Personal Responsibility for Thee But Not for Me: Blame Shifting and Buck-Passing, Conservative Style

Conservatives love to parade as the apostles of personal responsibility. Whenever the issues of poverty, racism, or crime come up, for example, those on the right are quick to demand “personal responsibility” from the poor, from people of color, or from criminals. If you’re struggling economically, don’t blame the system: just work harder. If you find yourself behind your white counterparts, don’t blame racism or discrimination: just work harder. And if you commit a crime, go to jail: no whining about the environment in which you grew up, or whether you were abused as a child, or the fact that you might be mentally ill.

The right is like this with all kinds of issues: Got AIDS? You shouldn’t have had promiscuous sex. Unplanned pregnancy? You shouldn’t have had promiscuous sex. Struggling to feed your kids? Maybe if you hadn’t had all that promiscuous sex, you wouldn’t have kids to feed–ever think about that?

Sounds principled, if a little mean. It’s a shame the folks who say this stuff don’t really believe it. For when it comes to personal responsibility, right-wingers almost never take their own advice; they almost never apply their sermonizing to their own flock.

So when Rush Limbaugh developed a serious Oxycontin habit, all the talk about the moral weakness of drug users and abusers suddenly disappeared, to be replaced by claims that he had become addicted, as if by a disease: the same diagnosis the right regularly eschews for street junkies. He also obstructed investigators who wanted to see his medical records, to determine if he’d been doctor shopping for surplus pills. There’s certainly no “personal responsibility” in that: after all, he’d be the first to tell a suspected criminal, or suspected terrorist who was fighting a search of his home (or an investigation into his book-buying habits), that if they had nothing to hide, they shouldn’t mind having their privacy invaded.

When Richard Nixon did his thing, his defenders (the same people who’d been preaching law and order to black folks in cities wracked by riots in the late ’60s), quickly ditched personal responsibility, opting instead for the old standby: “He didn’t do anything that every other President didn’t do. The only difference is, he got caught.”

When Ronald Reagan got caught selling arms to the Iranians and diverting the money to the Nicaraguan contras, the right rushed to pass the buck to others: Ollie North, Cap Weinberger, anyone but the Gipper. Even Reagan’s Alzheimer’s became an excuse, as in, “Well, the old man didn’t know what was going on, so you can’t blame him.”

On a more collective level, although the right tells poor folks to work harder if their incomes are too low, they have their own version of buck-passing when it comes to inadequate pay. If they are unsatisfied with their income, rather than look in the mirror and say, “Dammit Braxton, work harder,” they blame taxes and the politicians who raise them, for “confiscating” their hard-earned cash. Apparently when paychecks are depleted thanks to taxes, that’s theft, but when paychecks are depleted thanks to the skimming off of surplus value (also known as profits), so that workers are paid less than the value of the products or services they produce or provide, that’s just good business. Of course, to the person holding the depleted pay stub, it probably doesn’t feel much different.

The right refuses to take any personal responsibility for global warming, so that even if they admit the phenomenon is happening, which is rare, they blame nature, rather than industrial activity. Sort of the way Reagan blamed trees for pollution, rather than addressing the role humans were playing in fouling the air and water. And so right-wing men, in particular, go right on driving gas-guzzling Hummers while claiming to support the “war on terror” in the oil rich Middle East, never noting the irony.

Recently, three developing stories have driven home the hypocrisy of the right when it comes to their paeans to personal responsibility.

The first comes from Utah, where a coal mine collapse has trapped six miners in a shaft 1500 feet below the Earth’s surface, and three miles from the mine’s entrance. They will likely be dead by the time rescuers reach them. The owner of the mine, Bob Murray–a reactionary businessman the likes of which we haven’t witnessed since Scrooge or Mr. Potter, from It’s a Wonderful Life, has spent more time bashing the United Mine Workers since the cave-in, than anything else. And as for his responsibility for the tragedy? Are you kidding? The fact that two of his mines have injury rates one-quarter higher than an already awful industry average means nothing. The fact that the mine in Huntington that just collapsed was cited for over a hundred “significant and substantial” safety violations, serious enough to cause death, just since 2004, means nothing. The fact that one of his standard mining practices is to strip off all the coal from a shaft–including the part that forms the pillars that actually keep the roof up–matters not. No personal responsibility here. No sir, instead Murray blames an earthquake, which, strangely, seismologists can find no evidence of having happened, and which no one else in the vicinity seems to have noticed.

