Saturday, December 17, 2016

Line-Cutters Revisited

At some point over the Thanksgiving holiday, my family and I were sitting around being wounded liberals -- a common pastime these days -- when my brother-in-law (he's an entrepreneur and hails from the side of our clan who knows something about economics -- which is most of us except me) wondered aloud, "Why is it that people keep trying to implement these Republican economic proposals when they don't work, they just don't work?" It is a variant of a question that must have been asked around ten million fireplaces in ten million Clinton-voting homes at least that weekend. Why do they think these things? we ask. Why do they do these things? We have all been trying a great deal these past months to figure out what makes "them" tick. This is the season of quasi-anthropological studies of the red-blooded American conservative, conducted by safely and sagely liberal academics squatting in their midst and trying to discern the arcane mythologies that inform their utterances. This is the year of quasi-Marxist efforts to ferret out the "base" of cold, hard material fact and economic self-interest that is presumed to underlie the staggering eyesore of a "superstructure" with which we are now faced in the form of Trumpist ideology.

My answer to my brother-in-law's question was one that ought to have been fairly banal. I described Arlie Hochschild's image of the "line going up a hill" -- discussed in detail in a previous post -- and how conservatives tend to see themselves as people who have waited patiently in that line -- and most others as line-cutters. I ended by saying "The thing is that these people actually view Keynesianism, and demand-side economics in general, as wrong. Like, morally wrong. They see it as cheating, as running off with something you haven't paid for. The question of whether it works or not is secondary. They have a different value system. That's what this is actually about."

This, as I say, should have surprised no one. What, you mean they actually believe in the things they vote for? What, people have different ideas and ideals and values, and that's why people keep endlessly beating their heads together over various partisan disputes, without ever advancing a single step further? Well, of course! What could be more obvious? And yet, as soon as I said it, I was dumbfounded -- and so too, I think, was my brother-in-law. Oh, right! we seemed to say. In a twinkling, we had both realized not only the truth of this insight, but also its dread implications. For it shows up all at once the total futility and irrelevance of pretty much every argument that is made on either side of any given issue in our political culture.

Think, for instance, of the poor, stymied libertarians, forever bemoaning what they claim is the "inconsistency" of the ideological viewpoint of their brethren on the American Right. How can mainstream American conservatives deplore "big government" on the one hand, the libertarians wail, while they are constantly expanding the scope of the army and the police, of the prison-industrial complex, of the ever-more militarized border enforcement apparatus, on the other? Don't they see the tension, not to say contradiction?

These libertarians have failed to notice that there is actually a perfectly coherent internal logic -- for better or worse -- underlying the American Right's worldview (as there is that of the American Left). It is they who are inconsistent, not the movement conservatives. The same world picture -- Hoschild's "deep story" -- that imagines people standing in a line, waiting their turn for what are ultimately scarce rewards, and having to follow a single and unchanging set of rules in order to merit their place in that line -- that is the same worldview according to which government ought not give "hand-outs," but in which it should "punish criminals," "deport illegals" and all the rest of it. Now at last we know why the libertarians are forever dashing themselves against the rocks of a conservative movement, thinking that one day the other cohorts of the Right will realize that if they could just get past their crass crony-capitalist "interests," they would see that their true "conservative principles" point them not toward Republican Orthodoxy, but toward some sort of Randianism, or Paulianism. Nope, sorry friends! It is precisely those "principles" -- not the interests -- that are standing in the way!

Or think, along similar lines, of Glenn Greenwald, trying to figure out why the Trumpists can sound so much like the socialist-oriented Left in their railings against the "elite" and their "populism," while all the time they keep voting people into office who intend to soak the poor and demolish social spending. The conclusion of this quarter of the Left is of course that the xenophobia, the racism, the neo-fascism that permeates the Trump movement is but a deceptive matador's flag dangled in front of the voters in order to prevent their recognizing the true hunger for social justice that underlies their free-floating resentment -- it is superstructure, it is opium, it is false consciousness, in the telling of the Greenwalds. But no, this analysis hits no closer to the mark that the libertarian. It fails to see that people voted for Trump not because he directed their "populism" or their "outrage" into the wrong channel, but because he spoke to their conservative worldview.

