The following is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, The Culture of Cruelty: How America’s Elite Demonize the Poor, Valorize the Rich and Jeopardize the Future (San Francisco: City Lights, 2015) This section explores the way that many (especially on the right) downplay or dismiss the problem of poverty and the hardship faced by the poor and unemployed. In coming weeks I will post a few more excerpts from the book, which is in the editing process currently. Note, there may be slight changes to the final text when it is released in book form.
In 1981, Texas Senator Phil Gramm lamented: “We’re the only nation in the world where all our poor people are fat.” It was, to Gramm, clear evidence of how exaggerated the problem of economic hardship in America was, and how horrible the nation’s welfare state had become. Apparently, poor people aren’t really suffering or deserving of much sympathy until their ribcages are showing and their eye-sockets have all but swallowed their eyes. If the poor are fat, it’s not because so many of the cheapest and most readily available foods in poor communities are high in empty calories, sugar and non-nutritional ingredients—or because, in general, the U.S. food supply is overly-processed and unhealthy—but rather, it must be because poor people have it too good and are able to do a lot of fancy eating at public expense.
America’s culture of cruelty has long been fed by this kind of thinking: namely, the belief that the poor and unemployed really aren’t suffering that badly. This “poverty denialism” rests on three claims: first, that America’s poor are fabulously wealthy by global standards and thus, should essentially stop complaining; second, that the poor buy expensive food with their SNAP benefits and have all manner of consumer goods in their homes, which means they aren’t poor in any sense that should cause concern; and third, that large numbers of welfare recipients commit fraud in order to get benefits, and then misuse the benefits they receive. In short, these are not the deserving poor—their pain is not real.
You hear it often when you reside on the left of the political spectrum in America, especially around election time.
Sometimes it’s discussed and debated in whispers, other times in rather bombastic tones. It’s a debate about whether truly progressive folks, let alone radicals, should be willing to vote for clearly compromised Democrats, despite how far from our own views they obviously are. Some say yes, while others insist no, and just as strenuously as the first.
I know all the arguments on both sides. I know them because at some point in my life, I have probably made them all, depending on the situation.
When it comes to the arguments for not compromising, for not giving our votes to candidates whose policies seem so similar to those of the right, even now there are times when I still find myself attracted to them, at least partly.
But this is not one of those times.
For those of us on the left, there is something almost sacramental it seems about refusing to vote, while insisting with all the wisdom of a bumper sticker: “If voting changed anything it would be illegal,” or that “The lesser of two evils is still evil.” It’s almost a rite of passage for progressives to counsel abstention from exercising the franchise, or to advocate voting for a third party candidate—not because they have any chance of winning, or because by voting for them we will actually be helping to build that third party into a viable political force, but simply so that our conscience can be clear. We can vote for that radical alternative, and then drive back to our homes from the polling station in our fuel-burning vehicles, take off our shoes manufactured in a sweatshop somewhere, and then send out a blog post or social media message on our overpriced, virtual-slave-labor-produced technology, telling everyone how awesome it feels not to have contributed to evil today.
There’s something cathartic (in a juvenile, angst-driven, anarchy-tatted kinda way) about preening as a moral superior because you didn’t give in to the two-party “duopoly,” or whatever the hell Ralph Nader calls it. Maintaining one’s ascetic sense of unsullied ideological purity feels good. So does heroin, of course, but I’m not sure the indulgence of either is one’s best bet for safety in the long run. Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that voting is the key to real political change; it self-evidently is not. But to think that it means nothing, or so little as to not recommend the activity is to engage in a dangerous moral conceit. Dangerous because there appear to be others, every bit as committed to their worldview as we are to ours, who feel no qualms about pulling that lever, or pushing that button on the touch-screen—even though I figure they also know it isn’t the sum total of political engagement.
