"Averagely wise a man ought to be,
never too wise;
for a wise man's heart is seldom cheerful,
if he who owns it is too wise." -- "Sayings of the High One" 55, Poetic Edda
I had a very, very nasty shock the other day as I talked to my brother. He does not know me, as the last time he did I was twenty, and now I'm in my fifties, but the truth is that I do not know him, either. We are forced together by my mother's death, and it is predictably nightmarish. He delivered an opinion in cold calm that I could not imagine from the hottest rage.

I came to live with my mother eight years ago, partly to take care of her as her emphysema worsened. Initially, she was looking after me, as I made it past suicidal tendencies after losing my job, but I got past those pretty quickly. I passed up job searches and . . . ambition during that time. My brother said that he thought I shouldn't have. As for her health, "I believe actions have consequences. She was an adult. She knew that smoking was going to kill her."

His first principle (consequences) was greater than family, too, so I told him that my religion, if nothing else, forbade such thoughts. I wasn't going to argue, partly because I was too startled, but his statement struck me as so quintessentially the product of a self-deception and a lie (which are different) that I thought it worth exploring. After all, the GOP primary debates had the crowd cheering "Let him die!" While Republican politicians won't quite say "Let the uninsured die," their pundits have said so.

These "actions have consequences" of the "self-reliant" fallacies need destruction. After the break, I'll volunteer my efforts.

"No one undergoes a stronger struggle than the man who tries to subdue himself." -- Thomas à Kempis, Imitation of Christ, 3, iii.
My brother's statement that "actions have consequences" is usually accompanied with a sermon on how the speaker is self-made, how self-reliance is the heart of America, and how liberals have taken "responsibility" away from the individual. My first response, and it's philosophical but profoundly upsetting to the claim, is your standards of "fair," and mine, and the next person's, are taken from education and environment. In the United States, these values are colored by wealth.

1. We judge "fair" on the basis of capital interests

Consider L. Boff and C. Boff's Introducing Liberation Theology (1986): "The growth of regimes of 'national security' (for which read 'capital security'), of military dictatorships, with their repression of popular movements in many countries. . . is a reaction against the transforming and liberating power of the organized poor." When we speak of security, do we mean security of air? Do we mean security of food? Do we mean security of health? Do we mean security of interstate highways to move goods, FCC approved broadcasting (which is capitalized), phone and cable carriers' rights against their customers, and the security of property? Even though the United States is not hysterically reacting to a liberated poor, it is partly because the values of American assumptions are already largely impregnated with property and capital.

"Fairness" is biased toward capital. Consider the following.

It is "fair" for a person who "chose" not to have health insurance to die without aid, we are told, but this standard of fairness is based on exchanging money for care. (Not medical care, but caring itself.) Is it "fair" for a bank to foreclose when a "stupid" family is behind on its balloon payments? It is, because that fairness is based on, again, the idea that the person with capital, not the person with need, gets to set the terms of capital and moral exchange.

I would not say that it is "fair" to allow a drunken crack addict who is also a criminal and an undocumented migrant to die of exposure, but that is because my sense of fairness is not based on legality alone nor mercantile exchange. However, social values differ. Mine is the "bleeding heart" position that is a deprecated majority.

2. Power decides when the ramifications of an action begin and end.

Is my decision to go on a road trip the responsible for Sandy? Was it that time you idled your car in the parking lot? If you haven't been to Despair.com before, you should visit. One of their demotivator posters has a lovely photo of a drop of water, and it says, "No raindrop believes it is responsible for the flood."

When a person says, "You have to be responsible for the consequences of your actions," then who decides which are and are not consequences? We know that "the economy" was to blame for banks failing. On the other hand, "lazy Black people" and "immigrants" were to blame for houses being foreclosed upon. "NAFTA" is to blame for Honduran corn being sold to American refiners of ethanol, but a foolish peasant is to blame for being unable to grow food on the highway margin (or being hit by a car, or having pollution in the soil).

