‘On the side of the underdog, always and everywhere’

Here, yet again, is a bit from one of my favorite essays, George Orwell’s appreciation of Charles Dickens:

Roughly speaking, his morality is the Christian morality, but in spite of his Anglican upbringing he was essentially a Bible-Christian, as he took care to make plain when writing his will. In any case he cannot properly be described as a religious man. He “believed,” undoubtedly, but religion in the devotional sense does not seem to have entered much into his thoughts. Where he is Christian is in his quasi-instinctive siding with the oppressed against the oppressors. As a matter of course he is on the side of the underdog, always and everywhere. To carry this to its logical conclusion one has got to change sides when the underdog becomes an upperdog, and in fact Dickens does tend to do so. He loathes the Catholic Church, for instance, but as soon as the Catholics are persecuted (Barnaby Rudge) he is on their side. He loathes the aristocratic class even more, but as soon as they are really overthrown (the revolutionary chapters in A Tale of Two Cities) his sympathies swing round. Whenever he departs from this emotional attitude he goes astray. A well-known example is at the ending of David Copperfield, in which everyone who reads it feels that something has gone wrong. What is wrong is that the closing chapters are pervaded, faintly but not noticeably, by the cult of success. It is the gospel according to Smiles, instead of the gospel according to Dickens.

I was reminded of that yesterday when reading Andrew Brown’s column in The Guardian on the Anglican bishops and their challenge to government cuts affecting the poor. Referring to recent forceful statements by the new archbishop of Canterbury and by 43 bishops from the Church of England condemning their government’s kick-the-poor “austerity” measures, Brown writes:

The Anglican bishops’ attack on government cuts this weekend is entirely serious. It offers a programme around which almost the entire church can unite, which appears to transcend party politics and even the familiar divisions of church politics.

The Church of England is certainly the only organisation represented in the House of Lords that has wide and deep experience of the poorest areas of the country. There may have been a time when the Labour party was like that, but how many Labour MPs have worked and lived in inner-city areas? More, at a guess, than Labour peers have. But bishops with experience as parish priests will almost all have worked among the poor and homeless and many will have lived in parts of the city where there are no other middle-class professionals.

This is also true of the two archbishops. The archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby comes from a background of privilege at the heart of the establishment, while John Sentamu, the archbishop of York was born in rural Uganda and came to England as a refugee. But Welby, as a romantic young man, dreamed of working in the inner cities, and in his work at Coventry, Liverpool and Durham came into contact with the parts of England that Etonians like to pretend do not exist, while Sentamu worked for 17 years as a priest in a scruffy part of south London.

Welby’s commitment to ending the evils of loan sharking is one of his most consistent policy lines …

Brown is not a Christian, but he’s a close and keen observer of the church. He is, like Orwell was before him, a sharp-eyed, sometimes-admiring critic of us Christians whose outsiders’ perspective reads like that of an honest friend.

I suppose that supporters of Britain’s conservative austerity regime might want to dismiss Brown’s praise of the bishops’ advocacy for the poor as mere partisan politics. But there’s far more than that going on here. This is not a question of liberal vs. conservative politics, but of the same conviction that Orwell expressed, that we Christians — whether Anglican, Catholic or “Bible-Christian” — are at our best when we adhere to a “quasi-instinctive siding with the oppressed against the oppressors … on the side of the underdog, always and everywhere.”

But for both Brown and Orwell this praise comes with a warning: “Whenever he departs from this … he goes astray.”

Brown’s columns are often harshly critical of church leaders — not along partisan political lines, but for straying from that which is most admirable about them, for betraying their impulse to be “on the side of the underdog, always and everywhere.” Consider the church’s exclusion of LGBT people, or its refusal to accept women as fully equal — instances where “everyone who reads it feels that something has gone wrong.”

There are other echoes of Orwell’s essay in Brown’s discussion. Here again is Orwell on Dickens:

His radicalism is of the vaguest kind, and yet one always knows that it is there. That is the difference between being a moralist and a politician. He has no constructive suggestions, not even a clear grasp of the nature of the society he is attacking, only an emotional perception that something is wrong, all he can finally say is, “Behave decently,” which, as I suggested earlier, is not necessarily so shallow as it sounds. Most revolutionaries are potential Tories, because they imagine that everything can be put right by altering the shape of society; once that change is effected, as it sometimes is, they see no need for any other. Dickens has not this kind of mental coarseness. The vagueness of his discontent is the mark of its permanence. What he is out against is not this or that institution, but, as Chesterton put it, “an expression on the human face.”

And here again is Brown on Welby:

This looks like a return to the ’80s, when the Church of England was a bastion of resistance to Thatcherism. Certainly, the counter-briefing from the government is redolent of that. The rightwing press today has all the patronising cliches traditional to these occasions: Welby, says the Telegraph’s Tim Stanley, is “a nice man doing what he thinks is his duty as a Christian.” Why we should prefer the policies of nasty men is not explained.

This suggests that the bishops have actually caused the government some pain, which should cheer them up. But it also suggests the difficulties ahead. There are some subjects, like the treatment of asylum seekers and prisoners, where the Church of England is almost entirely out of step with the rest of society, because of its insistence that these people are human beings just like us. Certainly no one would run for election on the church’s policies.

This is very much the same point Micah Bournes is making in the video we looked at last week. The struggle for justice is always worth it, Bournes said, because once you identify with those experiencing injustice, “you never stop fighting for your own.”

Once “your own” comes to include those Orwell calls “the underdog,” then their problems become your problems, and it becomes, as Bournes said, “ridiculous” and “offensive” to suggest that you could ever consider anything other than fighting on behalf of poor children being punished by austerity or sequestration, or on behalf of asylum seekers and prisoners.

And when we stray from that everyone can see that something has gone wrong.

