In my previous piece on “The O’Reilly/Stewart Brouhaha,” I said that it’s unclear whether conservatives like Bill O’Reilly really want to help foster a culture of responsibility among people at the lower end of the economic spectrum — in particular, in black culture — or whether they just “enjoy the excuse to beat up on an oppressed people, as their kind have been doing in America for centuries.”
It looks a lot like it’s the latter. We can infer this eagerness to kick down on those at the bottom from how much conservatives of this kind are willing to distort reality to justify their attitude of blame and attack.
Remember Mitt Romney’s infamous “47%” comment in the 2012 presidential election? However much that comment reflected Romney’s own beliefs, he surely had reason to believe that this condemnation of half the country as “takers” suited the beliefs of the Republican fat-cats to whom he was speaking.
After that 47% remark was made public, many came forward to expose how distorted was the notion that all these millions of Americans were somehow parasitic on the American bounty the fat-cats prided themselves on creating. This 47%, it was pointed out, included not only people who had retired after years of hard work, but also people supporting families, sometimes needing to work more than one job to make ends meet. Hardly parasites.
Somehow, it served a purpose for these rich Republicans to imagine that the bottom half of America were leeches on the body of the American economy.
But on the right, it’s not only the rich who seem drawn to this distorted fantasy. This I know from years discussing politics with a conservative audience in my part of Virginia.
Whenever the issue of the poor comes up, the callers conjure up the image of people who are gaming the system. The old, punitive notion of the “undeserving poor” is alive and well in the minds of these people, many of whom themselves are struggling to make ends meet.
These callers seem disinclined to talk about the working poor, or people whose disabilities make them unable to be self-supporting, through no fault of their own, or any other truly needy people. They are eager to express their rage and contempt at the alleged lazy frauds who, it is claimed, are willfully failing to be virtuously hard-working like themselves.
Doubtless there are some people who do game the system to get food stamps, or welfare, or other forms of social support. But while the evidence suggests that these are a very small minority, in the picture these hardly-rich conservatives paint such mooches are the rule rather than the exception.
And as with Ronald Reagan’s famous use of the image of the “welfare queen,” the image of the parasitic poor that these white people conjure up is implicitly about black people. While it is obvious that , the 47% the rich Republicans heard Romney talk about can’t all be black, for many of my white, right-wing callers, race is definitely part of the picture.
So distorted is the picture of the people at the bottom that we can infer there must be some big payoff that provides the motivation for such distortion. Which raises the question: just what is that payoff? What do these people get from creating a picture that justifies a kick-down attitude toward those at the bottom?
The beginnings of an answer are found in a quote, which I’ve cited in a previous article from a liberal friend of mine: “Having grown up in the South in the 1950s, I know something about how it feels to be part of a group you’re told is superior. It feels really good. It’s a feeling that shouldn’t be under-estimated.”
This lies near the heart of the “white privilege” on which Jon Stewart pressed Bill O’Reilly.
It is an old story, and it may have been told most insightfully, in the book Killers of the Dream, by Lilian Smith (born in Mississippi in 1897), who wrote about the con job the Rich White Man of the South did on the Poor White Man. We are brothers in being superior, the Rich White Man tells his poor white counterpart. With this con, the guy who is really on top can distract the white guy below him from noticing the ways in which the rich whites are oppressing and exploiting the rest.
Thus does the poor white get taught to take his understandable frustrations out on those below him in the hierarchy.
And thus does the poor white come to need for those below him to stay down there.
That can help explain the kick-down impulse of the whites who called into my radio show. But what about the Rich White Man, what about the fat-cats in the room with Mitt Romney when he pandered to their desire to heap contempt on the 47% they want to think of as undeserving slackers and parasites?
To illuminate that kick-down impulse, a contrast between the messages to be heard in black churches and in white churches may be useful.
(To be continued– in “The Urge to Kick Down: Doing Unto Others What’s Been Done unto You”), coming soon.