What You Owe

Continuing a theme fromScout’s most excellent post here:

Social acceptabity for the middle class to ditch their responsibilty? Behavior often considered shiftless when speaking of the poor? How will this be explained or discussed? A thoughtful examination of the possible cause/effect relationship of limited choices on behavior to shifting societal norms? Or a merciless personal beatdown of these upside down middle class individuals? Believe me I don’t put the latter past the Malkinites but seriously how much of America can we beat away and negate in this manner before we are only left but to begin a serious examination of oh say… policy?

Which links to other excellent posts and comments, which led me to start thinking about universal health care and immigration and how racist and selfish and nasty the presidential campaign is going to be, and what our possible response, what the Democratic candidates’ response, absolutely has to be.

It strikes me that we’re a nation of fucking paranoids. Not that that’s some kind of new idea, Michael Moore pointed it out way back in Bowling for Columbine, but the undertone of almost every public debate these days is that somebody somewhere is getting something they don’t deserve, and by the way, we ARE the people who get to decide what others deserve. We’re the ones who get to count it out, not in some codified fashion but on a case-by-random-case basis, as we see a photo in the paper or overhear something somebody’s sure somebody else told him at the bridge game last week. It’s personal, because we’ve been so divorced from thinking about government systemically, it’s the way we can’t give a fuck about entire countries burning down but we can care about one missing white person.

It’s that we get sucked into the details of the individual story instead of saying fuck it, so somebody got away with something, unless it points to some larger problem can we just move on to something real, please, like the ongoing screwing of this country and sale of the same to the highest bidder?

It’s not that I don’t get the impulse to point out that somebody might cheat. I’m the oldest child. I tell my brother and sister all the time that I’d have been strung up by my earlobes if I did half the shit they get away with, and I mean it, sometimes it pisses me off. I don’t love the idea that while I work, other people might be okay not working. I don’t love the idea that I’m giving something out there and it’s being put to bad use, or that the system’s so busted it can easily be gamed, and I’m just dumb and naive for having a job and a mortgage and shit. I get it, and if I thought for one moment that the stories that crop up every now and then were indicators of a pattern instead of isolated excuses for us all to do dick because now we have an example of why poverty is visited on those who deserve it, I might be able to get more het up about it, instead of thinking so deeply, “oh, my god, so fucking what already.”

There’s got to be a point where we stop, as a country, looking for reasons not to give a damn, looking for an anecdote to invalidate all our desire to fix things. There’s got to be a point where we just call bullshit on it, on this thing where somebody’s cousin heard from somebody else that a woman crossed the border down in Texas just to give birth here and take our jobs, and start talking about the deliberate devaluation of the American manufacturing base and the abandonment of the city working class to chase more and more profits, not to mention the profound economic imbalances in North America, instead of bitching directionlessly that it’s all the immigrants’ fault.

There’s got to be a point where, sure, if we give everybody health care some diabetic fatass six-pack-a-day smoker is gonna get care on my tax dollar, and there’s got to be a point where we say, “Oh well, tough shit for me, then” because the benefits to us all so wildly outweigh our whack-a-do certainty that we’re the only virtuous creatures God ever made and everybody else is selling something.

There’s got to be a point where we hear some Katrina victim bought bling at Wal-Mart with his FEMA money once, and wejust fucking move on instead of using that one little story to shake our heads at the whole Gulf Coast and give up, figuring fuck them, they don’t need our help anymore.

(Incidentally, I think this is why we get so crazy about stories about abused kids and animals. It’s hard to rationalize that a cat got itself set on fire on purpose in order to curry sympathy with the liberal welfare crowd.)

We have to stop this selfish crap. We have to stop picking apart everybody else’s details in an effort to make sure we’re not getting taken, because if we spent a fraction of the amount of attention we give over to examining the lives of immigrants and the poor to make sure they’re properly deserving of our largesse to actually eradicating poverty and other social ills, we could cure illiteracy, cancer, the bubonic plague anddeath. We have to stop getting distracted by the personal, distracted by the anecdote, distracted by the exception, because otherwise we’re entirely missing the rule, and the rule’s so much worse than the exception.


13 thoughts on “What You Owe

  1. Scarcity, or the perception of it, is part of the paranoia. Call it scarcity of largesse- that’s appropriately American.
    Arising out of fear, fanned by the government and the corporate state.
    And in truth, god yes, we all do have a legitimate right to be afraid — about health care, about our mortgage and the rest of our personal financial situations, about our kids’ getting a decent education, about our jobs disappearing. Those things, much of that scarcity/bleakness is real, even if it is engineered by government irresponsibility and/or corporate greed,it can still chew us up and spit us out.
    Whether we take the time to analyze how/why we got here (and who we voted for and their culpability and how fucking stupid we were to vote against our own self-interests,etc) or not, we are still afraid of getting left out in the cold.
    In a recent digital discussion withthe neighborhood attorney/nurse/hospital administrator/comedian/economist, we were talking about the “Gimme Shelter” moments–those actions we take out of fear, the crappy job you keep because you HAVE to have insurance, the second job you work cause your kid HAS to go to the only decent school in town, the awful town/state you stay in because you’re afraid if you move you’ll lose the little bit of financial security you HAVE to have because you’re getting older. How that changes you into someone else.
    It’s obvious that thousands of middle class American feel desperate that way and they are so caught up in their paranoia they don’t/want/can’t figure out/face the real truth, they grab the nearest scapegoat as an excuse.
    And in there somewhere, we forget compassion and the ability to distinguish our “scarcity” from the extreme godawful desperation of truly life and death situations: our personal situation which, while it may be frightening relative to our own experience, is on a different plane than what’s happening in Darfur, in South Africa, in the colonias along the Mexican border, in New Orleans.
    I’m not really good at analysis of stuff like this, so I don’t know how those of us who have gone that far around the bend that we forget compassion and basic human kindness, that we can’t prize out reality from paranoia,that we can’t even see we’re addicted to the distractions, can stop the selfish crap.

