Mitt Romney, test pilots, and the politics of “It couldn’t happen to me”

By now there’s probably nothing new to say about Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” comment, so I won’t bother. Instead I want to look at the attitude behind it, which is one of the big dividing lines in American culture. And so naturally this leads me to The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe’s 1979 bestselling book about military test pilots and the Mercury space program.

No, really. There’s a connection here. Or an illustration at least.

In the book’s opening chapter, Wolfe writes about 1950s Navy test pilots through the eyes of Jane Conrad, wife of future astronaut Pete Conrad. The story begins during a “bad stretch,” when many of Pete’s friends were dying in crashes. Wolfe provides a gruesome description of what it means to be “burned beyond recognition” and tells of several flights that ended this way. And he describes how the surviving pilots talked about one such crash, when

after dinner one night they mentioned that the departed had been a good man but was inexperienced, and when the malfunction of the controls put him in that bad corner, he didn’t know how to get out of it.

Every wife wanted to cry out: “Well, my God! The machine broke! What makes any of you think you would have come out of it any better!” Yet intuitively Jane and the rest of them knew it wasn’t right even to suggest that. Pete never indicated for a moment that he thought any such thing could possibly happen to him.

Ramp strike of a U.S. Navy Grumman F9F-2 Panther from the Naval Air Test Center aboard the aircraft carrier USS Midway (CVB-41) on 23 July 1951.U.S. Navy Naval Aviation News October 1951, via Wikimedia Commons

Each of us, every day of our lives, live with risk. Not test-pilot-level risk, certainly, but risk nevertheless. And those of us who are not wealthy—the great majority of humanity—live with risks that the wealthy don’t face. In the United States, we can not only be laid off from our jobs, but also lose our health insurance as a result, and even people who have insurance have long faced the risk of being bankrupted by conditions that max out their benefits. We live in an economy trending toward less and less job security, while unemployment insurance benefits remain meager and time-limited. We work for companies that will take shortcuts with worker safety to the degree they can get away with it, and we are vulnerable to a host of swindlers, polluters, snake oil purveyors, and assorted high-level crooks who are too powerful to be held in check by the likes of us, at least not when we act separately.

So how do we live with these risks? If you look at our politics, you see the country divided between those who (like the test pilots’ wives) recognize that some risks are not under our control, and those who (like the pilots themselves) assure each other that no one comes to harm unless it’s his own goddamn fault.

For test pilots this attitude probably made some sense. As Wolfe writes,

It seemed not only wrong but dangerous to challenge a young pilot’s confidence by posing the question.

I understand how it comforts a working class person to believe that the people just below him on the economic ladder are deadbeats and parasites. Hell, I work hard! So I’ve got nothing to worry about, right? I pray, and God watches over us.

Because if you can work and pray and save and be a good, patriotic citizen and still—as soon as the cards turn against you—wind up broke and unable to provide for yourself or your dependents… well, that would make you, to some significant degree, helpless against circumstance and at least potentially a victim, just like the ones Mitt Romney said were not his concern, and which he implied were the rightful object of contempt.

I wouldn’t have done it that way. That wouldn’t happen to me.

A world in which hardworking people sometimes wind up no better off than their less-motivated neighbors is not only an unjust world but also a damned scary place. Read any hard-luck story on the web and you’re sure to read that fear in the comments that follow. Many of the commenters will nitpick the story, pointing out everything the story’s subject did that was mistaken or unwise—or if they can’t find something, they’ll speculate about what the subject might have done wrong, must have done wrong. See? See? It was your fault after all. I wouldn’t have done it that way. That wouldn’t happen to me.

Maybe that helps some people feel better, but it makes for cruel social policy. If you’ve ever come face to face with those risks, if you’ve ever contemplated what the future will be like if you fall in the next round of layoffs, of if you don’t get that needed job, or if that medical test comes back positive, then you ought to know that denouncing universal healthcare in the name of “freedom,” or the social safety net in the name of “responsibility,” is either a reckless denial of economic reality or else an act of profound moral callousness.

If there’s anything that we as humans ought to have learned by now, it’s that life is full of risk, and that we can face these risks most effectively if we have both the compassion and the humility to pool some of our resources, based on our ability to pay, to provide some measure of mutual protection. That’s simply good government.

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