It Takes A Neanderthal

“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.  And so what you’ve got to do is you’ve got to curtail that type of behavior.  They don’t know any better.”        –  Former South Carolina Lieutenant Governor Andre Bauer, campaigning in January, 2010.

Rarely are politicians so honest.  A candidate for the U.S. Senate is suggesting that the poor be allowed to starve, since that will stop them from breeding.  It’s Social Darwinism in its starkest form, in the mouth of a South Carolina Republican who would probably deny the validity of evolution.

Lieutenant Governor Bauer, the man who would have become governor if the adulterous Mark Sanford had resigned, simply states plainly what is a commonly held belief.  The poor are parasites who deserve a unpleasant environment, since the goal is elimination.  Newt Gingrich is now campaigning for the Republican nomination by calling President Obama “the food stamp president,” as if the President had caused an national infestation of tape worms.  If we’re not careful, he’s threatening, the poor will continue to multiply and suck us dry.

There’s a basic narrative to this equating of the unfortunate and pitiable with bloodsucking creatures who require purging.  It goes like this.  The poor are a problem because they’re non-productive.  Being non-productive means they’re expensive; they generate costs without providing sufficient benefits in return.  Those costs are underwritten by taxpayers who are productive, whose productivity is siphoned off to keep alive people whose production is negligible.

That scenario raises a question for the productive ones: is it fair?  Why should they give money to someone who has done nothing to earn it?  Secondly, if they do give them something, doesn’t that simply encourage more of the same?  If doing nothing pays off, why doesn’t everyone do it?  But if everyone did it, everyone would starve, leaving it up to the responsible schmucks to take care the rest.  All things considered, it is probably in everybody’s best interests to let the chips fall where they may and give the sponges nothing, and most especially nothing from the government.  What help the poor receive should come from voluntary gifts.

Politicians and pundits refer to that storyline as the problem of income redistribution.  What gives government the right to take money through taxes on income-earning citizens and give it to non-income earning citizens?  What gives anyone the right to leech off the living of others?  By rewarding laziness and irresponsibility, government helps them grow.

It’s not a new problem.  In the Bible, God commands people to take care of the widows, orphans, and aliens, obviously worried that we won’t.  And we didn’t.  The norm, as Jesus described, was Lazarus pleading at the rich man’s gate, starving and covered in sores.

In medieval times, wandering bands of vagrants, the ill, and the crazy would go from village to village begging for food.  Some towns sealed their walls and drove them off with arrows.  Other met them outside the town and bribed them with bread and money to keep going down the road.  No one wanted to deal with the corpses and filth left in the town square after one of the bands passed through.

By the sixteenth century, those same bands of vagrants, the ill, and the crazy were being quarantined in former leper houses.  Along with criminals, prostitutes, and drunks, they were official social vermin.  Whole families might be locked away.

By the seventeenth century, workhouses were in vogue.  The poor were supposed to pay for themselves through mandatory labor.  But that also meant taking care of the ill and the crazy and the old who couldn’t work, and putting the children in a school, so the entire enterprise cost more than it seemed worth.

By the nineteenth century, the crazy were being held separately from criminals.  The crazy included the homeless, indolent, drunk, and libertines.  By the end of the twentieth century, this measure was also judged as too expensive, and the populations of large mental hospitals were released back into towns.  Many of the hospital inmates simply became prison inmates.

Today, prisons are America’s modern form of leper/workhouses.  The vast majority of inmates in America come from among the impoverished and crazy, and we incarcerate more than any country in the world.  Prison is America’s favorite method for corralling the poor.  It’s one of the main reasons our government doesn’t change the drug laws; drug laws are how we put the lower class in prison.

Politicians who dislike income redistribution don’t seem to mind prisons.  They want to shrink everything else—Medicaid, food stamps, WIC, Pell Grants, housing, child care.  Thinking of the poor as parasites makes it okay.  You don’t feed parasites; you isolate them.

Perhaps we should let the Neanderthals teach us what it means to be human, even though they weren’t human themselves.  Neanderthal burial sites show evidence of people who were tended at great expense to the clan.  Disabled limbs, blindness, rib fractures, cracked skulls, and advanced arthritis are some of the afflictions that show signs of existing long before the persons died.  The Neanderthals were taking care of their non-productive, at a time in history when that care was much more expensive than it is today.

And we think they’re the primitive ones.

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About Bucky Dann

I teach religion, sociology, and psychology at Southwestern Community College in the Smoky Mountains. I have worked in the United Methodist ministry and in the substance abuse field. I possess a Masters of Divinity, a Masters of Philosophy, and a PhD in the sociology of knowledge.

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