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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

C'mon, People Now, Trash Talk Your Brother!

Nobody uses the term anymore, but South Carolina Lieutenant Governor Andre Bauer's remarks about the evils of feeding poor schoolchildren are an example of down home "compassionate conservatism" in its purest form. (George Bush. Jr., who helpfully fed the media the phrase "compassionate conservatism" to help them explain to the voters why he wasn't anything like those red-meat lunatic Republicans that everyone had gotten so sick of since the Gingrich revolution, best captured the thinking behind upscale compassionate conservatism with his dream of "the ownership society", defined as protecting banks and other financial institutions from any kind of regulations or oversight that might prevent or even discourage them from lending middle-class or upper-working-class people money or cutting them mortgages that were all but guaranteed to eventually wipe them out financially if they didn't win the lottery.) Speaking at a town hall, the man who is Mark Sanford's insurance policy against being forcibly removed from office explained that "My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed! You're facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don't think too much further than that." Note the speaker's confidence that anything that oozes from his mouth will be taken for folk wisdom so long as he makes clear that he is extrapolating from the teachings of his grandmother, who, since she wasn't "highly educated" (i.e., corrupted by book learnin'), must have had her every utterance informed by the higher wisdom of the heart. Because of the failure of his own family to prepare him for his moment in the sun by spending their lives sitting by the outhouse eating dirt, George Bush, Jr. had no earthy forbears he could point to and had to prove that, despite his diploma from Yale, he was himself a self-made idiot.

Some spoilsports, ignoring those who'd say that catching a family-values Republican behaving hypocritically is too easy a sport to interest a sentient adult, have pointed out that Bauer himself, coming from a long line of not highly educated people, was himself a beneficiary of school lunch programs. To see anything peculiar in this, let alone see it as a reason to call out, "Gotcha!", is to fail to understand the building blocks of the compassionate conservative mind. It is a mind that grows and develops over time, as one's mind should, taking in new data and reevaluating things based on changing circumstances. In the case of whether one supports or denounces school lunches, the big change is whether one is eating them or paying for them. When Bauer was a little tyke, and he was presented with a tray containing a sandwich and an apple and a little carton of milk by a government storm trooper in a hairnet, I doubt that he spit on it and yelled, "This is socialism in action. J'accuse!" In fact, I'm sure he didn't do that, because if he did, boy, would he be including that information in his town hall sermons. It was only when he grew up and saw other people's children feasting on those sandwiches, in some cases tearing off and discarding the crust of the bread, the little ingrate motherfuckers, that he saw that, all along, he had been on the receiving end of a scheme aimed at getting him to go out and breed to create more little rodents who'd grow up and vote Democratic for their own selfish interests. It was also around that time that he noticed that five of those trays a week, nine or so months out of the year, were not just a gesture at allowing the children to stay conscious through their afternoon classes but in fact added up to an "ample food supply" for each of the little parasites. And you thought Spartacus was set in decadent times!

Compassionate conservatism is the natural province of two groups of people: those who've been in a position to benefit from government programs, like Bauer (and Ronald Reagan, who, when he was a liberal Democrat, liked to talk about his family had been saved by the New Deal, and who, after he became Ronald Reagan, still liked to talk about it, to make the point that being saved from starvation by Big Gummint had destroyed and emasculated his dear pop), or by relaxed social standards, such as Clarence Thomas or the serial adulterer Gingrich or the hike-happy Mark Sanford, and who agree that anybody else who benefits the way they have is some species of vermin or pervert, and those who, like George, Jr., those who've been fantastically privileged all their lives and now want to show those who've known hunger and prejudice that they are welcome to join them at the top of the skyscraper if they'll just agree to wage war on the same people they'd rather not have hanging around the yacht club. In the case of someone like Clarence Thomas, this may mean that the new recruit has to recognize, as Reagan did, that all the breaks he got in life, which were open to others, were actually veiled insults delivered right to his face, for which he will never stop seething--unlike the breaks offered to him by his new friends, who singled him out from all those other candidates for a slot on the team because they could perceive his unique inner qualities.

