The Innate Tin Ear

The lack of relative pitch, the inability to distinguish between musical notes is almost always innate – not due to any lack of musical training or education – and this has kept many a young would-be musician from his or her dreams. Tone deafness is a bitch – it can’t be fixed – but the real problem is sometimes called amusia – tone deafness mixed with other problems with musical memory and recognition. Some people just have a tin ear, so if they insist on being creative, you should have them put down the Stratocaster and write the lyrics – but there’s a problem there too. Some people have a tin ear for words.

Anyone who’s ever taught creative writing – which of course can’t be done – knows that. There’s that short story or poem that just can’t be fixed, because the would-be young writer, quivering with sensitivity and what might pass for insight, has no feel for how words actually sound. There’s music and rhythm there too – good writing must be a bit hypnotic. Even essays should sound a certain way – authoritative, or even thundering, or sly and teasingly playful, or subtlety ironic. Just saying things just won’t do. The writer must have a voice, with implied pitch and pauses, with a rhythm to the words – long loping sentences and then dramatic short bursts of three or four words – to capture the reader. It’s a matter of seduction. Good writing is sexy. When words just lie there on the page – pure and dry exposition – there’s no music. No one listens to you. Why would they? So the rule is simple – use your ear. Listen to how your words sound.

That’s why it’s impossible to teach creative writing. Some folks just have a tin ear there too – they just don’t realize how their words sound. Others have already found their voice, for better or worse, but many who think they have something to say, and actually may have something to say, will never really be able to say it. They have no idea how they actually sound. They end up frustrated that no one understands them, or laughs at them, when they think they’ve been so clear about everything – but their tin ear is the problem. They sound like jerks. There’s no way to fix that. Some people are just born with tin ears.

It’s the same in politics. Conservatives can make sense, insisting that things shouldn’t change – because tradition matters, as that’s what holds societies together. And as far as institutions go, conservatives insist that it’s dangerous to end what might not be working too well, but is working well enough. Make adjustments, don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater – the new way of doing things might make things worse, and probably will. One must be careful, and thus, for example, they oppose Obamacare, and almost everything that’s a change in the way things have always been done. They did that long ago with slavery, and then with school desegregation in the fifties and all the civil rights stuff in the sixties, which is a century of conservatives insisting that things had been working just fine, and would continue to work just fine, with a little tinkering here and there. Along the way, however, their innate tin ear betrayed them. They sounded like jerks – and mean-spirited nasty jerks too. Tradition may matter in any coherent society, but they came off as angry bigots, sometimes unctuously sanctimonious but more often just stubborn and vicious. One side had Martin Luther King, whose words soared with hope. The other side had William F. Buckley and George Wallace, who had no idea how they actually sounded to most people. They were the Tin Ear Twins of that era.

Nothing much has changed since, which might mean conservatives in general, and Republicans in particular, have always had tin ears. Mitt Romney certainly had no idea how his comment about the totally useless and whining forty-seven percent, who love to take from the good people and pretend they’re somehow victims of something, actually sounded. He muttered something about how he put that rather inelegantly, and finally said he didn’t really mean it the way it sounded, and suggested he had been treated unfairly for what he had said – but his tin ear had betrayed him. He had no clue how he actually sounded, and his jovial comment at the Iowa State Fair – “Corporations are people, my friend” – was just as bad. In some legal sense that’s true, but he did sound like a jerk, and the “my friend” bit was even worse. That was both patronizing and condescending – the ultimate rich guy setting the rather dimwitted loser straight, out of the goodness of his heart doing that dimwitted loser a favor that dimwitted loser really didn’t deserve. These two incidents, and so much more – like managing to insult the Mayor of London at the Olympics that year – carried on the tradition of the party. It’s a party of tin ears.

These guys really don’t know how they sound, and at the highly conservative National Journal, Ron Fournier suggests they’re at it again, with Clueless, Heartless, and Gutless: Today’s GOP – an indictment of the folks on his side of the issues of food stamps, unemployment benefits, economic inequality, and just basic trust.

Fournier quotes a key passage from Invisible Child: Dasani’s Homeless Life – a New York Times feature written by Andrea Elliott and illustrated by photographer Ruth Fremson, which is devastating, and adds this:

Dasani’s story is an indictment of a political system that is aiding and abetting America’s division by class, where the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and the middle class gets squeezed into oblivion. Both major parties are complicit, but Republicans, more than Democrats, seem especially eager to widen and exploit American inequality.

No, really? They may not say that explicitly, but Fournier argues that this is what all their economic arguments amount to. They sound like heartless jerks, and there the story that just got lots of play – Rand Paul: Unemployment Benefits Extension Would Be a “Disservice” to Workers – the idea that there all these millions of people who have been unemployed so long that no one wants to hire them, so cut them off now, so… something. There shouldn’t be such people? Actually the idea is that long-term unemployment benefits increase unemployment in general, which is also a bit dubious. There are no jobs for these people, and now they’ll starve. That’s a bit of disservice to them, isn’t it?

