Skip to content

Month: September 2012

Re: the “47%” — We’re Having the Wrong Conversation. Again.

WARNING: Long Post. Contains Math.

I confess I have found myself frustrated this past week over the public response to Mitt Romney’s “47%” remarks, leaked from a private fundraiser in May. Just to recap, here’s what was said:

There are 47% of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47% who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it…These are people who pay no income tax, 47% of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect. So he’ll (President Obama) be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean, that’s what they sell every four years. And so my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives. What I have to do is convince the five to ten percent in the center that are independents, that are thoughtful, that look at voting one or the other depending upon in some cases emotion, whether they like the guy or not.

In the days since the video was released, there’s been a lot of response . . . but not necessarily the right response. From the right there’ve been two basic strategies: distancing (“I’m not him!!”) and apologia – namely a defense of the truth of the statistic in spite of the “inelegant” delivery.

From the left, the responses have been about process (“Is this the end of Romney’s campaign?”), or decrying of the candidate’s character, or lack thereof. The left’s response has been primarily about the character question, and about Romney’s seeming lack of compassion. Most of this has come in the form of, “Yes, but look at the people contained within the 47%!!”

In both instances, the truth of the statistic, and of what Romney is trying to communicate, is not often disputed. Technically, Romney is almost correct (it’s 46% according to the Tax Policy Center, who also note that number is abnormally high due to the current state of the economy).

However, the people who Romney is really trying to talk about are the poor. Look at the phrases used: “dependent upon government”; “ believe they are entitled”; “I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” These are all standard issue conservative bromides vis a vis “the poor.” From the left, we decry the lack of compassion inherent in those statements. From my side of the aisle, I hear: “But that number includes the elderly! And children! And veterans!” There’s not a lot of challenge about the statistic itself, and the number needs to be challenged, especially if what we’re really talking about is poverty in the United States.

Thus, my frustration. Both ends of the political spectrum (at least from those who have a platform from which to be heard) make their arguments based on myths about poverty in this country that (dammit!) refuse to die. Romney’s remarks have provided us with an opportunity to have a fresh, honest conversation about poverty and “the poor.” And we’re dodging the conversation.

America (red and blue), you are pushing all my buttons this week. Let’s have a chat.

The Vision Thing

Do you remember  “Magic Eye” images? They were these odd, abstract, poster-sized images that you could find in shopping mall kiosks across the country during the ’90s. The idea was that if you focused in the image in just the right way (“focused beyond” said the image makers) amazing 3D images would be revealed. A “Magic Eye” picture featured prominently in a running gag in one of my favorite movies, 1995′s Mallrats. Willam, one of the “rats” who inhabits the mall, has spent an entire week staring intently at a “Magic Eye” poster, desperately trying to see the hidden picture—a sailboat. “Today’s my day,” he says. “I brought a lunch and a soda, and I’m not leaving until I see this sailboat everyone’s talking about.” Every few minutes, the film cuts to Willam, standing in place and staring, as one mall patron or another walks by, casually glances at the picture for a second and exclaims, “Hey! A sailboat!” Willam grows angrier and more frustrated. In the end, Willam just can’t see the picture. Instead, he let’s loose with a primal scream of frustration and kicks over the display.

I’m with Willam. I never could see the pictures in those things (although I never kicked over a mall kiosk over it).

The human capacity to imagine a future—and to actively work toward it—is a lot like trying to see a Magic Eye picture. Everything beyond the horizon of right now is a blur. And yet, somehow we’re able to focus beyond the blur and call a picture into our minds. Sometimes, when we stand together in a community, we might even be able to see similar pictures, or pieces of the same picture. However, not everyone is going to see the same future. It’s guaranteed to happen. Nine out of ten see the sailboat. The rest see . . . who knows? What then? How do we maintain community when vision differs? Do we argue for our own picture? Do we try to see what another sees? Do we hold our tongue (like Good Ol’ Charlie Brown in the comic above)? Or do we kick the whole thing over in frustration?