See, some things are pretty easy to understand, and this is one of them. If voting doesn’t matter, dear precious revolutionaries, then riddle me this:
A great and brief clip of Baldwin on Dick Cavett, explaining racism to folks who clearly don’t get it. Here, Baldwin explains the irrelevance of whether or not whites are prejudiced against blacks, noting that the real issue is how white institutions treat folks of color, regardless of intent, bigotry or hatred. A lesson worth remembering today…
I’m sure this nugget of wisdom has been around for more than a while, but it was only about a year or so ago that I heard it: spoken into the room where several were gathered — parents and faculty at our daughters’ school — to discuss matters of identity and oppression: things like racism, sexism, heterosexism and the like.
The facilitator for the session, who offered up many other insights throughout the course of the dialogue, repeated this one several times, and with good reason. First, he explained, we need to be soft on people because people make mistakes, we hurt each other, we are all works in progress, and each of us is capable of saying or doing the wrong thing at any time — indeed we all have, many times — and so we should essentially extend to others the patience and compassion we would want for ourselves, as growing, changing, and hopefully maturing people. But also, and more importantly, when it comes to the issues we were discussing, be soft on people and hard on systems because it is the systems (racism and white supremacy, sexism and patriarchy, classism and capitalism, heterosexism and straight/cisgendered supremacy) that have distorted us, taught us the biases with which we all walk around to one degree or another, and in some ways damaged our ability to see each other as fully and equally human sometimes.
In other words, to go too hard on other people, as people, is to often miss the structural and institutional roots of their (and our) own bad behaviors. No one acts or speaks or writes, or anything, in a vacuum. We operate within the context of everything from our upbringing to our education to the media we consume to the peers with whom we associate to whatever happened to us an hour before the dialogue session, which put us in a pissy mood. And because no one knows another person’s damage completely, nor its source — and yet we know, intuitively, that we all have plenty of it — we should probably err on the side of system-based critiques and offer kindness to people whenever possible, knowing that who we all are today owes an awful lot to where we were yesterday, and the day and the month and the year and the decade before that. This is not to say that we let people off the hook for injurious behaviors or statements; it is merely to say that we acknowledge that there is, indeed, a hook; and it has a source that did not originate with the person we are placing there.
This maxim, to be soft on people but hard on systems is perhaps, at least in my experience, the most important guidepost any of us can follow when trying to challenge monumental social problems like racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, religious bigotry, ableism, or any other form of identity-based mistreatment. Among the reasons it’s so important is precisely the fact that it’s so incredibly hard to do, and this I say from personal experience, not just as some abstract observation.
It seems like no exaggeration to suggest that at this moment, a half-century after the greatest victories of the civil rights movement, America is drifting backwards towards apartheid. It’s not a word I use lightly, nor one we are accustomed to using when describing our current condition. Indeed, its not even a word that most are willing to utter when referencing our past. It’s a word we like to reserve for others, for the formerly white-dominated South Africa, but not for ourselves, and certainly not now, what with a black president and all.
But beyond the presence of brown faces in high places, can anyone really claim without gagging on the sheer dimensions of the lie, that we are even within intercontinental-ballistic-missile-striking-distance of that state of post-raciality so many naive white folks assured us had arrived upon the election of Barack Obama? People like Rudy Giuliani and William Bennett and John Bolton and Ann Coulter, all of whom proclaimed racism essentially over as soon as the election had been called?
It’s hard to know how to begin this time. Mostly it’s because my head is spinning, but also it’s because this isn’t my normal literary wheelhouse, so there is no store of pithy anecdotes to which I can turn in search of just the right words. It is as simple as this, I suppose: Robin Williams is dead. And not just dead, but dead apparently by his own hand. One of about 40,000 Americans who will commit suicide this year, one-fourth of them in the manner Williams did, by way of suffocation or asphyxiation.