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  • Foreigner

    The Church of England can say what it likes, but unless the Archbishop of Canterbury was to insult a member of the Royal Family nobody except the faithful is going to pay very much attention. (And not even all of them … still plenty of well-heeled Tories in the pews of Tunbridge Wells).  Yes, I recall similar sentiments being uttered by Church leaders in the Thatcher years, and it didn’t do anyone a blind bit of good.

    Still, not long until 2015, and then we can all look forward to the new dawn of Ed Millipede and his new new Labour. Deep joy.

    (Do I need a sarcasm tag there?)

  • christopher_y

    Yes, I recall similar sentiments being uttered by Church leaders in the Thatcher years, and it didn’t do anyone a blind bit of good.

    No, for most of the Thatcher years the effective leader of the opposition was the former Tory Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan. I was reminded of this by some of the noises Barry Goldwater was making in his last years. Both are indicative of how ideologies that even the leaders of the right wing establishment couldn’t stomach at one time are now perfectly mainstream. You probably have to have lived through the process from its beginning to appreciate fully how frightening it is.

    But the Anglican bishops do have a little impact, because they sound off in the House of Lords and they get reported, so that people have their critiques brought into their living rooms. I would prefer that they were disestablished, but as long as they’re there they may as well try to do some good.

  • Jurgan

    I find myself wondering if the official Establishment of the CoE makes it harder for them to criticize the government.  It seems difficult to fight against government policies when the government pays your taxes.

  • histrogeek

     In the past that was somewhat the case, but they haven’t had much problem criticizing governments these days. I tend to think the biggest problem with the CoE being the Establishment (apart from the overall problem of there being an established church at all) is that too many of the hierarchy come from more or less the same class as the rest of the British ruling class, so a kind of groupthink does come up. That and the government still technically appoints bishops.

  • alfgifu

    Establishment does not mean that the church is funded by the government.* It only means that the CofE is recognised as the official religious body of the country – and that comes with some political clout (eg Bishops sitting in the House of Lords). That can be problematic in its own right – infuriatingly so – but in the instance Fred is citing here the Bishops are genuinely bringing in a voice of conscience that nobody else will provide.

    *A quick check of the CofE website (see http://www.churchofengland.org/about-us/facts-stats/funding.aspx) shows that the church is funded with a mixture of donations, Gift Aid donations (taking advantage of tax reclamation available to all charities), income from investments, legacies and other one off gifts, and income for services such as hiring out buildings etc.

  • Magic_Cracker

    To carry this to its logical conclusion one has got to change sides when the underdog becomes an upperdog, and in fact Dickens does tend to do so.

    This explains the contempt that practically oozes from the text of David Copperfield for Uriah Heep, toward whom I felt sympathetic — so sympathetic, in fact, that on the exam in 9th grade,I wrote an essay arguing that he was more of a hero than David because Heep had to make his way on his own by any means, fair or foul (admittedly, mostly foul), while David always seemed to have someone looking out for him when it counted so that he never had to give into the temptation to be unscrupulous or was in short order rewarded by authorial fiat for resisting such temptations.

  • misanthropy_jones

    i always side with underdog.
    particularyl against simon bar sinister, he’s creepy…

  • Lori

    To carry this to its logical conclusion one has got to change sides when
    the underdog becomes an upperdog, and in fact Dickens does tend to do
    so.

    I have this same tendency to want to root for the underdog all the time, even when it means switching sides. I think this is mostly a good thing, but one has to be careful how one defines “underdog”. A person or idea is not automatically good because it’s unpopular or faces long odds. (For example, Rudy was a apparently more than a bit of an asshat.) Conversely, being popular doesn’t make a person or idea wrong or untrue.

    I think in general it’s better to frame the issue in terms of not siding with the oppressor against the oppressed. It’s bad to oppress someone, even if that person is wrong. This of course comes with the caveat that should be obvious, but sadly is not—being disagreed with is not the same as being oppressed.

  • Le Sigh…

    Always a pleasure to see this topic picked up.  Orwell’s analysis here is one of the more fascinating reads, and I am glad to have this as a link to send people to supplement my paltry explanations of this concept when it comes up in conversation.  

    Maybe next week politics and the English language? Or Orwell’s observations on his time in the French “hospital”?

  • Hilary

    I disagree with the point Fred is making.  I don’t think a knee-jerk “underdog good, top dog bad” is a good position, either moral, political, or theological.  I think that the longer an entrenched problem drags on, the more both sides end up with blood on their hands.  To always side with the underdog is to blind yourself that they can also make really bad choices, and that the more powerful party can not be as powerful as it seems.  I guess this position is part of watching a Palestinian and Israeli talk about reconciliation not revenge; the point both of them made is that you can’t be just pro one side or the other, but pro-both at the same time.

    I just don’t like how simple this slogan is, because it can overlook real complexity in difficult issues.  Or maybe I just automatically read ‘siding with the underdog’ as ‘never holding any accountability for them.’ 

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    As Lori said, it helps to define “underdog.” Someone who is genuinely oppressed is rarely much at fault. Otherwise they would be prosecuted, not persecuted.

  • Jeff

    What I think many liberals tend to forget is that it’s possible to be on the side of the “underdog” without necessarily agreeing that the liberal solution to their plight is the right one. 

  • EllieMurasaki

    What I think many liberals tend to forget is that it’s possible to be on the side of the “underdog” without necessarily agreeing that the liberal solution to their plight is the right one.

    There’s only one liberal solution to any problem? Though if your point was that sometimes the conservative solution(s) is better than the liberal solution(s), examples with evidence.

  • Jeff

    Ellie, the point was pretty simple:  rejecting /the liberal solution/ to a problem is not the same thing as not wanting to help “the underdog” who faces that problem.  

    Take, as a simple and nebulous example, “government-sponsored welfare”.  There is a case to be made that government welfare spending is actually detrimental to the overall well-being of welfare recipients.  Whether that’s correct or not, it’s at least a point that could be debated, but my point is that the debate isn’t even allowed to take place:  liberals will shout down anyone making such an argument, labeling them a racist, a bigot, insensitive, uncaring, oppressor, friend of the rich, and whatever else.

