Fulbright Alumna Arlie Hochschild, a professor of sociology at The University of California, Berkeley, compares the (non-)reaction of the American public towards socially unjust budget policies with a chauffeur who is driving his wealthy boss around in a limousine, watches him get out of the car, steal a loaf of bread from a homeless mother and her two children, and get back into his luxury vehicle. The chauffeur feels real qualms about leaving behind an even poorer family and a baffled crowd of sidewalk witnesses, but drives on nonetheless.
You can read Prof. Hochschild's article in the liberal journal Mother Jones. If you want to read some quotes first that explain the dilemma, describe the role of the American Dream, the successful conservative stratgey to win blue-collar hearts and minds, and the change of Christian values, then continue to read here:
In 1970, when America had far fewer homeless children and millionaires, it helped people more, and taxpayers begrudged it less. Most people were proud that the United States was a middle-class society, without much in the way of an overclass or an underclass. They credited their government for fostering this ideal. Many Christians among them thought taxes on the rich and programs for the poor expressed a vital Christian ideal: sharing. (...)
Most Americans strongly believe in working hard and moving up the ladder of success. They "identify up" with people more rich, famous, and lucky than they, rather than "identifying down" with people more poor, obscure, and unlucky. However underpaid, our chauffeur dreams of becoming a millionaire more than he dreads lying homeless in the street. If others can rise to the top, he figures, why can't he? And in decades past, he had good reason to aim high. For every decade in the 150 years before 1970 -- including the decade of the Great Depression -- real earnings rose. As University of Massachusetts economist Rick Wolff points out, however tough a man's job or long his hours, he could usually look forward to a bigger paycheck. But after 1970, the real earning power of male wages -- and I focus here on men, for they are the closer fit to the profile of the chauffeur -- stopped rising. Their dream was linked, it turned out, to jobs in an industrial sector that been automated out or outsourced abroad.
But three things have changed since 1970: attitudes toward governmental redistribution, economic times, and the shape of empathy. Attitudes toward redistribution are different -- even among those who would stand to benefit the most. When asked in a 2003 Hart and Teeter poll, "Do you think this (Bush) tax plan benefits mainly the rich or benefits everyone?" 56% of blue-collar men (those without a college degree) who answered "yes"(the plan favors the rich) still favored the plan." (...)
From 1973 to 1996, average hours per worker went up 19%. Since the 1970s, increases have occurred in involuntary job loss, in work absences due to illness or disability, and in debt and bankruptcy. The proportion of single mother families rose from 12% in 1970 to 26% in 2003. Tougher times have led, in turn, to an "empathy squeeze." That is, many people responded to this crisis by withdrawing into their own communities, their own families, themselves. If a man gets fired or demoted, if he can't make his house payments, if his wife is leaving him, or if his son is failing in school, he feels like he's got enough on his hands. He can't afford to feel sorry for so many other people. (...) Despite this, many people who voted for Bush may feel real qualms about the homeless mother and her hungry children. They experience the chauffeur's dilemma. In his heart of hearts, the chauffeur feels bad that he has put such space between himself and the homeless woman's plight. If he goes to a Christian church, he wants to be a good, giving, sharing Christian. And here is where Bush and his social-issues team make a stealthy empathy grab. How? They "privatize" the chauffeur's morality, and in two ways. They do it first by redefining "good" as a matter not of giving or of sharing but of judging. The chauffeur is offered the chance to feel good by disapproving of homosexuals and of economic failures while quietly setting aside the idea of helping the poor, the disabled, the mentally ill, and the unemployed. Second and more importantly, Bush proposes the idea of giving through private, religious channels, and thus offers moral cover for the idea of giving less. (...)
This leads me to a second effect of economic distress that Wolff notes: rising membership in nontraditional Protestant churches. Among these are some churches that promote the belief that the world is coming to an end, and that, following this, Christians will ascend to heaven in a Rapture while all others will suffer in hell. Those who hold to these beliefs are not a minor group. According to a recent Gallup Poll, 36% of Americans believe that the world is coming to an end. The 12-volume Left Behind series of Christian novels has sold more than 62 million copies. (...)
Like many others, I felt moved by the Christians who knelt in prayer for the family of the late Terri Schiavo, the comatose patient on life support in Florida. But it made me wonder why we don't see similar vigils drawing attention to near-comatose victims of winter living on city sidewalks. They've been taken off life support, too.
Please read the full article at Mother Jones.