image: OccupyEducated.org

One of the definitions of “entitled” is having the right to something. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney uses the terms “entitled” and “entitlement” as dirty words. It’s clear from his speech at a fundraiser dinner that he feels people should not be entitled to food, health care or housing. Meaning that if people don’t have the money to pay for food, shelter or the doctor, they can’t expect the government to help them. To Europeans, that is pretty shocking.  In Europe we call entitlement programs parts of the social safety net.

The terminology illustrates the fundamental difference in attitudes toward people who need help.

I grew up in the Netherlands with the saying that you can measure the degree of a country’s civilization by the way it treats its weakest members. Because what kind of person are you if you can walk past a man who’s dying in the street and not feel any responsibility? What kind of society would that be? Not the kind most feeling people would consider ideal.

Americans grow up with the saying that you can do anything you put your mind to. Which means that if you are not successful in life, you must not have wanted it enough. Which means that you have only yourself to blame if you have no money for food, shelter or healthcare. And so people can indeed walk by–or drive by–without feeling any responsibility.

Oh, but most Americans aren’t like that. People aren’t that unfeeling.

No? Just look at how few people sitting in their big cars at a traffic light give money to a poor sod with one leg and a sign around his neck saying “Anything helps”. The vast majority just sits there, with only their car window separating them from abject poverty, and they manage to completely ignore it. How unfeeling can you get?

It’s this idea that Americans are self-made–they got to where they are because they put their minds to it–that allows them to separate themselves from society’s weaker members. Republicans and extreme libertarians are best at this. Republicans are still outraged at Obama for pointing out that people with successful businesses didn’t get there all by themselves. They used infrastructure paid for with taxes, they used employees educated with taxes, they were able to function because rules allow them to exist in relative peace and safety–rules put in place by society and upheld by police, who are paid with taxes. But that doesn’t fit with the myth of the self-made businessman.

Aha, gotcha! Because in his speech Romney was talking about people who don’t pay income tax, so they don’t contribute to society.

Maybe they don’t, but they might have at some point. The poor one-legged sod on the street might have been a productive, taxpaying member of society before he lost his leg. The vast majority of the elderly who are on Medicare were productive, taxpaying members of society before they got old. And some people whose income is too low to pay taxes might start paying income tax if they could get a better job. Which they might with a little help, like childcare, or job training, or simply a roof over their head so they can shower every morning and be presentable at a job interview.

But those who have been so successful, who are so self-made that they can afford to pay $50,000 for a seat at Romney’s fundraiser dinner–which is more than twice as much as the annual income at the poverty line–can afford to keep the less fortunate at such a distance that they all look the same: “47%, dependent on government, people who feel they are victims”. Romney and his followers are “not going to worry about those people; they have to take responsibility for their own lives”.

Romney’s speech illustrates how completely out of touch the rich are in this country. And it never ceases to shock me how that is possible. How the difference between the richest and the poorest can be so big. How rich is rich enough, for Pete’s sake?  Apparently even being able to afford a $50,000 dinner isn’t rich enough, because those people still see the poor as a threat, as flies that have to be shooed away from the sugar pot.


4 responses to “Entitled

  1. May I compliment you putting this injustice into words!
    Your words are right from your heart!
    You are also right in being indignant about this selfish attitude

    It always amazes me how many Americans believe that it is a persons own fault when he/she get into a difficult patch in their lives, be it financial-, work-and/or healthwise!


  2. I agree with the general drift of your comments, Barbara. Nevertheless I find it hard to believe that a majority of Americans share the sentiments Mitt Romney expressed. His were the unfeeling remarks of a child of privilege who relates best to other privileged people, the kind who can afford to pay $50,000 or more to meet a presidential candidate. His type is not unknown in the Netherlands, by the way, as I’m sure you know. In Baarn, especially among those who lived in the wealthy part of town, there was some reluctance to see the poor as fully human. Whether that was also true in Eemnes when you were young I don’t know. The Eemnes I remember was a farming community without a lot of wealth, whereas Baarn was a bedroom suburb of Amsterdam with a substantial number of people who were rich by any standard.

    Most Americans, even though they aren’t poor, are not rich, and they certainly don’t ever rub shoulders with the kind of people Mr. Romney was addressing in Boca Raton. Americans should consider carefully whether he has the moral stature and the empathy with ordinary people that, in my view, a head of state should possess.

    By the way, here in the frozen north there is a gleeful sense that Mr. Romney shot himself in both feet with a bazooka, and that this will surely ruin his chances of becoming president. If Canadians were allowed to vote, the president would poll well over 70%. During the 2008 election, a Conservative columnist with the National Post, the leading right-wing daily in Canada, said on TV that of course she wanted Barack Obama to win: “I’m a Conservative but I am a Canadian Conservative, and that puts me to the left of many US Democrats.” She was exaggerating somewhat, but the sense of social responsibility does seems stronger here than in the US. Aside from that, the President’s skin colour is hardly an issue up here.


    • Hi Michiel, I know most Americans aren’t as rich as Romney, but America does have the highest number of super rich people in the world, and the biggest difference between rich and poor. And with my example of the homeless guy I was pointing out that, even though Romney’s views are unusually unfeeling, a lot of Americans (judging by the number of cars where the windows don’t come down to give some money) rationalize somewhat in the same way.
      I know that Baarn had/has its share of rich people, not to any standards, but to Dutch standards. The same for Het Gooi. But they also paid a lot more in taxes. So as long as they pay a proportionate amount of taxes, they can grumble all they want, and look down on the poor all they want. I don’t care. But in America the super rich pay less taxes, relative to their income, than lower middle-class Americans, and yet they complain the most about the poor mooching off the government. That just gets to me.
      I would agree with you that Romney has shot himself in the foot to such a degree that he’ll lose the election, if this happened a week before the elections. But the American media have short memories, and he has a lot of time to wash it all away with more generic talk about “fixing” things. James Carville pointed out that Bush was just as behind in 2000 as Romney was right after that video, but he’s already inching up again.
      I’m looking forward to the debates. They should make a difference, too.
      Thanks for your thoughtful response, as always, Michiel.


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