Today the feather I pull out of the featherbed is the meme that people who are suffering suffer as the result of bad decisions, and that bad decisions are the result of being bad people. The conservatives claim that people who live in difficult circumstances made bad choices. They insist that bad choices should have consequence, because people who make bad choices are bad people. Here I pull this feather out of the featherbed of lies.
So what about that conservatives’ claim that people who are in bad circumstances have made bad choices, for which they are experiencing consequence? This claim is made by self improvement experts in almost every self help seminar they conduct. If you are living in bad circumstances it is the result of making bad choices. As the conversation continues, it is claimed that bad choices are made by bad people and to improve your lot you have to become a good person. You can’t take control until you admit you are at fault. While I do agree that if you are always blaming external forces you can never be in control of your life, I do not agree that all bad events are your own fault. I would like to investigate these self-help claims and see if they are justifiable or if they are simply excuses used to let people ignore those in need and still sleep well at night.
First I look at children. I consider homeless children, abused children, children in poverty and children of the incarcerated. Conservatives use the words in Deuteronomy to justify the suffering of these children as God’s wrath on their parents:
Deuteronomy 5:9-10 (King James Version)
9Thou shalt not bow down thyself unto them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me,
10And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me and keep my commandments.
In fact, this was contradicted in several other passages, to wit,
Deuteronomy 24:16 (New International Version)
Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sin.
Ezekiel 18:20 (New International Version)
The soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous man will be credited to him, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against him.
Ezekiel 18:4 (New International Version)
For every living soul belongs to me, the father as well as the son-both alike belong to me. The soul who sins is the one who will die.
John 9:1-3 (New International Version)
As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.
In fact, in the last one, the idea that the bad circumstances were the result of bad acting, the New Testament says it is not the fault of any. Jesus himself says, “The rain falls on the just and unjust alike.” There is no basis for insinuating that people who are suffering are being punished for wrongdoing. Ignoring the suffering is not excused the passage in Deuteronomy. It is simply a way conservatives justify turning their heads against those in need.
But is it true that bad circumstances for adults are always the result of bad choices? This is something I had to come to grips with. I used to be a strong conservative, largely because I believed in personal responsibility. But does it actually follow that suffering is actually the result of bad choices? According to Conservatives, those who endure bankruptcy because of illness made the bad choice of not getting insured, or not living clean. Victims of Katrina should not have been living in a sin-locked city (they got what they got just as the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah got what they deserved for living there and tolerating the sin. We all know how they blame rape victims to the extent of making those victims live with whatever the consequences of the rape. Beyond that, what about migrant workers who live in poverty moving from field to field? What bad choices did they make? What about the poor in Appalachia? What about the projects in New York? What did they do to be so poor? Was it just a bad choice in parents they were born to? What about those born disabled, or who became disabled over the years? I had to ask myself what bad choices they made. I had no answers.
Of course, much suffering is the result of bad choices. Surely, many people who got foreclosed on made a bad choice in the home they purchased, or even purchasing a home at all. Does this make those people bad people? What about the people they trusted for advice about their ability to buy those homes? Why aren’t they bad people? Most of those trusted advisors – the realtor, the mortgage broker, the lender – did not suffer any consequence and in fact made a nice profit, therefore they must be good people (remember, bad people suffer consequences). Conservatives will argue that regardless of bad advice from those entrusted to know the territory, the borrower should have known better. I don’t know why.
You could also argue that the people who go bankrupt because of health issues should have had insurance. But what about the people who couldn’t afford it? What about the people who were denied coverage? What about the ones who had insurance but the insurance wouldn’t pay up? What were their options? What are they being punished for – not enriching the insurance companies enough?
I agree that many people made bad choices about the use of credit, and I agree that they need to bite the bullet and pay it off. But I wonder why there is no shame heaped on those who encouraged reckless spending. I wonder why there is no shame for the reckless issuers of credit. They say they were just doing their jobs. In the Nuremberg trials the people being prosecuted claimed they were just doing their jobs too. Why is that a not defense in war crimes but it is in credit?
In all these circumstances, there is consequence. I am a firm believer in consequence. I believe the expectation of consequence is a deterrent to intentional stupidity. However, I do believe that the consequence should match the bad behavior. Many of my conservative friends were raised with spankings bordering on beatings. They believe in harsh punishment as consequence. But my experience, and the experts I have read, suggest that when the consequence is not in kind and proportion to the crime, it is not a deterrent. Children who are beaten do not learn good behavior as much as they learn that if you want someone to behave the way you want them to you beat them into submission. Isn’t that what our conservative associates are doing now? Physically, emotionally and financially beating us into submission?
The question is not only the level of consequence but the duration. People who go bankrupt today will be asked for the rest of their lives on credit applications if they have ever filed for bankruptcy. For the rest of their lives they will be denied credit because of things that have gone wrong today. In many cases, their crime was getting sick, losing a job (not for malfeasance, mind you), getting bad advice or taking a risk (for example, people who started their own businesses and did not make it). They will be punished for the rest of their lives for these “sins.” People who get foreclosed on will be asked for the rest of their lives if they have been foreclosed on ever.
It is worse for people found guilty of a crime. While our penal code may have a limitation for how long these people pay through incarceration, our society has no limitation. Job applications will ask them, for the rest of their lives, if they have ever been convicted of a crime. If you answer yes, you cannot get a job. The punishment lasts the rest of your life. (Lucky those who avoid being caught until the statute of limitations passes – they have no consequence, whereas the ones caught have eternal consequence).
The worst is the people who do not commit a crime, but who make choices that later come back with unfortunate circumstances. Those who believe divorce is a sin would claim that if you are in a miserable marriage, you either made a bad choice in your spouse or you made bad choices through the marriage (and are continuing to do so) especially if you are a woman. The consequence of these bad choices is to spend the rest of your life in a miserable marriage. Or at least the rest of the life of the spouse, whichever comes first. You have committed no crime, but you are a bad person for being in a bad situation. You must pay the consequence.
These same people would make women pay forever for having sex (in marriage or outside it) and wind up with an unplanned pregnancy. Or are raped. For the crime of having a uterus, the consequence is having to give birth to the child and raising it. Those who would force you to give birth feel no responsibility for this child they are forcing into the world. It is the bad choice of the woman to have sex (or have it forced on her), and not wanting to give birth makes her a bad person. There must be consequence.
With so much suffering in this world their God made, the conservatives have to have a way to justify doing nothing about it and still be able to sleep well at night. If all the sufferers in this world are suffering because of their own bad actions and are bad people, it is easy to turn a blind eye and let them deal with their maker. As long as they are helping God dish out consequence, they can sleep well at night.
So I pull out the feather from the featherbed that claims that those who suffer are paying a just price for their bad behavior. That is a lie. Suffering falls to the guilty and innocent alike. The next horrible incident or situation could hit any one of them. If we accept that sufferers deserve to suffer, who will be there to help?