We live in a world saturated with memes. Lots of them are fun. I certainly laugh at my fair share. But permit a couple of thoughts about this one, forwarded to me yesterday from a Facebook friend and carrying the endorsement (if clicking “like” can be a proxy for affirmation) of thousands.
In point of fact, people on “benefits” in America actually do work for them: even “welfare” as we now know it (TANF) is a temporary program that requires people to have a job within 24 months of receiving assistance; Social Security and Medicare benefits are funded by payroll taxes. Unemployment benefits — for people who have lost work through no fault of their own — are, in the United States, meager and also temporary. Whether any of this is the sign of a healthy polity remains an open question. The point here is simply to note that the meme misunderstands the nature of social welfare policy in the United States, which — for good or ill — is not designed to support indefinitely people who are not employed.
There are some people, however, who are unable to work for their benefits: people with disabling injuries, debilitating illnesses, or congenital conditions that make employment impossible. Those people (like, for example, my daughter Cora) do receive government assistance for medicine, health care, and, in some cases, incontinence supplies and even food. It’s kind of luck of the draw, you know? Congratulations for not needing it (yet).
I know this meme is meant to be casually amusing — not particularly serious — but its underlying assumptions and its logical conclusions are anything but.
I can’t help but be reminded of similar “memes” published in Germany in the 1930s that told people over and over again that their hard-earned tax dollars were going to support the care of the mentally and physically disabled. It’s rarely a good idea to bring Nazis into your argument, but here the nod is not inappropriate. The Nazi Party told Germans repeatedly that their own money was being squandered to support people who contributed nothing to the state but were only a burden.
These posters (an example of one is below) made more and more Germans more and more comfortable over the years with the Nazi program of euthanizing the mentally and physically disabled — which they did do, by the way, because they saw in such people only a drain that the rest of us were stuck paying for. They began the Holocaust with the “unfit” (administrators of concentration camps labeled the disabled, “arbeitsscheu,” which you could translate as “unwilling to work” or “afraid of hard work.” Sound familiar? It should.)
The poster below tells ordinary Germans that it costs 60,000 Reichmark to support a “hereditary defective” over a lifetime. And here is the punchline: “That is your money!”
I’m certain that many people who laugh at this meme and forward it (and others like it) are really good and decent people who would never think this way or endorse such a nihilistic worldview. But many — probably most — Germans in the 1930s were the same: good decent people, and the casual way many Americans are repeatedly encouraged to accept the assumptions that undergird the meme is troubling. The line between Paul Ryan’s well-publicized fear that the social safety net might become a hammock and the nightmare logic of Nazism is not so convoluted. Ryan speaks the language: those who “get more benefits from the federal government than they pay back in taxes,” he says, are “takers.” How far removed is that, truly, from denouncing arbeitsscheu?
Obviously, Paul Ryan has no designs even remotely resembling the Nazi program. That is not my point or even suggestion. But the logic of our meme, above, at best divides us and keeps us from thinking of ourselves as a beloved community. At worst, its logic takes us down the path of a failed society. Why have we made conscious decisions as a (bipartisan) public to assist the poor and afford the disabled greater access to public opportunities, including education, long available to others? Certainly not because it’s always convenient or fiscally conservative or economically efficient. Maybe because — to be practical — we know, as John Winthrop put it in his “Model of Christian Charity,” “particular estates cannot subsist in the ruin of the public” (in other words, because my own prosperity and well-being is inextricably bound up with the flourishing of the society in which I live).
But perhaps also we’ve progressively widened the circle of “we” precisely because we have traditionally had higher aspirations and values as a nation. Certainly the emphasis on liberty and human equality in our founding document has long played a role in guiding us in that direction, however convoluted the path has sometimes been. But maybe also we know, deep down, that, as Kant put it, other people are not means toward our ends, but ends in themselves. As our great bard of democracy put it slightly differently, “I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms.” And maybe also to remind ourselves that “God seeth not as man seeth,” that we, too, are Mephibosheth, that Cora and others like her make our world that much more beautiful. And because they are us.
Whitman, again: “I do not call one greater and one smaller, / That which fills its period and place is equal to any.” Whitman here calls into question our reigning definitions of success — now emanating from the White House itself: money, sex (exploitative, not mutually affirming), power. Whitman suggests that a person in a wheelchair is not an object of our pity (and certainly not of our scorn), but an equal filler of her place in the world — not a mistake or a failure to achieve some arbitrary standard of normalcy, though she might very well need unique help to cultivate and fulfill her particular capabilities — as we all do. Whitman and Kant remind us that when we begin to set people aside and think of them as dispensable, as in the way — and when we imagine that we are those who get to decide that their lives are not worth living (another 1930s German poster describes the disabled as “Leben nur als Last” — “lives only as a burden” — then we will have blown out the moral lights around us (as Lincoln once put it) and gone into the dark. Let’s not be thoughtless about the world we’re living in.
And this is precisely the point: Do not misunderstand me. I write this not because I am personally offended, as if my own personal comfort or discomfort had any relevance to the public conversation. In fact I am not offended at all; a juvenile reaction, at best. I write, instead, because the meme itself is founded on faulty premises, because its logic leads to conclusions that are morally reprehensible, and ultimately makes us comfortable with actions that would damn us — “light us down in… dishonor,” as Lincoln (again) put it — “to the latest generation.”
I write it because it boils down to a question about what kind of a nation we want to be. I write it because this meme is, as Lincoln described the efforts of those who worked for many years to destroy the Union, an “insidious debauching of the public mind.” I write it because it is incumbent upon us as citizens of a democratic republic to think. Not to carelessly forward memes but to think. We are called upon to exercise judgment. In this hour. In this place. That is work we must not shirk.