     

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    That’s because the gist of such arguments tend to be “I think welfare is bad.”

    Then someone asks “What do you propose we do instead for people not in a position to support themselves?”

    And the conservative just shrugs because he doesn’t consider it his problem.

    If someone proposed a better alternative–one which actually seemed like it had a reasonable shot at helping, even in the long run–the odds are not so remote that it could garner support from liberals. We want to fix the problems. The status quo is not ideal.

    The problem is that they rarely do and the better solutions are always variations of the Ryan Budget, usually with the words “but libtards are too stupid to see how this works” attached. Their solution to the problem “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link” is to cut off all the weak links and then wonder what all the big fuss is about when no one seems to think letting tens of millions of people starve to death is a great idea.

    So yeah, the dialogue’s not so great on that subject.

  • Lori

     

    Whether that’s correct or not, it’s at least a point that could be
    debated, but my point is that the debate isn’t even allowed to take
    place:  liberals will shout down anyone making such an argument,
    labeling them a racist, a bigot, insensitive, uncaring,
    oppressor, friend of the rich, and whatever else.  

    Oh sure, this is clearly the case. Which totally explains why, as an example, Paul Ryan can’t get anyone to listen to him talk about his budget proposal.

    You know what’s annoying? The way Conservatives try to pretend that they’re just not allowed to talk about their ideas. I have no idea how one goes about getting to the alternate universe where Fox news does not exist and the Tea Party isn’t controlling our national budget priorities. If anyone else knows I’d be forever grateful if they’d share that information because I’d love to move there. 
     

  • Jeff

    Lori, the Ryan budget is a fine example.  Will the White House, or liberal bloggers, debate the merits of the budget proposal, or simply label it as further evidence that Republicans want kids to starve to death?

    I’m sorry that you’re annoyed, but your annoyance doesn’t do very much good for “the underdog” either.  My point in participating in this discussion is simply to suggest that, the liberal solution isn’t always the only pro-underdog solution, and that to the extent liberals continue to insist that it is, they (a) are putting election results over the actual well-being of the underdog, and (b) are probably doing more harm to the underdog than good, because the status quo is net negative and different solutions, however contrary to liberal dogma, are worthy of consideration.

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    You do realize they get consideration. People who make it their business to analyze economic trends around the world have panned the Ryan Budget and austerity practices in general. They tell us it won’t work, that it’ll actually make things much, much worse by depressing the economy further by relieving people of buying power.

    If we take their word that it won’t work, and the implication seems to be that killing off the excess population is what’s necessary to have an adequate number of jobs for everyone and for those jobs to pay proper amounts — then no, that implication is rejected. But it ususally doesn’t even get that far. The debate tends to stop at “This is better because fuck you, libtards.”

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

     The thing about Austerity Measures is that they’re not even meant to be economically sound. They’re a moral solution. They assume the actual problem of the economic crisis is “poor people got too uppity”, and therefore the “solution” is an act of extreme contrition out of the poor. Only then will great Mammon return our beloved money to us.

    Fixing the economy isn’t the point of austerity. Hurting the poor is.

  • arcseconds

    I think it’s more along the lines of ‘well, whatever happens, we can’t let the rich suffer, and while we’re at it, let’s start dismantling that expensive state apparatus that you keep making us pay for and take a few steps towards indentured servitude’. 

    That’s not to say there isn’t also a bit of what you suggest happening too, but again I’m inclined to see that as scapegoating, which helps to direct attention away from the rich and give us someone to froth about / feel righteous about instead.

    The other thing is, it makes some kind of intuitive sense in terms of a household, or a small business, or the protestant work ethic.  If you’re in debt, you scrimp and save and ‘make sacrifices’.

  • Lori

     

    The other thing is, it makes some kind of intuitive sense in terms of a
    household, or a small business, or the protestant work ethic.  If you’re
    in debt, you scrimp and save and ‘make sacrifices’.  

    Yes, this particular intuition is high on the list of things that are killing us. The idea that a government budget should be run like a household or small business budget needs to die an ignominious death ASAP.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

     Hey, I run my household budget like a government. Just the other day, I told my son, “Look, nobody’s questioning your value as a person, but in this economy, can we really afford to have 33% of this family living on handouts from Big Dad without contributing anything?  I’m sorry, son, but your mother is cutting the milk subsidy.”

  • arcseconds

     I don’t even think it’s the correct way to run a household budget or a small business, which is why I threw the ‘protestant work ethic’ in there, because I think it’s got more to do with cultural expectations of work and debt than any rational economic decision making.

    If your business is struggling, sometimes it really is the right thing to do to take on more debt so you can increase your capital expenditure to buy the best gear, or do a huge marketing push.   Feeling like you must always remain in the black no matter what is a recipe for business failure under those conditions – you might never dip down into the red, but eventually you’ve got nothing left at all.  You’re now a debt-free pauper with no business — great!

    That’s not very analogous to what happens when you’re running a whole economy rather than a very small part of it, but it does indicate that even a small economic unit can benefit from borrowing and spending rather than belt-tightening and scrimping.

  • Lori

     Good point. I seriously doubt that most of the deficit hawks run their family budget on the principle of zero debt of any kind, ever. I know the ones in congress don’t. I saw something just the other day pointing out how many (supposed) anti-debt Congresscritters have huge personal debt, including multiple mortgages totaling in the millions and business loans and the like.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

     By the way, did I read the closed captioning right? “They’ve all read Ayn Rand now, and they have realized that the problem facing the republican party is that they aren’t being extreme enough”?

  • smrnda

     It’s largely shut down because it doesn’t match the evidence, particularly when decent jobs are becoming scarcer and when during the last 3 decades all gains in income have gone to the Investor Class and the actual value of wages has decreased, and when a great number of people receiving welfare  actually still work, and where close to a quarter of the working population is still poor. The debate already took place.

