Multiple Myths and the Struggle for Political Truth

08/07/2012 02:10 pm ET | Updated Oct 07, 2012

My Facebook buddy is feeling frustrated again. My last blog post about how my West African immigrant friends distrust politicians like Mitt Romney who hide their money compelled him to express his frustrations -- a laundry list of fairly standard conservative complaints. He's tired of supporting lazy, unemployed people who use EBT food stamps to purchase their groceries. He's tired of Mexicans coming to America -- without documentation -- and having babies that he has to pay for. He's tired of getting older and having to work more years than anticipated because the government has squandered the Social Security Trust Fund by giving handouts to organizations like ACORN.

Despite our differences, I respect my Facebook friend's past and present community contributions. Because of that respect, I wanted to respond to his beliefs that seem to have been shaped more by myth rather than by reality. And so I wrote to him, pointing out the mythical nature of his assertions.

1. Unemployment. If you spend only a few minutes at job fairs, job training centers, or the unemployment office you quickly realize that it is a complete fallacy to assume that unemployed people are lazy. What about all the teachers who were recently laid off? NBC News's Rehema Ellis, citing a report from the American Association of School Administrators, recently wrote: "48 percent of the nation's school districts laid off teachers or other staff for the 2010-11 school year... and two-thirds expect to do so again next school year." Like thousands of firemen and police these teachers were laid off because local and state jurisdictions, facing decreased revenues (no new taxes) can longer fully provide essential public services -- public education and public safety. Class sizes in public schools have increased and crime rates, if Newark, N.J. is an apt example, have soared. Given the spread of these public service cutbacks, there are thousands of teachers, firemen, and police collecting unemployment. Faced with depleted family budgets, some of them have to use food stamps. Even the most industrious person is one accident, one bout of serious illness or one budget cut away from joblessness, loss of medical insurance, or foreclosure. Are these folks lazy?

2. Immigration. My Facebook friend thinks that America is being flooded with undocumented immigrants whose alarming birthrates at public hospitals have increased the burden of the hardworking American taxpayer. For the past 20 years, I've been studying a community of immigrants in New York City. I've thought, read, and written three books about that immigrant community. My long term and direct experience of immigrant communities strongly indicates that most immigrants to America -- certainly not all -- are documented. Most of the immigrants I've met are hardworking and pay their taxes. They tend to do jobs that many of us would rather avoid, and so their labor in construction, landscaping, sanitation work and so on makes a profound contribution to our economy. In those states like Alabama, which have passed draconian laws against immigrants, there have been significant economic losses --especially in the agricultural sector in which many crops have gone unpicked. In February 2012, The Center for American Progress projected that the Alabama immigration law, HB 56, would result in loses of up to $10.8 billion, or 6.2 percent of Alabama's GDP, losses of up to 140,000 jobs, losses of up to $264.5 million in state tax revenue and $93.1 in local tax revenue. Indeed, Many of the Mexican immigrants to whom my Facebook friend referred have worked hard, saved their money and started successful businesses. In my hometown, Mexican immigrants run highly successful roofing businesses, landscaping businesses as well as masonry and plumbing concerns. Those firms are important to our local economy. We all should work so hard!

3. Social Security. My Facebook friend thinks that the Social Security Trust Fund has been squandered through reckless and thoughtless government handouts, which, in the end, means he has to work beyond his intended retirement age. This assertion, of course, is very much at odds with the actuarial projections of the Social Security of Administration. Here's what the Social Security Administration says officially about the sustainability of its funds:

As a result of changes to Social Security enacted in 1983, benefits are now expected to be payable in full on a timely basis until 2037, when the trust fund reserves are projected to become exhausted. At the point where the reserves are used up, continuing taxes are expected to be enough to pay 76 percent of scheduled benefits. Thus, the Congress will need to make changes to the scheduled benefits and revenue sources for the program in the future. The Social Security Board of Trustees project that changes equivalent to an immediate reduction in benefits of about 13 percent, or an immediate increase in the combined payroll tax rate from 12.4 percent to 14.4 percent, or some combination of these changes, would be sufficient to allow full payment of the scheduled benefits for the next 75 years.

So my Facebook friend's worries about the future have little to do with ACORN and even less to do with Social Security. Perhaps they have more to do with the fragile state of the globally interconnected economy the forces of which are beyond the control of individuals or states.

Whenever I provide these examples, my Facebook friend does not respond -- perhaps the silence of disapproval. Instead, he reacts to some trigger in the news that compels him to articulate more mythically contoured statements.

My Facebook friend, of course, has lots of company. Millions of Americans maintain mythical beliefs about social life in America. The myth that America is the land of equal opportunity, the myth that America has the best system of health care in the world, the myth that the unemployed are lazy, the myth that undocumented immigrants are squandering our national treasure, the myth that entrepreneurs build their enterprises without the helping hand of government. Even the most casual investigation of these assertions completely undermines their credibility.

And yet millions of Americans refuse to embrace an inconvenient reality that does not mesh with their mythical beliefs. In fearful circumstances mythical thinking is a comfort. In uncertain times, it provides an illusory certainty. It explains misfortune and reduces the pain of daily life. By the same token it also opens the door to political abuse, demagoguery, and a future of political regret.

If we allow mythical thinking to consume our political discourse, we condemn ourselves to a new era in which hollow myths are told and retold to blind us from the realities of voter suppression, religious intolerance, economic polarization, polluted air and water, tainted agricultural projects, unsafe streets, and overcrowded classrooms.

Is that the kind of future we want to leave to our children and grandchildren?