I have often felt the sting of celebrity deaths, as have many others I suspect, for no other reason than the fact that at some remove, we tend to think we know them; they have entertained us, made us laugh, or cry (or both), and so we feel entitled to grieve their passing as if they were family. But this one is different for me. Not because it was Robin Williams, an individual who was so integral to the laugh track of my life, but because who he was and what he did to bring joy to the world, and the way in which he took himself from us hits close — far too close — to home.
I was 16 when my father, a stand-up comic and an actor (whose personality has always been eerily similar to that of Williams) attempted to take his own life: a few dozen pills and a fifth of Vodka being thought sufficient to do the trick. Seeking to end the pain, whatever pain it was, that he felt he could no longer endure. A pain that was apparently greater in that moment than whatever love he felt for his wife, my mother; or for me, his son. And for nearly 30 years I have lived with it, and by “it” I mean the gnawing sense that all of us in this club — those who have either lost someone to suicide or nearly so — share. Is there something we could have said? Something we could have done? Even when we know, intellectually, that it wasn’t our fault, there is this deep and abiding thing that we never quite shake: namely, the sense that maybe, just maybe, things could have turned out differently if we had just said this, done that, been different, loved more, prayed harder, whatever. Our loved ones would still be alive, or would never have tried to kill themselves at all.
Amazing and powerful discussion on NPR with two 5th graders from Chicago (South Shore), whose essay (along with their class), entitled “You Don’t Really Know Us,” was published in the Chicago Tribune. Powerful testament to the ability of even 10 or 11 year olds to see through the phony, hostile and prejudicial media narratives that too often cloud our vision. A must listen…
Although I am hardly known for waxing nostalgic over the American past or its white people in particular, there is one thing that can be said for such folks in the old days. When they were bigots, they were honest enough to just tell you. No prevarication, no hesitation, no pretending to be enlightened or remotely compassionate, no cloying assurances about one’s black friends, or how they once dated an Asian woman, or about being 1/16th Native American on their mother’s father’s side. They let you know where they stood, and however offensive and injurious their attitudes were, at least you could plan accordingly. You could avoid them, confront them, or plot for their overthrow, but either way, you knew who the enemy was.
Today, even racists want to seem tolerant, and so they have to lie about their real feelings; and while that might signify a type of progress, it makes knowing who’s who (and what they’re about) much harder.
Take the growing and increasingly bellicose anti-immigration movement, for instance. Always a part of the nation’s political discourse, hostility to newcomers was, for generations, sold in clearly prejudicial terms. From the Know-Nothings of the 1800s to those who succeeded in passing restrictive immigration legislation in the 1920s to those who openly opposed the loosening of those restrictions in the mid-’60s, anti-immigrant forces were never shy about making their case in blatantly racist, chauvinistic and bigoted ways. Even Benjamin Franklin’s pre-revolutionary concern that German immigrants to Philadelphia would succeed in “Germanizing us instead of us Anglifying them,” was rooted in an explicit desire to “other” those who, for reasons of ethnicity or “race,” were different from the dominant norm, and presumed inferior.
Nativists in earlier times, though they certainly made arguments similar to those heard today — about immigrants “taking American jobs” or “relying too heavily on public benefits” — wrapped all of these material concerns in a clear patina of racial hostility: newcomers were “culturally foreign,” “unassimilable” (because of language, ethnicity or even biology), and dragged down the “genetic quality” of the nation’s people. The infamous Dillingham Commission — empowered by Congress to examine the nation’s immigration situation and make recommendations for future policy — made the case for restrictions in explicitly racist and white supremacist fashion.
And for my money, their honesty made those earlier generations of anti-immgration crusaders far preferable to those we see today, whose animosities are every bit as rooted in white racial anxiety and hostility as they ever were, but who try mightily to deny it, to insist that they have nothing against brown folks, but merely worry about the labor market, or taxes, or some such thing. Whereas the old school nativists were racists, the new brood is populated by racists and liars, and sometimes it’s nice to only have to deal with one kind of sociopath at a time.
