Hating the Government: An American Tradition.

G.O.P. Chairman Michael Steele made a few remarkably in-your-face comments recently about the health care debate.  Here, in his own words, is pretty much where he thinks the nation is going, why it shouldn’t go there, and what the Republican Party stands for.

This morning on NPR  he tangled with Steve Inskeep, in particular over this.

One quote in particular caught my eye:  ” Simply put, we believe that health-care reform must be centered on patients, not government.”

When you listen to the NPR interview it’s clear that we’re hearing another in the now decades-long tirades against the government which has become the hallmark of Right Wing politics in this country.

In this country, in theory, the government is supposed to be us, the people.  We elect our representatives, we tell them how we want them to vote, we change our minds, we are supposed to be in charge.  In theory.  Obviously, the reality is far from that.  For one, we are not a full-fledged democracy, we are a republic, and while we elect those who operate the machinery of the republic on our behalf, we do not have a direct say in the running.  Nor could we, really.  it is simply too complex.  We send our representatives to the various points of departure—state capitols, Washington D.C., county seats, city halls—to do that for us because it is a big, complex, often indecipherable melange of conflicting goals, viewpoints, and problems.  We do not have the time to pay the necessary attention to do that work ourselves, so we pay people to do it for us.

So why do we distrust it so much?

Well, because we distrust each other.

No, really, let’s be honest for a few minutes here.  We make certain assumptions going into a polling booth that the results will lead to some kind of cohesive approach to the enterprise we view as Our Country.  It’s rather surprising how often that turns out to be the case, but it’s not at all what we may actually intend.  This country is a collection of competing factions, down to the faction of the individual in confrontation with everyone else, and up to the factions of whole states in conflict with other states.  We vote for people who will represent our desire to be safe from our next door neighbor.

If that’s stating it too strongly, consider the reality.  Zoning laws are in place to prevent our next door neighbor from building something we don’t want next to us, be a bar, an art studio, a bordello, or just an odd-looking house.  I know, it’s supposed to regulate the conflict between residential and business, but in practice it’s a way to keep people out of our neighborhoods.  Used to be it applied directly to people, but that was determined to be unConstitutional.  Nevertheless, there are ways of manipulating housing costs, taxes, and other things to more or less accomplish the same thing—if we can’t keep people of different ethnic varieties out, at least we can make sure they have money, right?

Of course, it’s a contest, and these ordinances are challenged all the time—it’s a see-saw, or a tug-of-rope.  My point is, the basis of it is the very American value of being free from your neighbor’s values.

Go on up the ladder of issues.  The entire edifice of American self-image is based on the notion that a true American can—and must—fend for himself and that, in order to do so, he must be free from encumbrances wherever possible.  If you carry this idea to its extreme, you begin to see why there is such profound distrust of government, especially since the Sixties.

To put it as bluntly as possible, the fear of Socialism is a hatred of being forced to be responsible for your next door neighbor.  The anger fueling the antipathy for most single-payer or universal health care programs in this country comes from a sense that these ideas by-pass self-sufficiency and limit the individual’s ability to be separate from people he or she dislikes.

Now, I hasten to add that Americans do show a tremendous capacity for generosity.  We are sociable, we more often than not will turn out to help people in need, we have a history of spontaneous charity and rescue work.  The money we spend yearly on aid and relief through various nongovernmental agencies and even as individuals is enormous and makes my previous statement seem paradoxical.

It is not a paradox.  It has to do with what we perceive as choice.  See, if I decide to help the family down the street, who have fallen on hard times, I will do so.  I may even corral a number of my friends and neighbors into pitching in.  And if we succeed in helping them out of a tough spot and they get back on their feet, we—at least I—won’t even self-administer a back-pat of congratulations.  Success is its own reward.

But if it turns out, in whatever estimation you care to use, that the family we’re helping is beyond help for whatever reason, that perhaps dad is an alcoholic or they have a different problem that cannot be met or any of a thousand circumstances that make it appear they will never get out of their tough spot, I—and my neighbors—have the option to drop them as a cause.

If we are administering that aid via the government, we can’t do that.

We now must all remember the chorus of welfare stereotypes we have heard all our lives.

Perhaps a little more telling, we must bear in mind the misapplication of the public weal in exactly those circumstances which have resulted in people doing worse.  Many a state welfare agency—it varies—had, at one time or another, qualifications for aid that did often leave people in worse condition.  In New York throughout the Seventies and much of the Eighties, to qualify for assistance, you had to have lost everything.  There was no assistance for someone who just need a little help to keep them in their house or their decent apartment until they could find a job.  No, you come back when you’ve been foreclosed on or the sheriff has dumped all your belongings on the curb, then we’ll give you assistance.

