from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Bush's Empathy Squeeze - an important read 

I hadn't planned to post a diary today, but I just received email from TomPaine which includes an article which appears at TomPaine now and will appear in the next issue of American Prospect.  The author, Arlie Hochschild, is a sociology prof at Cal Berkeley.  As usual, I urge you to read the entire article, which can be found here.

Let me offer one snip here, and few more, with comments below, to encourage you to read.

The piece begins w/ a scenario of a chauffeur driving a rich man, who orders the car stopped, then snatches a loaf of bread from a homeless woman and her two children.  The chauffeur obeys instructions to drive on, despite his own experience of poverty.  This is what the piece calls the chauffeur's dilemma.

It's not hard to understand why the millionaire, with the power to satisfy so many desires, might want to claim another's bread. But why does the chauffeur open the door? Why do about half of lower- and middle-income Americans approve of tax cuts that favor the rich and budget cuts that deprive the poor?

I will not quote the scenario which I described.  I will note what Hochschild says immediately after the beginning, and before the part that I quote above:

. Absurd as it seems, we are actually witnessing this scene right now. At first blush, we might imagine that this story exaggerates our situation, but let us take a moment to count the loaves of bread that have recently changed hands and those that soon will. Then, let's ask why so many people are letting this happen.

    *     On average, the 2003 tax cut has already given $93,500 to every millionaire. It is estimated that 52 percent of the benefits of George W. Bush's 2001-03 tax cuts have enriched the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans (those with an average annual income of $1,491,000).

    *     On average, the 2003 tax cut gave $217 to every middle-income person. By 2010, it is estimated that just 1 percent of the benefits of the tax cut will go to the bottom 20 percent of Americans (those with an average annual income of $12,200).

    *     During at least one year since 2000, 82 of the largest American corporations--including General Motors, El Paso Energy, and, before the scandal broke, Enron--paid no income tax.

Hochschild lists a lot of the cuts to social programs that this administration is making, and then poses the following:

It's not hard to understand why the millionaire, with the power to satisfy so many desires, might want to claim another's bread. But why does the chauffeur open the door? Why do about half of lower- and middle-income Americans approve of tax cuts that favor the rich and budget cuts that deprive the poor?

Before directly addressing this question, Hochschild takes time to note the difference in American society since 1970, a time when people were far less likely to object to the government taking care of those less well off (even though Nixon, a Republican, was president).  She then notes the following:

But three things have changed since 1970: attitudes toward governmental redistribution, economic times and the shape of empathy. Attitudes toward redistribution are different--even among those who would stand to benefit the most. When asked in a 2003 Hart and Teeter poll, "Do you think this (Bush) tax plan benefits mainly the rich or benefits everyone?" 56 percent of blue-collar men (those without a college degree) who answered "Yes" (the plan favors the rich) still favored the plan. For blue-collar men living on annual family incomes of $30,000 or less, half supported it. Apart from the super-rich, who overwhelmingly vote Republican, an interesting pattern emerges: Even many of those with a fragile grip on the American dream go along with taking bread from the poor and giving it to the rich.

What is being forged, then, is a strange, covert moral deal between the millionaire and the hard-pressed chauffeur, sealed by the right-wing church. It is a deal that says, in essence, "Let's ignore the needy at home, exacerbate the class divide, wage war after war abroad, and sustain the idea that all this is morally good."

She immediately follows with this question

What is happening in the heart of the chauffeur? He has himself known hard times, and is as capable as anyone else of compassion. What about his circumstances, his religious beliefs and Bush's manipulation of these might lead him to harden his heart?

She answers in part by noting how people tend to identify with their aspirations:

However underpaid, our chauffeur dreams of becoming a millionaire more than he dreads lying homeless in the street. If others can rise to the top, he figures, why can't he?

For 150 years until 1970 these aspirations seemed to have a reality base, and the piece offers some evidence to that point.  And then?

But after 1970, the real earning power of male wages--and I focus here on men, for they are the closer fit to the profile of the chauffeur--stopped rising. Their dream was linked, it turned out, to jobs in an industrial sector that been automated out or outsourced abroad. Their old union-protected, high-wage, blue-collar jobs began to disappear as new nonunion, low-wage, service-sector jobs appeared. Indeed, the man with a high-school diploma or a few years of college found few new high-opportunity jobs in the much-touted new economy while the vast majority ended up in low-opportunity jobs near the bottom. As jobs in the middle have become harder to find, his earning power has fallen, his benefits have shrunk and his job security has been reduced.

This leads, according to an economist named Wolff to whom Hochschild refers, to tougher life at home and the resulting empathy squeeze.  People are working longer hours, wives have had to go to work, the  real family income is shrinking.

Tougher times have led, in turn, to an "empathy squeeze." That is, many people responded to this crisis by withdrawing into their own communities, their own families, themselves. If a man gets fired or demoted, if he can't make his house payments, if his wife is leaving him, or if his son is failing in school, he feels like he's got enough on his hands. He can't afford to feel sorry for so many other people. He's trying to be a good father, a helpful neighbor, and friend to people he knows who themselves need more help. He localizes empathy. He narrows his circle of empathy in a way that coincides with George W. Bush's hourglass America. Pay a tax to help a homeless mother in another city? Forget it. Charity begins at home.