Let me be clear. Having seen him being interviewed on TV and having looked into his pissed-off crazy red eyes, I think that Thomas really believes that anytime his career was advanced by anyone to the left of P. W. Botha, he was the victim of "Affirmative Action", which he sees as a wicked plot to destroy his self-esteem by taking his skin color into consideration in relation to his overall worth and rightness for a given position. The corollary to this is that he also really believes that, when the only black member of the Supreme Court stepped down, and a Republican president who had terrible relations with civil rights groups and black voters in general selected him as the obvious replacement, this decision had nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that Thomas was black. On the contrary, a 43-year-old Republican bureaucrat with a thin paper trail who'd spent a whole year on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals and who--unless we are to assume that Thomas perjured himself during his confirmation hearings, o impermissible morbid thought!--had never in his four decades on the planet engaged in a serious conversation about abortion and in fact had not yet developed an opinion about it. Thomas did develop an opinion about that, and a lot of other things, at some point between he was confirmed and his first day on the Court, but hey, clearly by then it was time to man up.

The Republican Party is a big tent. It makes room for people who wouldn't have survived to adulthood without government aid who now see children who get free school lunches as rats breeding out of control; for people who use the law degrees that wouldn't have been able to earn without taking advantages of programs and laws designed to help disadvantaged or minority students to make it harder to for poor people and minorities to rise above the station they were born into; for men who, when they aren't delivering brimstone speeches against gay marriage, have to think about catching a glimpse of their old college dorm roommate in the shower in order to endure sex with their wives. This kind of self-serving, probably unconscious hypocrisy has come to seem so natural a part of our political culture that it only really creeps you out now when you see someone who doesn't belong in that culture but has gotten sucked into it to serve someone else's agenda, the way that Paula Jones was, and the way that Bristol Palin has been, now that, by virtue of having had a baby as a teenager, is now the Republican Party's official poster child for sexual abstinence. (She's also the "teen ambassador"--it sounds like the kind of title you'd get for sending in the most cereal box tops to the Davy Jones Fan Club, doesn't it?-- for the Candie’s Foundation, which seeks “to educate America's youth about the devastating consequences of teen pregnancy” and encourages abstinence through such devices as T-shirts with sexy let's-just-wait slogans. It's the most socially aware thing Candies has been involved in since that ad campaign for their shoes that featured Jenny McCarthy parked on the toilet!)

I'm uncomfortable picking on Bristol Palin for the same reason that I was uncomfortable with picking on Sofia Coppola for her performance in The Godfather, Part III: I don't really know the inner details of all this, and I think it's kind of harsh to bash someone who may be just trying to humor a parent she presumably loves, or at least fears. So this piece on Bristol and Ma Palin's joint TV appearance on the abstinence trail is a little snarkier than I can get behind. I agree, though, that the poor kid comes across as someone who "hates her own message." It's not really her message, anymore than all the messages of the various kinds of Clinton-haters who took up Paula Jones's cause had anything to do with her; she just seemed to want some attention and a nose job. It's been a year since the CNN interview in which Bristol said that she wished that she'd waited ten years to have her first child but also claimed to believe that telling kids to just not have sex isn't "realistic at all." Of course, that was also the interview in which many of us, Bristol perhaps included, learned that anytime she shot her mouth off to a reporter, she could count on her mom to swoop in to monitor and/or "clarify" her remarks. A lot of people will probably agree that it would be a terrible thing if Bristol were being forced to live any part of her life in the public eye just because her mother wants to both milk and spin the very part of her life that you'd expect her to most want to keep to herself, but at the same time complain that it's condescending for any outsider to assume that an eighteen-year-old girl can't take care of herself and speak her own mind. But if Bristol Palin is stumping for this message, or stumping at all, for any reason other than that she woke up one morning completely convinced, all by herself, that she had to get out there and testify--if it has anything at to do with Sarah Palin having whispered in her ear, just once, that it sure would be helpful for mommy-- then what's going on with her would constitute child abuse even if she were male and forty years old.

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