Universal Translator

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Santorum: Fishing in the Crab Pot

There is a disturbing tendency among a lot of people to equate suffering with virtue, to equate ignorance with “common sense,” and to equate sacrifice with value.  It appears that Rick Santorum is treading these well-worn boards on the campaign trail.

It should be noted that Santorum earns hundreds of thousands of dollars a year as a lobbyist, a corporate consultant, and one of Fox News' gunsels-for-hire (go ahead . . . click on the link to find out what the word “gunsel” really means).  It should also be noted that his tax plan, were he to be elected president, would actually add about $6.5 trillion to the national debt, mostly by cutting taxes for corporations and the richest 1%.

Yet despite the fact Santorum is an unapologetic mouthpiece for the plutocracy, in two recent campaign speeches he can be seen attempting to garner working-class votes by telling voters they are the backbone of America and the salt of the earth -- even as he works to screw those people over.  Unfortunately, a great number of these Americans pay almost no attention to politics and therefore have no idea what Santorum's policies really portend, so when they hear someone like L'il Ricky give a speech lauding their willingness to work hard for little pay they naturally think:  Hey, he appreciates me.

No, no he doesn't.  He appreciates the fact that some of these people will vote for him even though he does intend to make them work harder for much less compensation, and he appreciates that some of the people that vote for him can be persuaded afterward that because they will then be suffering even more they will have somehow proved themselves to be "better" than people (like Santorum) who don't have to suffer at all.  Simply stated, Santorum is trading on the propensity people have to turn themselves needlessly into martyrs.
  

Some people, I swear, you have to physically take the hammer and the nails away from them because otherwise they'll be climbing up on that cross the first moment your back is turned just so they can prove their superiority by suffering more than you.  It is arrogance disguised as humility, it is the elitism of the self-consciously put-upon, and it is the stock in trade of a good deal of conservative rhetoric about how absolutely fantastic are the average Americans pointlessly being broken on the wheel of Conservative economic dogma:

            Ms. Mornin:    Okay, I’m a divorced, single [57 year-old] mother with three grown, adult children.  I have one child, Robbie, who is mentally challenged, and I have two daughters.

            Pres. Bush:      Fantastic.  First of all, you’ve got the hardest job in America, being a single mom . . . .

            Ms. Mornin:    I work three jobs and I feel like I contribute.

            Pres. Bush:      You work three jobs?

            Ms. Mornin:    Three jobs, yes.

            Pres. Bush:      Uniquely American, isn’t it?  I mean, that is fantastic that you’re doing that.  (Applause.)  Get any sleep?  (Laughter.)

            Ms. Mornin:    Not much.  Not much.

In L'il Ricky's case, the first moment his "martyr ploy" came to my attention was when he gave his celebratory speech after tying Mitt Romney for first place in the Iowa caucuses.  A good part of that speech was an encomium of his grandfather, who upon coming to America promptly sold himself into debt slavery in the Pennsylvania coal mines.

Rick Perlstein at Crooks and Liars did a masterful take down of this portion of Santorum's speech, and I highly recommend clicking on the link to check it out in its entirety.  But the essential story is as follows:  Santorum's grandfather went to work for a coal mining company that would not pay him in actual money, but instead paid him in company "scrip," which could only be redeemed at the local company store -- stores that were notorious for rejiggering the books so that miners ended up perpetually in debt.  Without money, miners could not move to seek better employment; worse, because almost all were kept in debt bondage to the company they worked for, if they were to leave they could be arrested for attempting to flee a debt.  

This system -- a system that chewed workers up, spat them out, and usually prevented them from seeking any kind of life outside of perpetual slavery to the mining company itself -- was where the oft-covered and immortal song Sixteen Tons came from:


And it is this system that Santorum praised as inherently superior to "government interference in the free market" -- even to the government interference that was responsible for ending the kind of debt slavery his grandfather suffered under.

(One of the most annoying things about listening to professional Conservatives describe American history is that they always point with pride to the suffering our grandparents and great-grandparents endured during the Depression and World War II, and they always leave implicit the argument that in America if you are just willing to work hard and suffer enough then everything'll eventually turn out okay -- just as it did in generations past.  But they always ignore that the reason things ended up turning out okay in generations past is that those generations embraced liberal economic policies like FDR's New Deal and Social Security and Medicare, and it was our unwillingness to just continue suffering that actually brought an end to what was for many a hideous way of life.)

* * *

The second time I noted L'il Ricky nakedly appealing to class distinctions and urging working class voters to identify with him and against President Obama was when ThinkProgress pointed out that only a few days Santorum had accused Obama of "elitist snobbery" for declaring that everybody in America should have the opportunity to go to college.  What really shocked me was to hear the applause this attack line elicited:


The only way this is an applause line is if one assumes that the people listening to Santorum spew this bilge think that Obama - by mere dint of suggesting that people should be able to go to college if they want -- is somehow sneering at or looking down on people who didn't go to college, or - more accurately -- who didn't have the opportunity to go to college.

I can only imagine the "thinking" that goes on in someone's head when they hear Obama's aspirational goal for the country and immediately see themselves as victimized by it:  Well, Mr. SmartyPants, I didn't go to college.  I guess you think that makes me dumb, huh?  Well, I'll show you!  Ima gonna vote for Rick Santorum!

I'm sorry, but . . . huh?  The President of the United States said it would be a good thing if everybody who graduated High School had the opportunity to go to college.  Rick Santorum used this -- the most bland, "education is good" general policy statement imaginable -- to stir up class-based resentment amongst (I am assuming) the working class who did not have the inclination and/or opportunity to get an education beyond High School.  And it might be working.

* * * 

In Unseen Academicals, Terry Pratchett introduced the sociological idea of "the Crab Pot."  See, when you dump a bunch of crabs into a pot filled with boiling water, all the individual crabs scramble to claw their way out of the pot.  But any crab that gets close to clawing itself out of the pot is immediately pulled back down by its fellow crabs, so ultimately they all end up boiling together.

For humans, the "Crab Pot" is the natural tendency we all have to insist on our individual dignity and pride. Unfortunately, that means we have a tendency to take pride in almost anything.  If we are poor, then there is a large number of us who will insist on taking pride in our poverty and will resent people who suggest we can do better.  If we are uneducated, we will take pride in our ignorance and deride people who suggest that maybe our children could get a better education.

The Crab Pot people are all too willing to pull down anyone who tries to make their lives or the lives of their children even just a little better.  But they will more than happily vote for the candidate - like Santorum - who tells them that accomplishing little and suffering greatly is all it takes to make them great too.  And - really - what could be easier?  The Crab Pot people were planning on doing that anyway.

Sure, if they elect Santorum their lives will suck just a little bit more, but at least L'il Ricky (and all his intellectual comrades) will tell them they are great just for being who they are, and for the Crab Pot people being told you're great -- when you've got nothing else -- is all it really takes.

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