  • EllieMurasaki

    There is a case to be made that government welfare spending is actually detrimental to the overall well-being of welfare recipients. […] liberals will shout down anyone making such an argument, labeling them a racist, a bigot, insensitive, uncaring, oppressor, friend of the rich, and whatever else.

    Examples with evidence. For a contrary example, I present all the people who would starve without food stamps.

    You want to argue that food stamps are being done wrong? Let’s have that discussion. You want to argue that food stamps should be unnecessary? Let’s skip to the bit where I agree with you.

    But here in the real world, food stamps are necessary to keep people from going hungry, and are in many cases insufficient to keep people from going hungry. Any negative effect on food stamp recipients of being food stamp recipients (other than things such as mandating brightly colored, distinct-from-bank-debit-cards food-stamp-specific debit cards, things that are meant only to shame food stamp recipients for being food stamp recipients–I assume you oppose such ridiculousness) can be dealt with AFTER we deal with the root cause of their needing food stamps.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

     

    What I think many liberals tend to forget is that it’s possible to be on
    the side of the “underdog” without necessarily agreeing that the
    liberal solution to their plight is the right one.  

    Sure. More generally, many people who identify with a group tend to consider that group’s ideas more obviously true than people who don’t identify with that group do. (Or do you mean to suggest that only people who identify as liberals do this, or that they do it more than other people? I think that’s false on both counts, but I’m not sure you’re claiming it.)

    That said, all we can ever do is move forward with the solution that seems best to us at the time, while continuing to evaluate evidence as it becomes available and seek out new evidence as it becomes practical to do so.

  • Jeff

    No, I think both sides are guilty of this to some extent.  One example in the other direction being “you’re not a true patriot if you don’t support our military intervention in [insert country here].”

    The problem is that your picture of how things work (evaluate evidence and go with the best solution) isn’t what actually happens in practice.  It’s apparently easier to win elections by saying “the other party hates you and wants to do you harm, so vote for me, because I actually care about you” than it is to say “here’s why my party’s plan is better on its merits.”  Or at least, there are enough campaign advisors who believe this, and enough politicians who listen to those advisors, that that’s the level of public discourse that we get.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    “Both sides” is a pretty unhelpful formulation IME; it often turns out that there’s more than two competing beliefs in the world about a topic. My experience is that people who talk about “both sides” have often picked a preferred or an anti-preferred position and are evaluating everyone else in terms of whether they agree or disagree with that position.

    I agree that many people frequently fail to meaningfully evaluate evidence, and that the world would be a better place if we all did so more reliably.

    I agree that politics is often primarily about rallying tribal fears and alliances to obtain and maintain short-term power, and that the world would be a better place if politics were more often about optimizing policy to achieve common long-term goals.

    I think these sorts of meta-issues are frequently a distraction from actually addressing real concrete issues, and that this is frequently intentional.

  • Jeff

    Dave, I don’t disagree with you at all; but I do think the author of this blog and its many commenters need to hear your observation much more than I do!

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    the author of this blog and its many commenters need to hear your observation much more than I do!

    My observations of your discussions thus far don’t provide much evidence that you are less inclined to partisan distortion than the people you criticize for it. 

  • alfgifu

    The idea of always siding with the underdog is part of the English sense of national identity (though I don’t think many English people would sit down and consider what it means or why it is important). I know that these kinds of national self-stereotype are as fallible as any other generalisation, but reading this post I couldn’t help thinking of the observations made by the anthropologist Kate Fox at Wimbledon. Sorry for the long quote, but this is worth reading in full:

    I am by no means the first to notice this trait: the English tendency to support the underdog is one of those national stereotypes that I was determined to ‘get inside’ during my field research. I saw plenty of examples, but the one that sticks in my mind, the one that really helped me to understand the depth and complexities of the underdog rule, was the men’s final at Wimbledon in 2002. Tennis buffs apparently found this match rather dull, for a Wimbledon final, but I was there to watch the spectators, not the players, and I found it fascinating. The match was between the world-famous, top-seed Australian player Lleyton Hewitt, and a virtually unknown Argentine called David Nalbandian, who had never even played at Wimbledon before. The result was a predictably easy victory for the Australian champion, who beat Nalbandian 6–1, 6–3, 6–2. At the start of the match, all the English spectators were cheering for Nalbandian, clapping and whooping and shouting ‘Come on, David!’ every time he scored a point or even made a good shot (or whatever it’s called in tennis), while Hewitt only got a few token, polite claps. When I asked the English spectators around me why they were supporting the Argentine – particularly given that there was no great love between England and Argentina; indeed, we were at war not so long ago – they explained that nationality was irrelevant, that Nalbandian was the underdog, highly unlikely to win, and therefore obviously deserved their support. They seemed surprised that I should have to ask such a question, and several people even spelt out the rule for me – ‘You always support the underdog.’; ‘You have to support the underdog.’ Their tone suggested that I really should already know this, that it was a fundamental law of nature. Fine, I thought, good, another ‘rule of Englishness’ in the bag. Feeling rather smug, I watched complacently for a bit, and was just beginning to get bored, and thinking about maybe sloping off in search of an ice-cream, when something strange happened. Hewitt did something particularly good (don’t ask me what, I don’t understand tennis) and the people around me started whooping and cheering and clapping him. ‘Eh?’ I said, ‘Hang on. I thought you were supporting Nalbandian, the underdog? Why are you now cheering for Hewitt?’ The explanations offered by the English spectators were a bit less clear-cut, but the gist was that Hewitt was, after all, playing exceptionally well, and that everyone had been cheering for Nalbandian, because he was the underdog, which meant that poor Hewitt, despite playing brilliantly, was getting little or no support and encouragement from the crowd, which seemed rather unfair, so they felt sorry for him, out there all alone with everyone cheering his opponent, so they were cheering for him to redress the balance a bit. In other words, Hewitt, the overdog (is that a word? never mind – you know what I mean), had somehow become the underdog, the one who deserved their support. For a while, that is. I was now alert, shaken out of my complacency, and paying close attention to the behaviour of the spectators, so when the cheering for Hewitt dwindled, and the spectators began giving all their support to Nalbandian again, I was ready with my questions: ‘Now what? Why aren’t you cheering for Hewitt any more? Is he not playing so well?’ No, apparently he was playing even better. And that was the point. Hewitt was now clearly heading for an easy win. Nalbandian was struggling, was going to be ‘slaughtered’, had absolutely no chance – so obviously it was only fair to give him all the noisy vocal encouragement and praise, and only clap politely for the all-conquering overdog Hewitt. So, in the logic of English fair play, you must always support the underdog, but too much support for the underdog can be unfair on the overdog, who then becomes a sort of honorary underdog, whom you must support until balance is restored, or until the real underdog is clearly going to lose, at which point you must support the real underdog again. Simple, really. Once you know the rules. Or at least at Wimbledon it was relatively simple, as there could be no doubt as to who was the real underdog. When this is not immediately obvious, there can be difficulties, as the English dither over who is most deserving of their cheers; and further problems can arise when an English player (or team) happens to be the overdog, as fairness demands that we give at least some support to the underdog opposition.