People still may feel some "Christian" responsibility, they want to do the right thing.  And here are for me the critical two paragraphs of the article:

And here is where Bush and his social-issues team make a stealthy empathy grab. How? They "privatize" the chauffeur's morality, and in two ways. They do it first by redefining "good" as a matter not of giving or of sharing but of judging. The chauffeur is offered the chance to feel good by disapproving of homosexuals and of economic failures while quietly setting aside the idea of helping the poor, the disabled, the mentally ill and the unemployed. Second and more importantly, Bush proposes the idea of giving through private, religious channels and thus offers moral cover for the idea of giving less. We will stop giving to the less fortunate as citizens through our government and start giving as parishioners through our churches. But, quite apart from this as a bid to expand the fold, it is a way of offering a moral free pass to the act of replacing a lake with a drop of water.

Rather than fixing the problems that make people anxious, Bush takes advantage of the very feelings of anxiety, frustration and fear that insecurity creates--and that his policies exacerbate--while deflecting hopes away from government help. He makes life quietly harder at home while pointing a finger of blame at one enemy after another abroad. He is, I think, deregulating American capitalism with one hand while regulating the resulting anxiety with the other. And to do this, he has enlisted powerful allies on the corporate and religious right.

Hochschild goes on to discuss how the Bush people use the idea of the Rapture to divide people.

Internet images of the Rapture often portray thin, well-dressed white people rising up into heaven to join awaiting others. The excluded are welcomed. The rejected are accepted. The downwardly mobile become upwardly mobile. The Rapture creates a celestial split between haves and have-nots, with no one in the middle. And in this vision, those caught in a social class squeeze are at last securely on top. The Rapture absorbs the sting of being hardworking losers in the harsh and rigged winner's culture of the radical right.

She points out that an economically just society need not have a permanent economic underclass, that we have addressed economic problems far worse in the 1930's.   He follows with two brief but pointed paragraphs:

But today's impulse to protest goes into blockading abortion clinics and writing Darwin out of school textbooks. The inner-city homeless, children in overcrowded public schools, unemployed in need of job retraining, and the 18 percent of American children who don't get enough to eat each day become part of the glimpsed world the chauffeur passes by, and his church can only do so much for them.

Like many others, I felt moved by the Christians who knelt in prayer for the family of the late Terri Schiavo, the comatose patient on life support in Florida. But it made me wonder why we don't see similar vigils drawing attention to near-comatose victims of winter living on city sidewalks. They've been taken off life support, too.

Let me skip to the final paragraph, and then offer several final remarks of my own:

In a sense, Bush is exploiting the common man twice over--once by ignoring his own plight and that of the poor and twice by covering it over with military drums and tin-man morality. We really need to turn both things around. But to do that, we need to remind the chauffeur, wherever he is, that it's within his power to stop the car--tax the millionaire, help the homeless and offer new hope to those in between. Otherwise, the deal Bush is brokering between millionaire and chauffeur will impoverish the chauffeur--in his pocketbook and in his soul.

Progressive blogs like dailykos and boomantribune have seen many discussion on why the political left is failing to connect with many whose economic interests would seem to align them with the left but who vote with the right.  We have seen queries about how to make those of faith feel that the political left is not hostile to them.  We have, unfortunately, also seen comments that are totally disrespectful of people of belief, people who perhaps COULD be reached on the basis of their sense of Christian responsibility.

I doubt that one can say there are many people who are totally good or totally bad.  There are far too many who can rationalize doing things that in their heart of hearts they probably know are not quite correct.  So long as they have not irretrievably slipped over to selfishness and even "evil" one must presume that they can still be reached.   Christianity has scriptural and liturgical sources that make this clear, whether it is the story of the Prodigal Son, the man in the sycamore tree (Zacchaeus - I use the expression of which Merton was fond), the Easter homily of John Chrysostom, etc.).  As a teacher I am something of a constructivist  -- I do not believe that I can have someone learn unless I start with where she is, and then prod her to go a bit further.  We must be willing to address people of faith not merely on the basis of their economic needs  -- which we cannot ignore  -- but also in some way connect with whatever is the BEST of their religious traditions.  

A salesman is far more effective when he approaches his customer and tries to persuade him how smart he is to make the choice the salesman is offering.  It is very hard to sell to people by telling them they are total idiots.  

I believe this article can help us understand the nature of the problem before us.  Insofar as we seek to divide  -- to say there are those who are good and those who are not  -- as we far too often see rhetorically on liberal and progressive blog entries, we fall into a framing on which we will lose -  that allows others to demonize those who oppose them.

If instead we appeal on the basis of inclusion, of showing once again how people are interconnected, we may again be able to  motivate people towards seeing a common good.  It happened for most Americans with the New Deal, with  the Civil Rights movement, with the Great Society.  We can and should acknowledge the fears people have, but then challenge them to be better than their dears.  Remember that FDR was quite clear on this point: " the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."  

I commend this article to your attention.  I hope it sparks a thoughtful discussion.

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