The American conservative may often sound ever so fleetingly like a socialist in his rage against the "elite" (Trump by no means invented this trope), but the two do so for wholly different reasons. It is not because the conservative has an ideal in mind of some rough equality of economic outcomes -- or at least a feeling of disgust at the fact that the divergence of outcomes has grown so cavernous in this society over the past quarter-century -- and that is the grist for his sense of injustice. Rather, he detests the "elite" -- particularly those whom he perceives as working in irrelevant highbrow professions -- for the same reason he detests the polar opposite of the elite -- the marginalized and the impoverished, people living on welfare or food stamps or unemployment benefits or health care subsidies; beneficiaries of affirmative action; undocumented immigrants; people in prison; members of Indian tribes who receive certain federal benefits guaranteed under treaty rights and the trust responsibility; resettled refugees. The conservative sees them all as people who get ahead by cheating, by breaking or skirting the rules -- in short, by "cutting in line."

This is why conservative "populism" is essentially cultural in its resentment, rather than economic. This is why the focus of its outrage is always more likely to be the campus than the boardroom. The socialist is forever crying, why is it that conservatives are all up in arms about elitism, but meanwhile they seem to give corporate America a free pass on everything, and they make Donald Trump of all people into a populist champion?! What is this grotesque millionaire real estate mogul if not a member of the "elite"? The answer is that succeeding in business -- at least, some kinds of business -- is playing by the conservative rules. It is waiting in line and getting duly rewarded at the end of it. (Check for a moment if you will, dear reader, your desire to assess the accuracy of this assessment of Trump's career -- for surely Trump is a cheat and a line-cutter and a sneak thief -- and proudly and self-avowedly so -- if ever there was one. The point is that he has sounded the right dog whistles against perceive moochers and scroungers along the way).

What would not be playing by the rules, by conservative standards, would be to get a secure job -- say, a tenure-track position in a university -- after studying some fanciful and useless and interesting subject in the liberal arts. These are the people they have most in view when they bemoan the "elite." It of course doesn't much matter to them that the life of the actual adjunct instructor in today's university is hellish in many respects; and not at all the pampered preserve it is made out to be. If conservatives could be persuaded that this was so, it would be more likely to satisfy their Schadenfreude than to pique their sympathy. After all, daring to study something in college about which one is "passionate" is to try to cut in line -- it is to dodge the necessity of studying the stultifying and the dull and the odious that the rest of us had to go through in school -- and the fair cost of doing so surely ought to be limited employment prospects after graduation! If not, the conservative inwardly asks himself, if, that is, the liberal arts turn out to be a road to comfort and fulfillment -- what then was the point of his going through some dull yet "practical" curriculum? What redeems that suffering, if it turns out that it was totally unnecessary -- that one could have done well, could have had it all, while also pursuing a career one enjoyed? This is why the sight of the marooned and miserable young humanities major working at an unrelated job is so gratifying to the conservative, and the idea of the satisfied and well-heeled literature professor so anathema.

This is the fear that lies at the core of most small-c conservatism, in politics, in theology, and elsewhere -- the fear that the value of one's own privileges will be diminished -- which one feels one has gained through hard struggle -- if everyone is granted access to them. It is the fear that the pains one had to go through in order to ascend the mountain of life will become meaningless, if some new and younger pioneer manages to scout some other and much less toilsome path up to the same summit.

