The Softening

If we are to believe Charles Dickens in that Scrooge story, now playing endlessly in many versions on your television, along with Charlie Brown and Frosty and the Grinch, Dickens would have been part of the original Occupy Wall Street crowd down in Zuccotti Park on September 17, 2011 – but he would have recommended someone send those three ghosts to each bank CEO and hedge fund manager and securities mogul, and to each financial pundit on CNBC and Fox News and at the Wall Street Journal, explaining how the world really works, starting with Rick Santelli of course – the man who first came up with the idea of the Tea Party. The message from Santelli, and implicitly from the others, was that you’re on your own, you losers. There’s nothing wrong with the system – fraud and deceit aren’t the problem, just people foolish enough to be fooled – and that’s their problem, not anyone else’s. They should have known better than to assume those trick-mortgages or whatever. No one deserves help, except for the banks and the rest of the financial system, in order to keep everything from collapsing. And you say you lost your job when the economy collapsed, because the company you were working for collapsed along with it? That’s also your problem. Maybe you should have chosen some other line of work in the first place, or gone to a good university not some state school, or at least majored in something useful, or at least you should have hung around with the right sort of people – and you obviously should have assumed personal responsibility for your life, as Mitt Romney put it so succinctly when he spoke of the forty-seven percent of Americans who are just hopeless and should be ignored. What are we to do with such people? Are there no prisons? Are there no poorhouses? Maybe they can all self-deport or something.

Dickens would have felt right at home with this. Scrooge was emblematic of that top One Percent – and all the other characters, particularly Tiny Tim, were the Ninety-Nine Percent, told they were sentimental fools and losers, always whining about this and that when they could have made something of themselves if they tried. It’s the same old story and this time Herman Cain was particularly pissed off – “Don’t blame Wall Street, don’t blame the big banks. If you don’t have a job and you are not rich, blame yourself!” Tiny Tim is on his own. Dickens would have smiled.

Enter the ghosts. Scrooge softened, after he was shamed and then scared shitless – but of course that was a fantasy. There are no ghosts, or at least there are no ghosts when you really need them – no Ghost of Christmas Past reminding you of how you once had a heart that could be broken, no Ghost of Christmas Present reminding you of the pain in the world, and no Ghost of Christmas Future, showing you in your grave, not missed by anyone at all, save for the two or three who can work up enough energy for a few moments to either despise you or laugh at you, before they shrug and move on to something that actually matters. This was wishful thinking on Dickens’ part, and he certainly hadn’t imagined Scrooge as a rather dense oversexed black gospel-singing pizza magnate, or a skinny fellow on CNBC ranting about all the losers who were not smart enough to get rich and stay rich by trading stocks and bonds and commodities futures – like the good people in the world, the useful people in the world, actually creating wealth and not mooching off others.

No ghosts ever visit them. They probably don’t let their children watch any version of the Scrooge story on television either – it sends the wrong message. Tiny Tim had a preexisting condition after all – the sort of thing that can sink any financially responsible insurance company, ruining things for everyone else and screwing the shareholders who put up the money for the operation in the first place. We’ll have none of that. Let the kids watch the Charlie Brown Christmas thing with the great jazz score – Snoopy dances with Lucy. That’ll do nicely.

The problem is that we had an election, and in these weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas the implications are sinking in. Sure, none of Dickens’ Christmas ghosts appeared to anyone at all – they never really do – but more than half the voters in America took care of that. No ghost was necessary to remind people that they once had a heart that could be broken, and that there is real pain in the world, and something can be done about it, and no one wants to die and be remembered as no more than a minor joke. The message that everyone is on their own in glorious but deadly freedom was overwhelmed by the message that we’re all in this together and we might as well help each other out. It was Tough Love versus Common Decency, as if the two were mutually exclusive – so people chose the latter. In effect, the Tea Party died – the folks they ran were more than a little odd – and that was that.

