Monday, January 30, 2012

Playing the Poor versus the Poor

Getting poor white people to battle poor black people has been a game played since the days of the Confederacy.

It is interesting to parse some of the on-line comments sections on the news sites these days.  One common theme you hear, and one you also hear from people you meet in person, is the idea that, since Obama got elected, all of the poor black people are going on welfare and the rest of us are all paying for it.

You see this in offhand comments, made as if the underlying premise was true.  In these folks' reality-view of the world, nearly 1/6 of the population, mostly black, is "on welfare" and never works, and the rest of us are struggling with high taxes as a result.

Fortunately, they believe, helpful Republicans will throw those blacks off welfare and cut the white folk's taxes as a result, and they will not be burdened by those "Welfare Queens" and their 20 children.

Of course, the real truth is not quite all that.  While there are too many people on Welfare, the number of real welfare recipients has held pretty steady at about 4 million, or 1 in 75 people.  It is only by adding the number of Welfare recipients to the number of Medicaid and Food Stamp recipients that one comes up with the "50 million people on welfare" number, which as I noted before, is disingenuous.

And of course, what largest demographic group is on welfare, collecting food stamps, and on Medicaid?  Well, white folks, of course.  As they are the majority of the population, they are the majority of people getting government assistance.   But that fact doesn't jive with the "narrative" that people want to sell you.

So why do people lie like this?  Well, to achieve and maintain power, plain and simple.

My great-great-grandfather, Col. Robert Thompson, lived in Alabama and had a plantation, and slaves.  When the war broke out, he put on his resplendent Colonel's uniform and urged his troops to charge Union picket lines, only to be mowed down by Minnie balls and cannon fire.  He remained in the rear, on his beautiful white horse - he was no fool.

The troops?  Mostly poor white farmers, who lived hardscrabble lives and had no dog in the fight. They didn't own slaves, but were told that this issue, couched in terms of "State's Rights" was important to them.  And they died so that wealthy people, like my great-great-grandfather could preserve his way of living.  Poor white farmers are not very bright, and you can sell them ideas like this - that preserving slavery will somehow benefit them.  Perhaps a trickle-down argument was used back then.  It is today.

While the mostly poor troops died in droves, my great-great-grandfather survived and moved to Texas after the war, much of his wealth intact.  His slaves, not knowing what else to do, went with him.  Not much had changed for him, really.  His surviving troops went back to their farms, which were devastated by the war, and tried to eke out a hardscrabble existence.  It was not hard to steer their anger and resentment over the whole deal against the newly-freed Blacks.   The KKK was born.

Fast-forward 150 years and not much has changed.   The news reports stories about "Welfare Queens" abusing the system, and it is not hard to convince white folks - facing economic difficulties - that these stories apply to ALL Black people.  Ronald Reagan used this tactic in the 1980 election to defeat Jimmy Carter.  But it would take another 20 years and a Democratic President (Bill Clinton) to see real Welfare Reform.

Fast-forward another 15 years, and the issue is being raised again today.  And again, the issue is fabricated from whole cloth - that zillions of Black people are all getting Gub-Ment money, now that "one of them" is President.  But it isn't true, of course.

Why would they sell this narrative?  Because it is a lot easier to sell than the real truth.  You can go to a rural poor white area, and sell them the idea that you should vote Republican, because they will be "strong on defense!" (one of the largest and most bloated areas of our budget) and that they will cut the Black folks' Welfare (but not of course, the "government programs" that White folks enjoy) and moreover, will "Cut your taxes" - even though the tax brackets being cut affect people making only $350,000 a year or more.

Oh, and they will outlaw Abortion and Gay Marriage, which usually seals the deal, as we don't want little Billy-Bob getting Gay Married, or his sister Lurleen waiting until she is 18 to have kids.

You sell them the lies, you sell them the social issues, and you get elected and..... You hand out all the government money to YOUR friends.

