24 February 2009

Failure Is Necessary

Cal Thomas the conservative columnist is outraged that the Obama administration seems disinclined to see Americans suffer from the current recession. "Each generation must renew the principles delivered by the preceding one," he writes in his latest column, "I fear this generation may be dropping the baton, seduced by the flattering words of politicians who promise not to let us fail, or suffer, or even feel bad."

This is typical Republican exaggeration, but why shouldn't a government aspire to prevent suffering among the people, particularly when the government comes from the people and the suffering comes from forces most people can't control? Thomas's answer would be that doing so will make us weaklings. "It is through failure (or the threat of it) and suffering that we grow stronger as individuals and become more self-reliant," he asserts.

There's a difference between the suffering that someone imposes on himself as part of a chosen strengthening process and the kind that comes with unsought, preventable adversity. But Thomas despises prevention. Each of us should welcome whatever suffering the market dispenses so that we'll become more self-reliant. Never mind that civilized social animals in a democratic republic should not need self-reliance as urgently as uncivilized wilderness creatures. Civilization exists in part as a relief from self-reliance, but reactionaries like Thomas don't see things that way.

"Once, we honored and encouraged hard work, individual responsibility, integrity and achievement," Thomas recites, "Today, we discourage such things by rewarding failure, mediocrity, incompetence and envy." There's little point in a point-by-point refutation of this statement. Just note the word "rewarding." As Cal Thomas sees it, there are people in this country getting things they don't deserve, while those who do "succeed using the old values" are penalized, as he puts it, to "subsidize those who won't embrace the virtues that built and sustained the nation through truly hard times."

Thomas is convinced that certain Americans deserve to suffer if they don't embrace his virtues. If they don't, then what good are his virtues? What good were his choices, his sacrifices, if they weren't necessary, if they weren't the only way to live? I don't mean to knock his virtues, but I do wonder why it is that so many reactionaries like him need to see fellow citizens suffer. It often looks like there's no better reason than that other people's suffering validates their own worldview and life choices. Thomas would most likely instantly deny such a charge. He'd say he's only invoking irrevocable laws of nature and warning people to obey them. But he's already acknowledged that there's more than one alternative. There's "rewarding failure" and there's "every man for himself," at the least, and Thomas has already made his choice, and that's a choice he's responsible for.


Anonymous said...

Mr. Thomas seems to forget to mention we also reward greed, selfishness, mercenary loyalty, lying, corruption. Basically, capitalism rewards anything that creates a profit, including criminal behavior.

Samuel Wilson said...

His kind have a blind spot when it comes to greed, perhaps because they know they can't preach against it, despite it being a sin, without knocking the props out from under capitalism. But they don't have any problem accusing politicians and government in general of greed. The fact is, "greed" is subjective, but all that means is that the people in any country have to decide for themselves, as a whole, what greed is.

Anonymous said...

To take without giving, when you are living in luxury while others in your country go without basic necessities - and then to continue to grab more for yourself - that is greed. To have more than you can make any use of and to continue to take more - that is greed.