It’s just that they don’t believe it. There’s this article in the Wall Street Journal explaining how the Tea Party movement is responding to the election results. They believe they’ve learned their lesson: Republicans still aren’t conservative enough, but if you want to read it all you’ll have to pay Rupert Murdoch a lot of money, as it’s behind one of the most effective pay-walls on the net. You’d have to subscribe to his newspaper, or trust this summary from Kathleen Geier:

In the article, Tea Party activists reel off a long list of reasons why their candidates fared poorly in the elections: there’s “the strength of the Obama ground game,” for one, and “the fact that Romney just didn’t inspire much enthusiasm,” for another. Oh, and also the fact that some of the campaigns they supported allegedly were not very well-run.

They pin the blame entirely on outside forces and on failures of competence and execution, not on basic message. That it never dawns on them that the vast majority of voters might find their “It’s all your fault, you loser! You’re on your own!!” ideology to be deeply unappealing, particularly in light of the worst economic crisis of the last eighty years, is telling. According to exit polls from the election, only 21% of voters support the Tea Party (30% are opposed and 42% are neutral).

That doesn’t matter. The plan now is to take out a number of national Republicans they have decided are just not conservative enough – Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. These guys are as conservative as they come, but never mind that. There’s a point to make here, somehow, and Geier thinks the Tea Party folks shouldn’t be counted out:

They are passionately dedicated to what they believe in, and not easily discouraged. The fact that they are also bat@#$% crazy, crazy actually works in their favor in some ways; ignoring all evidence, they are deeply convinced that America is behind them and would totally support them, if only The People Knew the Truth! They will soldier doggedly on.

And it might work:

I am convinced that all it would have taken for the likes of Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock to win would have been some higher quality media training. You take away their gaffes and you would have had some very tight races indeed. The Tea Party types surely know this. They know, too, that since 2014 is an off-year election with an older, whiter electorate, they will face a more favorable playing field. All in all, I am very far from counting these dudes out.

No midnight ghosts will soften these folks. In fact, all they have to do is soften their message. Imagine if Scrooge had said something vague and general and reasonable-sounding instead of what he did keep saying – Bah, humbug! He could have talked about the wonders of individual economic freedom and the noble dignity of personal responsibility and so on. It would have been like a Milton Freidman macroeconomics seminar, even if a deadly-dull novel – and it would have been more like life as we know it. In fact, as Geier also notes, that’s how these guys actually talk:

It’s notable that Paul Ryan holds exactly the same wingnutty position on abortion that Akin and Mourdock do: i.e., that abortion should be banned even in cases of rape and incest. The problem with Mourdock and Akin was that, unlike Beltway favorite Paul Ryan, they were unpolished rubes who hadn’t mastered the art of speaking wingnutspeak – i.e., communicating creepy conservative ideas in ways that don’t scare people. They learned, the hard way, that when you’re a conservative, it’s best to keep things at the level of grand, shining abstractions. That way, you sound noble and oh-so-morally-superior. But when you get down to brass tacks – to actual policies and specific examples – you may well find yourself in a world of trouble, defending policies that a pretty hefty chunk of the population is going to consider icky.

There’s a way not to be a creepy Scrooge – use grand abstractions like “small government” and “right to life” and “states’ rights” and “free markets” and “right to work” and “judicial restraint” and “family values” – that’s Geier’s list. It’s just that she sees something else going on with all this abstract language:

American conservatives are more likely to have a strict ideal of what they think the world should be, and which they believe everyone should conform to. They tend to believe society and human happiness would be best served if everyone were straight, Christian, married, living in a patriarchal nuclear family, preferably living in a nonurban area, etc.

Whereas American liberalism, rooted in the pragmatism of John Dewey and other philosophers, tends to have fewer stringent, a priori ideals and is more improvisational, practical, and interested in solving problems on a case-by-case basis. For instance, contrary to what conservatives claim, most liberals don’t have any ideological commitment to big government per se, but we do realize that a strong federal government is often necessary to perform important functions we believe in, such as providing retirement benefits for senior citizens and universal health care for all. Also unlike conservatives, we tend to believe that people can live happy, productive lives in any number of ways that differ from the approved model, i.e., gay or straight, with or without children, as Christians or as believers in some other religion or as atheists, in families with a working mom or a stay-at-home mom, etc.

