When Bill Clinton set about on his "Third Way" oddyssey, one of his first priorities was to "end welfare as we know it". And he succeeded since he was essentially giving the anti-poor Pubs what they'd wanted since LBJ started his War on Poverty. Many of us warned over and over that there was going to be a price to pay. Barbara Ehrenreich in today's NYT shows us what it is and it ain't pretty. But you knew that already.
When Joe and Kristen married as teenagers, the plan had been for Kristen to stay home with the children. But with Joe out of action and three children to support by the middle of this decade, Kristen went to work as a waitress, ending up, in 2008, in a “pretty fancy place on the water.” Then the recession struck and in January she was laid off.
Kristen is bright, pretty and, to judge from her command of her own small kitchen, capable of holding down a dozen tables with precision and grace. In the past she’d always been able to land a new job within days; now there was nothing. Like most laid-off people, she failed to meet the fiendishly complex and sometimes arbitrary eligibility requirements for unemployment benefits. Their car started falling apart.
So in early February, the Parentes turned to the desperate citizen’s last resort — Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Still often called “welfare,” the program does not offer cash support to stay-at-home parents as did its predecessor, Aid to Families With Dependent Children. Rather, it provides supplemental income for working parents, based on the sunny assumption that there would always be plenty of jobs for those enterprising enough to get them.
Joe is - or was - a conservative who admits that he "had always imagined that people turned to government for help only if 'they didn’t want to work.'” He supported Bush and Reagan at least partly, we assume, on the strength of that belief. Which means he supported the destruction of the very programs he and Kristen are now trying desperately to tap into. Unfortunately, it's a little too late.
Yesterday Avedon Carol wrote at The Sideshow:
What a lot of people don't understand is that using race wasn't just a neat trick to con people into voting for Republicans, but an extremely neat trick to con people into thinking that "social programs" are just a trick to help black people instead of a remedy to help everyone. And it was necessary to use issues like race, abortion, and gays not simply to alienate people from the Democratic Party, but to make lots of people hate anything that was associated with liberals and liberalism.
I suspect that Joe and Kristen, if asked, wouldn't consider themselves racists and would most likely not realize (or accept if it was suggested) that they were reacting positively to an essentially racist argument, but Avedon is right. That's what it was. It was framed as being about "fairness" and the images that were used were overwhelmingly of black and brown people on the dole even if the words were never used and they weren't described that way. Nevertheless, the right-wing sold us racism in the guise of "equality" and we reacted as they expected we would.
Which in a roundabout way brings us to Judge Sotomayor and the charge against her that she's "too empathetic".
We must not miss the import of the use of this argument against a Supreme Court nominee. "Empathy" is extremely dangerous to conservatism. People who can put themselves in others' shoes before it happens to they themselves aren't likely to buy arguments about lazy welfare bums. People who can feel what others are experiencing without having to experience it themselves would not go to war for oil. If Kristen and Joe had been empathetic, they would never have bought into a racist argument that downgrades people with expletives and lies, and enough such empaths would mean those laws weren't passed because the greedy dickheads who passed them would never have been elected.
Which means it's not an accident that Sotomayor's critics are using "empathy" as a reason not to support her. It is the heart of what they are most afraid of: an unselfish voting population. An ungreedy approach to law, particularly Labor law, that won't necessarily automatically rubberstamp the corporate wishlist is anathema to them. They want it scrubbed.
They've come a good long way to that goal in this society. We became more and more selfish in the years since Reagan as the drumbeat got louder and louder: "Be No 1! Walk on whoever you have to walk on but Be No 1!" We sank our empathy in a vat of fear or surrendered it to involvement in day-to-day concerns of survival or personal/professional advancement. We told ourselves we didn't have time or energy to worry about immigrants and anyway they were probably illegal, or blacks and anyway they were just trying to get something for nothing, or the poor and anyway they were too lazy to work. We are not monsters. We had to believe such things or hate ourselves for what we were doing, and so we turned off our empathy like a lamp and lived in the dark.
We cannot go on this way and we cannot wait until all the Joes and Kristens go through it themselves and finally understand. There is still a War on Empathy and the rest of us have to react in the classic way by pumping up the values we once venerated. Generosity, tolerance and understanding, charity for all and malice toward none. The Constitution may have been disabled but it's only temporary if we stand up to fight for what it stands for.