© 2018 by J. Eric Thompson

The Heroic Sheriff of Nottingham

“Wait a minute. There’s a law against robbing royalty. I’ll catch you later.”

- Little John, Disney's Robin Hood 

Romney’s 47% are infesting the country, apparently. The swarm is a hundred and fifty million deep, including crackhead fraudsters, lazy immigrants, and ultra-fertile mothers who labor every 9 1/2 months to finagle a bigger welfare slice. The tipping point: some hippie bought a lobster tail with food stamps, and everybody lost their minds.

Brace yourself for the outrage and fierce calls for criminalization if one of these entitled rapscallions sells Obama’s food stamps to buy weed. But that indignation flips sides on the double if a sane voice among the maniacal mentions regulation against selling bazookas out of a roadside tent. They’re private property! The Second Amendment! This is America!

Are we to teach our children that Robin Hood’s motives were fiendish? While liberals sheepishly whimper that corporations and the uber-wealthy are taking advantage of tax breaks and the Cayman Islands, conservatives shriek like banshees when a working mother can’t pay her taxes because she spends all of her minimum-wage salary on her child’s medication. Somewhere in this American experiment many of us have been brainwashed to think that Prince John was actually the good guy, and that the sappy archer thief should hang for crimes against the throne. What kind of delinquent thinks governance includes helping the destitute? That it’s not their own goddam responsibility? This is America!

This backwards assholery is especially infectious to the provincial American mind, of which there are millions. Somehow we’re quick to call for the de-handing of an apple thief while business owners emigrate in order to skirt millions in taxes. It seems that decades of calculated conflation – the word poor with the words lazy and entitled; the word liberal with the word socialist; or empathy with weakness – have begun to pay off.

 

George Orwell would have been both nauseated and begrudgingly impressed with Frank Luntz. In Politics and the English Language, Orwell warns against using cliched phrases, outdated metaphors, and rote dialogue, since both audience and speaker zone out at the first hint of monotony. He calls for more considered language to better convey complex ideas. Frank Luntz, diabolical wordsmith and “public opinion guru,” does just that. But he implodes Orwell’s ideas in the sense that he propagandizes words to imbue them with false connotations, and aims them at the people who are least likely to understand (or research) what the word or phrase actually means. For example, we sheep will oppose a death tax more vehemently than we will an inheritance or estate tax. Financial reform is by no means as sinister as a government bailout. In this sense, Luntz is anti-Orwellian; he uses specific, considered words to convolute meaning instead of clarifying it, and to no small effect.

H.L. Mencken understood the effect of politically charged language nearly thirty years earlier, when he wrote, “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” Throughout our history, these hobgoblins have taken the form of Brits, Japs, Russkies, blacks, and gays, but modern America is fearfully focused on two: invaders (both immigrants and terrorists) and the poor.

Necessarily, the hobgoblins have evolved alongside their source of power. The American Revolution arose because the elite didn’t like the high taxes Britain levied upon them in order to pay for the French and Indian War (a battle against foreign invaders and the indigenous poor). But most Americans were indifferent to British rule, and had to be roused to anger by those in power, since there were so many more colonists, and they all had guns. But the complaints against the king in the Declaration of Independence weren’t enough; the wealthy created enlistment incentives of cash bounties, land, clothing, and longer furloughs in order to convince the colonists to sign up and fight.

Bust just as the Revolutionary elite needed the everyman’s guns to fight the British guns, the modern American elite needs the middle class’ fearful votes to counteract the votes of the poor.

So, then, the poor are demonized. Any citizen who accepts a red governmental cent is decried lazy at best and fraudulent at worst, even immoral. For example, often heard is the claim that if you aren’t responsible enough – or can’t afford – to use birth control, you shouldn’t have sex. Such empty righteousness is everywhere. Sex isn’t just one of the few things in the world that’s free (usually) and pleasurable, it is literally the very act we exist to perform. Telling poor people not to screw is sillier than telling a vampiric child that he can’t eat his Halloween candy.