Geier sees deception here:

The other big reason conservatives rely so heavy on abstractions is that most people disagree with the real-life implications of those abstractions and conservatives, for marketing purposes, want to soothe voters’ anxieties by covering that up. Consider the ugly reality behind that list of abstract weasel words above:

“Small government” = No Social Security, Medicare, or unemployment benefits, or at the very least, radically reduced versions of same. It also means the rich and corporations paying little or no taxes, and ordinary people paying more. In other words, pretty much no social insurance or wealth redistribution, no matter how frightening the degree of economic instability or how obscene the level of economic inequality.

“Right to life,” all those endless abstract debates over “when life begins” – These terms/debates erase the real-life women who would be forced to live with the tragic consequences of forced childbirth. Those consequences include death.

“States’ rights” = Racism. Period. Though I guess these days it could also mean homophobia.

“Family values” = Women being discouraged from having careers and encouraged to depend on and constantly defer to men, gay people not being able to marry the people they love, people being heavily pressured to get married early and to stay married even if they’re deeply unhappy being so, no unapproved sexy-times whatsoever (e.g., no sex before marriage, no extramarital sex, no homosex, etc.), heavy censorship of media that deals with sexual themes.

Geier goes on and on, but this one seems about right:

“Religious freedom” – This is a new one, or at least, the way it’s now being used as right-wing code is new to me. Example: it violates the religious freedom of the Catholic bishops for women to be able to choose to use their health insurance to obtain birth control pills. Funny, I thought a far stronger case could be made arguing the opposite, that it is a violation of my religious freedom when the bishops of a religion I don’t even believe in want to dictate how I can use my health insurance.

Geier concludes with this:

Do liberals do this kind of thing? To some extent, I suppose we do. “Right to choose” is a euphemism for “abortion rights” and “marriage equality” is the same for “gay marriage.” But honestly, I don’t think we use nearly as many of them! The reason is that most of our ideas are actually pretty popular. We don’t have nearly as much to hide.

Ah, but those who do have a lot to hide have found amazing ways to say Bah Humbug in ways that sound like something else. In terms of Tiny Tim’s preexisting condition and the idea that the fewest possible number of people should have health insurance, based on for-profit market realities and what people can afford to spend and personal responsibility above all else, James Capretta and Yuval Levin explain here how state governors that refuse to set up insurance exchanges could stop the implementation of Obamacare in its tracks:

By declining to build exchanges, the states would pass the burden and costs of the exchanges to the administration that sought this law. And it is far from clear that the administration could operate the exchanges on its own. Congress didn’t allocate money for administering federal exchanges, and the law as written seems to prohibit federally run exchanges from providing subsidies to individuals.

The administration insists that it can provide those subsidies anyway. But if the courts read the plain words of the statute, then federal exchanges couldn’t really function. Thus states that refuse to create their own exchanges would effectively be repealing a large part of the law.

That’s very clever, and would be very unpopular, but it is damned clever. So far, this approach has been taken by Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, Ohio’s John Kasich, Maine’s Paul LePage and Oklahoma’s Mary Fallin. Jonathan Cohn considers the consequences of this:

Obamacare critics believe that, by blocking the subsidies, they’ll undermine the law’s effectiveness and eventually erode support to the point that people clamor for a conservative alternative. It’s the same rationale they cite when they urge states to take advantage of the Supreme Court ruling and reject the expansion of Medicaid. The real world effect of both moves, if successful, would be to deprive residents of these states of financial assistance and access to affordable insurance. And most of these people desperately need the help. Whether poor or middle class, insurance is too expensive or simply unavailable to them, because of their age, work status, or medical condition. Keep in mind that, as the (heterodox) conservative economist Josh Barro wrote recently in his Bloomberg column, the “alternatives” that conservatives and libertarians propose inevitably do little for the uninsured.

Cool. This is a big Bah Humbug without saying the actual words, and Jonathan Bernstein is amazed:

This effort to undermine the law by undermining implementation may be unprecedented. Can anyone think of a similar historical example? This is different from typical opposition. It’s as if Democrats who opposed missile defense had actively campaigned for contracts to go to the contractors they believed were most likely to produce duds, just so they could eliminate the program after “proving” that it didn’t work.