    Kate Fox, Watching the English (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Watching-English-Hidden-Rules-Behaviour/dp/0340818867).

  • Ethics Gradient

    Fred (and everyone else, for that matter),
    You might find this recent report, from various C of E ‘competitors’, interesting:

    The lies we tell ourselves: ending comfortable myths about poverty.

  • Jeff

    Exactly, Sam.  The conservative solution is to “[let] tens of millions of people starve to death”.  Thank you for illustrating my point so vividly.

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    As I said, whenever this debate happens, the conservative never bothers to give his better solution. It’s just “We’ll be better off without welfare and people mooching off the system. It’ll fix everything and the only alternative is letting the entire nation go broke and be bought by China.” How this development is avoided under the proposed plan isn’t explained. What happens to the poor isn’t explained. Those parts are apparently irrelevant.

  • Jeff

    Sam, if welfare is net-harmful, then yes, doing away with it would be better than keeping the status quo.  Of course the reality is more complex than this!   The point is entirely that there’s no virtue in keeping a bad system around, and if both sides would work together to /reform/ the system, it’s possible that progress could be made.  But it’s more politically expedient for one side to style the others as stealing bread from poor kids’ mouths, so nothing happens. 

  • Lori

    The point is entirely that there’s no virtue in keeping a bad system
    around, and if both sides would work together to /reform/ the system,
    it’s possible that progress could be made.  But it’s more politically
    expedient for one side to style the others as stealing bread from poor
    kids’ mouths, so nothing happens.  

    Ah yes. We could get ‘er done if folks would cut the crap and do it, but Liberals just won’t compromise with Conservatives. Conservatives hold out the hand of friendship and Liberals just slap it away.

    Do you actually believe that that’s what’s going on? I mean really?

  • Jeff

    Lori, you can’t be serious.  Who was it that said:  “But it seems as if what’s motivating and propelling at this point some of the House Republicans is more than simply deficit reduction. They have a particular vision about what government should and should not do, so they are suspicious about government’s commitments, for example, to make sure that seniors have decent health care as they get older. They have suspicions about Social Security. They have suspicions about whether government should make sure that kids in Poverty are getting enough to eat or whether we should be spending money on medical research.”

    Do you have any guesses?

  • Lori

    No Jeff, you can’t be serious if you think that one quote from the president tells the whole story and is some incredible “gotcha” because it hurt your feelings. As if he just pulled that out of his ass, it had nothing to do with GOP behavior and no Republican has ever said anything analogous about Democrats.

  • Jeff

    Lori, it’s not just one quote, it’s part of an overall pattern, and is part and parcel of the way he campaigns and the way he thinks.  Has a sitting Republican president ever said that the opposition party wanted poor kids to starve?
     
    Sorry Lori, but yes, the president, with remarks like these, is absolutely slapping the hand away of anyone inclined to reach out to have an amicable and productive dialogue.
     
    Use your imagination for a moment.  If the President had instead said “I’m going to convene a summit on welfare reform, and we’re going to construct a list of the 10 best conservation solutions and the 10 best liberal solutions, and then construct legislation, which I commit to sign, that includes not less than 3 ideas from each list”, do you honestly think that Republicans would not enthusiastically participate, or that their ideas would be so awful that their half of the list couldn’t be completed?  Anyway, we’ll never know, because the president thinks the way that you apparently do:  opposed to the status quo = opposed to the underdog.

  • EllieMurasaki

    the president, with remarks like these, is absolutely slapping the hand away of anyone inclined to reach out to have an amicable and productive dialogue.

    I saw a cartoon recently. President on one side of the table, GOP elephant on the other. Elephant says, “You’re not reaching across the table!”

    President’s hand, which is in fact halfway across the table, is in a bear trap.

    Evocative and accurate.

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    Isn’t that what the budget is supposed to be? Except the last two budgets have featured a bunch of Republicans demanding that unless the Democrats allow DOMA to be retained (and now Obamacare to be repealed), they’ll tank the country… that doesn’t strike me as people being honest.

  • Lori

    If the President had instead said “I’m going to convene a summit on
    welfare reform, and we’re going to construct a list of the 10 best
    conservation solutions and the 10 best liberal solutions, and then
    construct legislation, which I commit to sign, that includes not less
    than 3 ideas from each list”, do you honestly think that Republicans
    would not enthusiastically participate, or that their ideas would be so
    awful that their half of the list couldn’t be completed? 

    Yes, I honestly think that the Republicans would not enthusiastically participate, at least not in good faith. Have you missed the fact that the GOP currently opposes its own ideas if the president supports them?

