Last week, I watched Hurricane Isaac batter the American Gulf States – well, when I wasn’t watching Republican vice-president wannabee Paul Ryan lie through his teeth (you know you’re in trouble when even Fox News points out how deceitful you’re being) and Clint Eastwood make a fool of himself with an empty chair, because clearly the antics of the Republican National Convention take precedence over a natural disaster affecting non-millionaires. I’m thankful, though, that while Isaac has been destructive, and deaths have occurred, it could have been worse.
And of course it had been worse. Almost to the day seven years ago, one of the most powerful storms in recorded history broke the levees of New Orleans and killed nearly 2,000 people, with 80% of the deaths occurring within the city. It was a disaster – but the response from the authorities was an epic fiasco of chaos, racism, mismanagement and apathy. It was unthinkable, that in the most affluent nation on the planet, that we should see thousands of Americans huddled together within the Superdome, just miles from proper food, shelter, water and medicine, suffering from hunger, thirst, heat, disease.
As well as from the attitude of the authorities, and those who supported them. My British family and friends opined that when the rest of the country saw what was happening, they would rise up in protest at how their fellow Americans were being mistreated.
But I knew better. And the vox populi that emerged in the surrounding days was telling:
“They should have left before Katrina came.”
“They were probably sticking around to loot the houses and stores of decent folk.”
“Hey, people die all the time.”
I’m surprised no one also suggested that they should let them eat cake.
I knew better, because I grew up there. Americans can be the most optimistic, generous people on the planet. They truly believe in their self-made American Dream, in the idea that everyone who came there had an equal chance at becoming a success at whatever they wanted to do – even becoming President. It’s suffused in just about every aspect of their culture. And it has worked, for many people, over many years.
But there’s another, darker, more ruthless side to that coin. Because there’s a twisted, unspoken corollary to the American Dream, at least in some people’s eyes: since it seems like everybody has a shot at making a success out of life in America, if you don’t make it, even if it looks like it’s not your fault, it must be your fault. You’re lazy. You’re a criminal. You probably want to spend your life on welfare. Not your fault? That can’t be right, that would imply the system was wrong. Anyone can make it.
Just ask Ayn Rand, a Russian émigré of no particular literary talent who, with Objectivism, managed to create an extremist philosophy now embraced by huge numbers of right-wing nutcases. Paul Ryan was one of those nutcases, instructing all of his staff to read her malus opus Atlas Shrugged, the rambling, wish-fulfilment work favoured by all sociopathic, superior, egotistical college kids, due to its espousing how right and good it was to be sociopathic, superior and egotistical. Rand’s heroes are individuals, thinkers, movers and shakers, not “second-handers”, as Rand branded anyone who wasn’t a job-making industrialist or creator (which included journalists, social workers and, ironically, politicians). They rely on no one and expect no one to rely on them. They’re lone wolves standing tall and uncompromising against the masses of mediocrity and conformity – the individual has great appeal to the American ideal. After all, the country was founded by individuals who mapped and tamed the wilderness and shot buffalo and built railroads and invented things in their sheds. Or so the myth goes.
Another quality of the Randian Objectivist ideal is “rational selfishness”. Greed is good, and someone who can make money should be free to make as much as they can and operate as they please, without interference from the corrupt, statist government and its attempts to bleed their profits via taxes and regulations. These movers and shakers are the modern gentry, and they shouldn’t have to give their hard-earned money to the lazy, grasping, untalented peons, leeches who would only waste it on food stamps and healthcare and just breed more of their ignorant kind (by the way, Rand spent her last years on Social Security and Medicare, the lazy, grasping, untalented peon).
And if some of the peons die from floods or thirst because they weren’t fortunate enough or smart enough or rich enough to help themselves, well fuck them; so long as there’s a few left to clean the toilets and flip the burgers. It’s a worldview that members of the Right, not just Ryan but so many, many others, embrace like a lifeline, a validation of their avarice. Greed is Good. They don’t call it greed, of course, but rational self-interest, and that the individual should “exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself”. So fuck you, altruism.
And they like other aspects of her philosophy too: racism in itself is wrong, but a man should have the individual right to embrace it and discriminate against others; homosexuality is immoral and disgusting; women had the same rights as men, but a woman’s greatest fulfilment can only be found in the service of a strong, money-making man; rationality is the only means of observing reality, and all religions are wrong and false-
No wait a second. Sorry, that last one is where the Right draws the line. Atheism? No way, too many Christians in the party. That’s why Ryan is now making his lifelong obsession with Rand seem like a casual one-off book club thing he did one night while he was drunk. They can have the rest of Objectivism: callousness disguised as self-reliance, greed disguised as ambition, homophobia disguised as Traditional Family Values, misogyny disguised as Pro Life. But don’t rattle the Christians’ cages.
Rand would be doing pirouettes in her grave to see the likes of the Tea Party espousing some but not all of her ideals. Had she lived longer, she might have heard the term “Cafeteria Christianity”, a derogatory term used by some Christians to accuse other Christians of being selective in which doctrines they will follow, and which they will ignore, like picking the food they like in a cafeteria line. It could certainly be applied to politics as well as religion (or both, as in the case of much of the American Right, hence the ability to call oneself a Christian and neglect that annoying doctrine it has about helping the poor).
Some might wonder how ordinary, working- and middle-class Republicans, the people whom the likes of Romney, Ryan and their ilk would never, ever rub shoulders with in a million years, can support them. They have a long-standing track record of squeezing the poor to support the rich, of thinly-shrouded racism, misogyny and homophobia, of lying through their teeth time and again. Romney and Ryan are cut from the same billionaires’ cloth as the Bushes, the Reagans, and all the others preceding them. So why keep going back to them?
The answer is terrible in its simplicity: because ordinary voters, sadly many not that well-educated, act like they’re in a cafeteria line, and pick and choose what they like in a party and its candidates. And while it happens with both major parties, of course, I’m focusing on the right wing here.
Ordinary voters like Republicans because Republicans are big on patriotism, on self-defence, on guns, on military might and security, on having money, on a return to traditional family ways, on anti-intellectualism, anti-multiculturalism, anti-liberalism, and a worship of “plain folk”. They are the ones who accept what they’re told at face value, even if it’s that Obama is a Muslim clone from Kenya with ties to the Nazi-Communist Illuminati. They are the ones who believe Forrest Gump was a documentary. They are the ones who’ll chant “USA! USA!” and like the sheep in Animal Farm, drown out any chance at questions or protest. They are the ones who throw peanuts at black camerawomen and firebomb abortion clinics.
But they’re not in a cafeteria line. They may wish to believe that they’re selecting what they want, and the rest doesn’t count, and the politicians are certainly happy to keep that illusion alive for them, condemning “big government” while striving to gain the highest offices in that government, and enact laws to further line the pockets of themselves and their cronies. Maybe the ordinary voters choose to ignore this, or accept it as the price they pay for a strong and secure America.
They’re not in a cafeteria line. They’re in a slaughterhouse, with a feeding tube forced down their oesophagi, and being made to take not just what they want, but the rest of it. They’re getting fattened up – and we know what happens to fattened animals when they’re fat enough.
©2012 Derek O’Brian, image via the Gather.com
Derek O’Brian is an awesome American/Brit writer living in Manchester. You can find his rants and raves about horror films over at Anything Horror and follow his assorted bon mots and fascinating insights on Twitter. Fingers crossed he’ll be back again to guest blog soon!