Poor Bill O’Reilly. I mean, it’s not as if we should actually expect him to know anything about black people or black culture in America. This is the guy, you’ll recall, who was actually amazed — amazed — a few years ago when he went to Sylvia’s restaurant in Harlem, only to discover that black patrons of this venerable institution were respectful and didn’t harass wait staff by yelling things like, “Hey motherfucker, bring me some more iced tea!” Because apparently, that’s what he was expecting: crude epithets dished up with chitlins, cornbread, and purple drink, or perhaps a hostess who greets newcomers with “Yo momma’s so ugly” jokes while they wait for a seat.
Seriously, what do you expect from a guy who grew up in Levittown, on Long Island? This is a community, after all, which was established for whites only, due to the wishes of its developer. And although Bill insists he never received any of that white privilege he keeps hearing people speak of (as if it were tantamount to fairy dust) — this despite growing up in a middle class neighborhood from which black people were entirely excluded, in a home financed by a government-backed loan, also off-limits to blacks at the time — it certainly meant that his contact with folks of color was, shall we say, limited from the jump. Not a lot of black folks in his Catholic schools growing up either, and hanging out occasionally with Juan Williams really isn’t sufficient to fill a lifelong blind spot.
Anyway, and despite coming by his ignorance honestly, Bill’s latest attempt to explain black culture to the masses (or at least that part of it to which he refers as “ghetto culture”), demonstrated more than just his usual complement of asshattery. Indeed, it was a statement of such monumental and verifiable stupid — unlike many of his other assertions, which at least belong to the realm of sincere if naive opinion — that one can only assume his recitation of it signifies a deliberate attempt to smear, to demean and defame black people, and especially the black poor. Feeding subtle (or perhaps not-so-subtle) bigotry-enhancing stereotypes to an audience of millions is journalistic irresponsibility of the highest order, and yet, sadly, it is something O’Reilly does, secure in the knowledge that most of his supine audience will believe it, not simply because he says it, but because the images he spoons to them fit so neatly with their equally ignorant but well-established beliefs already.
To wit, a segment on O’Reilly’s July 28th FOX News program concerning the legalization of marijuana, in which O’Reilly slipped in the jab that “in certain ghetto neighborhoods, it’s part of the culture” for children as young as nine to smoke weed. Got it? Not simply that occasionally a pre-teen might smoke marijuana in such a place (no doubt true, as it would be among some white suburbanites from Long Island, like the one who proved to be the biggest weed dealer at my college), but that the practice is absolutely normative among the black and urban poor.
It’s because they hate. There is no other logical explanation.
After all, it’s one thing to oppose a piece of legislation and fight to keep it from being passed because you honestly disagree with it as a matter of principle. Decent people can disagree on policy.
But it’s quite another to celebrate like frat boys at a keg party upon hearing the news that millions of people may now lose their health care, or that their care may become so financially prohibitive as to bankrupt them.
Yet that is what they are doing, and by they I mean pretty much the entirety of conservative America. Check out their Twitter spew, where you can see their nearly orgasmic delight at yesterday’s 2-1 decision by an appellate court panel to the effect that only persons enrolled in state level insurance exchanges can receive federal subsidies for coverage under the Affordable Care Act. Since most states — especially those with conservative political leadership — have refused to establish exchanges, thereby forcing residents to turn to the federal version, the ruling (were it to stand) would mean that millions of Americans may no longer be able to access care under the law.
Decent human beings, irrespective of their take on a matter of policy, do not celebrate at the news that millions of peoples’ lives could now be made harder. Decent human beings do not cheer and gloat at the news that millions of children could now go without care, or that millions of people may once again be forced to choose between health insurance they really can’t afford, or paying a light bill, or buying groceries, or paying rent. Decent human beings don’t put such a premium on political victories that they would purposely seek to harm people, deliberately make them worse off, intentionally leave them adrift with no real recourse to obtain care, possibly causing them, in many cases, to quite literally die. But conservatives in America do all of these things.
Because they hate. There is no other logical explanation.