps sleep better at night, before they go and vote for Mitt Romney and more tax cuts for billionaires. Charity makes our ongoing massive failures of social and economic justice tolerable, so we can keep on failing.

        My Goodwill clothing box example comes from personal experience. Our small rural community has a number of very self-congratulatory Evangelical churches who hold very ostentatious clothing and canned goods drives. This provides a handful of local poor families with some used coats and outdated green beans. These same churches go on to instruct their members to vote straight Republican because of fetuses. And the Republican legislators of course go on to further eviscerate already gutted social services to pay for more tax cuts for billionaires.

        By all means, donate your time or talent. I provide lots of free medical care to uninsured folks. But I have no illusions about what little good I'm accomplishing. Ad-hoc charity is no substitute at all for universal health care. And to the extent that it permits us to continue ignoring solutions that actually work, it's actually harmful.

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