Oct 2012 03

by Steven Whitney

When Mitt Romney recently declared that 47% of us are “dependent on government,” he made it sound like a bad quality – starkly un-American, as if we were all addicts smoking the administration’s crack pipe.

Yet dependency in and of itself is neither a good nor bad attribute – it’s just a part of who humans are on the most basic biological and anthropological scales. We are a social species – it’s in our DNA – and everything we do that has any meaning is dependent on social interaction, whether it’s buying and selling to make a living or profiting emotionally by just hanging with friends and loved ones.

No one exists in a vacuum. We live in families and tribes and cultures, and sub-tribes and border cultures – whether it’s surf bums or car enthusiasts or school parents or Wall Street self-proclaimed “Masters of the World” – we are all dependent on some grouping that sustains us emotionally, psychologically, and often financially. We seek out others who share our interests, passions and values to give us a sense of belonging, precisely so we don’t feel isolated and alone as we float down the river of life on something akin to Sartre’s ice floe.

This is the most basic concept of what it means to live and work in a community. And, with the freedoms America offers, it’s normally a community of our own choosing – be it a church, a bowling league, a book club or rotisserie league, or even a political party.

As a devoted acolyte of the self-interest rationalization (objectivism) of Ayn Rand, Paul Ryan can be excused for not knowing this simple human truth. But Romney should. Whatever their faults, Mormons famously take care of their own – perhaps to the exclusion of those outside the Latter-Day Saints circle, but Mormons comprise a real and ongoing community.

But just maybe the extremely insular nature of the church has impacted Romney more than its communal practices. As Romney has shown almost every day of the campaign, he is uncomfortable with and wary of outsiders, or “the other,” a trait commonly found in minority sects that robs them of any real sense of either a national or global community.

Mormons make up just 2% of our population – yet as a group they are so tight-knit that the other 98% have become “those people.” Ann Romney is afraid of giving “those people” tax returns they might use as ammunition, and Mitt said his job is not to worry about “those people.” So one has to wonder if it’s a lack of empathy or social skills on their part or an extreme level of xenophobia – but none of those can or will play well on a world stage that foreigners and all sorts of “those people” inhabit.

As time (and the song) has shown – people need people. The well-being of every person on earth – and every nation – begins and ends with dependency on our social and professional interaction with other people, for companionship, for work, for sex, and for love. We cannot be free or happy if we are imprisoned in our own solitude.

Indeed, study after study shows that prisoners in solitary confinement inevitably suffer from schizophrenia and other serious mental disorders. Free in society, those who isolate themselves are prone to paranoia, obsession, depression, agoraphobia, pre-senile dementia, and early onset Alzheimer’s.

Many experts in the mental health field define true madness as the loss of self. If they’re right, and madness ensues from extreme isolation, then it follows that we lose at least a part of ourselves – of who we are – when we forego social interaction, when we lose our connection to other people. The “other,” then, becomes not only necessary for our optimal survival but must also be an integral part of each of us. Who of us, for instance, does not carry inside someone living or dead – a parent, a lover, a friend, or mentor – who in some way changed the course of our life and helped make us who we are?

Even higher education – colleges and universities – was originally conceived not only as a venue of advanced learning but as a necessary social and psychological bridge from narrow adolescent groupings to the larger adult society.

Especially in democracies – which are by definition created “of the people, by the people, and for the people” – we are dependent on other people in every aspect of our lives.

But Romney and Paul Ryan are distancing themselves and their party from the immutable truth of community and what it means by adopting a by now all too familiar “I did it all by myself” stance.

First because it’s not true – both Romney/Bain and the Ryan family have depended greatly on government contracts, subsidies, and corporate tax exemptions. Romney often puts forth his involvement in Staples as proof of his extraordinary skills as a businessman. But one of Staples’ biggest clients is the Department of Defense – our military – with $13 million in orders. And in the second quarter of 2011, Staples received a $21 million tax refund through a special exemption. As for Ryan, his grandfather built the construction company that has provided for three generations of privilege on the back of government highway contracts.

Secondly, it’s just too much too bear from the neo-Gatsbys of Massachusetts and Wisconsin who were more than a tad bit dependent on the rich families that gave them a leg up. Someone has to explain to these two the old axiom that if you’re born on third base you did not actually go to bat and hit a triple. They did not build lives of privilege and elite schools and exceptional opportunities all by themselves. They had help from their DNA, those who loved them, and many others. To be successful, it does indeed take a village.

Mitt and Paul and all of us are dependent on workers who make furniture, who build houses and apartment complexes, who labor on the assembly lines, who pack our microwave lunches, and who make with their hands all the things the rest of us need. And yet, like the soldiers in Afghanistan, Mitt didn’t find them worthy of even one mention during his convention address.

Dad works two jobs, Mom works one and takes care of the kids, and this family has the temerity to feel they’re entitled to food or to some kind of basic housing? A soldier in Iraq gets his legs blown off and now expects healthcare? A senior citizen who paid into Social Security every two weeks for more than fifty years now has the balls to demand the government fork over a check every month? What an outrageous lack of personal responsibility!

More than 400 years ago, John Donne wrote an elegant prose section in Meditation XVII that he later turned into a poem.

No man is an island, entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. . .
any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind,
and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee.

Still, when referring to 47% of our population in what was supposed to be a top secret briefing to financial backers, Romney says: “My job is not to worry about these people.”

That doesn’t cut it – a President’s job is to represent and worry about all the people – the richest and the poorest, the healthiest and the most infirm, the overworked and the unemployed, and everyone else. You cannot lead if you do not care for all the people.

So for Mitt and Paul – and all the rest of the rugged Republican individualists who built everything by themselves with absolutely no help from others, all of them who are not in the least involved in mankind – the death knell of the upcoming Presidential election tolls for thee…and, hopefully, for your sociopathic mindsets as well.

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