Take my brother-in-law's example with which we began. Why, he was asking in so many words, has it proven futile time and again over the last ten years (well, much longer than that, actually) to try to talk conservatives out of austerity, out of budget-cuts, out of deficit-hawkery, when there is so much mounting evidence that these policies are crippling to economic health during a recession? The reason is not that the best blog post or New York Times column on the subject has yet to be forwarded to them; it is that they believe austerity to be the only morally correct thing to do. If it also should happen to lead to economic growth, which many of them no doubt sincerely believe it will, then that is surely a welcome bonus; but it is not essential to the argument. (Just the same thing, by the way, is true for leftists -- or at least, for this leftist -- in reverse. I happen to think that it is important for those of us with higher incomes to chip in more generously to fund social programs, because it is the right thing to do. If this happens to lead to a Krugman-esque virtuous circle of consumer spending and demand-side growth -- as food stamp recipients, for example, put money directly into the economy -- then this is all the better; but if it turned out not to be the case I doubt I'd change my viewpoint. Of course, I do happen to think it's true that in this case my "principles" and my "interests" align (funny how often that works out!); but if they didn't, the interests would have to take second place and the principles win out -- at least in theory (for to live as a confessed hypocrite is always, of course, an option).

Thus, even if the Right could be won to the viewpoint that Keynesianism is better for growth, they would still oppose it. They would oppose it because they see it as line-cutting, as fence-jumping, as a way of taking on debts that one will not one day pay for, and does not especially intend to pay for. Richard Hofstadter explains the point, if only we had heeded his words in 1965, in an essay he wrote on the phenomenon he dubbed "pseudo-conservatism" -- which later would morph into our present-day movement conservatism:
"On many occasions, they [i.e., the "pseudo-conservatives"] approach economic issues as matters of faith and morals rather than matters of fact [...] they disapprove on moral grounds of the assumptions on which they think policies rest. [...] A prominent case in point is the argument over fiscal policy. Deficit spending is vehemently opposed by great numbers of people in our society who have given no serious thought [...] to the complex questions bearing on its efficacy as an economic device. They oppose it because their personal experience or training in spending, debts, and prudential management leads them to see in deficit spending a shocking repudiation of the moral precepts on which their lives have been based."
I did not add the emphasis in this quotation -- evidently, this most obvious conclusion was as surprising in Hofstadter's day as in ours, and he felt he needed to italicize it in order to get it across the filter of people's minds -- violating as it does so many tenets of the liberal conventional wisdom. Perhaps the insight shakes us liberals to the core because we tend to think that it is we who have to defend ourselves against the charge of being sentimental and moralistic; because so many of us on the Left grew used as teenagers (or later) to being deemed "idealists," or "bleeding hearts." And now here we are, of a sudden, being told by Hofstadter that it is ultimately matters of the heart that determine close-fisted economic policies as well as open-handed ones-- Scrooge-like grasping as well as magnanimity. As William Hazlitt once indelibly wrote: "[H]ow much of the imaginary and speculative there is interfused even in those passions and purposes which have not the good of others for their object [….] Man is not the creature of sense and selfishness, even in those pursuits which grow out of that origin, so much as of imagination, custom, passion, whim, and humour."

The quasi-Marxist account, therefore, has it exactly backward. The analysis relating to economic "interests" and "rationality" is the superstructure, not the base. It is grafted on after the fact to the moral concerns that precede it. It -- the "interest" analysis, the utilitarian analysis -- is the argument that conservatives use to try to persuade skeptical liberals, not to convince themselves. It comes only after the true underlying reason -- the principled one -- is already set in stone. Morality is the base, and material self-interest is the superstructure. This is why the partisan debate is so eternally fruitless. We are each coming up with arguments from "interest," because we each assume that such is all that our empty-hearted and self-centered adversaries could possibly understand. How often have you heard it said -- "Moral arguments won't work, you have to show people that it's in their self-interest"? How often have we assumed the political enemy to be a beast that responds only to Heine's "soup-reason and dumpling-logic," rather than to the pleadings of conscience? This viewpoint is perfectly wrong, however. People don't really care about whether you convince them that a certain policy will "work," in a crassly utilitarian way, if it violates one of their moral presuppositions. (This is part of what gives to our species its strange nobility -- as well as its profoundly dangerous and unpredictable quality.) Our arguments as to "interest" and utility, therefore, which make up so much of the talking-head discourse on our airwaves, are all missing the point. They are just a way of pitting our superstructures against one another, and leaving our respective "bases" in the meanwhile untouched and unexamined.

