Divide and conquer strategy blurs vision

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Joseph Yates

Average Joe

A nice fellow has been traveling around the county lately, soliciting the assistance of others in helping those who are unable to help themselves. I intend to support his cause. I have seen his presentation twice—it is a gentle, soft-sell pitch in which he asks for our help. During both presentations he used the phrase “this is not a hand out.”

“This is not a hand out.” Hmmm. Nowadays, we seem to find it necessary to include this qualifier whenever we discuss giving to the unfortunate—we must first be reassured that we are not blowing our money on…well, you know…lazy deadbeats.

We frame our dialogue like this because of the presence of a straw man—the myth of the ever-present deadbeat, the ubiquitous slacker. This myth was created as part of the right-wing’s very effective ‘divide and conquer’ strategy, to divert our attention from the real welfare cheats.

Here’s how it works. See that guy over there drawing a welfare check? He’s the reason you’re miserable, that your taxes are high; he is an in-your-face example of what’s wrong with the whole dang world. You work your rear end off just to make ends meet, and this bum, who is no less able-bodied than you are, has bamboozled his way into receiving a hand-out for the rest of his life. He is one of Mitt Romney’s 47%—a “taker.” But ignore those billionaires that received over $11 million in farm subsidies from 1995 to 2012.

Am I arguing that deadbeats don’t exist? Not at all—I have just as many anecdotes as you do about able-bodied guys who receive a guv’mint check but work occasionally “for cash only.” What I am saying is this: the elephant in the room is the fabricated “fact” that the number of these ‘ne’er do wells’ is so enormous that if we could only eliminate them, we could balance the budget, eradicate the national debt and our taxes would fall to manageable levels. Baloney.

How about some real facts? The CBO reports that Social Security Disability Insurance provided $119 billion in benefits to 8.3 million disabled workers in fiscal year 2011. (You are welcome to estimate what percentage of total disability spending goes to deadbeats.) Then compare your number with the amount we give away annually to big business—over $100 billion—as calculated by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank dedicated to “limited government [and] free markets.” We won’t mention the $240 billion in government assistance that fast-food workers and their families received because the companies they work for refuse to raise their poverty-level wages.

Again, I am not saying it’s not a problem—it’s a matter of priority, so I’ll make a deal with you. You know those families out there on Maddox Ridge or Salt River Road that spend their disability checks on satellite television and lottery tickets? If you promise to vote for candidates that will work to eliminate welfare for big corporations, then I’ll ride out to their houses and help you torch their satellite dishes.

There are two factors in play here. The first is the lies and half-truths spread by right-wing propaganda; the second is the laziness of an electorate that blindly accepts it.

Right-wing misinformation is pervasive and doesn’t conjure up only welfare boogey men. For example, tell someone that works at one of our local plants that their factory is closing because labor is cheaper in China and he or she goes to register Republican—it’s the Obama economy! A Wall Street CEO fritters away a couple’s life savings on jewelry for his wife’s Pomeranian and the same couple starts writing letters to the editor about keeping government “off our backs.” But just mention a union or raising tax rates on the incomes of the super wealthy and you’re a godless commie.

Our politics are driven by the demands of our consumer-culture: instant gratification in the form of quick, simple answers that don’t require us to break a sweat.

The problem is not foreigners, homosexuals, non-Christians or black presidents. It is the obstinate refusal of the electorate—aided by right-wing media—to even scratch the sound-bite surface of a social issue.