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November 3, 2010

The dehumanization of government

We hear it everywhere, from both parties: “Washington is out of touch,” or “Washington is out of control.” Translation: They ain’t one of us! In reality, the federal government could not be more human.

During the last four years, I have spent significant time with members of Congress. In fact, when Congress was in session, one member was my roommate in Washington. I can say without equivocation that average Americans run our government. Congress is not filled with elites (anyone who has watched C-SPAN knows what I mean). It is, however, mostly filled with people working diligently to move America toward their ideological perspective.

To be clear, most of the smartest people in Congress are the staff of the committees and members.

The humanity of Congress is under attack, and our participation is its only protection. The main culprits are media (talk radio in particular) and powerful, well-financed groups, most of whom lack compassion for members of Congress.

Take talk radio. Whether it’s Ed Schultz or Glenn Beck, people are drawn to commentators because they feel part of the process. People consume the gospel of radio show hosts, whose purpose is to generate ratings — most often through inflammatory, emotional language. This is where the most egregious name-calling gets thrown around.

Tea party posters that depicted President Obama as Hitler or the Joker from “Batman” are offensive manifestations of this emotion. Aside from the un-American racial overtones that have accompanied the election of the first black president, it is the ratings-driven, irresponsible commentary that feeds this dehumanization.

Consumers of hate rhetoric, particularly in anxious economic times, are ready to lash out. What better channel for being heard than talk radio? Introduced as “Aaron from Louisville,” I can offend whomever I please. I don’t dare risk putting my face to words — I take no responsibility for them.

A second example is the use of mind-numbing numbers, the magnitude of which most individuals cannot comprehend. It all started with the Bush bailout of Wall Street — more than $700 mil-, excuse me, billion. Fast-forward to the Obama administration and hundreds of billions more spent on stimulating the economy, bailing out the auto industry and making capital available for lending. Then there’s the big number — $13 trillion — America’s debt. These numbers obscure the purpose of government, and the truth is, such numbers are a necessary part of the process. They worked.

Republicans and their wealthy corporate backers call this “waste, fraud and abuse.” Democrats, the people who enacted most of these legislative accomplishments, did so out of pure human interests — saving auto-manufacturing jobs, standing up for teachers, police and firefighters, and ensuring states can pay social security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits. Given the choice between spending and saving lives, the moral, humane choice our government made was to save lives. This sort of compassion is what reminds us that our Congress is human.

And the humanity behind these measures was vindicated when Republicans, who vilified government spending, accepted the money for their districts and held the big scissors at the ribbon cuttings. They had to — it was the humane thing to do. And even under the crustiest cut-spending shell is a human in all of us — even politicians.

The final, and most glaring example of a government stripped of its humanity, occurred a few weeks ago in Obion County, Tenn. Firefighters were instructed to stand idly as a house burned, because the owner had not paid the annual $75 fire-protection fee. When government loses its humanity, it treats citizens inhumanely and unjustly. In this case, it left a family homeless. Because government lost its sensitivity, compassion and sole purpose — to defend its citizens — it let a piece of humanity burn to the ground with it. It became an “it” and not an “us.”

Piece by piece, the hands-off government dehumanizes all of us. In Tennessee, the victims weren’t just the family who lost their home but the community living under the chaos. And the firefighters — the public servants and heroes who are sworn to protect lives and livelihoods — were victims of dehumanization.

We must participate in our democracy, because the government truly is us. And we can’t do it through faceless attacks on talk radio or sending around defaming and dishonest e-mails. So when someone hollers — “Take our government back!” — respectfully disagree and explain that our government is simply human.

 

Aaron Yarmuth is a political consultant and substitute teacher. He’s also the son of Congressman John Yarmuth.