Following up here on my post from last week about Jeb Bush and his misreading of The Scarlet Letter as a manual for how to put the Hester Prynnes of this world in their place: Up on a metaphorical scaffold in front of a glowering crowd of Puritan scolds with a great big mark of shame on her breast. The New York Times had a story about Jeb(!)'s trying to talk his way around the fact that at one time he advocated publicly shaming unwed mothers as a solution to the problem of teenage pregnancy.
Jeb is a Republican, as if you need me to remind you, and for a Republican teenage pregnancy isn't a problem because of the burdens it places on young single mothers and their children. It’s a problem because of the burdens those mothers and their children place on Republican taxpayers. Teenage pregnancy leads to poverty and poverty leads to food stamps, public housing, school lunch programs, Medicaid, and Obamaphones. It also leads to crime and crime is scary, particularly when the criminals are black or brown and the victims are white, which as we all know is almost always the case, just as almost all teenage mothers are black and brown, and that's no coincidence. But I'm not a racist. At any rate, Republicans tend to yadda-yadda the poverty leads to crime part because that implies that doing something about poverty might be a good idea and to do that would require Republicans to spend money on people they don't really care about. It's far easier and cheaper to believe it's all about individuals taking responsibility.
Shaming doesn't cost anywhere near as much as universal pre-k.
The Times reports that although Jeb doesn't out and out disavow what he wrote twenty years ago now, he has modified his thinking, and anyway he didn't really mean we should shame unwed mothers for having sex and getting pregnant, although it might have sounded that way. He meant we should shame the fathers who didn't stick around to help raise their children into returning to take on their responsibilities.
The Times goes on to help Jeb out by pointing out that
Mr. Bush is not alone in using pointed language — and the concept of shame — to encourage two-parent households. Democratic leaders, including President Obama, have done the same.
That's true, as far as it goes. It just doesn't go very far because of whom Jeb and the President are talking to.
It's not the same people.
When evaluating the substance of politicians' speeches, statements, and op-ed pieces, always keep in mind who they're talking to.
Their first audience is their base and so you have to ask who that is and what do they want to hear.
President Obama has often spoken about personal responsibility and the importance of both parents in the lives of children. I don't recall his ever using language that could be construed as shaming. That would include an implicit criticism of his mother and he never talks about her without reverence, respect, admiration, gratitude, and love. So, if anything, he's done the opposite of trying to shame single mothers. But talking about her is part of what else he's doing besides preaching. He's holding up himself and his family --- Michelle, her mother, who, remember, lives with them in the White House, and his grandparents, along with his mother---as role models for the people he's mainly talking to. Young African Americans.
The Times quotes from a campaign speech from his first run for President.
“We need fathers to realize that responsibility does not end at conception,” Mr. Obama said as a candidate in 2008.
“Too many fathers are M.I.A., too many fathers are AWOL, missing from too many lives and too many homes,” Mr. Obama said at the time. “They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it.”
The rhetoric is stern, a bit lecturing, even scolding, because he can't help himself that way sometimes, but still fatherly. The intention is to be instructive and offer guidance. Far from shaming, it's encouraging. The underlying goal is to help young men and young women on the way to taking advantage of opportunities to help themselves better themselves and their lives, and it's substantive because it's backed up by policies and programs to create such opportunities and give them the means, the skills, and the know-how to take advantage of those opportunities.
Republicans aren't talking to those young people. They're talking about them and not with any real intention to be instructive or helpful. They're talking about them to their base---primarily white Southern and Midwestern suburbanites---and they're talking about them as objects on which the base should focus their anger and their fear.
The object isn’t to shame. It’s to blame.
There's no substance to what they say. There's only demagoguery.
There's no substance to almost everything Republicans say because they don't want to do anything substantial. Republicans come to Washington to collect their paychecks, funnel government contracts to friends and donors back home, and find ways to make life easier for the rich and harder for the rest of us and even harder for the poor. Everything they say includes a promise to do that.
But their white Southern-Midwestern-suburban base wants to hear more than that. They want to hear that they are good people.
The only good people.
So they also need to hear that everybody else is bad because in their minds there can't be a good without a counterbalancing bad.
Good is the opposite of bad and so the only thing it takes to be good is not be bad.
And since bad is by definition an other, then bad people are others, those others, and all it takes to be good is to not be one of those others. To not be one of them.
So Republican rhetoric is a continual exercise in identifying others and assuring the base they aren’t like those others. They aren’t them.
From the Times’ story:
Asked about the passage on Thursday during a news conference in Poland, Mr. Bush said his stances have evolved since 1995 but that “my views about the importance of dads being involved in the lives of their children haven’t changed at all.”
This puts him in tune with the things Republicans like Rand Paul were saying about the troubles in Baltimore back in April. The cause wasn’t that the cops there are out of control and have infuriated the African American community they police through intimidation and violence. The trouble wasn’t caused by the killing of Freddie Gray.
As for root causes, Paul listed some ideas of his own.
"There are so many things we can talk about," the senator said, "the breakdown of the family structure, the lack of fathers, the lack of a moral code in our society."
The trouble is all of their own making.
Jeb’s version is more toned down, pitched in a lower key, sung in a softer voice, but it’s the same song because it’s sung to the same audience.
Whatever Republicans say about anything, they’re saying it to their base. They’re saying what the base wants to hear, and what the base wants to hear is this:
“You aren't like them. You are good. You deserve all that is good. The reason you don't have it is them. Everything that's wrong with your life is their fault. You are right to hate them and fear them and want to see them put down and punished. You're right to think they deserve whatever suffering God inflicts upon them. You're right not to want to help them. You can't help them even if you wanted to. It's happening to them because they are what they are. You can't change that. They have to do it for themselves and obviously they don't want to or they'd have done it already. That they haven't changed is proof they don't want to change and that they don't want to change is proof that they're bad and like being bad and want to continue to be bad, because they are bad. Unlike you, who are good because you're not like them."
“They want what you have but because they're bad they don't want to work for it. The only way to have it without working for it is to take it from someone who has worked for it. Someone like you. They want to take it from you.
We will stop them. We will protect you and what belongs to you. We will take back from them what they've taken from you. Vote for us. Vote Republican and we'll make sure you get what's coming to you.”
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