A recent New York Times poll asked readers whether “rich countries” should help “poor countries” with problems stemming from climate change. For a brief moment, I was upset that I no longer teach introductory rhetoric. Brief, in part, because I love teaching literature.
I’m less interested in the us/them aspect to the question, or the misreading of class that hails middle-class readers as occupants of a “rich” country while effacing their relative lack of access to wealth: “rich” refers to a tiny minority of the population; the rest of us are “petty men” to Caesar’s colossus.
I am interested in rhetorical framing. Would it have made a difference if the question read, “Should major polluting countries take greater responsibility for their actions?” Not as elegant, or as balanced, as “rich” and “poor,” of course. Perhaps, framed another way it might read: “Should hardened criminals be punished more than first-time offenders?” Those who follow the law and are engaged in questions of prison reform know this question remains fundamental to ongoing deliberations.
Here, of course, is the magical way in which wealth effaces responsibility: that one’s company produces toxic pollutants does not make one responsible for the poor who live in nearby slums and have respiratory problems. The rich/poor distinction privileges success (becoming rich) as the end of responsibility. I am told by those who study such things that we might read this as the triumph of neoliberalism.
Responsibility, what I would term culpability, is re-translated, through a very clever sleigh of hand, into altruism. Rich countries help Poor countries. (This debate, of course, also proceeds under the rubric of affirmative action.)
Recoded as altruism, culpability becomes yet another way to bolster one’s ego. Pushed to a certain illogic, the potential for recoding injury or criminality or responsibility as a form of altruism guarantees ongoing inequality and oppression. Here, as those who study Africa know, the Africans should be grateful for “help” they receive. As an aside, I should note that a recent, quite wonderful article pointed out that the Grimacing Texan revels in gratitude; indeed, he is quite upset when world leaders fail to thank him. The problem with foreigners is that they don’t know how to be grateful.
Ultimately, the Texan’s desire for gratitude and the Times’s hailing of its readers, here in Althusser’s sense, perform the same ideological work: translating what might be experienced as oppression into a mode of ego-gratifying altruism.