Many of Charles Dickens’ books revolved around the social conditions in England during the Industrial Revolution. The Pickwick Papers pictured pre-industrial struggles. Oliver Twist explored the abuses of the Poor Law with a description of the workhouse and its regime of hunger, punishment and humiliation. Nicholas Nickleby was about schools where children were maltreated and starved. Bleak House considered the inequities of the legal system and a warning about the excesses of a laissez-faire economy. Little Dorit exposed the evils of debtor’s prison. Hard Times exposed the exploitation of the working class and A Christmas Carol showed how a greedy system kept people in abject poverty.
In Victorian England in the 1840’s the Tories said if you feed the starving you may set up a “Culture of Dependency” and free food would upset the free market and make people lazy. This then became a rationalization for neglecting the poor. The argument became; the poor are poor because of a character defect and if we help them they must work hard and suffer the humiliation of workhouses and debtors prisons. Sound familiar?
In 2012 Vice President nominee Paul Ryan said, “The network of programs for the American poor make people not want to work, In other words, these people are bred poor and lazy”. You would think that after 175 years this zombie idea would be retired. But no, with humiliating drug testing for food stamp recipients and proposals that children eligible for a free lunch sweep out the cafeteria and the restrooms in order to learn that there is no such thing as a free lunch.
Where do these heartless people come from? Maybe my explanation is also getting tired, but it seems that these “Same People” are at it again. You remember them, those who supported slavery, were against racial integration, civil rights, minimum wage laws, universal health care, unions and the environment. What were they for? War, capital punishment and lower taxes for the rich. Maybe I should make an effort to analyze these strange people. Yes, it is largely the conservative ideology of the right wingers, tea baggers and racists.
I think one of the most interesting theories explaining the conservative world view is the “Strict Father” concept as described by George Lakoff. It says the conservatives think the world is a dangerous and competitive place of winners and losers and the father’s duty is to protect the family by teaching children right from wrong. Physical punishment is required to develop internal discipline in order to be moral and succeed. Worldly success indicates moral strength. The undisciplined are weak, poor and immoral, and deservedly so. According to this world view conservatives believe the government should promote unregulated economic activity so the disciplined and the undisciplined get what they deserve. Those who gain wealth and power are the “best people”, and those who are unsuccessful are just morally weak. The “best people” should be rewarded with lower taxes since progressive taxation is seen as punishment for being a good person, so it must be immoral. A strict father must also control the women in the family who are weaker than them. Fathers must ban abortion, sex education and restrict access to women’s reproductive health facilities to keep women from making decisions by themselves.
Conservatives believe that humans have dominion over the natural world so the environment is to be exploited for self-interest and business profit. Environmentalism is therefore detrimental to business and should be stopped.
Extending the theory to foreign policy, America is seen as more moral than any other nation, so it is more deserving of power and hence it should impose its moral authority everywhere.
By having social programs, conservatives think they “spoil” people by giving them things they haven’t earned or deserve. Hence, programs that help people are immoral and should be eliminated. To coddle such weak people is even immoral. And this is why many republicans are opposed to food stamps, hot school lunches, government health care and unemployment compensation.
Today the majority of our congress are millionaires who demand cuts in public assistance to the poor while doing everything they can to assist the rich. We seem to be in the process of turning into an “Old European” system of hereditary wealth.
There are over 400 billionaires in America and their numbers are growing. I think a billionaire who lives in the same city as hungry homeless people is an abomination. No economic system, no philosophy, no religion can justify such injustice. Call me a socialist, if you wish, but I think all children, rich and poor, should be well-fed.
It’s hard to believe that these “same people” feel they have the high moral ground. Maybe they are projecting their own immorality to others or maybe their aura of morality is just an excuse to be greedy, arrogant and self-centered.
Paul Krugman’s column in the New York Times of April 11, 2014 said that one of the cruelest things against the poor recently has been the blocking of the expansion of medicaid in republican controlled states, which will likely result in a death toll between 7,000 an 17,000 Americans each year. Health economist Jonathan Gruber said,” The Medicaid rejection states are willing to sacrifice billions of dollars to spite president Obama and punish poor people. It really is just almost awesome in its evilness”. Krugman concludes that there’s an extraordinary ugliness of spirit abroad in today’s America.
Philosophically speaking these “same people” reflect only one of the many alternative views of human nature. One of the fathers of the conservative viewpoint is Thomas Hobbes who said that all people are inherently imperfect, malicious, perverse and full of pride and sin. He said that this dark anti-social side of human nature can only be controlled by unquestioning obedience to a strong ruler. Plato, Kant and Freud also agreed with Hobbes and said, to be human is to be cruel, mean, jealous, possessive, lazy and exploitive.
All this leads to the concept of “Social Darwinism” which claims human competitiveness is an innate trait where only the strongest and fittest survive and is exemplified by Capitalist theory in which the natural outcome is inequality and social stratification. Perhaps these “warrior values” have been bred into us through the long process of natural selection. So it seems that these qualities, are merely natural to the human condition.
I’ve been writing like all human beings are malicious and perverse, but, of course, that is not true. There are a goodly number of human beings who don’t behave like aggressive animals. Some are more civilized and have risen above their animal nature. A Christmas Carol has been credited with the restoration of the Christmas season into a festival of joy, goodwill and happy times. Unfortunately Capitalism again has taken its toll. The increasing amount of consumerism associated with the holiday hardly adds to the true Christmas spirit.
In his books Dickens asks the people to recognize the plight of those driven into poverty by the industrial revolution and how society has the obligation to provide for the unfortunate. But now, as then, the wealthy believe their status qualifies them to judge the poor rather than assist them. How could a rich man feel guilty about not helping the poor if he believes they deserve what they get because it’s their own fault. The Night Before Christmas and A Christmas Carol did much to overcome puritan stoicism about 200 years ago. Today Christmas means family gatherings, gift giving, Christmas trees, caroling, mistletoe, decorations and fruitcake, but most of all, a Christmas spirit of charity and love. Unfortunately it lasts for only a short time. As said many times, wouldn’t it be nice to see the good feeling of Christmas spirit last all year?
What is the true Christmas spirit? Today it’s more secular than religious, but still spiritual. The goodwill and good thoughts associated with the holiday are genuinely positive and life affirming. Perhaps some of it is nostalgia for your innocent childhood memories or just a hopeful belief in a better world. Whatever it is, it is worth keeping.
Carl Freitag is a retired psychology professor and a member of the Space Coast Progressive Alliance. Illustration also by Carl Freitag.
*ED. NOTE: The views expressed here are solely those of the author. SCPA does not endorse candidates and welcomes commentary on a wide range of issues, including political campaigns, local, regional and national. If interested in contributing commentary, please contact SCPA