A perfect example would be the squalidly low moral level at which the "immigration debate" has been waged for so long in this country. The formula by this point is familiar. Put two "sides" of the issue across the table from one another on CNN, and the conversation will unfold like this: the first insists that undocumented immigrants 1) "take our jobs" and 2) "damage our economy"; while the other maintains 1) no they don't and 2) no they don't.

It turns out, of course, that neither is likely to change its mind, even if it could be persuaded of the truth of the other's arguments. Immigration hardliners will go on wanting a border wall and mass deportations regardless of whether the undocumented population is a net plus or minus for economic growth and employment in the United States. They want these things because they view undocumented immigration as "unfair," as "line-cutting." The undocumented should be punished, they believe, or at least go unrewarded, for "breaking the rules." (Think here too of Trump's early claim that torture was a good thing, regardless of whether or not it "worked," simply because "they deserve it." Trump had revealed the truth behind why the torture program ever existed, and why so many "good" Americans supported it. Something similar is true of the reasons why right-wingers support a mass deportation program.)

By the same token, I and other people who support more open borders don't really do so because we have been persuaded by some position paper or journal article that this policy is "rational" or "good for the economy," from a coldly Gradgrind-ian perspective. We support it for more a priori reasons than that (as the hardliners probably suspect of us by now). I'd support it even if someone could prove to me that high levels of immigration actually do slow the economy to some extent. I'd support it because to me, enforcement is the thing that's unfair, and immoral. It is unfair because I and other American citizens have extraordinary privileges to work, travel, and live in safety, simply because we were born here -- we have done nothing to "deserve" it -- while other people have to flee for their lives from organized crime or corrupt state actors or U.S.-funding Mexican border police, or perish in the Arizona desert, to try to gain a fraction of those same immunities -- just because they were not born here. They in turn did nothing to "deserve" this fate.


Once one has discerned this secret key to the conservative mind (or the human mind, I guess), it is much as if every riddle of our political and moral life were suddenly solved. The clouds break open in the sunlight of epiphany. I admit that this may be a bit of a case of finding the proverbial new hammer, and therefore treating everything one encounters as a nail -- but thanks to Hochschild's "line-cutters" insight I am now hard pressed to think of any ethical position that conservatives have adopted that I once found utterly baffling that is not wholly accounted for by it. Corporal punishment and harsh physical discipline? Well, I had to go through it to get where I am today, so everybody should! the conservative might think. Gender-neutral bathrooms? Well, I had to suffer through existence in a world with procrustean gender norms and strict role expectations, and a permanent aching gap between the segregated sexes and therefore a fundamental lack of fulfillment in my personal relationships with the other half of the human race -- and all that pain would be for nothing if kids nowadays manage to find an easy way around it by redefining gender. Though I'm guessing they'd put it in other words.

I've already analyzed the theological debate over universal salvation in terms of the "line-cutter" motif, in my original post on this subject. It occurs to me likewise ('Tis the season, after all) that the great debate over the nature of Santa Claus (which has always tracked closely alongside the trends in public discussions of theology) could equally well be parsed in similar terms. Does Santa Claus bring coal to bad children, as a form of punishment? the quasi-theologians of our secularized Christmas mythos ask. Liberal parents are certain to answer "no" -- as mine did. Our Santa was -- like us -- a Universalist. He brought toys to all the girls and boys. This was why I was always fond of the carol "Here Comes Santa Claus," as it contains the line, "Santa knows that we're God's children/ that makes everything right." Conservatives, meanwhile, are likely to find the provision of an equal quantity of toys to each child, regardless of merit and behavior, to be a violation of their principles. They no doubt prefer the more retributive "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," in which the elf is found to be "making a list/ checking it twice," in order to "find out who's naughty and nice."