But the righteousness goes further. The irresponsible fornicators shouldn’t be exempt from the consequences of their lust, so abortions are highly restricted. (That is, of course, unless you can afford distant travel and a surgical procedure without health care.) Because even a parasite’s child is precious.

But our laws merely protect that preciousness during gestation. Once born, the unwanted child shouldn’t be entitled to any extra help, since its mother is an irresponsible hussy. How will she ever learn to work for herself if we keep feeding her kids for her? We don’t want our tax dollars going to that! Send them directly to Prince John, good Sheriff, so he can create jobs at the castle.

Vortices of assholery like this exist everywhere. Walmart boasted 18% of the national food stamp market (around $13.5 billion) in 2013, while its workers receive an estimated $6.2 billion in government assistance the same year, which they often spent at Walmart. Because prices are so low. Because they pay their workers so poorly. The circle of capitalism works because the circle of capitalism works because the circle of capitalism…

The most acerbic proponents of this laissez-faire attitude are inevitably the rich, but also the religious middle class. Instinctually, America’s wealthy want to fortify their golden stacks against any sort of thievery, vulpine or otherwise. Lucky for the rich, the religious are already pre-groomed to go against their own deductive capabilities. They’ve chosen to eschew empirical reasoning to follow a fanciful book anonymously written before the time of science, so they’re ready and willing to distrust their own good sense. They’re more malleable. This is perfect for the groomers, who find devious ways to connect their economic policies with the views of the religious – such as abortion restrictions, stem-cell restrictions, gay marriage bans – so when the wealthy claim that the lazy pagans are a bigger burden on America than the job-creating, tax-evading, God-fearing rich, there isn’t so much as a bleat from the faithful flock.

This unquestioning herd mentality is the strategic nucleus of the Koch brothers and the Fox News megaphone. Fear-mongering is more modernly effective than enlistment incentives on cash and clothing (plus, such incentives are a little too similar to the “handouts” they so fiercely decry). Nor can they simply conscript American minds. So Rupert Murdoch and the Koch’s funnel billions to pundits and politicians to spread the asinine notion that the ghetto is easily escapable and half the country are lazy ingrates. It’s an easy notion to spread, too, considering the average American watches more than five hours of television per day.

Therein lies another paradox, considering America’s current idolatry of the antihero: Aren’t the motives of Robin Hood more laudable than those of Walter White or Tony Soprano? By their finales, Soprano and White are loathsome to us because of their crimes against innocent children and their own families. Not so with Robin Hood. He took only from those who could easily afford it and didn’t hurt anybody. Although technically a criminal, he’s considered heroic. His actions couldn’t possibly lead an audience to hope that he’s caught, tried and hanged, because he’s never truly loathsome. No one would argue against convicting a meth dealer or mafia boss, but a modern-day retelling of Robin’s adventures wouldn’t fit into the current antihero archetype. In keeping with the contemporary anger toward the poor, hordes of middle class Americans would logically sympathize with Prince John and vilify the recipients of Robin’s thievery as entitled criminal abettors.

The story of Robin Hood necessarily must be set in a time before arguments over abortion, civil rights, the jurisdiction of the church, climate change, and gay marriage, since back then everyone simply believed in God, burned witches, and fought off dysentery. In other words there was no middle class. It was easier to distinguish between leadership and tyranny when it was only the poor and the royals, but nowadays the middle class – under the deluded notion that they’re on the way up the social ladder – is too busy arguing about food stamps to notice the kings and princes feasting in the ivory tower. We’re distracted by the caterwauls of a society that fiercely debates issues that most civilized nations agreed upon long ago.

But while nobody would belittle his gumption against tyranny, many would denounce Robin as an idiot, at least, for giving all of his hard-earned loot to the moochers. Sadly, evolution has shown us that this sort of selfish individualism hinders the survival of a community, and when combined with rampant provinciality, easily progresses into classism that impedes the community’s survival.

