My loss of innocence, in the bicentennial year

On my last post, I said something about how insulting I find it when someone says that my opinions would be different if my personal circumstances were different. Such as when people say, “A conservative is a liberal who has been mugged,” or “if your daughter were pregnant, you wouldn’t be opposed to abortion,” or whatever.

I was insufficiently clear, as I learned when one commenter thought I mean people shouldn’t change their minds. I’m all for mind-changing based upon new information. (And indeed, sometimes that new information is conveyed by changed personal circumstances.) What I object to is the suggestion that, if it were in your self-interest to change your mind, you would.

Part of the reason why I find this so offensive is the puritanism of the journalist. News journalists aren’t even supposed to have opinions, which I’ve always understood to be absurd, of course. But when journos are allowed to have opinions, and even paid to express them publicly, as I was for more than 15 years of my career, it’s such a special gift that the responsibility is huge to formulate political opinions according to the greater good of the community, limited only by your ability to discern the greater good. Anything that smacks of abusing that privilege for self-interest is appalling to me.

I’m a bit more wordly today than I was in the early stages of my journalism career, but the ideals are intact.

This led me to share an anecdote from the days when I realized that not everyone, not even all journalists, looked at the world as I did…

In 1976, I was pretty excited about Jimmy Carter’s candidacy. I saw him as what the country needed after Watergate, etc. One day close to the election, I had a conversation with another editor in the newsroom. She said she favored Gerald Ford. That sounded fine to me; I liked Ford, too — I just preferred Carter.

What floored me, flabbergasted me, shocked me, was that she said the REASON she supported Ford was that she and her husband had sat down and looked at the candidates’ proposals, and had computed (who knows how, given the variables) that if Carter were elected, their taxes would go up by $1,000 a year.

My jaw dropped. I couldn’t believe it, because of the following:

  • I couldn’t believe that ANYONE would actually make a decision based on who should lead the free world based on their personal finances. (I really couldn’t; I was that innocent.)
  • I thought that if there WERE such greedy jerks in the world, you would not find them among the ranks of newspaper journalists, who had deliberately chosen careers that would guarantee them lower salaries than their peers from college. If you care that much about money, this would be about the last line of work a college graduate would choose.
  • If there WERE a journalist whose priorities were so seriously out of whack, surely, surely, she’d never admit it to another journalist.

But I was wrong on all counts.

For a time I regarded her as an outlier, as an exception that proved the rule. But that delusion wore off, too, as I had more such conversations with many, many other people. (Although she still stands out as the must unabashedly selfish journalist I think I’ve ever met. Others may be as self-interested, but they’re more circumspect.)

Today, I have a much more realistic notion of how many people vote on the basis of self-interest. But I have never come to accept it as excusable.

14 thoughts on “My loss of innocence, in the bicentennial year

  1. bud

    I always vote on the basis of personal considerations. But not just those considerations that affect ONLY me but my family and friends as well. Generally speaking that tends to line up pretty well with the best interest of the country and the world. This is not limited to mere financial considerations. But it’s certainly a part. Why would I ever vote for a candidate who is willing to provide huge tax breaks for wealthy folks so that I end up paying more in taxes or my children are forced to shoulder more debt. Seems like a logical way to deliberate how to vote.

  2. Brad

    It is, if you consider self-interest to be a defensible basis for making decisions that affect the entire society.

    I don’t. I believe quite the opposite. I believe that if self-interest seems to be creeping into the equation, you should immediately be suspicious of your motives.

    The vote is such a precious responsibility that all of us have an obligation to consider the overall interests of the country, or state or community (whichever level election we’re talking about) first, last and always.

  3. Brad

    Did anybody hear the fife playing “Yankee Doodle” in the background as I was typing that?

    Yeah, I get that way sometimes. Very Oliver Wendell Douglas.

  4. Doug Ross

    It takes a pretty large ego to think you can speak for all of society.

    Which issues have you supported that would impact you negatively but be better for society?

  5. Brad

    I would vote for Eb, too.

    Doug, are you misunderstanding me intentionally when you say, “It takes a pretty large ego to think you can speak for all of society”? As I clearly said, everyone has a profound obligation to vote on the basis of the overall public good, limited by “your ability to discern the greater good.” That doesn’t mean you’ll always be right, but it’s your sacred duty to try.

    As for your question, gee, Doug, since I don’t define issues that way, it’s hard to come up with a list. How about these for starters:
    — Even though my greatest fear at that point in my life was that my Dad wouldn’t return from Vietnam, I agreed with him that it was in the national interest for him to be there. He was a career naval officer. Who should take his place? A draftee?
    — Even when my salary put me in the top income quintile, my support for the progressive income tax never wavered.
    — Unlike you, I believe that I should pay higher property taxes on my home than someone with a lower-value home pays.
    — I object strongly to my property tax bill being reduced to a ridiculously low level, while renters have to help foot the bill for the fact that commercial property is taxes at an excessively high rate in order to give ME a break.