Fournier says Rand Paul is only making the Republicans look clueless:

Studies typically cited by the GOP are old and irrelevant to the current economy, which is in the midst of a once-a-century economic shift that makes it extraordinarily difficult for some workers to adjust.

Obama and fellow Democrats support the extension but seem unwilling to make it a precondition for a short-term budget deal. That means Republicans will probably get their way, and the have-nots will have less.

And then to make matters worse, Fournier cites Making the Poor Poorer – an op-ed in the Washington Post by Clinton-era Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger Altman, and economist Melissa Kearney – and that one’s about the Republican-led plans to reduce food stamps. These three think that would be “economically and morally unsound.”

Fournier says it’s also stupid:

Despite shrinking social mobility and durable unemployment, Congress is poised to reduce a benefit that currently amounts to just $1.40 per person per meal. It looks heartless.

“It is hard to reconcile traditional American values of hard work and generosity with the levels of poverty and fear of hunger in our country, especially because large shares of those suffering this plight work,” they wrote. “Nearly 11 million working Americans had annual income below the poverty line last year.”

Republicans argue that the food-stamp program is growing, which they blame on Democrats rather than a global economic revolution and the lingering effects of a recession rooted in Clinton- and Bush-era policies. In most cases, poverty isn’t the fault of the poor. Trust us, the GOP says.

Why? These were the guys who also pushed the claim that Obama was “Closing” the Vatican Embassy, which wasn’t the case at all, and Fournier is not impressed:

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and the Republican senatorial campaign committee falsely accused the White House of closing the embassy. The committee went so far as to call the White House anti-religion, a hateful slur. This is what political parties do: Find and create issues that divide Americans, exploit our ignorance and fear, and repeat.

The Republican Party, in particular, doesn’t have the courage to defy extreme elements of its coalition, such as those who pushed the Vatican-closing story. Bush knew or should have known that the story was wrong. The same goes for the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee. Indeed, sources tell me that there was some internal debate about whether to launch the attack. Level heads didn’t prevail. Gutless won.

Yeah, but they thought the story would play well. It didn’t. Their tin ear betrayed them, and over at the Washington Post, at Thanksgiving time, the generally conservative Kathleen Parker honed in on the food stamp issue:

If you peruse the news on any given day, the farm bill/food stamp debate produces two general impressions: Republicans are heartless turkey thieves; Democrats are spendthrift welfare caterers. If only neither were a little bit right.

The Republicans aren’t the heartless turkey thieves – they just want efficiency – but that doesn’t matter:

The holiday season provides new corridors of shame. Last week, Gene Sperling, a White House economic adviser, put a Thanksgiving spin on the GOP’s efforts to extract the federal food stamp funding from the farm bill. “At a time when people are about to sit around the table with their families to celebrate a meal,” Sperling intoned, “it hardly seems the right time to be pulling food off the table for millions of our neighbors.”

Mission accomplished. Imprinted on the collective mind is a craftily placed message: Republicans don’t care about poor people. Distilling further, given that Republicans are mostly white – and the welfare model is associated with the Ronald Reagan-generated, African American “welfare queen” – the inference can be made that Republicans don’t care about non-whites. Ergo, Republicans are selfish, greedy “haters.”

Never underestimate the subliminal power of a holiday message. What better time to tap into the emotions of a populace in the midst of turkey-induced somnambulism?

While the foregoing is not really true in any significant way (racists exist but don’t define the GOP any more than a few welfare scammers define the vast majority of food-stamp recipients, and in any event most welfare recipients are white), Republicans are nothing if not committed to executing their party’s operating principle – cut spending at all costs – no matter the consequences or political repercussions. While Senate Democrats want to reduce food-stamp spending by $4.5 billion over 10 years, House Republicans want to cut $39 billion, primarily by getting tougher on qualifications.

Republicans seem equally committed to handing their plates to President Obama for second and third helpings of scorn and ridicule…

It’s that tin-ear thing:

Whether Republicans are correct on the economic merits of spending cuts is politically less significant than the more urgent reality of perception. What could seem more heartless than cutting nutrition aid for 47 million poor people, including 210,000 children whose school meals likely would be eliminated or reduced, in the midst of an anemic recovery from recession, a still-lousy job market and, as Sperling pointed out, the holiday season? Forget optics; this is the visceral equivalent of puppy mills.

Here’s the proper GOP message: “Our entire entitlement system needs reform, but now is not the time to cut food stamps. This is because people still can’t find work thanks to a sluggish economy that this administration’s policies have failed to improve and the Affordable Care Act is merely making worse.”

That scans well. She doesn’t have a tin ear, but that hardly matters. She’s a columnist, nothing more. Still, really, there’s no reason to seem what she calls both heartless and brainless:

Wise Republicans should meet Democrats in the middle on this one. Not only is keeping nutrition aid and education in place the right thing to do but more people needing help merely underscores the conservative view that Democratic policies, especially the Affordable Care Act, are making the job market worse and more people hungry.