Much hay will be made this year about the defense budget, which is being cut by 10%.  A 10% cut in anyone's budget is hardly catastrophic, and considering how much fat there is in the Pentagon budget, it is trivial.  Plus, winding down two wars overseas should cut the budget automatically by more than that amount.

But brace yourself for the attack ads - they will try to sell you the idea that Obama is cutting the defense budget "by the largest amount ever!" and that "record numbers of people are going on welfare!" which may or may not be true - or may merely be a reflection of the fact the budget is the largest it has every been - as has our population.  In a growing economy and population, every year is the "largest" or "most" this and that - it is hardly remarkable.

It is interesting to me that many on the far-right believe many of these lies and distortions, not as astounding facts, but merely as a background to more sinister things going on.  In a way, it is not too dissimilar to the events surrounding the Clinton Administration - the endless investigations into Whitewater, Vince Foster, and finally Monica Lewinsky.

Remember the "Clinton Death List?"  We were supposed to believe that the Clintons were having scores of people "rubbed out" if they got in their way.  For some reason, they never got around to Gingrich or Limbaugh.  And yet I knew people at the time - college educated people - who were willing to believe this.  Heck, you would believe anything, after listening to 10 hours a day of talk radio.

We are constantly fed this stuff, through mainstream media or back-channel communications.  The Internet, once thought to be harbinger of Truth, has turned out to be a festering swamp of half-truths, lies, and outright lies.  You can sell people any sort of bullshit, and the fact the mainstream media hasn't reported it, is, to the believers, only an indication that it must be really true.  After all, the real goings on of our society are hidden beneath a veneer, right?

Wrong.  If there is a conspiracy, it is in plain sight - the financial flim-flam that goes on every day, that people buy into.  How many people comment here that cash-back rewards "really are a good deal!" and can't see otherwise.  How many folks defend buying brand new cars - or worse yet, leasing them.  How many folks think spending hundreds of dollars a month on cell phones is a good idea, because you can then send short little ASCII messages to people, thus squandering most of your waking life?

They are snookering the middle class and lower middle classes - who believe truly, that "he who dies with the most toys, wins" - and are upset only when their toys are repossessed.  They are being sold a bill of goods in more ways than one - sentenced to perpetual poverty and told that their actions are not to blame for their circumstances.  And then they tell them that it is all those Black and Hispanic people's fault (those darn immigrants! - the other half of the dividing the poor story).

By dividing the poor into separate groups and then setting them against each other (there is also hostility between the Black and Hispanic camps) you can prevent them from combining into on coalition which would easily overpower the powers that be.

Divide and Conquer - the oldest game in the book.   It's how the West subdued the Arab States (Sunni v. Shiite) and India (Hindu v. Islam) and every other country in the world.  Even today, these ethnic and cultural divisions are exploited to maintain a balance of power.

Will this ever change?  I doubt it.  Racism runs very deep among a number of people.   And scapegoats are a handy talisman to blame all your woes on.  Why bother trying to better yourself when you can just blame it all on Immigrants, Hispanics, Blacks, or Jews?  I didn't do anything wrong!  It must be that other guy - taking all my money.

And of course the GOP is not alone in this tactic.  The Democrats tell us that "but for" a bunch of people on Wall Street, we'd all still be in our plastic mini-mansions, swimming in our own private Scrooge McDuck money vaults.  The 1%, we are told, are the source of ALL of our problems.  We are merely innocent bystanders.

It is scapegoating in a new format - class warfare.  And yes, the GOP decries class warfare, but then engages in race-baiting.  Neither side has clean hands, from what I can tell.

If your political views are predicated on the premise that all of your personal problems are the fault of some "other" group, let me suggest that you are externalizing your problems, which is probably the worst thing you could do.  Why?  Because when you do this, you let yourself become a victim of someone else's schemes.  Moreover, you end up not addressing your own personal problems, which leads to more problems down the road.