    Also, I haven’t noticed Conservatives putting forth plans to use Liberal ideas because reasons when they win elections. When the GOP wins elections it’s all “Elections have consequences.” When the Dems win then suddenly it’s all “Lack of bipartisanship is the worst thing eva! How rude!”

    Anyway, we’ll
    never know, because the president thinks the way that you apparently
    do:  opposed to the status quo = opposed to the underdog. 

    Again, it’s funny how when Conservatives talk about the supposed status quo that needs to be changed it’s always  about taxes and giving too much help to the poor and never about something like letting bankers break the law with impunity.

  • Lori

     

    Has a sitting Republican president ever said that the opposition party wanted poor kids to starve?   

    Probably not, since Dems generally don’t vote to cut food aid to children. Sitting Republican presidents have leveled other accusations against Dems though. You’re stacking the deck by acting as if Obama’s comment was somehow totally out of line with what others have said simply because it involves starving children.

    In general, it’s not as if Conservatives are all sweetness and light about Liberals. Tying this thread to the one about the new Pope, I give you Erick Erickson’s:

    That lefties are accusing the new pope of handing over lefties to the
    right wing junta for execution makes me adore the new pope. 

    https://twitter.com/EWErickson/status/311930145382486017

    In case you miss the significance of this, allow me to introduce you to the concept of eliminationist rhetoric. The Right has been engaging in it as a matter of course for some time now. In case it’s not obvious, this is not a sign of willingness to reach out and have an amicable and productive dialogue.

    So again, it is not legitimate to act as if Obama made that remark in a vacuum, totally unrelated to anything Conservatives have done or said. It is also not legitimate get to act as if there’s some substantial group of Conservatives who are extending the true hand of friendship and getting it slapped away. It’s not and there aren’t.

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

     I could point out that Paul Ryan was captured yesterday uttering the following phrase:

    This is something we will not give up on because we are not going to give up on destroying the healthcare system for the American people.

    It’s being attributed to a gaffe, though, much like George W. Bush’s one regarding the Iraq war:

    Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.

    I say less gaffe and more freudian slip.

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    I’m not convinced of that. I see it as a bandaid over a gaping wound — not adequate, but better than nothing. If what we have barely works for folks, then I don’t see how “nothing at all” is better for them, and while I literally have no empathy for the poor (I’m a sociopath, FFS), putting them in a sink-or-swim situation with weights tied around their ankles strikes me as a dangerous precedent.

    For me, “reform” implies improving the system to make it adequate to everyone’s needs, not absolishing it altogether and letting them hash it out in their own personal struggles.

  • Lori

    So Jeff, what is the conservative solution that does not have the effect of letting people starve? Stop complaining that no one let’s you talk and instead talk. Clearly you have internet access and the ability to post, and no Liberal is coming to take that away from you. Certainly not in the next hour or so. So, let’s hear it. What is the solution that you just aren’t allowed to talk about?

    I’ll own up front that if the solution that dare not speak its name bears any substantial resemblance to the Ryan Budget you are going to be told that people will starve and that it’s racist. Not because Liberals are big old meanies who just won’t let you talk, but because people will starve and it’s racist (among other things).

  • Jeff

    Lori, this is the comment section of a blog, and welfare is simply one example of one subject on which liberals tend to demagogue more than debate.  I’m not claiming to have the solution, and even if I did, posting it in full detail here would make not an ounce of difference in the grand scheme of things.

    At the risk of being perceived as evasive, I’ll sketch out just a couple of general concerns about the current welfare structure.

    First, that contrary to its stated aim, it actually absolves us from our shared responsibility to look after the least fortunate.  For Christians, this is a moral imperative, but certainly most non-believers would agree to this as well.  Transferring this role to the government makes it easier for us to NOT be charitable.  (Exhibit A: our vice president, self-styled champion of the downtrodden, who gives an embarrasingly paltry portion of his income to charitable causes).  If you fall on hard times, I don’t have to be charitable to lift you up, because the government will do it for me. 

    Relatedly, it creates an erroneous mentality.  When you fall on hard times, you are NOT entitled to other people’s money to help you.  However, in a moral society, there is a moral OBLIGATION on the part of other people to help you out of your plight.  The difference between this and our present entitlement mentality is subtle but important. 

    And here’s why it matters.  As a Christian, I am morally obligated to help you, BUT I am also morally obligated to be a good steward of the resources with which I’ve been entrusted.  Therefore, there’s the likelihood that those seeking help are themselves going to incur some responsbility along with the assistance that they receive.  The current structure introduces a third party that removes /accountability/ (because let’s admit, the government does not care about stewardship of taxpayer dollars), and reduces /responsibility/ (because I as a recipient am ENTITLED to this; other citizens OWE me this assistance).

    That’s a moral objection to the current welfare structure, but there are more pratical objections as well, most notably, that it doesn’t actually seem to work very well in practice.   Welfare seems to beget more welfare; there’s a cycle that’s hard to break out of.  We could enumerate lots of factors that contribute to an individual becoming a productive member of society, but perhaps the most important is /stability/ in one’s home life.  Government welfare programs as currently conceived aren’t helping to promote stability, and may instead be promoting instability.  And again, I think this is abetted by the anonymous and third party nature of the system.

    I really can’t devote the time to argue these points to death, but I wanted to at least pay you the courtesy of giving you at least a partial response to your request.

  • Lori

    Jeff, since you’ve said that you can’t be bothered to take the time to talk in any detail about the things you’re supposedly prevented from saying, I’m also not going to spend a lot of time on this. I’ll just ask one question—why should our government structure the way it serves its citizens around what is best for you “as a Christian”? 

  • Jeff

    Lori, the Judeo-Christian values of charity and compassion are foundational to our society and shared by many/most of its members, Christian or otherwise, and presumably that includes you.  Giving under compulsion is not charitable.  I’m not saying what the government should do, I’m just telling you what I think, because you asked.  I’m sorry that my available time and the limitations of this format preclude me from providing a fully detailed thesis on how to right all of society’s wrongs.