    I was VERY vocal about that last one for quite some time, until it became clear that the GOP-led Legislature was never even going to consider reversing itself on that. From then on, I advocated comprehensive tax reform, partly in the hope that some more equitable distribution of the property tax burden would emerge from it.

    I’ll never forget the meeting we had with some House leaders in the late 90s, when I was berating them over the property tax issue and one of the committee chairs said to me with a sneer, “I’ll bet you don’t want to give YOUR tax break back,” and I turned to him and said, “You tell me where to send the check.” Which shut him up. Just as I once refused to believe people would formulate public policy based transparently on self-interest, he found it impossible to believe that someone would NOT.

    I’ve always had trouble having any sort of meeting of the minds with people like that.

  6. Doug Ross

    Let’s see:

    On Vietnam, one could suggest that you were just “brainwashed” for lack of a better term based on your father’s position. My father (also a veteran) felt Vietnam was such a waste that he was willing to send my older brother to Canada if the situation arose. Was that selfish or thinking of the greater good in terms of wasted lives – American and otherwise?

    My issue with taxes comes down to efficiency and fairness, not simply about my desire to pay less. I want EVERYONE to pay less because I think the government is inefficient.

    So I am thinking about society as a whole just as you are.

    Now let’s take your view on single payer heathcare. That one is surely driven by your own situation. And your idea of thinking of society as a whole is that if you make it worse for those of us who have insurance we like but make it better for those who don’t have insurance, that’s okay because your intentions are pure.

  7. KP

    Actually, what flummoxes me is how many people DON’T vote in their own self-interest. How else to explain DeMint, whose ideal tax plan would have the vast majority of South Carolinians paying substantially higher taxes? Or Sanford, whose entire education agenda consisted of undermining public schools?

  8. Dave C

    Brad, I don’t always agree with your positions (Iraq, Afghanistan, abortion…), but I think you are spot-on this time. And, as a reporter in a previous career path some 30 years ago, I have appreciation the situations you described with colleagues and news sources.

    When my low-paying career in broadcasting finally ended, I found myself in public higher ed PR in SC. Eventually, I had to move out of that role because I again found myself having to witness activities that (IMHO) didn’t always reflect the best stewardship of public dollars. I very clearly recall a conversation with a manager wherein I questioned whether the money our department put into cranking video news releases on 3/4-inch videotape and shipping them by bus all over the state was a cost-effective way of communicating our message of research, education and public service. I was told in no uncertain terms that “it wasn’t my money” and not to worry about it. It was, after all, what I was hired to do. When I wondered aloud why some professors with nice six-figure salaries were permitted to ‘buy out’ their teaching obligations and never setting foot in a classroom, I was jeered. And I didn’t win any friends either when I suggested that perhaps the some of the millions of dollars generated by and spent on our football team should somehow better benefit academics. Etc. Etc.

    So, eventually I migrated into being a computer geek at the school. At least that allowed me to do something that generally helped students learn and teachers teach (for those who cared to play those roles).

    My $0.02.

  9. Karen McLeod

    To me, when someone suggests that personal experience might change an opinion (eg. “If your daughter were pregnant…,etc), I understand it as saying that personal experience might provide one with a better understanding of the causes underlying the other point of view. Thus, I began to understand the problems of the chronically poor (to those of Doug’s persuasion I think they would be called “chronically lazy”) when I began actually working with them on a volunteer basis. No matter whether I was working in the area of education (adult or child), job skills acquisition, or smart grocery shopping I kept running into walls which were not of their own making. Thus I’ve developed a little more patience and compassion for them. It is experience that has led to my viewpoint concerning the poor since I had enough foresight to choose intelligent, hard working, middle class parents who valued education, job and market skills, and good nutrition. Yes. Some people are selfish. Others have simply not had experiences that make the other’s point of view real to them.

  10. Brad

    Yes, Doug, that’s right. My intentions are indeed poor.

    I came to the conclusion that single-payer would be best for us all back when I thought my insurance was fine.

    Here’s what confuses you — at some point, while I still had that insurance that most would regard as great, that I came to the conclusion that even for ME, particularly, single-payer would be better. I also realized that I was the one person whose situation I knew better than any other, so I used my own case to illustrate why I thought that.

    Now, my insurance situation isn’t quite as great as it was, although it’s fine. But my ardor for single-payer hasn’t increased, because the reasons for it have always been independent of my own situation.

  11. kc

    I’m more bemused by people who are barely scraping by with help from various government policies and programs, yet vote Republican because they think the Republican candidate will cut the programs that all those OTHER deadbeats and leeches are living on.

    Sorry I don’t have a link handy, but there is a recent NYT article about this type of voter.

  12. bud

    Brad, I know you really believe you vote based on the interests of the community/state/nation but your own situation creates the situation where you do, in fact, vote for your own self interest. Otherwise there’s really no explaining why you are adamently oppossed to the legalization of marijuana while at the same time bragging on this blog about your “special” beer refrigerator. It’s all about personal perspective.


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