Friday, November 4, 2011

Selfishness is Alive and Well in America

Here is an excellent post by Paul Krugman in his NY Times blog looking at the poison the corrupts political discourse in American politics:
I Do Not Think That Word Means What You Think It Means, Hypocrisy Edition

OK, let me start by talking about Mel Gibson for a minute. Bear with me, this is actually relevant.

Back in 2000 Gibson made a movie, The Patriot, about the Revolutionary War. (I think I saw it on an airplane). And when the movie came out, Michael Lind wrote an essay that has stuck with me, pointing out that nobody involved in the picture seemed to know what patriotism means. The Gibson character was presented as a man who refused to get involved until his own family was hurt — then, he went to war for personal revenge. And this was supposed to show his patriotism.

As Lind said, the truth is that that’s more or less the opposite of patriotism, which is about making sacrifices for the national good, not serving your personal motives or interests.

Which brings me to the subject of this post, the apparently equally misunderstood concept of hypocrisy. I’ve been getting some personal attacks on this front, but it’s a bigger issue than that. Here’s the personal version: suppose that you’re a professor/columnist who advocates higher taxes on high incomes and a stronger social safety net — but you yourself earn enough from various sources that you will pay some of those higher taxes and are unlikely to rely on that stronger safety net. A remarkable number of people look at that combination of personal and political positions and cry “Hypocrisy!”

Wait — it’s not just about me and the wingnuts. If you remember the 2004 election, which unfortunately I do, there were quite a few journalists who basically accused John Kerry of being “inauthentic” because he was a rich man advocating policies that would help the poor and the middle class. Apparently you can only be authentic if your politics reflect pure personal self-interest — Mitt Romney is Mr. Natural.

So to say what should be obvious but apparently isn’t: supporting policies that are to your personal financial disadvantage isn’t hypocrisy — it’s civic virtue!

But, say the wingnuts, you say that rich people are evil. Actually, no — that’s a right-wing fantasy about what liberals believe. I don’t want to punish the rich, I just want them to pay more taxes. You can favor redistribution without indulging in class hatred; it’s only the defenders of privilege who try to claim otherwise.

Lind’s essay about Mel Gibson ended with concerns that we may have lost the sense of what citizenship and its duties mean. Indeed. If people can’t comprehend what it means to work for larger goals than their own interest, if they actually consider any deviation from self-service somehow a sign of phoniness, we, as a nation, are lost.
The political right is poisonous. Right now they are blocking any attempt to heal the US after the 2008 economic collapse. They put politics above country... and of course consider themselves "patriots" because in their lexicon "patriotism" is doing what is in your own interest, not in the country's interest. This has made the US ungovernable and turned a big recession in the Great Recession and stretched it from a 2 or 3 year rut in the road into a decade long collapse of the economy. What I find incredible is that there appear to be roughly half the population in the US so bitterly "fundamentalist Christian" that they are willing to punch out their fellow man than go the extra mile, or turn the cheek, or give him the extra cloak. Pathetic!

Update 2011nov05: Here is a bit from from Krugman today on his NY Times blog:
But here’s an item that caught my eye, given what I wrote about hypocrisy yesterday:

Deadbeat Rep. Joe Walsh, Who Owes $100k In Child Support, Receives ‘Pro-Family’ Award From Family Research Council.

Now that’s real hypocrisy — and if the past is any indication, it won’t matter at all for Rep. Walsh’s career.

There’s a big difference between the left and the right in such matters, one that I don’t fully understand, although I’m trying. Here’s how it goes: if a liberal politician is caught behaving badly — enriching himself while preaching the need to help the poor, or just in general showing himself less than admirable by having an affair, visiting call girls, whatever — his career is over.

But if a conservative politician who preaches stern traditional morality is caught engaging in actions that are at odds with what he preaches — buying sex, taking wide stances in restrooms, or, in this case, stiffing his family even while preaching family values — he may well ride right through the scandal. Witness what’s going on now with Herman Cain.

How can this be? Here’s what I understand: on the right, “moral values” are considered to be, literally, God-given principles. And a politician is well-regarded for advocating those values, no matter what he does personally. Instead of his personal behavior devaluing his political position, his political position excuses his personal behavior; a philandering politician who preaches the sacred bond of marriage is considered a good man because of what he says, no matter what he does.
Unlike Krugman, I simply dismiss the right wing as insincere idiots who are completely self-serving in their manipulation of "morality". Paul Krugman, on the other hand, takes them at face value and tries hard to understand this hypocritical behaviour. I can't be bothered because I lived up close to a serial manipulator who used religion and self-serving "morality" to enable his crimes and cover his tracks. I have no patience with these people. But I do admire Krugman for trying to make sense of their behaviour.

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