Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Andre Bauer's Abuse of History

[Note: the post below is an expanded version of my letter to the editor published today in the Spartanburg Herald-Journal.]

This past Sunday, South Carolina Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer published an op-ed piece in the Spartanburg Herald-Journal to respond to criticism of this now well-reported statement comparing people on government assistance to stray animals:

"My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed. You're facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don't think too much further than that."

Bauer has been forced to back off this specific metaphor, but he clearly thinks he has a winning issue in the race for the Republican nomination for governor in his attacks on what he calls “the culture of dependency.”

Put aside the disturbing implications of Bauer’s use of this particular metaphor. Put aside even the not-very-subtle racial code language implied by its last sentence. It is his abuse of historical evidence I’d like to talk about.

In this opinion piece, Andre Bauer tries a rhetorical trick. In attacking the “culture of dependency,” Bauer ominously intones “we were warned.” He then proceeds to quote Franklin D. Roosevelt, from his 1935 State of the Union address, on the dangers of dependency: “The lessons of history, confirmed by the evidence immediately before me, show conclusively that continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber. To dole our relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit. It is inimical to the dictates of a sound policy. It is in violation of the traditions of America.” If even the father of modern American liberalism was against relief, Bauer indirectly suggests, then how can anyone criticize my view?

The quotation is accurate, as far as it goes. It is, however, incredibly selective—so much so that Bauer effectively creates a false impression of what FDR was really saying.

Before the section Bauer quoted, FDR proposed what would become Social Security: “the time has come for action by the National Government. I shall send to you in a few days definite recommendations … [which] will cover the broad subjects of unemployment insurance and old-age insurance, of benefits for children, for mothers, for the handicapped, for maternity care, and for other aspects of dependency and illness where a beginning can now be made.” In short, FDR had just proposed precisely the kind of social safety net Bauer decries in his op-ed.

It gets worse. FDR’s attack on relief was not in isolation. It was to set the stage for his proposal for the WPA, and his request for the largest single peacetime appropriation in American history to give people jobs. Yes, he opposed relief to the unemployed, but in the absence of relief, he proposed to use government to create jobs for them: “It is a duty dictated by every intelligent consideration of national policy to ask you [Congress] to make it possible for the United States to give employment to all of these three-and-a-half million people now on relief, pending their absorption in a rising tide of private employment.” FDR was not calling simply for an end to relief, he was calling on Congress to replace relief with work. And he was not willing to wait for private enterprise to provide those jobs. He wanted people to have the dignity of work, and wanted to mobilize government to make sure they had it.

(I’ve seen this kind of selective quotation before, but it is usually in freshmen essays, and it always results in the spilling of a lot red ink from my grading pen and an appropriately low grade. We should be able to expect better of someone who presumes to govern a state.)

FDR offered people on relief real jobs and real income instead of relief. Andre Bauer offers them nothing but self-righteous and self-satisfied homilies. He wants us to know that “as a child I chose to cut grass and rake leaves” to pay for his lunches. But what he proposed was to cut off school lunch benefits to children if their parents failed to attend parent-teacher conferences. FDR proposed helping those who found themselves in need through no fault of their own, children in particular; Bauer proposed punishing children for the failings of their parents.

FDR’s WPA provided funding for the Santee Cooper project, which put thousands of South Carolinians to work and today still provides electricity to over 130,000 South Carolinians. Bauer opposed the recent stimulus bill—though he quickly distanced himself from Gov. Sanford’s stand against accepting the money marked for South Carolina. Since the stimulus was a fact, he argued in March 2009, South Carolinians should get their share of the benefits: “people are in need and if stimulus is purchased with your dollars, the stimulus ought to be available to you. Why send the money and jobs elsewhere?” Evidently people have their characters ruined by federal money, but states don’t.

The crowning irony of his self-serving article is that in it Bauer whines that his “historical understanding” is being attacked by critics of his tone-deaf statement. But Bauer’s misuse of FDR’s words shows that he is either ignorant of history and thus deserves the attacks, or that he is willing to knowingly abuse history to advance his political career. Neither choice is very appealing.

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