"Responsibility" is strikingly individual when the individual is isolated without power and suspiciously nebulous, evanescent, and corporate when corporations and those with power are involved. If it turns out that the now formed study group on fracking shows that flowback water from fracking's patented secret sauce is hazardous, the corporations will not be responsible, because they did what was legal, and blame goes to "the system." The same is not true of someone who purchases a home on a piece of land polluted by such fluids. That person "should have known."

Oh, we know that the TEA Party was angry at the banks, more or less. Progressives have been naming and . . . well, what do we call shaming when the persons are morally ennervated? Well, "can sense or Satire" a corporation feel? Thoughtful progressives and liberals (the former distinguishable from the latter by a commitment to an ongoing progressivism in obligations with means) speak of the MBA culture, but a culture can't answer for its actions. The system cannot make recompense. Neither, indeed, can learn.

When I look at a person sick from dioxin contamination of the Mississippi River, or from Monsanto's abandoned plant for making lubricants, and hear that no one may sue for damages -- because the companies "complied with all applicable laws" -- I argue that the companies may have complied with the laws, but not the right, as the laws should not have been such. "We did nothing wrong: we complied with all laws and regulations" is, of course, a self-exploding lie. What is wrong is not the same thing as what is legal, as any supporter of the last two Republican presidents can tell you.

If you do not remember Iran-Contra, then take a look at the time line at iBiblio. Oliver North, having secured global amnesty, testified that he had no problem with breaking Congress's laws, because he answered to a higher power. His secretary, Fawn Hall, testified about shredding documents all night and stuffing classified materials into her pantyhose before leaving the building. North said that he was a man of convictions and would pay the price for his views. However, when he ceased to be a man of convictions and became a convicted man, he set up a defense fund and sought out all means to avoid the punishment for having broken the law. At the time, his plea was that the law of man should not have been so wrong.

A Wikipedia article that needs major work is the one for Heather Mercer. Y'all may remember when missionaries were put on trial in Afghanistan for proselytizing. The missionaries denied it. As soon as they were released, they said, in effect, "I was lying: of course we were trying to convert people." The thing about martyrs is that, unfortunately, they die. The ones who set up defense funds and have their fingers crossed are just mundane humans looking out for themselves in comparison to or in contrast with the world around them.

"Pharmaceuticals" cost too much. However, the foolish senior chose food over medicine, or the imprudent youth "wouldn't take" her medicine. The examples go on and on and on: it is always an abstraction to blame when the question comes up about the pricing structures embedded in our goods, the transportation methods that were in fact shaped by Reagan's alteration of the long haul rates (to avoid unions), gasoline prices that go up and down before demand or supply, payday loan stores and check cashers that exist in the same areas where banks refuse to open accounts for the poor, and which are owned by banks, cell phone plans that magically always terminate too early or late and thus carry a penalty, etc.

In every one of these cases, "caveat emptor," and if the buyer could not choose otherwise, then, "Well, what are you going to do?"

3. Aside from the values of consequence and power, no one is self-reliant or self-made.

I need not elaborate, I hope, on all the ways that "We built that." The roads, the long lines originally laid by a government-sanctioned monopoly (AT&T), the Internet backbone, ICANN, the police, the fire, the sewage, the trash collection, the public education for the owners and workers alike, the traffic lights, the maintained medians, the road signs, the street names, the GPS, and the thousand thousands of ways that every day of a citizen's life is participating in using the commons should make the idea of the "self-made man" or woman a Vaudeville joke -- a character type we no more recognize than the "cake eater" (a fop).

The myth of the frontiersman is largely that. The settlers of the west were not loners. People went out to settle in families, and preferably in groups of families The "wild west" was Alabama (you come from there with a banjo on your knee because it was the U.S. frontier to 1820 (Louisiana Purchase was not the same thing as "territory," which is why Lewis and Clarke had to go out)), and the "southwest" was settled by young families. Immigrants to the midwest were organized around family and clan. Immigrants along the Erie Canal, too, might start with a head of family, but the family, and then the extended family, followed. When the borders of the U.S. jumped much farther west, the population was largely the same: immigrant families and expanding population (families) from the east.

