Monday, December 29, 2014

My Landmine Analogy

I almost made it through this month without a post. I found this in an old notebook and tweaked it. I believe it accurately describes how many conservatives conceptualize responsibility.

Let’s say a terrorist is planting landmines all over town. No group claims responsibility and no demands are made. Civil officials quickly put out advisories to reduce the risk. The public is warned to keep off the grass, for example. Are future victims thus at fault afterwards?

Of course not, because accidents will still happen – even to the most cautious person. A falling tree limb might detonate a mine next to the sidewalk. Or you could be inside your home when a dog runs by your picture window, showering you with flying glass shrapnel as the mine goes off. And the terrorist remains the first cause in any case. That cannot be denied.

We humans have a huge impact on our environment. And, for both better and worse, we are very adaptable animals. Usually, this is an advantage, but it also means we are too quick to accept the new normal as natural. Conservative pundits would likely treat the incidents above like being hit by lightning.

One big problem with seeing the market as an unknowable benevolent force of nature is that it is a human creation and a deception is in effect when accountability is removed. Every major industry tries to create a favorable environment for their product. Suppose the man planting landmines sells metal detectors or owns stock in a company that does. It is a far fetched possibility to be sure, but how is the conservative approach to pollution, unsafe products, or any other public health hazard any different? They want man-made hazards to be treated as natural hazards – treat the faulty product like a tornado. As Rand Paul said of the BP Deepwater Horizon offshore oil platform explosion, “I think it’s part of this sort of blame-game society in the sense that it’s always got to be somebody’s fault instead of the fact that maybe sometimes accidents happen.” That is basically their philosophy behind tort reform.

Now, let’s say your boss wants you to mow the lawn outside the office. It has gotten pretty tall since the panic started and the chances are pretty slim that there is a landmine on that particular parcel of land. After all, it is a big city and they have only found five mines so far and none in the last week. Even so, he does not want to do it himself. Go figure.

Conservatives, like corporations, are good at externalizing, risks, costs, and responsibility. So, if you find a landmine the hard way, it will because you were "careless." Like the BP oil rig, coal mine owners routinely ignore safety regulations and fines. After all, safety is expensive and time-consuming – it cuts into the profit margins and slows down the work. And when the coal dust ignites or a cave-in buries men miles under a mountain, you can always blame the miners themselves - or safety regulations.

A lot of conservatives have considerable difficulty grasping how basic responsibility works. Enough of them have this handicap that it has become an organizing principle. I think this is the case for two reasons.

The first I write about in my book. It is their propensity to identify with power and blame the victim. It’s sympathy for the alpha dog. As I write, “Usually, they are either bullies or bystanders who reflexively sympathize with power. Whether it is rape, sexual harassment, unsafe working conditions, or anything else, conservatives’ automatic response is to blame the victim and/or defend the violator.” Indeed, “They see bullying in stopping bullying.” They seem unclear on the concept:
It is almost as if conservatives do not quite grasp that being a bully makes you the bad guy. They want to be seen as the good guys, but they also like to bully and do not see any contradiction there. It bewilders them. This is a result of their tribal us-vs.-them mindset. To them, being the good guy is a matter of birthright rather than behavior. Everything your side does is clever and justified – it is only treachery if the other side does it. You are loyal to your team and you do not snitch.
We have seen a lot of this recently. Fox News’ reflexive sympathy for killer cops is certainly motivated in part by racism. After all, they do not talk about the importance of “innocent until proven guilty” in any other circumstance. And they jump to conclusions while saying we should not jump to conclusions. In the same breath as saying we should wait for the evidence they will call the victim a “thug” – even when all we know about the victim is that he is black. So, yes, there is definitely a bit of racism at work here. But there is also an authoritarian adoration of power that complicates understanding simple lines of responsibility. The two things are distinct, but linked.

The other problem conservatives have with understanding responsibility is their either/or approach to it. Everything boils down to individual responsibility – there is no collective responsibility for anything or any systemic injustices to fix either subtle or overt. Everything happens in a vacuum, as far as they are concerned. History and poverty are non-issues to them. If you point toward any societal factors, such as the fact that countries with smaller wealth gaps have less crime, they will accuse you of denying individual responsibility – as if the two things are mutually exclusive.

This dictates their thinking in questions of credit as well as blame. During the 2012 election, both Elizabeth Warren and Barack Obama made the point that success was a combination of individual ability and social infrastructure. As Warren put it, “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate.” Summing up she added, “[P]art of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.” And Obama echoed this point in his “You didn’t build that” speech that conservatives willfully misinterpreted. “The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.” As I summed up, “Just as you need both hydrogen and oxygen to make water, prosperity comes from the combination of individual and the collective efforts. That is just common sense.” I also added that this was a very tame version of what Benjamin Franklin had written two centuries before on taxes:
Private property therefore is a creature of society, and is subject to the calls of that society, whenever its necessities shall require it, even to the last farthing: its contributions therefore to the public exigencies are not to be considered as conferring a benefit on the public, entitling the contributors to the distinctions of honor and power, but as a return of an obligation previously received, or the payment of a just debt.*
That was the social contract that Warren was talking about. 

Doctor Franklin probably made his case so forcefully because he had to. Individual responsibility is easy to explain: It is obvious and needs no advocates. Therefore, the subtler social factors need greater attention and explanation. They need to be stressed. No liberal or leftist that I have ever met denies there is an element of individual responsibility – that is a conservative caricature.

But whether it is credit or blame being assigned, conservatives are ideologically allergic to acknowledging collective responsibility for anything. Conservatives almost seem incapable of taking in the larger picture and seeing interconnections. And this trips up their thinking on issues besides responsibility. For example, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman once explained the problem with austerity policies in a compelling way that anyone should be able to understand:
An economy is not like a household. A family can decide to spend less and try to earn more. But in the economy as a whole, spending and earning go together: My spending is your income; your spending is my income. If everyone tries to slash spending at the same time, incomes will fall – and unemployment will soar.
But conservative ideology is wired to ignore that explanation. To them, an economy is like a household – period. There is no outside context or environment. So, tighten your belt and work harder. And, if you step on a landmine in the meantime, you only have yourself to blame.


*Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds, Criticism, ed. J.A. Leo LeMay and P.M. Zall (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1986), 222.

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