Ethics: An Ethical Rant?

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November 7, 2012 by Michael

Lex Williford—my MFA thesis adviser, good friend and fellow writer—sent the self-described diatribe below to the El Paso Times last week and subsequently posted it to his Facebook page last week before the election.

I liked it and asked him if I could post it on my blog, thinking it would make a good model for ethical speech in the week before the election. He quickly agreed—and I took another week to get around to posting it.

But Lex’s piece—an impassioned plea on behalf of the poor—is just as timely now as it was a week ago. I liked it for its ethical touches, which I’ll talk about at the end of the post. For now, I present to you an ethical rant from a fantastic writer. Enjoy.

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Much of my life I’ve believed that the US tends to swing too far in its politics, rarely finding a balance—the extremes, especially on the right over the last thirty years, dominating. The trouble, I believe, isn’t about whether we have too much or too little government; that’s an either/or fallacy if I’ve ever seen one. No, it’s almost always something else, income inequality, for example, especially in education, or our involvement in wars we can never win, or the need to move away from oil, coal and gas to renewable energy sources that won’t keep us dependent on the middle east or tip the scale of climate change against us. Clearly, both sides share the blame for all our failures. But since Ronald Reagan, hero and saint of the right, said that government isn’t the solution to the problem but is in fact the problem itself, people have found an easy scapegoat in government programs of any kind and anyone who speaks for them—for the least of these, as Jesus said.

The almost perfect fifty-fifty split in this country over whom we should elect reflects just this kind of polarization: the tension between those who believe government should help those who can’t help themselves and those who think that people in the US should all take complete responsibility for their lives and if they’re poor or unlucky and they fail or they lose, so be it. This tension between individual and collective needs will always exist—the ultimate solution finding some kind of stable balance between them, I think, neither plutocracy nor socialism but something that falls reasonably in between—but as long as this country is represented by politicians at polar opposites, especially those who refuse to compromise, and not the rest of us, we’re going to be at war with ourselves for a long time, and that is the perhaps the biggest problem we face, complete paralysis, the inability to do anything at all, much less anything for the public good.

Worse, now that we’re broke after two unfunded wars and huge tax cuts for the wealthy and fewer Wall Street Regulations and all the money both Bush and Obama have had to spend just to keep the country from teetering over the edge, the pressure will continue to dismantle government and the welfare state because, so many people seem to believe, government is intrinsically evil and those who receive help really don’t need help at all; they’re just lazy. Republicans couldn’t have possibly come up with a more brilliant plan—to bankrupt the country so they can destroy government altogether—but that would be giving Republicans too much intellectual credit. It’s all really a kind of unthinking anarchy, but that’s apparently where we’re heading and I have no idea how to stop it, except to vote.

Forget that government pays the salaries of teachers and firemen and police officers. Forget that it builds roads and bridges. Forget that it helps the disabled and the poor and the mentally ill, the destitute and the elderly and the children of the poor. The government, based mostly on a nonprofit model, should shrink away and disappear altogether, this Grand Old Gilded-Age ideology argues, and everything will be all right as soon as we move the entire planet to a for-profit model. Mentally ill and elderly people should get over it and become entrepreneurs. The poor should just go away, as Scrooge says, to diminish the excess population. Hard to believe how many Americans have fallen so hard for so long for all this hooey, especially when it’s failed so spectacularly. But, hey, maybe we just need to give it all one more try, right?

I suspect that most people—especially independents and so-called Reagan Democrats—are trying to ignore the extremes, hungering for something other than an either/or fallacy, trying find a reasonable balance between the needs of the few and the needs of the many. That kind of thinking makes the most sense to me, but what do I know?

Setting a perfect precedent for our right-leaning Supreme Court and Citizens United, the first Chief Justice of the United States, John Jay, once wrote, “Those who own the country ought to govern it.” Like it or not, voting for Mitt Romney just reinforces this idea, taking us back to the good old days of American plutocracy when white men like Thomas Jefferson—despite all his talk about liberty and democracy—could build his Monticello mansion over slave quarters. Whether it’s been true or not in our short history, the principal of democracy is and has always been one man (or one woman or one person of color of any gender, straight or gay)/one vote. The electoral college notwithstanding, as long as those with the most can contribute hundreds, thousands, even millions, for every dollar I can barely afford to contribute, I’m always going to lose and so is democracy. So is everyone else, especially those of us hit the hardest by the Great Recession. And it’s not because I hate the rich. I don’t. Not even close. I just think too many of the luckiest among us have failed to fulfill an unspoken promise to the least of us, mostly because the principal goal of wealth accumulation is accumulating more wealth, not the public good. Corporations are people, too, and rich people aren’t bad at all; they’ve just got a bigger obligation to their shareholders than to poor schmucks like me. Noblesse oblige, any notion that those with the most wealth or power also have the greatest responsibility, mostly just gets a good laugh these days.

Economist John Kenneth Gailbraith summarizes a principal cause of our current ideological/culture wars better than anyone I can think of: “The modern conservative movement is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy: that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.” Paul Ryan and others may secretly worship at the altar of Ayn Rand and Gordon Gekko and somehow conjure the notion that Jesus was a venture capitalist and a social Darwinist and that God put fossils in the ground to test our faith and that oil and freedom from taxes are the only freedoms we should fight and die for, but I’ve seen few if any Republicans take responsibility these days for the ridiculous ideology that’s gotten us into this mess in the first place. It’s all Obama’s fault, the GOP’s mean-stream media and countless political ads will tell us over and over again every fifteen minutes until election day.

And that’s perhaps the best reason I can think of for voting for Obama. In fact, I already have. President Obama and the poor and the government, the last source and last resort for funding to help support them, are all much better scapegoats than the rich. Let’s give more money and power to those who already have too much wealth and power. Entitlements for the rich; kill the poor. Hey, folks, the president’s black, an easy target for angry white guys like me.

Lex Williford

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Great stuff, huh? Here’s where I talk about the ethical (and not-so-ethical) part.

I particularly how he points the finger at both parties. He indicts Democrats along with Republicans from the very beginning, saying that both sides have swung to the extremes in his first line, and stating “Clearly, both sides share the blame for all our failures” later in the same paragraph. When he talks about the paralysis in government, he’s not laying it all in the lap of the Republicans; this is a call to action that’s aimed at both sides. When he talks about the rich-first attitude two paragraphs later, he’s not blaming that on the Republicans, either. The entire paragraph is written more as class argument than a political one—Lex doesn’t like people who think like this, but he’s not tarring all Republicans (or all conservatives) with the same brush.

As happens to so many of us, Lex’s emotions take hold towards the end, and there are some less-than-ethical moments. If you know Lex, you know that his emotions are genuine and deeply felt, and that comes through here. Sometimes, however it’s a detriment to his argument. As much as I love the line about giving intellectual credit to Republicans, it would have been far easier for folks to swallow if he’d said “politicians” instead. Pointing out that Reagan is the “hero and saint of the right” has more than a touch of what the kiddies these days call “sarcasm.” And calling the Republican “ideology” “ridiculous” won’t win him any friends on the other side of the aisle.

These ethical flaws are minor, though, especially in comparison to the stuff we’re used to hearing on the airwaves or reading online. And to remove all emotion or witty barbs from a post removes the spice. Passion is meant to incite and inspire; it shouldn’t be used to prove, and he doesn’t fall into that trap here. His final lines, which I won’t divulge here, might sting more than soothe, but that’s their intent. He needs to make a point, and making an ethical argument should never get in the way of emphasis—emotion and flavor are fine, as long as neither is overwhelming. Lex has the perfect touch with both on this one.

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