Dickens never imagined a world like this. These guys haven’t softened. The three midnight ghosts haven’t visited them and scared them silly and caused them to hold Christmas in their hearts every day of the year or whatever. It’s as if the Dickens novel had ended abruptly with Scrooge explaining to Bob Cratchit how his working for Scrooge on Christmas Day was a good thing, as was the pittance of a wage he was paid, as was the fact he would never get a raise, ever – it would teach him discipline and self-reliance – and explaining to him that no medical treatment for Tiny Tim was a good thing – it would make Tiny Tim tough and teach him a valuable lesson in personal responsibility. That alternative novel ends with Cratchit nodding in agreement. Dickens, however, wasn’t big on realism.

Still some things have changed:

On the Sunday morning shows today, the phrase “Republican moderate” no longer seemed like a complete oxymoron.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told Chris Wallace of Fox News Sunday that the GOP has to push for immigration reform and offer the middle class a more positive message. He also distanced himself from the social conservative wing of the party, saying that someone like him has no business imposing his pro-life views on female voters…

That was odd, as was this:

Over on ABC’s This Week, McCain’s buddy Sen. Lindsey Graham, R.-S.C., said that as the so-called fiscal cliff approaches, he is backing away from conservative activist Grover Norquist’s steadfast opposition to raising government revenues.

And there’s more:

Over on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) also pushed for increased taxes on high-income earners, saying that they are necessary to raise revenues.

Levin appeared just before Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), who said he agreed with recent comments by Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) that the Norquist pledge is outdated and detrimental to paying down government debt.

“A pledge you signed 20 years ago, 18 years ago, is for that Congress,” King told NBC. “For instance, if I were in Congress in 1941, I would have signed a declaration of war against Japan. I’m not going to attack Japan today. The world has changed and the economic situation is different.”

And there’s this:

Sustained Republican criticism of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice also was a topic of discussion Sunday. Graham and King once again pressed Rice to better explain her justifications for the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

But Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) appeared to lessen his critique of Rice, telling “Fox News Sunday” that he’s willing to meet with her – and possibly vote to confirm her – if she’s willing to answer some questions.

“I’d give everyone the benefit of explaining their position and the actions that they took. I’d be glad to have the opportunity to discuss these issues with her,” McCain told Fox.

Bah, humbug? What ever happened to that? Did the three Christmas ghosts visit each of these guys? No, probably not – it was just the election, serving the same purpose. Or maybe not, as it is that time of year when this Scrooge or that is always on television – Alistair Sim or George C. Scott or Billy Murray or so many others – and that makes a difference. The image is out there right now, and no one wants to be a Scrooge, not this time of year.

It seems Dickens’ sentimental fantasy did its work after all, and keeps doing it. Damn, he was there in Zuccotti Park.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to The Softening

  1. BabaO says:

    I am sadly pleased that that someone with a national voice has brought “the skinny fellow on CNBC” into the light of day. As the bombs were about to be dropped on Baghdad, I watched all the various “commentators” discussing and opining about the good-works cakewalk that our nation was embarking upon. At some point I grew sick of the well-known talking heads and wandered around the dial until I found, on CNBC, that clown and, if there were justice in our world, his codefendant, running around that goofy set slamming buzzers and playing weird sounds, a/o making explosive noises, hollaring about the great opportunities for making money with investments in Boeing, Martin, Lockheed, Raython, etc. etc, all based upon how many bombs, missles, warplanes, etc. that would be expended in the glorious future. As a Vietnam veteran, all I could think of was the waste I saw there being repeated before my eyes. I kept saying to myself, “Not Again!! Iraq??? Within a generation, my country is being lied into another meaningless unwinable war.” Cramer & (then) Kudrow . . . up against the wall would be merciful. It was one of the most miserable evenings of my life. It ALMOST broke my faith in my country.

    One more comment. Grover is NOT a “conservative activist”. I don’t know exactly what goes on in his black little heart, but it is obvious to me that he is purely a creature of K Street and the big bucks of the 1%. It seems dubious that anyone in his “own[ed]” party would actually cross him, but if they do, and to what extent – THAT will be the measure of the crazies’ loss.

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