There's a point in John Steinbeck's novel "The Grapes of Wrath" when Tom Joad, whose family has been evicted from its Oklahoma farm and is heading to California, destitute and hungry, lays into a one-eyed mechanic for whining about the way his boss treats him.
"Ya dirty, ya stink," Joad says. "Ya jus' askin' for it. Ya like it. Lets ya feel sorry for yaself." He tells the mechanic about a one-legged prostitute he knew who got paid extra for the novelty and a humpback who made his living charging people to rub his hump. "Jesus Christ," Joad finishes, "an' all you got is one eye gone."
Some of the 216 House Republicans who voted last week for a farm bill stripped of food stamps must have read that passage in high school English, tucking it away somewhere in their subconscious minds. Steinbeck's depiction of hardship in the 1930s, and the Joad family's resilience in the face of privation, offers the most charitable interpretation of the philosophy behind today's Republican Party: Family, hard work and initiative are the answer to most problems, and handouts rot the soul.
If that seems like a cartoonish depiction of today's Republicans, you may want to re-read Republican Congressman Paul Ryan's budget proposal from 2010, the year the party won the House. Ryan, then ranking member of the Budget Committee, wrote that Washington's "government-centered ideology" fosters "a culture in which self-reliance is a vice and dependency a virtue":
Over time, Americans have been lured into viewing government -- more than themselves, their families, their communities, their faith -- as their main source of support; they have been drawn toward depending on the public sector for growing shares of their material and personal well-being. The trend drains individual initiative and personal responsibility.
Steinbeck reminds us that the moral taint of dependency, which modern Republicans have endorsed with such fervor, isn't a new idea in American culture. One of his characters, a woman who went to the Salvation Army with her husband when they were starving, does a better job of making Ryan's point. "If a body's ever took charity, it makes a burn that don't come out," she tells Ma Joad. "I ain't never seen my man beat before, but them -- them Salvation Army done it to 'im."
None of this is to say the criticisms of Republicans as anti-poor, or beholden to the interests of the rich, are necessarily wrong. But those criticisms miss the mythology that seems to drive today's Republican Party -- a view that says each poor American family is an economic dynamo on hold, drugged into complacency by food stamps, free health care and whatever else. If Republicans believe that charity makes a burn that doesn't come out, then calling them cruel won't change their minds.
It isn't clear, of course, how many House Republicans got around to reading the whole book. Things don't work out that well for the Joads: Grampa dies on the road, followed soon after by Granma; Tom's brother Noah abandons the family; his sister's husband runs off, leaving a pregnant wife whose child is stillborn. The family starts off proud and ends up on the brink of starvation.
In other words, sometimes personal responsibility only takes you so far. By the end of the book, Ma Joad has said goodbye to three of her six children, and her eldest daughter is breastfeeding a grown man in a barn. Some food stamps would have helped.
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To contact the author on this story:
Christopher Flavelle at firstname.lastname@example.org