They’re not saying that, and in an earlier column, she pointed out the obvious:

Democrats have targeted the GOP’s soft spot, which is a hard line on social services. Thus, when Republicans want to drastically cut food stamps, it is a piece of cake (and not the moldy sort Marie Antoinette suggested the peasants eat) to designate conservatives as cruel and heartless.

When Republicans say the healthcare plan is doomed, a train wreck, a disaster, etc. – and offer no hopeful options – they appear to be rooting only for failure.

This approach is a blessing for Democrats, who have responded by shining a light on success stories: the 25-year-old who gets to stay on his parents’ insurance plan another year, the child or elderly parent with a preexisting condition who now can get insurance, the family who never could afford insurance and now can, thanks to…well, all those people who are now mandated to buy insurance of a certain type or else.

Comparing approaches, President Obama is wearing love beads and planting flowers in the gun barrels of the Republican guard.

Yep, the Republicans’ tin ear is killing them:

What Democrats know keenly – and Republicans seem never to learn – is that positive beats negative every time. Thus, we see MSNBC’s clever montage of Republican negativity: A series of unfriendly faces decrying the Affordable Care Act (ACA) with apocalyptic language. Which would any everyday American prefer? The healer or the doomsayer? The elves or the orcs?

The party needs to find its voice. They’re not hearing the words they’re saying, and then there’s the matter of Medicaid expansion, and Kevin Drum explains the problem:

Under Obamacare, if your income is less than 100 percent of the poverty line, you don’t qualify to buy subsidized insurance on the exchanges. However, if you miss the subsidy threshold you might still qualify for Medicaid depending on your state’s eligibility rules. Unless, that is, your state has refused to participate in Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. In that case you might not qualify for anything.

Okay, that’s clear, but then Drum cites Dylan Scott with an item at Talking Points Memo, about healthcare “navigators” who have to break this news to people, and it’s not pretty:

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 38 percent of the U.S. uninsured have an income that’s below the poverty line – the population that won’t qualify for either Medicaid expansion or any financial help to purchase private coverage through the law in non-expanding states. About 5 million people fall in that gap in those states.

But these people probably don’t know that when they walk into a navigator’s office or attend an outreach event. They just want to find out what options are available to them – though it turns out the answer is not many…

“It’s awful,” one navigator in a non-expanding state said. “It’s basically: ‘Here are the really great options, and you can’t have them.'”

That leads to scenes like this:

In some cases, those being left out seem to understand, having been left out of the health insurance complex for a while, said Cynthia Rahming, who is heading the Houston, Texas, navigator program. She did agree, though, that her team is “often” coming across people who are part of the Medicaid gap in that state.

“They were excited. They were trying to see what’s available to them,” she said. “But they’re still okay. They know it’s just a chance.”


These are poor people. They mostly represent families making less than $20,000 per year. And yet in many cases, they greet the news that they’re completely excluded from access to health care with weary acceptance. They probably never really believed that anything good might come their way in the first place. In the meantime, multi-millionaires can virtually bring the government of the United States to a screeching halt over the prospect of a two percent increase in the marginal rate they pay in income taxes.

The refusal of Republican states to accept Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion surely ranks as one of the most sordid acts in recent American history. The cost to the states is tiny, and the help it would bring to the poor is immense. It’s paid for by taxes that residents of these states are going to pay regardless of whether they receive any of the benefits. And yet, merely because it has Obama’s name attached to it, they’ve decided that immiserating millions of poor people is worth it.

It’s hard to imagine a decision more depraved.

Conservatives hate it when you accuse them of simply not caring about the poor. Sometimes they have a point. This is not one of those times.

Ed Kilgore adds this:

The realization that legislators and/or governors in 25 states turned down an almost entirely federally funded Medicaid expansion because they wanted to create this unconscionable situation ought to produce some electoral consequences in 2014, at the very least in the form of higher turnout among those directly targeted. If I were involved in Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts next year, I’d sure mention it, a lot.

It will be mentioned a lot, and the Republicans will come off as cruel and vicious jerks – the bullies who like to beat up on the weak kids and take their lunch money, literally in this case. And their message will be clear. Doesn’t it feel good to be the bully? Don’t you love to see total losers suffer? Wouldn’t you love to kick someone when they’re down, and tell them it’s for their own good? That’s what Jesus would do, after all – as Jesus did say God only helps those who help themselves – as Bill O’Reilly explained a few years ago. The new Pope says differently, but Bill knows better.

No, wait. There’s much to be said for conservatism – tradition does matter, as that’s what holds societies together, or at least one of the things that does. And some spending should be cut now and then, here and there, as programs outlive their usefulness eventually. But there is the social contract, the idea that we’re all in this together, and sometimes you spend money to make things better for everyone. It’s all in how you explain things, and you really have to know how you actually sound when you talk about all this, which the Republicans do not know in the slightest. They sound like jerks, and they need to find their voice, somehow – unless, of course, they really are jerks. There’s no fixing that.

Ask anyone who’s taught a writing course. Sometimes the problem is more than a tin ear. It’s a tin heart.

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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