  2. I was supporting Obama for president, until I wasn’t supporting him, largely because I think he has the communications skills and the basic instincts to become the president who finally breaks us free from the Reagan era. I watched in utter frustration as Reagan made selfishness the primary national attribute of our country. Now, in my state, California, we are at a point where taxes can be cut with a simple majority vote, or, in some cases with a stroke of the pen by the governor, but taxes can’t be raised without a super majority of the state legislature or of the popular vote.
    This mess we are now in, in my state, facing a $14 billion deficit, but needing to start more state spending to correct for all of the “frugality” of the past, is the natural result of that distorted tax procedure. But, the state politician who mentions a tax increase, even one that only affects those making $10 million a year, is doing the same as retiring from public office.
    If I finally decide to go back to supporting Obama it will be because I still think that he is the only one running for president who just might reverse our slide into greed and lead us to once again get satisfaction from helping those less well off than we are.
    I don’t mention religion in this. There are obvious reasons for that.

  3. Oh, and the other tests on that site are really hit or miss. Many of their other tests are garbage, but that one is clever.

  4. My comment is really picky, and I should be ashamed to bring it up, Athenae, but…
    I hope I never have to see or hear another “There’s GOT to, or “we got to.”
    Surely “There’s got to” can be shortened to the more meaningful, “We must”?
    As for the rest, I adore your writing, Athenae, and your passion.

  5. In the comments to New Orleans blogger, Dangerblond’s excellentpost titled“elderly black woman caught with big-screen t.v.; lacks proper level of humility and appreciation”, I said this:
    31. Grandmère Mimi – December 20, 2007
    Look here now. If you are poor and you get any kind of public assistance, YOU MUST DAMNED WELL LOOK POOR ALL THE TIME! People are watching.

    And this:
    39. Grandmère Mimi – December 20, 2007
    All this hoopla because an elderly woman on public assistance has a big TV and decent-looking furniture. It’s incredible!
    When, welfare for corporations stops, talk to me about Sharon Jasper and her big TV. How much is that TV worth second hand, should she sell it to pay her utilities?

    And this:
    44. Grandmère Mimi – December 20, 2007

    (Other Commenter)You’re right, Mimi, it’s just a friggin’ television — why then would it be such a big deal to set aside the stereotype it conjures by answering a simple question about it’s worth, where it came from, and how Jasper found herself to be living in the good graces of people like me who work for a third of the year for people like her — as well as for (as I too have said) corporate welfare recipients?
    (me)…I find that I really don’t want to ask, and I’m not all that interested in what the answers would be. But, hey! That’s me.
    Do you know why I don’t care? Because it’s chickenshit.
    Check out how much of your paycheck goes to support the Iraq War. That should make you cry a lot more that Sharon’s big TV.

  6. One more thing that I would nominate as a piece of the puzzle: the exceptions are what gets our attention. Consequently, we legislate by exception.
    For example, it wasn’t reported that 99% of the folks who got FEMA dollars used it to buy milk and bread (admittedly, I’m making the stats up).
    It isn’t news that Farmers Smith and Jones rose up every day and plowed their fields. It would be a very dull evening news to report that today 300,000 local children went to school and studied. In short, as any teenager knows, the “normal” and “good” is dull.
    Consequently, the abberation gets the news coverage and the popular perceptions tend to inflate the abberation.
    This also helps feed racial slurs: if one dark skinned person shoplifts, then we know that they all do (think of the picture from NOLA of the guy with a case of beer).

  7. It’s all just class envy. It isn’t politically correct for the middle class to envy the rich, so they have to envy the poor. (Remember Homer Simpson in the hospital envying the guy next to him who didn’t have to breathe because he had a breathing machine?)

  8. I think part of the issue is the fear of ending up like “those people”. People think “If these are jut normal, everyday people like me who had a run of bad luck, then that same bad luck might happen to me. But if they are shiftless and lazy and dishonest, then I can’t end up like that.”
    It’s the same fear of circumstance that you can hear in rape victim blaming: she must have deserved it somehow, she shouldn’t have worn that outfit or been drinking or been walking home alone.
    It’s a way of asserting control over impersonal events, because it can only be their “fault” if they have any power over the situation.

  9. If that commenter Grandmere Mimi quoted abovereally works a third of the year to support people on welfare, I’ll eat my shirt. Have you seen how much tax money welfareplus unemployment consumes, relative to the rest of the budget? According to mygood friend Wiki Pete, it’s 13.76%, assuming that the numbers are reported accurately. The category also includes “unemployment,” whatever that means. It’s not broken down further than that, but one can safely assume that the actual federal welfare monies constitute less than 13.76% of the budget. I am not going digging for state and municipal funding; yawl have just way too many jurisdictions for that.

  10. Just for the record, it’s not me, Grandmère Mimi, who’s complaining about working a third of the year to support people on welfare. It’s “other commenter”, whose name I did not post, who complains.

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