Lies, Damned Lies, and People Who Play by the Rules

Note, April 15, 2014: This posting originally cited a number of sources with links that are unfortunately now broken. These links have now been removed.

A phrase is on my mind: “People who play by the rules.” I vaguely remembered then-President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, referring to such people. According to the New York Times in 1994, following disastrous midterm elections,

“I hope and believe we can cooperate with the new [Republican] Congress,” Mr. Clinton said, speaking via satellite to delegates at a National League of Cities meeting in Minneapolis. “But cooperation from me cannot mean abandoning principle, abandoning the hard work we have already accomplished together in our fight to restore the economy, our fight against crime, our fight to give this country back to the hard-working people who play by the rules.”

This species of “hard-working people who play by the rules” is nearly absent from my experience. They certainly are not the ones I have ever seen being promoted in any of a succession of crappy jobs I’ve held, the only jobs I’ve ever been able to find on my own in thirty years of struggling to stay afloat in this succession of recessions that passes for an economy.

Indeed, my experience has overwhelmingly been that deception prevails. This of course appears in campaign promises, most notably recently of Barack Obama. It certainly appears in economic statistics weighted to protect the positions of those in power. It appears–repeatedly–in our rationales for going to war: We went to war and have continued to fight in in Afghanistan and in Iraq based on outright lies and an astonishing hubris, as we had in Vietnam. We lie about torture, pretending first that it isn’t torture, second that it is an effective means of gaining information, and third about the places where we conduct it. And it appears in the notions that we are a peace loving people, our blindness towards our extremely martial history, and even in the duplicity with which we treat our returning soldiers.

It even appears in the Pledge of Allegiance that schoolchildren recite each morning in school, to “one Nation under God, indivisible, With Liberty and Justice for all,” as if that included people of color and the poor who are disproportionately caught within our system of criminal so-called justice and who certainly do not benefit from the standard of justice that appears in the de facto amnesty that Obama has extended to war criminals and to those who have committed crimes against humanity and against the Constitution. I cannot help but connect the pledge to the beliefs of many soldiers and of those who support them, as expressed on the bumper sticker that “freedom isn’t free,” even when it is the millions of people in other countries who principally pay that cost with their own lives and their own homes, even when so many soldiers from disadvantaged groups offer themselves as cannon fodder in exchange for a recruiter’s promise of a college education that they otherwise feel they cannot afford and that might help them to avoid the fate of their imprisoned peers, and even when the outcome for our society is not freedom but fascism.

It seems like nothing in our country is what it appears and that what little truth emerges from or somehow evades mainstream media spin paints a picture of utter evil that has no respect for people even just trying to live, let alone live “by the rules.” Our economic prospects alone are sufficient to boil blood. But there are other stories that are just plain wrong. Doug Wead, writing on the conservative site, NewsMax, illustrates how our reality has become so infuriatingly twisted:

My French sister-in-law, in her twenties, seeking to come to the United States for medical treatment with medical papers in hand and telephone numbers of her doctors and receipts showing that the work had been paid, was sent home on the next plane. She had all of the right documentation and had never violated a stay in the country. But the officers decided she had made too many trips to the USA. She died in France a few months later.

Nor will the system even approve legitimate Hispanics if they are legally in the pipeline. I guess they are too likely to vote Republican.

I have a personal friend, Mexican, who graduated with a CPA from a prestigious university. He is doing charitable work that no one else can do in a difficult situation. By all of the government’s own rules he is a perfect candidate for citizenship. But no, the only citizens that the administration and the national media approve are those who have cheated to get here.

People who play by the rules and get in line are suckers.

And in my own direct experience, I have too often seen people who believe not just the hype that applies to our society in general, but even to the organizations they assume responsibility for. It goes without saying that such people would never examine the myths that stigmatize people: One of my senators, Diane Feinstein, a Democrat, said recently that

unemployment insurance has never carried the heavy weight that it does right now, the cost that it does right now, so people are concerned. And there isn’t a lot of documentation on this. Last night for the first time I had somebody from a company tell me they’ve offered jobs to individuals and they said well, I want to not come back to work until my unemployment insurance runs out. So we need to start looking at these things. And we need to start paying for it.

For the record, one of the conditions of my last job, teaching at California State University, East Bay, while finishing my Master’s, was explicitly that I would not be eligible for unemployment insurance. I stopped being eligible for that job when I graduated, and I needed to graduate, both because my financial aid for that program had run out and because I wanted to go on to my Ph.D. program. Since then, I have sent out resumes endlessly and fruitlessly in a ritual that has never worked for me in my entire adult life. I haven’t been collecting any benefits and I certainly haven’t found a job any sooner.

