Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Reverse New Deal: A Culture of Insult

(WPA poster, courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.)

In the January 2012 edition of The Nation magazine, Dr. Frances Fox Piven wrote that, within America, there is a "culture of insult." She asserted that low-income people do not fight back against public policies that harm them, in part, because they have been humiliated into submission. This seems like an accurate observation. The unemployed, the homeless, the poor, and others are routinely categorized & labeled as "parasites," "lazy," and "worthless." So, if someone says, "Don't cut my food stamp benefits, I need all the help I can get," there will likely be an array of ice-cold responses, along the lines of "Get a job, you taker!!" (even though the person may already have a job, as many food stamp recipients do).

Dr. Piven also wrote: "The politics of the past forty years has deeply aggravated the insult of poverty."

This also seems very accurate, as (mainly) right-wing politicians & pundits have scolded the less-fortunate for decades now. Whether it's Mitt Romney's feeling that 47% of Americans do not want to practice personal responsibility, or Herman Cain's declaration that the unemployed should blame themselves, or Ben Stein's opinion that "The people who have been laid off and cannot find work are generally people with poor work habits and poor personalities," there is a strong effort to cast the less-fortunate & unlucky as undeserving & worthless.

(WPA poster, courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.)

The culture of insult is so strong in America that it can categorize whole sections of our country as sub-human or, perhaps, not human at all. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-Ca) apparently exchanged messages with a fellow Twitter user, where the two fretted over social programs for "white trash." 

"White trash" and "trailer park trash" are, of course, insults directed at low-income whites, intended to marginalize them and cast them as less-than-human (trash, after all, is not human). Throughout history, different groups of people have been cast as subhuman and persecuted. The same is happening today, to groups like the unemployed, food stamp recipients, and low-wage workers. The goal, it appears, is to cast these Americans as not-quite-human, thereby justifying the reduction, or complete elimination of programs designed to help them.  

President Franklin Roosevelt declared: "We are going to make a country in which no one is left out" (The Roosevelt I Knew, Frances Perkins, 1946). And, indeed, the New Deal was designed to lift people up, not to humiliate them into submission.

Americans need to decide whether they want a new New Deal, i.e., "a country in which no one is left out," or a Reverse New Deal, i.e., a culture of insult and humiliation. Considering the right-wing rhetoric & insults coming out of our national politics and punditry (and the fact that these people are constantly re-elected and listened to), and considering the fact that workers are often called "communists" if they want a minimum-wage increase or "takers" if they're on a food assistance program, I fear that we've chosen the path of insult & humiliation--a Reverse New Deal. And that's a shame because...

....our children are watching us, listening to us, and learning from us.

Is it any wonder that youth bullying is a problem when many of our national leaders and opinion-makers are bullying their fellow citizens, calling them "parasites" and "trash"? 

(A bas relief, "Promote the General Welfare," created under a New Deal art program and showing Americans working together.)

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