  • AnonaMiss

    Judeo-Christian values

    lol

  • EllieMurasaki

    the Judeo-Christian values of charity and compassion

    Bullshit.

    charity and compassion are foundational to our society

    BULLSHIT.

  • Lori

     

    Lori, the Judeo-Christian values of charity and compassion are
    foundational to our society and shared by many/most of its members,
    Christian or otherwise, and presumably that includes you.  

    They are not foundational in the way that you seem to be trying to imply. US citizens who do not share them are still citizens. I am not a Christian, allow I was raised in fundieland.

    Giving under
    compulsion is not charitable.  

    1. Taxes are not intended to be charity. They are the price we pay for a civilized society.

    2. Leaving people in need and begging so that you can feel good about yourself is also not charitable.

  • Lori

     

    As a Christian, I am morally obligated to help you, BUT I am also
    morally obligated to be a good steward of the resources with which I’ve
    been entrusted.  

    One other thing—I find it funny how concerned self-identified Christians are with the issue of “stewardship” when it comes to money spent to help the poor and how unconcerned they seem to be about money spent on the rich or about the environment.

  • Jeff

    There’s no such thing as “money spent on the rich”, but if you mean opposing tax increases on high earners, then yes, as a Christian, I see no contradiction between that position and my faith.   I also think that high earners, and Christians in general, certainly including myself, should be more charitable in general, and more concerned with conservation.  But I don’t see how compelling the rich to be more charitable by confiscating more of their money makes them more likely to actually be charitable.  Some problems are beyond the government’s ability to solve.

  • Tricksterson

    You don”t think the rich get money spent on them in the for of tax-breaks, subsidies and favorable pork-barrel projectsu’re disingenuous or hopelessly naive.

  • Lori

    There’s no such thing as “money spent on the rich”   

    Are you actually so divorced from reality that you believe this? Good lord man, get a clue. We spend plenty of money on the rich. Look up the concept of private profits and public loses. Check into how much of our military dollars are spent defending US businesses interests, not our national interests. Check out how our infrastructure spending vastly favors the needs and wants of the wealthy over the rest of the citizenry.

     

    But I don’t see how compelling the rich to be more charitable by
    confiscating more of their money makes them more likely to actually be
    charitable.  Some problems are beyond the government’s ability to solve.  

    You seem to worship Rand more than Jesus.

  • smrnda

    It would be so much better for poor people to have to grovel before a private charity so some middle class nitwit can feel generous, rather than having said middle class person pay taxes to support the less fortunate, particularly when a person’s financial status seems less dependent on work and more so on inherited privilege.

  • Jeff

    “It would be so much better for poor people to have to grovel before a private charity so some middle class nitwit can feel generous, rather than having said middle class person pay taxes to support the less fortunate, particularly when a person’s financial status seems less dependent on work and more so on inherited privilege. “Well, let’s use you as the hypothetical nitwit in your example.  It’s not about making you feeling generous, it’s about you taking /responsibility/ for being charitable, instead of sloughing it off to the government.  And, about making you /accountable/ to how your charitable dollars are spent.  If you give charitably, would you feel equally comfortable giving to a charity that spends 5% of its receipts on administrative costs and one that spends 57% of its receipts on administrative costs?  Presumably, you’d want to give to the one that is spending more of the money on doing the most good.  You should be able to exercise that level of oversight on your own charitable contributions; you shouldn’t have to rely on the government to do it for you. 

  • AnonaMiss

    It’s not about making you feeling generous, it’s about you taking /responsibility/ for being charitable, instead of sloughing it off to the government.

    >implying the American government aren’t elected and employed by the nation to manage our community affairs

    Is it irresponsible to trust your investments to a professional broker, instead of managing them personally?

  • Lori

     

    It’s not about making you feeling generous, it’s about you taking
    /responsibility/ for being charitable, instead of sloughing it off to
    the government.  

    No, it’s not. If it was about taking responsibility for being charitable then you would take responsibility for being charitable instead of blaming your lack of charity on the government.

    Again, taxes are not, and are not intended to be, charity. You need to stop whining about Liberal this and Liberal that and either do what you claim to believe you’re supposed to do by being charitable or own up to the fact that you are not charitable and have no intention of being charitable.

    That’s your personal moral drama and no one should be deprived of the ability to get enough food to eat in order to be a bit player in that drama.

  • Chris

    That’s a moral objection to the current welfare structure, but there are more pratical objections as well, most notably, that it doesn’t actually seem to work very well in practice.

    And looking back at the last 2000 years or so shows how well leaving care of the poor to private charity works in practice. The way things are now has its problems, yes, but the status quo ante welfare was much worse. I’d rather we didn’t go back.

  • EllieMurasaki

    contrary to its stated aim, it actually absolves us from our shared responsibility to look after the least fortunate. For Christians, this is a moral imperative, but certainly most non-believers would agree to this as well. Transferring this role to the government makes it easier for us to NOT be charitable.

    I’m plenty charitable. I don’t have to think about being charitable, I don’t have to worry about whether I’m picking the right charity, I can let the experts employed by the government do the hard parts. And it is really fucking offensive of you to suggest that whether I am being charitable is more important than whether people are going hungry.

  • Jeff

    Ellie, my last response to you:  I am not saying whether you are being charitable is more important than whether people are hungry.  I am saying, if people are hungry, YOU feed them.  Don’t let the government do it for you.  YOU go out and take care of those that are in need.  The status quo makes us collectively LAZY, and our lethargy has resulted in a system that doesn’t actually help people (in general).

  • EllieMurasaki

    I can personally feed a couple people a couple times a week, or I can pool my money with a great many other people so that we can hire a few people to do the buying of food (in bulk, to save money) and the distribution of food to a whole bunch of people, more than we could individually feed.

