Here’s one of my favorite scenes from John Ford’s film adaptation of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Muley and his son confront The Man who has arrived to evict them from their Oklahoma farm. Muley, played by John Qualen (the condemned sad sack fom His Girl Friday), clings to his shotgun:
MULEY: You mean get off my own land?
THE MAN: Now don’t go blaming me. It ain’t my fault.
SON: Whose fault is it?
THE MAN: You know who owns the land — the Shawnee Land and Cattle Company.
MULEY: Who’s the Shawnee Land and Cattle Comp’ny?
THE MAN: It ain’t nobody. It’s a company.
SON: They got a pres’dent, ain’t they? They got somebody that knows what a shotgun’s for, ain’t they?
THE MAN: But it ain’t his fault, because the bank tells him what to do.
SON: All right. Where’s the bank?
THE MAN: Tulsa. But what’s the use of picking on him? He ain’t anything but the manager, and half crazy hisself, trying to keep up with his orders from the east!
MULEY: (bewildered) Then who do we shoot?
A host of demagogues these days are eager to answer Muley’s question. “Want to know who to blame?” they ask, “We’ll tell you.”
“Shoot the Mexicans,” says Lou Dobbs. “Shoot the lazy blacks on welfare,” says Grover Norquist. “Shoot the atheists,” says James Dobson. “And the gays,” adds his chief politico, Tony Perkins. “Shoot the Islamofascists,” say Dick Cheney, George W. Bush and the rightwing bloggers. “Shoot ’em all,” says Fox News.
None of those suggestions, of course, are of any use to Muley or to his contemporary counterparts, because none of those scapegoats are really the source of their problems. But the demagogues don’t give a rat’s ass about solving Muley’s problems. Their only concern is making sure that he keeps his shotgun pointed somewhere else, somewhere that doesn’t threaten the status quo.
Such demagogues are con artists. And they’re good at it. But recognizing that is where things get tricky and difficult to talk about.
Good con artists are difficult to prosecute. This is true, in part, because getting conned is viewed differently than being the victim of other forms of crime. There’s a sense of shame, or at least of embarrassment, on the part of the victims, so they’re less likely than other crime victims to report the crimes. Con artists know this, and they exploit it — sometimes compounding that embarrassment by working a con that relies on the mark’s greed or chauvinism or some other trait they are unlikely to be proud of and thus making the victim feel complicit in their own victimhood.
It’s never easy to tell someone they’re being conned. “You’ve been hoodwinked. You’ve been had. You’ve been took,” Malcolm X said. “You’ve been bamboozled.” But nobody wants to hear that, even if it’s true. Especially not if it’s true. It sounds too much like, “You’ve been a sucker.” Or even, “You’ve been stupid.” It seems to add insult to injury so people reject both the message and the messenger. Even if that means continuing to subject themselves to the ongoing injury of the scam. They are, after all, accustomed to it.
Consider, for example, the state-run lotteries. These “games” (scratch-off cards? What joyous fun!) are exempt from federal truth in advertising laws because they aren’t fair games — the pay-out is woefully disproportionate to the odds. Having to explain that the state-sponsored lottery is a stacked deck and a bad bet would likely result in fewer people “playing” (Wheee!), and thus a reduction in the revenue from these lotteries.
That exemption and the lotteries themselves are con games. Yet no politician is ever going to say that. To say that would cost that politician votes across the board. Those who don’t waste their money on the lotteries would realize that such a politician was threatening to cut off a sleazy-but-significant source of state revenue that doesn’t cost them a penny. That would mean, for them, either an increase in taxes or a reduction in services — not a popular message. Those who do “play” the lottery would interpret “You’ve been hoodwinked” as “You’re stupid,” and that’s not going to win many votes either.
The demagogue/con-men wouldn’t be sitting idle, either, if some recklessly principled politician were to take such a stance. They would attack that politician as, of course, an “elitist,” portraying her or him as sneering and condescending to the salt-of-the-earth, just folks, red-blooded Americans of the heartland. “You’ve got a chance to keep your farm, Muley,” they would say. “You just need to win the lottery. But those elitists don’t want you to have that chance. …”
That cry of “elitism” always follows any attempt to cast light onto what Rick Perlstein calls “The Big Con.” A chorus of such cries greeted Thomas Frank’s book What’s the Matter With Kansas? That book offers an insightful look at how the scapegoating of “liberal elites” has become an integral aspect of maintaining the Big Con. It was thus bitterly ironic, but not at all surprising, that the scapegoaters seized on its publication as a chance to attack Frank as an “elitist” or “limousine liberal.” “You see that, Muley?” the demagogues said. “He thinks there’s something wrong with you. We like you just the way you are.“
This brings us, of course, to Barack Obama and the ridiculousness of the past week here in the Keystone State. At a fundraiser in California, Obama was asked, in essence, “What’s the matter with Pennsylvania?” His answer echoed much of Frank’s analysis:
You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. …And they fell through the Clinton Administration, and the Bush Administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.
That is, among other things, an astute summary of many of the bugbears and distractions the demagogues employ in order to keep the red states red and the shotguns pointed somewhere else.
It was entirely predictable that the demagogues would respond to Obama the same way they responded to Frank. “Elitism!” they cried, tripping over themselves in their best attempts to convey offendedness, desperately trying to brand Obama as a “latte liberal.” (The fact that the epithet for a prominent candidate of mixed-race heritage turned out to be “latte” is, of course, a wholly innocent accident of alliteration and it would be wrong to read anything more into that.)
“Then who do we shoot?”
Muley’s question is still, more or less, the question asked by every dispossessed, disenfranchised and desperate American family, by everyone whose life seems to be a series of long-odd, low-payout gambles in a rigged game.
We need to be able to talk about this. The Muleys of this world have been ill-served. They’ve been hoodwinked. They’ve been had. They’ve been took. They’ve been bamboozled. And they will continue to be treated the same way until we find a way to address this honestly.
So we need to be able to talk about this. We need to become the kind of people who are capable of talking about this. If the past week is any indication, we’re not there yet.