But when I have collected unemployment insurance in the past, it certainly didn’t pay better than a decent job. Instead, I have found myself in a succession of low-paying jobs that do not pay what it costs to live, which means that most of my employers over the decades of my working life have not even recognized the value of my life, and they have treated me accordingly. I had become accustomed to this, as I think most workers in low-wage jobs do, and not noticed it until I returned to school and noticed a dissonance between how I was treated by my professors and how I was treated by my employers.

I should explain that the term cognitive dissonance does not apply merely to any inconsistency, but rather to an inconsistency so profound that the dissonant concepts cannot coexist with each other. Such a dissonance compels a transformation of one’s world view. Ideally, one comes to understand the assumptions that underlie the incompatibilities.

As a student, I was honored. As an employee, I was abused. The transformation was that I came to understand the nature of low wage work, the work which conservatives maintain we should accept regardless.

When Diane Feinstein and other politicians (usually Republicans) claim that the jobless prefer unemployment benefits to a wage, they echo my abusive employers, in their pretense that human life should not be accorded even an elementary dignity promised in Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which I maintain are binding upon the United States (but which a political science professor replied are politically impossible):

  • (1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

  • (2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.

  • (3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.

  • (4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Instead, my employers have insisted that I, along with all my colleagues, should be considered infinitely replaceable, that no intelligence save their own should be rewarded, and that they should benefit from a loyalty they will not return.

It is seemingly never the competent who are promoted or even hired, but instead those who attract attention to themselves, no matter how outrageously, who rise, succeed, and prosper. If marketing isn’t your style, and it profoundly is not mine, this society will not recognize that you have any value at all.

Last Saturday, I wrote,

I have consistently decried the malice with which Obama declared with regard to unemployment, “We all know there are limits to what government can and should do even during such difficult times.” It was a prelude to sheer inaction and a hypocrisy that banks were worthy of a bailout but that the deficit was more important than the unemployed.

Obama’s statement devalues the millions who are unemployed. It is political folly and, as many economists agree, a hasty emphasis on the deficit is foolish. But it was also a more honest thing to say than when he said, and continues to say,

We have to continue to work every single day to get our economy moving again. For most Americans, and for me, that means jobs. It means whether we are putting people back to work.

As Robert Reich observed,

In June the nation added fewer jobs than necessary merely to keep up with population growth (private hiring rose by 83,000 after adding only 33,000 jobs in May). The typical workweek declined. Average earnings dropped. Home sales are down. Retail sales are down. Factory orders in May suffered their biggest tumble since March of last year.

So what are we doing about it? Less than nothing. The states are running an anti-stimulus program (raising taxes, cutting services, laying off teachers, firefighters, police and other employees) that’s now bigger than the federal stimulus program. That federal stimulus is 75 percent gone anyway. And the House and Senate refuse to pass another one. (The Senate left Washington for the July 4th weekend without even extending unemployment benefits for millions of jobless Americans now running out.)

This despite the fact that as bad as the numbers Reich cites–because those are the numbers published by “trusted” sources–are, they rely on assumptions that make no sense, that are clearly over-optimistic. It is just one subset of examples illustrating how our political system and our mainstream media cannot even be honest about hard realities that afflict millions of people, whether they are unemployed, whether they are Iraqis being killed or driven into exile, or whether they are innocent citizens targeted by drones, even when in the latter cases to carry on as we do presents a direct physical threat to our own safety.

It isn’t just “An Inconvenient Truth,” a film about global warming. It is any truth which does not conform to the narrative of those in power–whether politically, economically, or in the media–that is marginalized. And the people who suffer from those truths are marginalized. I’m sure many of them, like myself, have tried all our lives to “play by the rules.”

Politicians keep talking about “people who play by the rules” as if to acknowledge we are treated unfairly but carry on, like Obama on the jobless, changing nothing. We are largely invisible, even amongst ourselves. Because we aren’t the ones getting the promotions. We aren’t the ones getting hired. We aren’t conspicuous consumers. We aren’t worthy of notice. We are, it seems, only present to be exploited, only to do the real work that underlies any socioeconomic system when it is recognized that such work needs to be done, and when those in power are not so busy rewarding themselves with an economic “efficiency” that nearly always comes at our expense.