My first impulse was to chuckle.
Like so many of the current gaggle of Republican presidential wannabes, Godfather’s pizza magnate Herman Cain had said something so outlandish, so over-the-top, that I smiled not only at the thought of his press people scrambling to issue their inevitable explanations and clarifications, but also at the comedic opportunities presented by yet another modern Republican inadvertently revealing a medieval mindset.
“Don’t blame Wall Street, don’t blame the big banks,” Cain had said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. “If you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself!”
Yes. I know. Priceless. Hysterical. Downright Bachmannesque.
Smirking, and thankful for the raw material, I took to my Twitter account, where, with unabashed snarkiness, I tweeted: “After saying the poor and jobless should blame themselves, Herman Cain clarifies: ‘I meant for not trying one of my yummy pineapple pizzas!'”
For me, that was that. Politician makes shockingly ridiculous comment. I write snarky tweet. No one reads tweet. Sun sets. New day dawns. Repeat.
Except this time, someone did read my tweet, and while her response suggested she failed to see the humor in my comment (I’ll admit, it wasn’t my best work), it also jolted me back to the undeniable reality that as shockingly ridiculous–indeed, as cruel–as Cain’s words may have been, those words were not a gaffe. Cain not only meant what he said, he was speaking for a sizable, like-minded constituency.
“It’s about time,” the woman wrote in reply to my tweet, “someone is not afraid to mention ‘SELF RESPONSIBILITY!'”
So they’re still at it, those label-savvy conservatives–and they mean it! If you’re poor, it’s your fault. If you’re sick, it’s your fault. If you’re unemployed, if you lose your retirement fund in a stock market meltdown, if you can’t send your kids to college, if you can’t afford health insurance–you’ve got no one to blame but yourself! It’s your own damn fault!
It’s an egotistical, anti-social ideology–albeit a clever one, wrapped nicely in the slick phrasing of “self responsibility”–that serves as a convenient mask for greed and meanness and indifference. “I worked hard,” goes the meme, “I pulled myself up without anybody’s help! My success was a function of my choices, my work, my results, and no one else’s! The only reason you’re [fill in the blank: poor, unemployed, uneducated, etc.] is because you fail to accept responsibility for yourself!”
The irony, of course, is not merely that the meme is untrue, but that those who spout such a mantra would likely hate for it to be true, lest their own success be diminished by a horde of equally capable, equally fortunate competitors.
Undoubtedly, our culture–any culture–is not bereft of sloth, but human beings are not produced on assembly lines. Some people are smarter than others, some are stronger, some are quicker. Our aptitudes differ, our talents diverge. Which is why three people can put forth precisely the same level of effort and determination–can exercise precisely the same level of “self responsibility”–with one succeeding spectacularly, one succeeding modestly, and one not succeeding at all.
Having less ability than the next person is neither one’s fault nor a failure of “self responsibility.” Nor, for that matter, is having less luck, or being born into less fortunate circumstances. Success is not always a measure of one’s effort or worth, and neither is failure. By insisting on the contrary–by insisting that anyone in need carries the blame for that need, or somehow lacks “self responsibility”–Herman Cain and his like-minded constituency betray a callousness toward humanity and to the randomness of life that is, in this writer’s opinion, as pitiful as it is amoral.
In response to the woman who challenged my tweet, I replied: “It’s not a zero sum game. One can be both responsible yet blameless, hardworking yet unfortunate. Compassion is not a vice.”
And to anyone who feels otherwise: I feel for you.