The Politics of Indignity

The opening scene of this year?s first installment of AMC?s popular series Mad Men sparked a critical firestorm. It showed laughing white workers at a Madison Avenue advertising firm dropping paper bags filled with water from their windows on black demonstrators picketing the New York Office of Economic Opportunity.

What made the scene?based on a 1966 New York Times story, ?Poverty Pickets Get Paper-Bag Dousing on Madison Avenue??so powerful was the combination of racism and contempt that it captured. The overt racism of the 1960s has taken a back seat to covert racism these days, but where the vulnerable are concerned, a new politics of indignity that feasts on contempt is alive and well.

At the core of this politics of indignity is the belief held by conservatives that if they cannot legally prevent practices of which they disapprove, they can at least shame the people engaged in those practices.

New York City under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, with its requirement that food-stamp recipients be fingerprinted, provides a classic case. The mayor claims that the fingerprinting prevents fraud, but why the 1.8 million people receiving food stamps in New York City should be more prone to fraud than Social Security recipients, who face no such test, goes unexplained. A majority of those applying for food aid in New York are minorities; Bloomberg, who has labeled the fingerprinting requirement ?a prophylactic measure,? clearly does not perceive them as part of the city?s mainstream.

The mayor?s effort to make those who apply for food stamps feel like criminals, opposed by Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo (only New York City, along with the state of Arizona, requires the draconian process), has successfully reduced the food stamp rolls; the nonprofit Urban Institute estimates that at least 30,000 needy New Yorkers are not seeking food stamps because they fear fingerprinting.

A different but parallel stigmatization of the poor is being waged in Florida, which along with Alabama, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Louisiana now requires welfare recipients to take a drug test. The drug test strategy has proved a plus for Florida governor Rick Scott, who last month signed a bill allowing state agencies to randomly drug test up to 10 percent of their employees.

The irony is that in Florida, where the law was approved on the premise that it would save tax payers money, testing has actually done the opposite. Of Florida?s 4,086 welfare applicants, only 108 (or 2.6 percent) failed the drug test. The rest passed and were reimbursed about $30 each for successfully taking the test, which amounted to a $118,140 bill for the state?far more than would have been paid in benefits to those who failed the test.

The final and most dramatic indication of today?s ideology of humiliation comes in the battle over abortion. Unable to overturn Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court?s historic 1973 decision guaranteeing women the right to abortion, conservatives in twenty-four states have settled for making abortion as difficult as possible.

Virginia, which in March passed a law requiring women to submit to an abdominal ultrasound procedure before having an abortion, epitomizes the strategy of making burdensome, unneeded procedures an abortion requirement. Matters might have been even worse than they are now: only after Virginia?s Republican governor Bob McDonnell, under intense pressure from pro-choice women?s groups, threatened to veto a more invasive ?transvaginal? procedure did Virginia?s legislature opt for its current abdominal ultrasound requirement.

At a time when high school and college students reading The Scarlet Letter find it ridiculous that the Puritans humiliated Hester Prynne because she has had child out of wedlock, there is no easy answer as to why the politics of indignity have become so widespread.

But one explanation lies in the degree to which the humiliation of others has become a staple of television. Whether it is fat people, stripped to their shorts, trying to get thin on the Biggest Loser or minor celebrities engaged in frat-boy stunts on Donald Trump?s Celebrity Apprentice, we take pleasure these days in watching others lose their dignity, and that change in sensibility is more serious than it looks. When it becomes OK to laugh at the humbling of others, the politics of indignity seems like an extension of mainstream culture rather than the radical right strategy it is.

Image from photo by Michał Kasprzak, 2005, via Flickr creative commons