Posted by: Ali Davis | September 27, 2010

The Politics of Personal Responsibility

At my current day job, I’m contracting on site with a company that deals with some complicated copy and a lot of state and federal regulations. I’m in California, so there are requirements for language accommodations – we have, duh, largish populations who speak something other than English as a first language.

And, yes, it’s difficult when a piece needs to be translated in to Spanish or Chinese. Both languages tend to print out longer than English, which can throw off the pretty layout and pagination of your brochures, and sometimes idiomatic phrases are problematic.

So if you’re working under pressure, which we are, the added complication can be a little frustrating.

We were in the middle of an interminable meeting on Friday when one of the women I work with said “I’m sorry… but if I lived in France, I would learn French.”

And then she looked at us all with a beatific smile on her face. She was immensely pleased with her logic, and so proud of her alternate-universe self.  Surely if she moved to France – or any foreign country – she would have the time and the money to do full-immersion classes first, regardless of the circumstances of her move. Surely she, somewhere in her late thirties or early forties, would have the same ability to learn a language that someone does when learning a language as a child or adolescent. And didn’t we all learn to speak at least one foreign language just perfectly in high school?

And if she wasn’t able to learn the language perfectly before moving, she’d certainly have plenty of time and energy to zip to classes every single day after work in her new country. And plenty of money to take those classes.

Certainly she would be able to speak perfect, fluent colloquial and formal French – not to mention legal and medical French – within the first year, right? With no mistakes at all and never, not once asking anyone to switch into English to explain.

No, that’s unrealistic. I think she just meant that she would perfectly arrange her life so as not to need a level of fluency beyond what she could handle. She would not get sick and need to go to the hospital, or have to understand a legal document, or ever have someone plow into her car in traffic.

And if she did, well, she’d just learn to speak French that much better, exactly when and how she needed to.

She was so placidly satisfied with herself, and with the ease of her common-sense solution.

And rightly so: Her alternate-universe self really knows how to handle things. All of our alternate-universe selves seem to take care of life’s complications just beautifully. Given the same circumstances as the people we condemn, we’d do more studying, never fall in love with the wrong person, and inherently be better at doing everything.

If only those irritating other people in reality could tap into the remarkable ability, industry, and virtues of our there-but-for-the-grace-of-God selves.

And she’s not even the one who drove me farthest up the walls.

Upon hearing the first woman’s good sense, one of the other women in the meeting, J, took a moment to smile with radiant unassailable logic and say that people don’t have to learn “the language” here because “there is no personal responsibility in this country” and everyone just expects the government to take care of you.

She was so lucky – and beautifully put-upon – to be one of the few people in the U. S. of A. who truly gets what it means to step up and take responsibility.

I had to leave my body for a moment after she said that lest I make a response that would require an immediate job search.

J. won’t change a comma in one of our brochures without checking in with 17 “stakeholders,” three Vice Presidents, and a Magic 8 Ball.

Federal legislation passed in March that required us change the wording in our brochures. J. wouldn’t let us change it without checking in with each and every person who might want oversight, straight up the command chain to God. And even then she wanted to have a meeting first.

And this was even though – I cannot stress this enough – we were legally required to make the change and we all knew it. For a long time, J. wouldn’t even send an e-mail mentioning the required, completely noncontroversial change.

Over and over, she refused to let our team make the federally mandated changes – holding up our brochures by weeks and inconveniencing every single person other than herself who had to work on them – lest she make what looked like a decision and thus perhaps cause someone to ask her a sharply worded question.

A sharply worded question that would be easily answered with “We are required to do this by federal law.”

But, hey, other than that, personal responsibility all the way.

And that, I realized, is why the whole “personal responsibility” line that conservatives love to settle into like a hog waller is so maddening – every time I’ve heard them say it, they’re demanding personal responsibility from someone else. When they apply the phrase to themselves, they’re explaining why they’re not required to give a damn about anyone else’s problems.

The issue came up again that same day: Delightful Republican firecracker Meghan McCain has a book out, and she is just now discovering that, unlike blogging random thoughts straight out her ass onto a computer screen, doing a dumb old book tour is boring and hard.

I know: We’re all supposed to like Meghan McCain and cut her some slack and pretend she’s a jewel of sparkling intellectual brilliance because she doesn’t think Republicans should hate gay people or tolerate the racists who keep showing up to Tea Party rallies.

Which, great. I’m not suggesting that those are bad thoughts for Ms. McCain to have. But let’s stop pretending that those are bold and stunning banners for her to be carrying.

Not being a bigot is not daring. It’s one of the basics, remember? It’s one of the fundamental parts of being a decent human being, not something for which we should be giving out freaking merit badges.

If Ms. McCain would like to work on the next very basic step, that would be not acting like a privileged jerk. Or maybe she’d like to take a baby step toward that and at least not do it so publicly.

Meghan McCain was supposed to speak at Juniata College last week, but she blew it off because of “unforseen professional responsibilities” and then skipped off to Vegas with her friends instead. (Full disclosure: I spent several formative years as a faculty brat at Juniata. Yes, I am offended on their behalf. Doesn’t make it less of a dick move on McCain’s part.)

Everyone has blown off work at some point. I have too. It’s just that most people try to give an auditorium full of people – well, let’s be realistic, probably partially full of people – more than three days’ notice. And most people try not to leave someone else sitting there holding an expensive, unsold bag full of one’s books.

Oh, and most people try to be smart enough to do the courtesy of coughing into the phone and covering their tracks instead of tweeting about it like a dumbass.


What is this problem Republicans seem to have with understanding that other people can see their twitter feeds?

My favorite part is that Ms. McCain started off with complaints about her first hotel “messing up” her reservation. Which means the reservation wasn’t simply missing from the system, right? Because then she would have tweeted “lost my reservation.” So they had a reservation, it just wasn’t the number of rooms or perhaps the level of awesome Ms. McCain required.

In other words, she felt her hotel had made a commitment to perform a professional service and then completely dropped the ball.

I’m glad that a second hotel was able to treat Ms. McCain in the manner to which she has grown (up) accustomed and that she had a super-awesome time in Las Vegas.

I just wish that first hotel had shown a little more personal responsibility.



  1. Brilliant. Thank you for this.

    (And I knew when you started twittering about her mistake that you were going to get blocked for it!)

  2. This was really interesting — thank you for putting it out there, gives me something to think about and I like that!

  3. this post needs a like button. Nicely done.

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