Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Reverse New Deal: Casting people-in-need as "animals"

(As part of a WPA project to feed low-income schoolchildren in Washington, D.C., these men are delivering fruit. Photo taken in 1938 and provided courtesy of the National Archives and the New Deal Network.)  

President Franklin Roosevelt said, "We are trying to construct a more inclusive society. We are going to make a country in which no one is left out" (from BrainyQuote).

The rhetoric from the political right today could not be more different from President Roosevelt's wish. Indeed, many on the political right have made a sport out of likening low-income people to animals, insects, and viruses.

According to the Huffington Post, Republican candidate for Senate Annette Bosworth shared a graphic on her Facebook page on Monday, April 28, that read: "The food stamp program is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They proudly report that they distribute free meals and food stamps to over 46 million people on an annual basis. Meanwhile, the National Park Service, run by the U.S. Department of the Interior, asks us ‘please do not feed the animals.’ Their stated reason for this policy being that … the animals will grow dependent on the handouts, and then they will never learn to take care of themselves. This concludes today’s lesson. Any questions?”

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

In 2010, the Republican Lieutenant Governor of South Carolina had this to say about free or reduced-cost lunches for low-income schoolchildren: "My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed. You're facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don't think too much further than that. And so what you've got to do is you've got to curtail that type of behavior. They don't know any better."

And anyone who follows politics, or reads comments to Internet news stories, knows that many of those on the political right routinely use words such as "parasites" and "leeches" to describe low-income individuals who receive government assistance.

Of course, not all Republicans have such uncaring thoughts about the less-fortunate. For example, Ohio Republican Governor John Kasich scolded his own party by saying, "I’m concerned about the fact there seems to be a war on the poor. That if you’re poor, somehow you’re shiftless and lazy. You know what? The very people who complain ought to ask their grandparents if they worked at the W.P.A." 

(A WPA lunched served in Minnesota. Do you think these low-income children are "parasites" for needing food assistance? I don't. I've never held views like that, and I never will. Photo taken in 1938, and provided courtesy of the National Archives and the New Deal Network.)

Throughout history, describing groups as subhuman has been a favorite tool to keep people down. Irish immigrants to America were often depicted as animal-like (see, e.g., here). During the Holocaust, Jews were frequently likened to vermin. Heinrich Himmler, leader of the SS, said, "Antisemitism is exactly the same as delousing. Getting rid of lice is not a question of ideology. It is a matter of cleanliness." And, of course, we know that the enslavement, segregation, or relocation of various groups has almost always been justified by the group's supposed "subhuman" characteristics.

We've also seen this insult-strategy used to attack President Obama. For example, Ted Nugent, the right-wing rocker and gun-enthusiast said Obama is "a communist-raised, communist-educated, communist-nurtured, subhuman mongrel." And former federal judge Richard Cebull (Republican-appointed) circulated an email joke about Obama being the result of a sexual encounter between his mother and a dog.

We have to ask ourselves: Do we want an inclusive nation, as President Roosevelt was trying to direct us towards? Or, do we want a country where, for example, the lower one's income the more likely he/she will be cast as an "animal"? And if we go down the latter road--if we embrace that sort of ruthlessness--where will it eventually take us? Towards some type of Final Solution?

(The WPA play "It Can't Happen Here" was about a Nazi-like government occurring in the United States. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.)

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