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The All-Politics Issue

Including a crucial principle to consider

October 1st, 2012

BY TERRY ROSS

With November’s election staring us in the face, it’s extremely tempting to throw up your hands, admit that nothing much is likely to change no matter who is elected, and firmly exercise your right not to vote.

Besides, as Kevin Baker pointed out in the October issue of Harper’s Magazine, “Why vote? When your vote counts for nothing”:

For more than a generation, this has been the central truth of American politics: How you cast your vote has almost no relation to what any candidate actually intends to do. This is not simply a liberal complaint. Conservative voters (sort of) elected George W. Bush president in 2000 because he promised fiscal prudence, limited government, and an end to “nation building” in foreign lands. What they got was a president who, almost from day one, busied himself running up record budget deficits, passed an enormous new prescription-drug entitlement, and attempted to build a model laissez-faire democracy in Iraq.

Before Bush, Bill Clinton ran on a pledge to “put people first,” promising tax cuts for the middle class and welfare reform that would supplement benefits with job-training programs. Mr. Clinton had barely taken the oath of office before the tax cuts were deep-sixed in favor of reassuring the bond markets and a balanced budget became one of the administration’s important goals. By the end of Clinton’s presidency, Glass–Steagall and many of the other safeguards that had served to protect us from financial chicanery since the Great Depression had been removed, and welfare had been largely turned over to the states to do with as they saw fit — a major part of the safety net thereby whisked away.

As with all the most pernicious trends in recent American politics, the move to uncouple campaigns from any true intentions came into its own during the Reagan years. After decades of echoing the catchphrase of his economic adviser Milton Friedman that “there is no free lunch” and advocating a smaller government, President Reagan tripled the national debt — once again, exactly the opposite of what nearly all his voters were counting on him to do.
Since at least 1980, Americans have been unable to prevail on their leaders to do much of anything they promised. For all the masses of volunteers who worked to get out the vote for their candidates, for all those who gave what money they could to the campaigns and came out to hear stump speeches — in numbers, during the last presidential election, that had not been seen for more than a generation — the payoff was nothing.

So voting’s a mug’s game, at least voting for president. And if voting’s pointless, then so is arguing about political issues. Still, in the interest of self-expression if nothing else, I’d like to nominate an ideal to strive for, however hopelessly: fairness.

Simple greed and lack of fairness have been the two driving forces behind every political upheaval in modern and ancient history. And since greed — the idea that one person has a right to more of something than another — is surely a manifestation of unfairness, this leaves the urge to eliminate unfairness as the single driver of political action.

Some argue that fairness is on the upswing, at least in developed countries and among civilized people, and those on the left have made it a matter of faith that things have become better for minorities, for women, for the underprivileged, and therefore for all of us, because of rules forbidding overt favoritism based on anything other than merit.

In fact, though, the so-called “advances” of the past fifty years in securing rights for minorities, women, and the poor have departed from the basic principle of fairness. One does not “correct” unfairness toward one person by imposing unfairness on another, but rather by insisting on fairness for all. You don’t solve the problem of cheating at cards by having everyone cheat but rather by having no one cheat.

As a modern society, we punish cheating/unfairness in many spheres: we take away Lance Armstrong’s medals, we jail embezzlers, we impose asterisks on baseball players, we have laws against stealing and libel. But in our zeal to create fair and open societies, with opportunity for all, we throw out the baby with the bath water.

Is it fair that if you’re Chinese or Japanese, you have to watch as less intelligent and qualified people than you are admitted to the University of California?

Is it fair that some people get extra points added to their scores on civil service tests because of their race?

Is it fair that an unmarried teenage mom with two bastard children is given a free apartment, free utilities, free counselling, a free bus pass, free tuition at the community college, a free phone, free medical coverage, and free food while more prudent young women have to work for a living to pay for all these things?

In each of these cases, someone is being treated unfairly so that someone else can benefit from our guilt at society’s inequalities. More damning, behind each of these presumably civic-minded “reforms” lies the worst unfairness of all: condescension.

What are we saying to the black or Mexican admitted to university ahead of more qualified Asian applicants but “despite our efforts at creating a more equitable society, efforts that are ongoing, you are incapable of earning your way by merit and hard work”? Aren’t we telling this lucky minority student, “You are, in effect, like a child or a handicapped person. You are not like the rest of us: you haven’t the faculties or the persistence of an ordinary person, and there’s no sense in our pretending you do. We will therefore treat you as a child or an incomplete human.”

In our modern societies, we also forget that to expect less of one person, or one group of people, is to relegate him or it to the status of relative helplessness. We expect more from Israelis than from their neighboring Arabs; we expect them to be more reasonable, less impulsive, more humane, less vindictive, more democratic, less prejudiced.

We expect more from Western countries than we do from Eastern, more from northern Europeans than from Mediterraneans; the wise Germans will bail out the childish, irresponsible Greeks, Spaniards, and Italians.

We expect nothing of Africans.

We expect more of everybody than we do of fundamentalist Muslims.

Perhaps the only time to expect more from someone than from others is in the area of childhood education, when it seems both useful and right to expect more of a bright child than a stupid one. But this is precisely what schools, at least in America (and increasingly elsewhere) do not do. Enforced egalitarianism trumps fairness.

Perhaps the most glaring abortion of fairness in the United States concerns a sizeable proportion of the black population, whom we seem to have written off as hopelessly lazy, irresponsible, and infantile. We are now well into a fourth generation of breast-beating guilt-abatement programs: giving money to the undeserving poor by way of excusing the racism of the past and the continuing racism of the present. It’s as if white America decided in the ’60s to undo racist laws and discriminatory practices — trying to level the playing field for all — and then almost immediately remembered that poor blacks were lazy, irresponsible, and infantile and would not be able to benefit from a level playing field, and so tipped the field so that the poor could have what they hadn’t earned — all by way of reparations for slavery, Jim Crow, and all the rest of it. As if you can make reparations by condescending to people, by expecting less of them.

Well, you can’t. In fact, white America can never make reparations for the evil of slavery, except by treating descendants of slaves like grown men and women. As with the Indians, America has to repudiate its past, swear not to repeat it, and move on.

In fairness.

No more “correcting” one sort of racism by enforcing another: affirmative action. No more quotas in hiring or anything else. No more guaranteed spots for minorities in legislative bodies or on school boards. Let everyone jump through the same hoops, play by the same rules, and reap the same rewards.

And please, no more calling people racist because they point out that 35% of black Americans are on food stamps but only 2% of Asian-Americans are, although many of the Asians came to this country not even speaking English. Or that although 12.6% of Americans are black, more than 40% of welfare recipients are. Or that more than half of American black babies are born out of wedlock while virtually no Chinese-American babies are.

To point out these things is not to assert that Asian and Chinese Americans are innately superior to blacks — that would be racism. But it is to assert that we have put in place a system wherein a sizeable chunk of the black population are now immersed in a fourth successive generation of being condescended to, of being treated like children who can’t take care of themselves, of having no expectations made of them.

This is not fairness.

Still, however you vote this November, it won’t matter. Because to Democrats, insisting on fairness is racist. And to Republicans, insisting on fairness means to lose almost the entire black and hispanic vote. So fairness won’t be an issue.

Again. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Politics Issue, Ross | Link to this Entry

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