The second story comes from Florida, where State Representative, Bob Allen, who has a nearly perfect voting record in the eyes of the so-called Christian right (and who actually authored the state’s Lewd or Lascivious Exhibition Act), was just arrested for offering to give an undercover cop a blowjob in a public bathroom. Allen entered the restroom, at a park in Titusville, Florida, then peeped over the wall of the bathroom stall at the officer, then pushed open the door to the stall, after which fairly brazen act he made the proposition of oral gratification. Once arrested, did Allen take personal responsibility? Of course not. Though he didn’t pull a Ted Haggard–that far-right gasbag of a phony Christian preacher who had regular trysts with a male escort while taking crystal meth and then lied about it–Allen’s explanation for what happened wasn’t much better. According to Allen, black people made him do it.

“This was a pretty stocky black guy,” Allen said, “and there was nothing but other black guys around in the park.” He went on to say that he feared he “was about to be a statistic,” and would have said anything just to get away. So there you have it: fear of black men forced him to offer that blowjob, and to peer over the stall wall, and to push open the door, to get closer to the big black man who scared him so. And it was that fear, that utter terror that caused him to no doubt cast his eyes downward at the object of his petrified affection: oooh, scary! But, you know girl, in a good way.

And the third story–and oh yes, I have quite deliberately saved the best for last–also involves right wing men and the penises (or is it peni?) that they so clearly covet, despite their heterosexist and homophobic rantings. To wit, Glenn Murphy Jr., the recently elected 33-year old head of the Young Republican National Federation. Murphy has just resigned from his position–to hear him tell it because of an unexpected business opportunity–just days after it was revealed that he was likely to face felony charges of having performed oral sex on a sleeping man, quite without the man’s permission.

Murphy and the victim, along with the victim’s sister had apparently been at a Young Republican function in Indiana, after which soiree, the three went back to the sister’s house to crash. At some point in the middle of the night, the victim says he woke up to find “Murphy holding my dick with one hand and sucking my dick with his mouth.” (These Republicans–such language!) Anyway, the victim shoved Murphy aside, Murphy ran out of the house, and later called the victim to “explain” himself. Was the explanation one that involved taking personal responsibility for forcible sodomy, not to mention his own sexual and political hypocrisy? Of course not. Instead, Murphy says he somehow “found himself on the floor,” next to the victim, in a strange but no doubt happy coincidence, and that the victim had started, while still asleep of course, to fondle Murphy’s hair. Then Murphy, as if in a dream state of semi-consciousness, proceeded to caress the victim’s leg, all leading up to the inevitable, and totally innocent “dick-in-the-mouth” thing.

Then, once the victim failed to accept Murphy’s explanation (imagine that), Murphy hired a lawyer who went to the victim to try and “work something out” (read: pay him off), so that the event wouldn’t become public. Not a very “personally responsible” thing to do, to say the least.

Interestingly, a police report from 1998, in the same community, indicates that Murphy did exactly the same thing then, although charges were never brought. After this earlier incident, Murphy went on to rise in the ranks (no pun intended) of the Young Republicans, culminating with his bid for National Chair. Last month, after his election, he explained his goals in a way that couldn’t be more perfect, given the allegations against him.

“I will essentially be the mouthpiece and effective leader for the tens of thousands of Young Republicans, 18 to 40 across the country.”

Of course that right-wingers would seek to shift responsibility from their own wrongdoing shouldn’t surprise anyone. They’ve been doing it forever: as with those fundamentalist, Bible-thumping zealots who blame Satan for leading them into temptation. “Oh Lord, I was tempted by another–by the Devil, by that wicked trickster Eve, by the Serpent. Oh Lord, it wasn’t me, it wasn’t me!

It’s long past time that the right’s obsession with personal responsibility was exposed for what it really is: a morally obtuse rhetorical cover for hypocrisy. Conservatives are hypocrites, about sex, about drugs, about crime, about their reading of Scripture (Southern Baptists have some of the highest divorce rates of any religious denomination in the nation, for example), about damned near everything. And until the rest of us challenge them openly on it, rather than being cowed by the power of their mega-churches and radio shows, their ability to keep peddling the politics of personal responsibility, even while practicing something very different for themselves will continue unabated.

And the only responsibility for that will be ours.

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