The cowboy movie features self-made lonesome singers on horses. Well, the cowboy and the 49er and the miners were the products of very narrow circumstances. They got their pay from bosses who were family based and landed. The cowboy and miner make for dramatic narrative, though.

The self-made millionaires and tycoons, both of the gilded age and the more recent tinsel ages have typically been less the "best and brightest" and more often the craftiest. Consider Jim McCormick. He rose from very little to get very rich. How did he do it? Well, he had a magic box (literally) with an antenna that could detect any bomb of any sort in a 1 mile radius. It did it by dowsing, unfortunately, so it required a gifted psychic to operate.

Jim McCormick sold an empty box with an aerial to the British and Iraqi Armies for millions of dollars. He used bribes and political connections to get contracts to supply all the checkpoints. The same detectors, by the way, could find a silver dollar for you. That's just how good they were.

If you have stopped laughing, you can begin crying, because people died. Many people died. However, McCormick got rich, bought a yacht and land in Florida.

Sheldon Adelstein is a "self-made" billionaire. We could ask his workers in the Mariana Islands ("Made in USA!"), or the prostitutes he is alleged to have paid for to influence an election. We can ask about our other saints of "personal responsibility," too, and find out how they did it themselves. . . provided we find maquiladora workers who survived. Is it possible that the most successful are the ones who know how to exploit loopholes and cheat the police and skirt the law the best?

Is it possible that our "self-reliant" individual held up as a model comes out of competition, and competition does not determine the fittest specimen, but rather the best cheater?

If your professor announces at the start of the semester that the class will have two A's, five B's, ten C's, and the rest D's and F's, what will the result be? Will all students work extra hard to get the two A's? I went to a school famous for its pre-med program, and those kids would check out the books of the library at the start of the semester that they thought the other students would need to try to sabotage "the competition."

4. The corrosive use of the myth as a claim of power: A weaponized lie

We could consider WV State Representative Del Canterbury, who said, of children getting school lunches, that they need to learn that "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch." According to Wonkette, he argued,

“I think it would be a good idea if perhaps we had the kids work for their lunches: trash to be taken out, hallways to be swept, lawns to be mowed, make them earn it,” the Greenbrier County Republican said. “If they miss a lunch or they miss a meal they might not, in that class that afternoon, learn to add, they may not learn to diagram a sentence, but they’ll learn a more important lesson.”
Consider, for a moment, not the emptiness and outright absurdity of this retread of Newt Gingrich's rerun of Ebeneezer Scrooge's plaintive, "Are there no workhouses?" Instead, notice how this is a weapon. The poor must not understand the cost of food to not be able to afford it. They cannot understand the need for work, if they have no money for their children, and, obviously, public schools are to blame for teaching non-"relevant" material like long division when there is a greater reality to serve -- such as the grim need for the poor to work while the wealthier do not. In other words, the lesson to be learned by the poor is that capital is the master, has been the master, and must remain the master, and even the contents of their minds must bow to that.
From iBiblio's
"Not paying promptly" seems to be missing.
Note also, though, that the non-poor students learn a lesson, too. If the impoverished learned the lesson of TANSTAAFL, then the middle class kids and wealthy kids would learn that there is a free lunch for those with means, as well as that some of their friends are meant to serve. It's nobody's fault. It's just "the times" or "how things are" or "what can you do?" Furthermore, the poor who did sing/scrub/ dance/ toil for their lunches would learn the most important lesson of all in today's economy: toil is for single purchases, and labor equals an immediate need only. The poor should not learn about investment or interest rates or delayed gratification -- any more than the middle class should in a public school -- but rather that they should think of their pay as a daily or weekly phenomenon.

What is a living wage? A living wage is a wage ABOVE subsistence. A living wage is not the wage that keeps one less than a single paycheck from the street.

