Sunday, February 22, 2009

Irrational Envy, A Pillar of Conservatism by Anthony McCarthy

The Republican reaction to President Obama’s plans to rescue mortgagees from the ocean of debt came in huge wet gouts this week. The idea is to plant the trope that those helped would be models of the legendary undeserving poor and that bailing them out would constitute a huge injustice to the good, worthy mortgagees who didn’t find themselves out of work with an inflated mortgage crushing them. Just why someone would be advantaged by the house next to theirs being auctioned off in an emergency sale at a fraction of the original price or left vacant to fall into ruin or vandalism isn’t generally considered by the Republican water boys in the media. There’s not much to support that side of the argument. Of course it would cost the good, virtuous home owner a lot more in their houses value to have it next to a decaying shell than the relatively small amount Barack Obama’s plan will cost them. And, if they happen to have a major illness or lose their job, they’ll be the next in line for just that same program. The argument isn’t a difficult one to understand, though don’t hold your breath before you hear a member of the Washington Press Corps making it.

What’s most interesting to me is what this shows about how the conservative mind works. Envy is a pretty low emotion, generally considered a serious sin in traditional morality. It can’t be felt without some degree of coveting another’s goods or position. And in the absence of the sin of covetousness, it merely wishes bad things to happen to others, just for the sake of meanness. Envy is inherently bad spirited. It is often a destructive emotion that hides during development. Watchfully looking jealously as something good happens to someone else, exaggerating or inventing reasons that person isn’t deserving of that good. Steadily inventing some illegitimate, secret means that their neighbor gamed the system or stole something outright. It doesn’t have to be grounded in evidence or reality.

In my town there is a family of the clearly undeserving poor. While I’ve known a few of the family to be rather nice, most of them are not. The nice ones are saddled with the reputation of their relatives, most of them have been unable to escape damage due to that disability. This family, several generations of them, live in a hovel that the police get called to once in a while. A number of those who live there are alcoholics and drug users. I won’t go on with the details. You know families like that yourself. A number of years ago, their neighbors saw that there were some improvements made to their place, a roof, siding, as I recall even some addition put on. It was immediately spread around town that they’d gotten some kind of general assistance to do it, that ‘the taxpayers’ were subsidizing their modestly improved lifestyle. It was even brought up in a Selectmen’s meeting. One of the Selectmen who is a friend of mine took it on himself to do what no one had, he asked the family how they’d financed the project. They had paid for it with their own money. The town clerk had told the people at the meeting that no money had been given to the family to make the improvements, but that there was no program in place they could have taken advantage of. Yet, to this day, the urban legend of how this family of famously undeserving poor people had gotten “taxpayer money” to fix up their wretched house.

But you don’t have to be improvident to suffer the same prejudice. With the constant practice it gets, that kind of envy is a too common part of community life.

The conservative mind set is intrinsically infested with envy and resentment. Disdain for those in need, even those who are in need through no discernible fault of their own, is endemic to conservatism. That is why even before President Obama had released the broad outlines of his plans to stem massive homelessness, the Republicans and their media started nourishing the evil seed of envy in the minds of those susceptible to this form of irrationality. It’s worked for them, Ronald Reagan won office largely on his lies about “welfare queens” and “strapping bucks” on some form of welfare. When someone is talking about the moral principles of conservatism, no one should forget the place that appealing to an emotion as base as envy plays in those.

What we are seeing in the Republican and the media attempts to scuttle mortgage relief is a good opportunity for us to see how, far from being a movement with real morals or even the reason that “enlightened” self-interest brings, modern conservatism is a pretty awful ideology.