    The latter seems more efficient. If one’s prime concern is getting people fed, anyway, rather than being charitable. How one could prioritize the latter over the former is beyond me.

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    Unless you’re actually baking food and going over to a hungry person and giving it to them, how is this different, aside from being less efficient and reliable? I mean,what’s the difference between giving my money to Meals on Wheels and paying taxes which go into government food programs?

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Ellie, my last response to you:  I am not saying whether you are being
    charitable is more important than whether people are hungry.  I am
    saying, if people are hungry, YOU feed them.  Don’t let the government
    do it for you.  YOU go out and take care of those that are in need.  The
    status quo makes us collectively LAZY, and our lethargy has resulted in
    a system that doesn’t actually help people (in general).

    Ha! Pull the other one, please!

    For all the high-flown rah-rah bootstraps oompah-oompahing I see from you I bet if you had to actually do anything substantial to help anybody but yourself you’d find a million reasons not to.

    You know back in World War II there were soldiers who’d purposely fix it so their orders were cut in such a way that they’d be deployed on the home front while a high percentage of their fellow soldiers were being sent overseas into the meat grinder?

    You’d be one of those paper soldiers. Doing the absolute bare minimum not to look like a complete selfish jackass.

  • Madhabmatics

     hmmm yes jeff you are right, letting people starve WOULD save us money

  • AnonaMiss

    Both sides!

    Jeff, if you think anyone’s rejecting ‘conservative’ ideas based solely on them being ‘conservative’ – well, OK, I can’t promise that no one at all is doing that. Immediately suspecting them, sure. That’s a result of learning from what we’ve seen from ‘conservatives’ before.

    But I can promise you, ‘conservative’ isn’t some kind of hateful buzzword that makes the slacktivites recoil in fear. The commentariat don’t think the Ryan budget would cause people to starve because that’s what ‘conservatives’ do; they think the Ryan budget would cause people to starve because it cuts the funds which people, right now, are relying on to keep from starving.

    Why am I putting ‘conservatives’ in quotes? Because I’m a political conservative by  definition, i.e. I believe political change should happen slowly and deliberately, once we see where we’re going and where we’ve come from. I get along with the commentariat here because we tend to talk about oughts and coulds; but if it ever came around to implementing a lot of the stuff we talk about, I’d probably lock horns with the more progressive people here, because I’d be afraid the more enthusiastic ones would keep their eyes on the prize while they fall into a canyon, so to speak. I’m reflexively anxious, I’m suspicious of change, and I work in QA – I suppose you could say I’m a skeptic.

    But the people in positions of leadership in the American ‘conservative’ movement, aren’t. The Ryan budget was a radical Objectivist screed. A proper conservative argues against tax cuts just as they argue against tax hikes: hold on, slow down, can we afford this right now? A proper conservative would never sign Grover Norquist’s stupid tax pledge, unless it came with an equal and opposite “I will also never lower tax rates.” And even then, that’d be a stupid conservative – but at least they’d be conservative, not just reactionary.

    Anyone who is for gutting a welfare system which keeps its recipients barely fed – regardless of the possible civil unrest, public health crisis, increase in crime, and of course, the reality of taking bread away from starving children – because in theory, it should lead to better outcomes 10, 20 years on? They’re not a conservative. They’re an ideologue pressing their agenda onto the country because of their strong faith that their beliefs are the ones that will save the country. Which – forgive me, friends – is pretty damn liberal.

  • MaryKaye

    The interesting thing that Jeff is doing in all of his posts is repeatedly trying to refocus attention away from the hungry person and how they can most effectively be fed and onto the person with ample resources and what would be best for them–whether they should give willingly or via taxes, whether they should feed the poor directly or pool resources, etc.

    The big effect of this reframing is to make the hungry person and their needs less visible and less important.

    Frankly I think it is stupid to obsess over whether giving money in way X or way Y is better for my personal development.  I am not the one who is starving.  That’s like prioritizing medical services after a plane crash based on what will be most educational for the doctors.

  • Madhabmatics

    Won’t SOMEONE think of the MONEY??? is the conservative version of “Won’t someone think of the children?” but even dumber because cash isn’t people

  • AnonaMiss

    I’m just sad he left without acknowledging any of my points. Poor dear’s picked up all his talking points from Fox News and first-semester econ students.

  • auroramere

    Didn’t Maimonides rank forms of charity (from direct in-person giving through various levels of anonymity) in terms of protecting the dignity of the recipient and avoiding glorifying the giver? Speaking of Judeo-Christian morality. It’s not actually considered a bonus if you can shame the recipient and boast of your generosity.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Patrick-McGraw/100001988854074 Patrick McGraw

    I think the subject of this post gave us a good summary of Jeff’s position on the matter of government programs intended to promote the general welfare:

    “At this festive season of the year, Mr.
    Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually
    desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and
    Destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are
    in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of
    common comforts, sir.”

    “Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.

    “Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

    “And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”

    “They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”

    “The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.

    “Both very busy, sir.”

    “Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had
    occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very
    glad to hear it.”

    “Under the impression that they scarcely
    furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the
    gentleman, “a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor
    some meat and drink and means of warmth. We choose this time, because
    it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance
    rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”

    “Nothing!” Scrooge replied.

    “You wish to be anonymous?”

    “I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I
    wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at
    Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to
    support the establishments I have mentioned — they cost enough; and
    those who are badly off must go there.”

    “Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”

    “If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it,
    and decrease the surplus population. Besides — excuse me — I don’t
    know that.”

    “But you might know it,” observed the gentleman.

    “It’s not my business,” Scrooge returned. “It’s enough for a man
    to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other
    people’s. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!”

    Seeing clearly that it would be useless to pursue their point, the
    gentlemen withdrew. Scrooge returned his labours with an improved
    opinion of himself, and in a more facetious temper than was usual
    with him.

    The more things change, the more they stay the same.

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

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