By N.S. Palmer
Rush Limbaugh, the American radio talk-show host, recently said that he “wanted President Obama to fail” because he disagreed with his policies.
His comment illustrates a problem that isn’t unique to Limbaugh, Republicans, or the corporate war-mongers who falsely call themselves “conservatives.”
President Obama is trying to prevent a collapse of the U.S. economy that would lead to suffering for millions of Americans. If the economy crashes, they will lose their jobs, their homes, and their self-respect. They will go bankrupt. They will go without needed medical care. And if the U.S. economy collapses, it will drag the world economy down with it. In poorer countries, thousands of people will starve and freeze to death — something that now happens even in America, though infrequently.
Whether we like President Obama or not, whether we agree with his policies or not, we should all wish him success. Shouldn’t we?
Limbaugh’s comment suggests that he places his ideology and his narrow political loyalties above the welfare of real, living people. And that’s the problem: When we make abstractions more important than real people, we make ourselves indifferent to the welfare of others. Whether the abstraction is neoconservative ideology, corporate profits, Social Darwinism, economic theory, or a future libertarian/communist utopia, the result is the same. We sit in our comfortable little offices spouting self-righteous rhetoric and we cause real people to suffer.
The problem isn’t that Rush Limbaugh is a bad person. He might be, or he might not: None of us knows what is in someone else’s heart. Even good, well-intentioned people occasionally support policies that end up being harmful. I’ve done it, too.
The problem is a defect of vision that we all have and against which we must all be on guard: We believe in what we see, and we tend not to believe in what we don’t see.
Once upon a time, I believed that people who received government welfare payments were simply lazy and chose to loaf instead of work. I believed that people who lost their jobs due to so-called free trade agreements could easily re-train for and obtain other jobs. I believed that people without university education did not deserve to be paid as much money as those who had the advantages that I have enjoyed in life.
Why did I believe such things when their falsity is so obvious to anyone with an ounce of common sense?
The answer is ideology. I had a particular way of looking at the world that blinded me to its sometimes unjust realities. The people around me, both in school and in the conservative – libertarian movement, all shared my ideology and my blindness. None of us knew anyone who had to depend on welfare, or who had lost a factory job, or who worked 12 hours a day to eke out a meager living at two or three minimum-wage jobs. So we prattled on about our “principles” and congratulated each other for being so much smarter and better informed than the rest of the human race.
One big difference between me and Rush Limbaugh, apart from our weights and the size of our bank accounts, is that I have seen and repented of my errors (at least the ones I know about). He hasn’t, and from the way he talks, he probably won’t. The grip of ideology is too strong on him.
Ideologues don’t care about the people they hurt because they don’t know them and almost never see them. Consider average libertarian economists, safely ensconced in a university or foundation. They would happily see the U.S. economic system collapse because it doesn’t match their utopian theories and because, after collapse, it might be replaced by something that they’d find more ideologically appealing. The millions of innocent people who would suffer in such a collapse barely register. The economists don’t know any of those people — certainly, they don’t know any grubby blue-collar workers — and their eyes are firmly fixed on the future. Today’s workers might lose their jobs, their homes, their health, and even their lives, but the ideologues believe that in the coming utopia, everyone will be better off — at least, the people who “deserve” to be better off. That is, people like themselves.
The problem with always focusing on “someday” at the expense of “today” is that you can’t get there from here. “Someday” will only arrive for people who manage to make it through today. If today ends with 99 percent of the population crushed by poverty and desperation, while the favored few control the wealth and run the government, then someday won’t be worth waiting for.
Abstractions and ideals are only useful when they help real people lead better and happier lives. They’re not an end in themselves.
Copyright 2009 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as copyright notice and URL (http://www.ashesblog.com) are included.