This didn’t happen with Federal aid, but state.  Other things, usually the minority of instances where a bureaucratic glitch ended up costing a citizen dearly, that grew in the telling until it was a horror story.

But it wouldn’t matter.  Because we have a fundamental problem with being responsible for people for whom we have no affection, to whom we feel we owe nothing, we fight against public programs that even remotely seem like Socialism.

We have also been fed a steady diet since Vietnam of governments that run black ops on their own citizens.  The government is the enemy.  We can’t walk away or opt out.  It’s the government, what can you do?

And sometimes it’s true.  I lived through a period during which our phones were tapped and I was followed home from school for a time by FBI agents, all because it was 1969 and my dad owned a gun shop.  Nothing ever came of it, everything my dad did was legal and above board, but the presence of the government was palpable.

Americans want none of that.  We’re independent, self-sufficient, we don’t need your damn help or your damn interference.

Look at the difficulties with education.  Parents resent state requirements to teach subjects of which they disapprove.  Never mind that it might be for the longterm best interest of everyone that their kids know something about real history, real science, or even just about their own bodies, “we don’t want the government teaching our kids things we don’t like.”

But if the government moves against people we don’t like, we’re all for it.  We want the government to do something about drug dealers, pornographers, Ponzi schemers, toxic waste dumpers…

Unless that happens to be our business that’s involved in the investigation and the new requirements…

But basically we just don’t want the government telling us we have to pay for people we don’t like.  And never mind the reality.  never mind that our perception of certain people is skewed.  Fine, if that’s true, then eventually we’ll figure it out and fix it, but we’ll do the figuring out, thank you, and we’ll do the fixing.

Never mind that it doesn’t usually work that way—if left to collective individual sentiment, we might still have slavery, the vote still wouldn’t be universal, segregation would still be legal, and you still wouldn’t be able to buy certain books in a book store.

The danger here is that in arguing against a mindset that is in many ways systemically pathological, we overlook genuine concerns and embrace an all or nothing posture that will as readily dismiss workable solutions because they seem to appease a point of view we find ridiculous.  As in many such issues, the rational may be abandoned by both sides in the heat of ideological confrontations.  There is no question that many major institutions, erected at various times to meet problems that seemed about to overwhelm us, might have been done differently, more even-handedly, more sensibly if only the confrontation with the solution’s critics had not taken on an all-or-nothing extremism.

Somehow, along the spectrum of The People to The Government, a disconnect has happened that will not yield to simple common sense.  Yet the same skepticism doesn’t seem to apply to corporations.  People hate individual corporations, cast them as evil, but somehow fail to see the corporate system as a problem.  The idea seems to be that if only XYZ Corporation were run more ethically everything would be all right—we never quite make the leap to seeing that the way corporations are is at the heart of the problem and that XYZ Corporation can’t run any differently by the very nature of its make-up.  Yet that is the suspicion we carry bone-deep about the government—that it doesn’t matter who is in office now, the government by its very make-up is evil.

The result ends up being an abandonment of rational problem solving.  We’re presented with a false choice—a government solution or freedom.

Back in the Sixties, Ronald Reagan made his political bones running for governor of California, and he took on a proposed national health care bill then being debated.  He called it Socialism and that if we allowed it then “one day you’ll be telling your grandchildren about the time when we were free.”

The only thing you would lose, it seems to me, by using government as pathway to addressing certain social problems, is the freedom to turn your back on someone just because he or she doesn’t appeal to you.  You won’t be able to walk away from your neighbor.

But then, your neighbor won’t be able to turn his back on you.

Yeah, I’m idealizing.  But isn’t that what the G.O.P. is doing?  Stating cases that by their extreme ideological tone are caricatures of reality?

I’ll leave you with this thought:  it may be perfectly natural to want to separate yourself and your family from poverty, even if that means pretending it’s not your problem.  Maybe it’s not, directly.  But we don’t live in a world where we have the luxury of letting the poor remain unaddressed.  Poverty and disease are linked.  Tuberculosis is making a comeback, and it’s the poor neighborhoods where it’s taking hold first, and some strains are now drug resistent.  TB itself recognizes no class.  Money won’t stop it.  Withold services from them and the kids in rich counties are increasingly liable to come into contact with it.  Poverty is an incubator.

I don’t want universal health care because I’m such a great humanitarian.  I want it to protect myself and my family and friends from the epidemics history shows us germinate through the poor first.  Untreated diseases don’t just go away because they live in bad neighborhoods and effect people we don’t hang with.  Let that get started, then we’ll all find out just how self-sufficient we really are.