A year ago or so, there was an ugly accident on a double-decker shuttle bus that serviced Washington Nationals’ games. A couple of young male passengers were killed when the bus ran under an overpass, prompting speculation about whether the passengers had stood up on the bus at the wrong moment, thus putting themselves in harm's way.
While it's important to make these kinds of distinctions for purposes of liability determination, it requires a special level of callousness to suggest that the two young men deserved to die for making a dumb decision. And yet there was a lot of chatter in my office the next morning taking that very attitude, with all kinds of smart-aleck remarks about the "thinning of the herd" and other even less charitable comments.
One of those men was getting married within a few months; the local paper featured an article describing the devastating impact the man's death had on his family and friends. To some people, that didn't matter; the men allegedly did something stupid, and therefore deserved their fate.
I thought of this when following a recent discussion thread on health care reform. One of the participants said that he had no insurance and badly needed a public option, and he was immediately jumped upon by a couple of right-wingers who condescendingly suggested to him that he could afford health insurance if he would give up his Internet connection (sure, that'll free up all the money he needs), and another who admonished him for the "bad choices" he made that caused him to wind up without insurance.
What drives this kind of thinking, which is so prevalent among conservatives? One possibility is that it operates as some form of self-reassurance. The idea that things good and bad can happen to people more or less randomly, independent of the life decisions they make, is very frightening to many people.
So when informed of another person's misfortune, their minds immediately search for some sort of contributing action (or inaction) by the person, and once they find it, no matter how tangential it might be, they can then tell themselves that "What happened to “X” can't happen to me, because after all, I do “Y” and I don't do “Z,” unlike that fool “X."
This kind of mindset permeates the conservative mind all around. Whenever a natural disaster occurs, as we saw with Katrina, figures on the right fall all over themselves blaming the victims. "They should have evacuated sooner." The idea that there might be complicating factors involved, such as a lack of access to transportation, doesn't figure into their train of thought. Everything is black and white. You should have known your adjustable rate mortgage would adjust upwards and not listened to those smooth-talking mortgage brokers. You screw up, you die. Fair is fair.
And it is this attitude that holds us back in areas where we as a society need improvements, such as health care. If you get sick, it's your fault, so why should my tax money help you? If you lack insurance because you lost your job, it's obviously because you didn't work hard enough at it, so why should I subsidize your sloth?
By telling ourselves these things over and over, we're simply trying to convince ourselves that none of this could ever happen to us, because we’re responsible, after all, unlike those losers and deadbeats.
But that's a very arrogant attitude. Has each and every one of us, at every point in our lives, always made the "right" decision? Is there any one of us who at some point in our lives hasn't done something stupid? Of course not. And while our bad decisions offer valuable life lessons, there's no need for them to destroy our lives and well-being forever. If that were the case, none of us would deserve much of a life.
We as a society need to have the humility to realize that no matter how well we behave, bad things can happen to us at anytime, and it's not necessarily anyone's "fault.” The nation's hospitals are full of patients who ate all the right foods and exercised regularly. The unemployment lines are full of dedicated workers who were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Stuff happens.
And it should not be hard for most of us to admit that stuff happens. Time and chance happen to us all. And our public policies should reflect that, instead of constantly searching for excuses to not help others in need.
Because someday, it might be you.