However, you may consider an intellectual dissection of Scroogism a waste of time. I beg your pardon for one more moment, because, as is usual in these matters, the non plus ultra of moronia comes from the American Fambly Association's Bryan Fischer. The original iteration of his infamous blog on the South Fulton, Tennessee firefighters was written in black font on a black background. It is now fully and ruefully legible here. Let us consider only one stink bomb from his Easter basket of rotten eggs:

"In this case, critics of the fire department are confused both about right and wrong and about Christianity. And it is because they have fallen prey to a weakened, feminized version of Christianity that is only about softer virtues such as compassion and not in any part about the muscular Christian virtues of individual responsibility and accountability.  
The Judeo-Christian tradition is clear that we must accept individual responsibility for our own decisions and actions. He who sows to the flesh, we are told, will from the flesh reap corruption. The law of sowing and reaping is a non-repealable law of nature and nature’s God."  
The South Fulton, Tennessee fire department rolled up to a burning house, hooked up its equipment, and then watched the house burn down. This is because the house's owner had not paid the county fee for fire protection. The amateur theologian Fischer knows that what they did is what Jesus Christ would have them do. He even has a Bible reference (Galatians 6:8)! Oddly, Galatians doesn't actually support him, just as his reference to the story of the wise and foolish virgins is to the wrong verse and doesn't support him. ["Do not be deceived; God is not duped. One reaps what they sow. 8 The one sowing to his own flesh will reap rottenness from the flesh but the one sowing to the spirit will reap eternal life from the spirit. 9 Let us not grow weary in doing good, for we will reap in due time. Without giving up, 10 therefore, we should not miss an opportunity to do good to all, but especially to those in the family of faith." Found at Wikisource.]

Fischer is convinced -- thoroughly convinced -- convinced beyond the need for argument (usually referred to as "to the point of an assumption") -- that Christianity is about personal responsibility. He is completely and utterly certain that Jesus Christ, who died for the sins of others, was all about people being personally accountable for their own actions.

This is, to say the least, bizarre. Fischer regards the martyrs who died to protect others as . . . feminized? He regards the dead missionaries as . . . weak? He believes that Jesus, who said, "You have heard it said, An eye for an eye, but I say to you No," was all about reciprocal pain, vengeance, and, above all, legalism. He is so certain of it that he regards those of us who gainsay him as somehow harming the faith and claims that "the right thing to do is the legal thing to do" always, and vice versa.

I suppose I do not need to say that my faith is not the same as Mr. Fischer's, if he thinks Jesus was about "personal responsibility" rather than mercy. Jesus did meet a man who obeyed the law, who "complied with all laws and regulations," so we don't actually need to wonder what Jesus thought. The man asked how to achieve paradise, and Jesus said

"Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Defraud not, Honour thy father and mother. 20 And he answered and said unto him, Master, all these have I observed from my youth. 21 Then Jesus beholding him loved him, and said unto him, One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me. 22 And he was sad at that saying, and went away grieved: for he had great possessions." Mark 10:19-22
The self-reliance myth misses one more obvious element. The element conspicuously absent in Dr. Del Canterbury's desires for reform or, more pointedly, Bryan Fischer's "masculine" Christianity is any reliance upon a moral or ethical code derived from either a sense of God or obligations to one's fellow man.

I am not merely begging the question, either. Even if both of these puddin' heads had been granted his premises that the right thing is what is required by law, that what the rich owe to the poor is nothing, then there would still be an ethical sense whereby a person, standing alone at a present moment, would consider rationally that she or he owes other humans the rights she or he possesses. This is simply because it would and could never occur to one to repress or demand of others without the notion of differential power.

"Self-sufficient" only means, only has semantic value, if it is in contrast to an implied "dependent" that must be segmented, ostracized, or destroyed. It is, in short, a phrase of war, of power difference, of self-selected and self-asserted superiority. It is enabled solely by power that is encoded in extant capital (and thus in class and racial) structures. It is a lie dripping with venom that poisons the mind of its speaker, and, like Claudius's murder weapon, the ears of the rest.

Originally posted to A Frayed Knot on Wed Apr 24, 2013 at 11:15 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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