Even the old sexual morality makes more sense now, with Hochschild's "line on a hill" in view. While some of this code was explicable on the crass "interests" or functional analysis (it's easy to see why casual sexual intercourse was a more dangerous and problematic activity, for instance, in a world before affordable and accessible birth control) -- and while moreover it seems that there were insights contained in the old morality about power and safety (if we were to strip it of its sexist double standards) that were spot on -- even profound -- and which the Left has had to rediscover for itself more than once since the 'Sixties by using new terminology; I was always perplexed by the prominence accorded in this ethic to the prohibition against "self-abuse." Masturbation seems from a liberal perspective to be a quintessentially innocent -- or at least morally neutral -- activity. It is neither hurting, nor particularly helping, anyone else. Ah, but that was before we had our new key to unlock all the mysteries, you see! Once we have the "line" imagery in hand, we realize that autoeroticism is, for all that, a quick and easy means of obtaining a gratification, which one can obtain through one's own body without much effort (it was --incidentally -- said of Diogenes the Cynic that he wished hunger could be assuaged so directly. This is a perfect encapsulation of all that is un-conservative). It too, therefore, is "line-cutting." It is a way of avoiding the suffering and the patience that conservatives feel ought to precede the satisfaction of a desire or need.

We could probably go on indefinitely in this vein, finding new ways in which the perpetual struggle between the line-waiters and the line-cutters plays itself out under myriad guises. The question is bound to arise, however: is all this a purely taxonomic and morphological exercise, which allows us to lump various political and ethical opinions together on two different sides of the great divide? Or does it help us in some way to eventually understand one another as political actors -- and maybe even, in the distant reaches of time -- to come to some sort of mutual understanding as to the greater good?

Without reaching too soon for the utopian, one modest lesson at least that I can take from all this is that neither value system seems likely ever to disappear entirely, or to be displaced by the other. Moreover, I suspect that even the most liberal of us have more than a little of the conservative line-waiter in us -- and chances are that we are most conservative about those parts of our life history that we are most proud of; because we feel we have earned them through some special merit or effort. And about these things -- their identify for each of us will differ -- we probably share the conservative fear that if they start handing out the same privileges and rewards to just anyone -- well, what then was the point of our getting them? (Think, here, of the endless rancorous diatribes that have issued from the right-wing press against such seemingly innocuous institutions as the "participation trophy" in school athletics, for instance.)

I know that I for one identify with the conservative impulse in certain circumstances; and that I am not above the occasional indulgence of Schadenfreude when I feel that a decision I made that I regard as "wise" is "vindicated" by the overthrow of some rival who didn't follow those same rules. I remember once lecturing a friend in grad school over a paper he had turned in several months late, for example. He had received a B grade and was petitioning to have it raised. I boiled and fumed inside at the thought, and decided to let him have it over Chinese food one night. I believe I said something to the effect of: "Well, if you get an A, then you'll end up with the same grade as me!" "So?" he asked. "Well, then what was the point of me turning it in on time, if you can take five extra months and end up with exactly the same grade?"

The Weekly Standard could not have put it better.


But isn't there, for all that, a kernel of truth in what I said to my friend? Isn't there likewise some validity in the conservative fear that there is no point to having rules or setting expectations at all if they can be violated with impunity? To ask the question is to answer it. For sure, there is some truth to it. Indeed, I find that pretty much any purely abstract argument in politics (or ethics more generally) can be found to apply in certain circumstances. The question is just how broad an application that should be.

However, I also find that the human animal, being self-protective if not self-centered by nature, is almost certain to incline on balance toward an over-application of the conservative principle, rather than an under-application, and to see line-cutters where there are none -- where there are only people hoping for a fair shake of their own. Liberalism, socialism, social democracy, etc., by contrast, form a more stringent doctrine. They are, in Vachel Lindsay's words, belief systems that ask us to "vote against our human nature," for they ask us to incline on balance toward generosity.

