The hypocrisy of simplicity

It seems that police, firefighters, and teachers are now to be considered on the same level as “welfare queens”:

There is, in fact, something astonishing about the ascent of Chris Christie, who is about as slick as sandpaper and who now admits that even he didn’t think he would beat Jon Corzine, the Democrat he unseated in 2009. Some critics have posited that Christie’s success in office represents merely the triumph of self-certainty over complexity, the yearning among voters for leaders who talk bluntly and with conviction. Yet it’s hard to see Christie getting so much traction if he were out there castigating, say, immigrants or Wall Street bankers. What makes Christie compelling to so many people isn’t simply plain talk or swagger, but also the fact that he has found the ideal adversary for this moment of economic vertigo. Ronald Reagan had his “welfare queens,” Rudy Giuliani had his criminals and “squeegee men,” and now Chris Christie has his sprawling and powerful public-sector unions — teachers, cops and firefighters who Christie says are driving up local taxes beyond what the citizenry can afford, while also demanding the kind of lifetime security that most private-sector workers have already lost.[1]

If Thomas Frank is to be believed, the antipathy which precedes the Tea Party movement extends to anyone who complicates a simplistic world view—people with diverse cultural perspectives or who, having studied issues, understand that they do not reduce simply to dichotomies of good and evil.[2] And Hannah Arendt highlights a tension between what might be cast as an “ivory tower” scholarship and the practical concerns of politics and of everyday life—the latter being manifest as the lack of freedom stemming from having to earn a living and the former perhaps being seen as usurping a freedom promised to all in the Christian hereafter by a privileged few in the here and now.[3]

It is striking that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s rhetoric, in excluding bankers as evil, aligns with Frank’s observation that among the conservatives who have come to dominate U.S. politics, the consequences of capitalism—whether from the robber barons of the Industrial Revolution or from the financial sector today—are immunized from challenge as “simply business.” Here it seems that the complexity of derivatives is acceptable, even when they defraud[4] and unemploy large numbers of people,[5] perhaps because those who allegedly accepted mortgages they could not afford and those who may now fear they will never find employment again[6] can now be stigmatized as “undeserving” and are therefore richly useful to society in multiple ways of scapegoating.[7]

What is even more striking is how those for whom the “undeserving” create jobs[8]—including teachers and those who work in criminal injustice—are now themselves being demonized simply for insisting on a right to organize to negotiate with the organizations that employ them. Apparently, it is simple enough when government is all-powerful in bargaining with its employees and much too complicated when government asserts authority in any other way. This indeed is the gratitude police receive for upholding the hierarchy in the property relations of social order (meaning the status quo of the social position of the wealthy).[9] This indeed is the gratitude prison guards receive for fulfilling a function that Paulo Freire might parallel with the plantation overseer—a laborer promoted above his peers and crueler to them than the property owner would ever be.[10] This indeed is the gratitude teachers receive for their role in ensuring that poor children understand they are considered unworthy of investment.[11]

And yet there is more. The creeping fascism that scapegoats the poor, the unemployed, and now even public sector employees who were lionized as “first responders” in the 9/11 attack already impugns a scholarly class that also includes the people who train the scientists, mathematicians, and engineers who made the technology of the red state lifestyle possible, a class that is inseparable from technocrats and a particular attitude toward technology and even from those who critique them.[12] But a mystification of technology—Arendt highlights that “knowledge (in the modern sense of know-how) and thought [may] have parted company for good”[13] and that few understand the technology that nearly all of us rely upon—is apparently acceptable as long as it advances the exploitation of the earth while the science that enables that technology is to be rejected when, as with climate change and other environmental threats, it warns against that exploitation.

