Sunday, September 04, 2005

a lesson in poverty

One of the things I saw on the boards yesterday was a lot of people who blamed the victims of Katrina, saying the victims should have left when they knew the storm was coming. They didn't believe there could be so many people without cars.

I was shocked to see how many people were completely ignorant of the problems of being poor.

How did this come to be? How did we come to be a nation of citizens ignorant of and "discompassionate" toward poverty? Though I feel it requires more than a few blog pages to fully describe, my analysis goes something like this:

Where We Went Wrong

Since the 1930's, the policies of Roosevelt brought relative wealth to the entire society, so that we had very little of the desperately, dependently poor who mark the visible "bottom" for the rest of us. The poor that do exist, we rarely see; we no longer fear becoming one of them. Fear of becoming poor has ceased to be a motivator; now we see only the desire to become rich as motivation.

Then, in the last several decades, two income families, along with the advent of cheap available birth control, changed families and parenting fundamentally --- and not for the better.

The Motherhood Wars

Guilt throws a huge monkey wrench into mothering, and working women with young children invariably feel guilty and defensive about their choices. I think we underestimate the power of those feelings, and the long term effects. It's hard to raise children with the firmness and the evenness it requires when you feel anxious and guilty; and with smaller families, it became easier for such parents to spoil children with too much of the wrong kind of attention.

Eventually, stay-at-home moms began to feel inferior, seeing the relative material wealth of the two-income home. Now it was they who came to feel guilty and defensive about their choices. Some of them resolved to become the BEST MOTHER EVER so as to justify their existence; resulting once again in spoiled children.

Now, I'm a feminist and I believe in choices for women --- to stay home and to work being equally honorable --- and, of course I believe in birth control. In fact, I believe so strongly that I don't think women need to be apologetic about it. They just need to learn better parenting, whether they work in or out of the home.

As Benjamin Franklin said:

Educate your children to self-control, to the habit of holding passion and prejudice and evil tendencies subject to an upright and reasoning will, and you have done much to abolish misery from their future and crimes from society.

A tall order for a harried working mom, who worries that little Jenny might be missing her too much during the day.

Opportunity Knocks

A couple of decades like this go by, and the stage is set. Enter Reagan and Limbaugh. They both appealed to the spoiled children in us. Letting us believe that it's all right to be rich and self-absorbed. Making it seem that only sissies care about other people. That it wasn't manly to have compassion. Appealing to the lowest in us, appealing to our greed, our bigotry, our self-righteousness. Giving us the quick and easy answers we crave, instead of the thoughtful insight to complex problems that we needed and that real leadership would have provided.

The Limbaugh Addiction

Eventually, Limbaugh found that he could lie to us, fool us, even expose himself as a complete fraud, but it wouldn't matter. His followers would defend him. Why? Because they couldn't give up their smelly little security blanket: the notion that it isn't worthwhile to do the hard work of high character, so they don't need to try. It felt good for his listeners to know that, no matter how low and selfish their own motivations were, at least they weren’t liberals, because self-sacrifice was just for losers.

Of course Rush wasn't alone for long; his success was quickly noted and mimicked by others. Even so-called clergy, who once had to at least feign some kind of brotherly concern for others, became bold in abandoning the true tenants of high morality for the catch phrases and false logic that allow the weak and morally lazy to feel good about being weak and morally lazy. Boy it's easy to find followers then.

Surprisingly, many in the lower class embraced this way of thinking, that the poor deserve to be poor and the rich deserve to be rich, that only the rich work hard enough to be rich, that taxes are just a handout, that the poor should be left to fend for themselves.

It was a stroke of genius, really. How did Rush manage to do this, to get the poor to go along with this? First, there was the bullying: the accusations that if you were poor, and you believed in taxation, then you were a lazy scum just looking for a handout. Second, he gave them a focal point for their anger and frustration, and a cause for their poverty --- Liberals and Minorities and the Poor Scum Just Looking for a Handout. Now they too had someone to deride, someone to look down upon, and it was very satisfying.

Those kinds of feelings become a sort of addiction. Once we fall into it, letting ourselves be corrupted in this manner, it's really hard to face our bad behavior, our immorality. We get angrier and more derisive and we don't even know why.

What Now?

So now, here we are. What happens next?

Though I don’t like to think about it, I believe the only way back for us, as for many addicts, is to hit rock-bottom. When people begin to see utter, abject poverty close up, they will begin to understand what is wrong with the package they've been sold.

Katrina provided snapshot of it for the whole country. But somehow I fear this lesson in poverty has just begun.

1 comment:

XTCfan said...

Well put. I've tried to articulate this in one way or another over the years, but have never suceeded in distilling it down to its essence, as you have. I hope you're wrong about having to hit rock-bottom, but I suspect you're not.