What Is Government

Up until I was around 20 years old, maybe even older, I didn’t really know very much about politics. I honestly wish I could go back to those simpler times. It feels like I had a lot less to worry about back then. It’s always easier not to know. My entire family are democrates, so that is about as far as my political awareness went. I was taught vaguely that poor/low-income people were democrates, rich people were republicans. A very simplified explanation of the two parties in America, but I still believe it holds up. At least that’s what you would expect.

As I got older I came to find that there are tons of poor people voting passionately against their own interests. A good portion of the republican base in fact. I was astounded even more when I became a social worker and got to listen to clients who could hardly survive on the small amount of government assistance they received simultaneously complain about “lazy, good-for-nothing” people taking advantage of the system and voting to cut social security benefits. They seemed totally disconnected from the fact that they were the people their beloved Fox News hosts were referring to when they condemn these societal moochers.

I guess they thought it couldn’t have been in reference to them, because they were good people. They hadn’t done anything wrong. They weren’t worthless, scheming, monsters taking advantage of other people. Yet they were still quick to jump on the bandwagon of hate, directing it at some imaginary, caricatures of people that were making it harder for people like them who really do need that help to be taken seriously. It always broke my heart to meet clients that continuously tried to justify their need and convince me that they weren’t just “some drug addict” or something.

What has been reminding me of all of this lately, is the controversy over the unemployment income many Americans have been relying on since this pandemic began over a year ago. Everyone is able to see the absurdity of going out to find work, when you would receive more money by staying on unemployment instead. It is the perception of this absurdity that varies. Conservatives cry: You can’t give everyone so much money or else they’ll never go back to work! While liberals and progressives insist: If these people were paid a living wage to begin with, this wouldn’t be a problem. We must raise the minimum wage so that these people have an incentive to return to work.

Obviously I agree with the latter. The government didn’t just arbitrarily decide on an amount to pay, they based it roughly on how much these people would need to survive. If working full-time isn’t allowing you to earn that measly amount, clearly THAT is the problem. Not that the government is giving you enough to live on. This seems so simple to me, but I know that nearly half of the country would disagree. These types of disheartening conflicts are the reason that after passionately throwing myself into politics for a few years, I’ve begun trying to ignore it all together again. It is just to painful. It seems so hopeless. I’m tired of fighting.

One of the main things I don’t understand though, is what other people think the government’s purpose is. I’m starting to think my idea of it has been misguided and idealistic. It seems like throughout school I was taught that the government, at least in America, was established “for the people, by the people.” I was under the impression that it’s only purpose was to organize our collective resources as a nation so that we could best serve the entire population. In my mind, government was just a way to work together as a society so that we could accomplish things we wouldn’t be able to as individual citizens. Not only that, I thought it’s purpose was to provide a safety net for the most vulnerable among us, to help people. Not only for moral reasons, but to the ultimate benefit of the whole. Having a system to take care of the less fortunate gives those people the opportunity to some day give back to society again. At the very least it would deter them from criminal activity, because they wouldn’t need to engage in that to survive.

I hear all the time that “it’s not the government’s job to support you.” But isn’t it though? Isn’t that why we have a government in the first place? To take care of our citizens? I’m often tempted to ask these people what they think the government’s job is, if not to protect us and support us. I’m trying to stay curious and not let the unsettling mindsets of so many people get to me too much. It’s just not worth the grief it causes me. And I’ve accepted that fighting about it won’t make a difference. All I can do is watch is stunned silence, or turn away.

Photo by Brett Sayles on Pexels.com

Moral Ambiguity

I have been reading Les Miserables for the last few days. I am incredibly shocked that I never knew it was a book as well as a play until now. I was really missing out. Anyway, I have just finished the chapters detailing Jean Valjean’s (Monsieur Madeleine’s) inner turmoil regarding the right thing to do in the case of his mistaken identity. It is truly a very interesting philosophical question. On the one hand, it seems clearly “right” to clear up the misunderstanding and spare this stranger a fate he does not deserve on your account. However, should Monsieur Madeleine give himself up as Jean Valjean, would not even more people be made to suffer as a result? After all he has practically created his own society. All within that society benefit from his presence and guidance. Not least of which, Fantine, who should surely die without ever seeing her child again if he goes to Arras and interfere with the trial.

This section of Les Miserables really highlights the complexities of morality. The “right” thing to do in life is quite often unclear. I can see why Monsieur Madeleine wrestled with this problem as he did. I still don’t really know what I believe the truly moral decision would be. If it were me (myself being nowhere as upright and honorable as Monsieur Madeleine) I would have allowed the trail to go on. I would have felt terribly guilty, but I would have also felt guilty if I would have decided to leave my community and poor Fantine in order to save a stranger whom by a terrible twist of fate was mistaken for me. In some ways, both decisions are moral. And in other ways both are selfish and unfair.

I am very interested to see how Monsieur’s decision to go to Arras works out in the end. Will his conscious be pacified? Or will he suffer with the consequences wrought on M- sur M- and Fantine? This painful reflection of life’s more difficult moral questions is undoubtably one of the reasons Les Miserables has earned it’s place among the great works of history.

One would hope that merely the resolve to be “good” would be enough. Yet we see that even that does not nullify all of problems laid before us. Sometimes there is no “right” answer. Sometimes no matter what decision you make, someone will be made to suffer because of it. Even the decision not to act can result in grave consequences as in this case.

What a complex, confusing, and often cruel world we live in. There is something truly incredible about seeing that so perfectly reflected in a novel. To be able to hold these heavy problems in your hands. To see the inner struggles of another and know that we are not alone in our own. To have such strong concern and sympathy produced for a fictional character. The written word is an awe-inspiring thing.

Photo by Janko Ferlic on Pexels.com