As a country, it seems the United States has not merely developed but now celebrates a level of irrationality that boggles my mind. For its own lack of internal consistency, it dwarfs even the bizarre prudishness about sexuality that manifest with the introduction of sex education to Chicago in 1913[14] in a debate in which thinking seems to have made absolutely no progress since. It is a country that for all its appeals to simplicity makes no sense. Of this, Frank writes:

As a social system, the backlash works. The two adversaries [progressives and conservatives] feed off of each other in a kind of inverted symbiosis: one mocks the other, and the other heaps even more power on the one. This arrangement should be the envy of every ruling class in the world. Not only can it be pushed much, much further, but it is fairly certain that it will be so pushed.[15]

Frank wrote well before the rise of the Tea Party whose politicians supply a positive (destabilizing) feedback that now threatens to upend a system where Republican elites refused to deliver on conservative priorities and allowed Democrats to accept the blame, feeding a conservative sense of victimization and disempowerment, while both parties profited in fundraising from a diversion of attention away from the problems of capitalism. Frank harshly criticizes Democrats for abandoning their base among working people, for refusing to critique capitalism and thus allowing an economic system to assume the status of a national ideology, immune from challenge, leaving only social issues in the political arena. While Democrats quest for the “center,” Frank argues, Republicans gain from conservative fury.[16] And it remains to be seen whether workers’ need for representation can now, at this very late stage, offer a negative (stabilizing) feedback to restore even the perverse balance that existed before Mondale’s debacle in 1984, the debacle that led to the rise of the Democratic Leadership Council that pursued a strategy of so-called moderation, trying to wean the South away from Republicans.

Indeed, Frank challenges my experience that if something doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t make sense, and it cannot last. Even if he is wrong, complexity theory suggests that unchecked positive feedback can create a new system. Philip Slater hoped that such a new system would be much more integrative, welcoming of diversity,[17] but the nature of emergent properties means we cannot forecast the outcome.[18]

As we see with firefighters, police, and teachers, simplicity now betrays even its heroes and even its lackeys. It has become very, very dangerous. And what happens next is anyone’s guess.

  1. [1]Matt Bai, “How Chris Christie Did His Homework,” New York Times, February 24, 2011
  2. [2]Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (New York: Henry Holt, 2005).
  3. [3]Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1998).
  4. [4]Andy Kroll, “Fannie and Freddie’s Foreclosure Barons,” Mother Jones, August 4, 2010; Amy Goodman, “When Banks Are the Robbers,” Truthdig, October 19, 2010; John Letzing, “Ohio AG sues GMAC, Ally over foreclosure fraud,” MarketWatch, October 6, 2010; Dean Starkman, “A ‘Gate’ Worthy of the Name—’ForeclosureGate’,” Columbia Journalism Review, October 11, 2010; Matt Taibbi, “Courts Helping Banks Screw Over Homeowners,” Rolling Stone, November 10, 2010; L. Randall Wray, “Right Now, A Complete Collapse Of The Financial System Is Not Out Of The Question,” Business Insider, November 4, 2010
  5. [5]Andy Kroll, “The Face of An American Lost Generation,” TomDispatch, October 5, 2010,,_the_face_of_an_american_lost_generation/
  6. [6]Motoko Rich, “For the Unemployed Over 50, Fears of Never Working Again,” New York Times, September 19, 2010,
  7. [7]Herbert J. Gans, “The Uses of Undeservingness,” in Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro, 3rd ed. (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2005), 85-95.
  8. [8]Gans.
  9. [9]Jeffrey Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison: Ideology, Class, and Criminal Justice, 7th ed. (Boston: Pearson, 2004).
  10. [10]Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th Anniversary ed. (New York: Continuum, 2006); Philip Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, (New York: Random House, 2008).
  11. [11]Jonathan Kozol, Savage Inequalities (New York: HarperPerennial, 2006).
  12. [12]Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (New York: Vintage, 1964); Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Vintage, 1993).
  13. [13]Arendt, 3.
  14. [14]Jeffrey P. Moran, “‘Modernism Gone Mad’: Sex Education Comes to Chicago, 1913,” Journal of American History 83, no. 2 (1996): 481-513.
  15. [15]Frank, p. 249.
  16. [16]Frank
  17. [17]Philip Slater, The Chrysalis Effect: The Metamorphosis of Global Culture (Brighton, UK: Sussex, 2009).
  18. [18]Bruce Mazlish, The Uncertain Sciences (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2007).

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