By the principles of group selection and game theory, selfish individuals tend to survive longer than unselfish individuals, but altruistic groups flourish more than groups comprised of the selfish. This is simply a biological variation of the social contract. But we’ve denatured ourselves – both with our death-averting technology and our declared favor in God’s eye – to the point where we don’t consider ourselves animals, nor even a natural part of this world. Unfortunately, Darwin’s findings are pure malarkey (or more aptly, heresy) to the 40% of Americans that believe God created humans within the last 10,000 years. So evolution’s rules must not apply to us.

Another paradox: many of these creationists – who, ironically, deify a laborer known for helping the poor – adamantly oppose offering even a single cent to feed or clothe someone they can’t see, especially when they’ve been encouraged to think that the unseen is a “taker”.

That shield of provinciality, then, causes a hindrance to compassion. Most of Middle America doesn’t see poverty. Their poorest neighbor might have been laid off or had to downsize his house, and so they can’t fathom that there are people in this country that can’t afford a roof or clothes or three squares a day. It’s easy for them to hear fairytales of someone who can’t afford lunch and righteously claim that they should go get a job, as if 1) the hungry individual hadn’t thought of that, or 2) future employment sates immediate hunger.

Admittedly, poverty in this country is infinitely more desirable than poverty in Sudan, say, or Nigeria. Were government assistance programs not already in place, the bodies of children with xylophone ribs and distended bellies would line the back alleys and dumpsters of Blackwater, AZ and Beattyville, KY, where the median household income from 2008-2012 was less than $13,000 per year. But American poverty manifests itself differently, where poor families can only afford the cheapest food imaginable, and so go to McDonalds to feed their children for three bucks a pop. But eating so much hormone-laden, factory-processed “food” leads to obesity and other health problems, which they don’t have money to pay for, even though they work full time at minimum wage. Screw ‘em, though, right? They should have thought of that before they dropped out of high school to raise their unplanned child. The should get another job if they can’t afford food. McDonalds is always hiring.

But while we vilify the poor for accepting help, what of the rich? How much is lost on Prince John’s tax breaks and castle subsidies compared to the costly handouts for Friar Tuck, Otto and the church mice? How much does America spend on the 1% compared to the poverty-stricken?

A 2012 report by the CATO Institute claims that the federal government spends roughly $668 billion per year on assistance for the poor (Medicaid, food stamps, disability, housing).

Also in 2012, the CATO Institute determined that the government spends roughly $100 billion on what could be deemed corporate welfare, although, according to the report, that amount only includes “cash payments to farmers and research funds to high-tech companies, as well as indirect subsidies, such as funding for overseas promotion of specific U.S. products and industries…It does not include tax preferences or trade restrictions.” According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, corporations and the wealthy also receive $200 billion in federal tax breaks per year. And we lose about $38.5 billion per year from a lowered capital gains tax, according to the Office of Management and Budget. Finally, and frightfully, the Tax Justice Network estimated that America loses $337 billion every year due to tax haven abuse. For generosity’s sake, we’ll ignore whatever billions are lost from treasonous corporate emigration, and also bow our heads and close our eyes to the $82 billion lost in annual tax exemptions for churches.

But even without those last two factors, America still loses $675 billion every year to tax cuts and subsidies for corporations and the wealthy. In other words, the 3.1 million people in the top 1% receive just as much “welfare,” if not more, than the 45 million Americans below the poverty line. Yet we’re quicker to demonize the individuals who cannot feed their children.

Ayn Rand would be proud of us, but Howard Pyle would think we’re assholes. Our empathy is gone, if we ever had it. God-fearing, TV-loving Middle America is becoming easier and easier for Fox News to incite through hobgoblins of invasion, nationwide disarmament, and an uprising of the entitlement class. We are desensitized to violence and compassion, through sheer provinciality and the lack of human interaction in our gruesome entertainment and our social networks. We fortify ourselves behind the platitude of teaching a man to fish, but won’t allow him to snap a pole from our tree, nor lend him a line, because, we claim, he’ll never learn to work for himself. But perhaps, secretly, we’re just afraid he’ll think to fashion them into a bow.

Long live the king?