Since we are already leaning so far in the opposite direction, this little extra goad from socialism, it seems to me, toward a bit more magnanimity than we normally expect ourselves to show, can only be a good thing. The manifestations of the conservative impulse that I find in myself, by contrast -- while they are certainly present and pressing -- also strike me as a bit shameful -- at best absurd, at worst a betrayal. They are a minor sin of meanness -- "[S]omething to expiate:/ A pettiness," to borrow a phrase from D.H. Lawrence. They are a sort of straying from my ideal self -- that self of perfect magnanimity who is not protective of the privileged value of his grades -- nor of anything else -- but who thinks that all students deserve an "A" on their term papers.

More intriguing still, I find that the conservative impulse -- whether valid or not -- is just about the most direct violation of the Christian ethic that one can think of. (How extraordinary, therefore, that it should come to be identified so closely with the strands of Christianity currently most loud and visible in our public discourse!) After all, what more precise repudiation of my grasping attitude toward my "A" grade could there be, than that ethic of the Gospel which bids one not even to withhold the coat on one's back, if it is asked of you. And while that Gospel ethic may be an impossible standard, it is also one that we are all so unlikely to implement in its more extreme forms anyways, that a liberal ideology that nudges us a little bit closer to it has got to be for the good.

As I argued more extensively in the previous post on this subject, there is considerable testimony in the Bible to the effect that Jesus is not at all the champion of the line-waiters and the rule-followers -- contrary to what one seems to hear from the so-caleld Christian Right -- ; that he is after all far more interested in saving the sinners than the well-behaved. He goes looking for the lost sheep; he dines with the tax collectors and the prostitutes. It is much as if to say that the self-righteousness and smugness of the "virtuous" is ultimately more offensive to him than those misdeeds that society defines as criminal or as a physical violation of the moral law.

Now, to be clear, I am an atheist and a Universalist, so twice over I do not believe in damnation -- but it was with something like the foregoing considerations in mind nonetheless that I metaphorically "damned" myself in a poem I once wrote on the subject of my own moral Schadenfreude -- my conservative impulse, if you will-- by placing myself in the company of the "goats" at the Judgment of the Nations:

I know for a fact I am no good
When I see the police cars outside the neighbor’s house
Of whom there were rumors
 – Hooking, dealing – and other portentous gerunds
And through me passes a little chill, a frisson
Of smacking Schadenfreude
And I cluck “Oh dear, what a shame, what a shame.”
And the neighbors bleat, “BAH-Ah-Ah -- It’s sad, really.”
Oh yes, yes, MEH-Eh-Eh-Eh
That’s how I know I am a fraud, and a fake
And at the judgment of the nations, by unanimous vote
I’ll be doing my bleating with the goats

The theme is similar, I note, to that of Edwin Arlington Robinson's "Supremacy" -- a poetical reflection on the sin of self-righteousness, written in what could well be the internal monologue of a Tea Party supporter and "line-waiter" -- one who is arriving at the River Styx. This fellow perceives about him in the underworld several "Men I had slandered on life's little star/ For churls and sluggards"; yet he is ultimately found to be a worse offender than they, for his moral pride:

But as I went majestic on my way, 
Into the dark they vanished, one by one, 
Till, with a shaft of God's eternal day, 
The dream of all my glory was undone,— 
And, with a fool's importunate dismay, 
I heard the dead men singing in the sun. 


Let us assume, however -- as I think we safely may do -- that none of us is likely to become perfectly self-abnegating anytime soon. Let us assume we all have some human need for distinction, for recognition, for respect, for a "reward," in some broadly defined sense, for what we understand ourselves to have earned by our "merit." Then surely -- at the very least -- those rewards should be portioned out in a manner that is fair, should they not?

Well, of course! Conservatives are right so far, in just the banally tautological way that it is no less correct to do the right thing. You'd be hard pressed to find a liberal who would dispute the point.

But why, oh why, we must ask, should we assume that the rules, as they currently exist in our society, are themselves fair? Why should we believe that one's placement in the proverbial "line" of social advancement in the United States has been determined by pure merit, or by impartial principles, rather than by history -- and human action -- with all their cruelties and inequities and imperfections? To return to my term paper analogy, I was probably on safe moral ground so long as I argued that -- in the abstract -- people should receive a grade that is in proportion to their work. I was right to argue that my friend should not be able to cut ahead of me in line, that is to say. But perhaps I could have given a bit more thought to the possibility that he and I were not starting from the same place in line -- that perhaps keeping to a deadline required, for whatever reason, more effort of him than it did of me.

If I were asked to name -- therefore -- what is perhaps the cardinal sin of the American conservative, it might not be any of the culprits that are usually identified: xenophobia, racism, etc. Rather, it might very well be this -- their failure to inquire whether their society has been constituted in a way that is fair, whether the "rules" that they are so pleased with themselves for following are ones that everyone had an equal shot at building a life around. The xenophobia and racism that so often attend these discussions are just an extension of this deeper failing of thought and morals, and may even be incidental to it. How often, for example, have you heard Trump say that he no longer intends to deport all undocumented immigrants -- only the "bad ones." Let's say for a moment we choose to believe him -- it only means that for the particular strain of right-wing demagogy he is channeling, the sin of moral pride -- the cruel self-righteousness that is displayed in the notion that he (of all people!) can so easily separate out "the good" from "the bad" -- runs deeper than the sin of hating immigrants qua immigrants.

My brother-in-law, in our Thanksgiving conversation, told us a similar story about encountering a Trump supporter who declared, "I've got nothing against the immigrants who come here legally. It's the illegal ones I'm worried about." You've probably heard this line before too. And again, let's try taking this man at his word -- for it will not save him. Maybe it's true after all that he isn't xenophobic in all circumstances. But he plainly has chosen not to ask himself the questions that are owed to wisdom and magnanimity and conscience. Questions, for instance, as to whether everyone in fact has any opportunity at all to come to this country "legally" who wants to, let alone a fair or equal one. (The answer, of course, is no, they don't, as is plain on even the most cursory glance into American immigration law. And anyways, as mentioned above, what is fair about the fact that I was born into citizenship in this country, and so many others are not?)

This is the true moral blindspot of the American Right. This -- more than hatred of any particular group -- is the real bigotry at the heart of it all. It is the conservatives' prideful belief in the justice of the institutions that have rewarded them. It is their willingness to endow authority with virtue and moral rectitude simply because it holds power over them (and others). It is the ignorant assumption that the laws of the society in which they find themselves are heaven-ordained; and that if they are doing well by those laws, it must be a reflection of their superior merit. They are like the character in Felix Holt, Mrs. Transome, of whom Eliot writes: "She had never seen behind the canvas with which her life was hung." They do not pause to consider whether they might be doing well by society's rules precisely because those rules have been written in their favor-- by human hands that, in many instances, bear a similar skin tone to theirs. They are fundamentalists in politics as in religion. They believe that Bibles, creeds, and the Immigration and Naturalization Act and all inspired and unchanging, and have been passed down to them from God.

These, at last, are the beliefs that must be challenged. These, and these alone, are the ideas to be unlearned. Arguing from interest, arguing that anyone will be better or worse off in a given political arrangement, will make not the least difference.  People are, for better or worse, moral creatures. They must believe at last not only that they are doing well financially, but also -- and much more importantly -- that they are good. They will not go along for long with even the most enticing plan of social betterment if it violates their sense of fairness.

Thus, to somehow drop the scales from the all-too-prevalent and all-too-complacent assessment of our economy and way of life -- to help people understand that Indian treaty benefits or undocumented immigration or social spending do not help people cut in line; they merely go some very short way toward allowing some people a new spot in line who for very long have been -- and in many ways still are -- excluded from it entirely; to show that just because something is law that doesn't make it right; to show that justice in America is not an impartial goddess, as Edgar Lee Master's "Carl Hamblin" reminds us -- that and that alone is the task. Did I not tend my lands well? Yes, but how did you come to have lands at all? In whose hands were these lands? Did I not reap the fruits of the capital given me? Yes, but who gave it? Why was it given to you and not others? These are the questions. And there is nothing more urgent or strategic or pragmatic for us to do than simply to go on asking them.

No comments:

Post a Comment