Posts Tagged ‘Poor’

The Thinker

Decking the secular halls

So an atheist, a Buddhist, a Unitarian Universalist (me), his un-churched sister, her sarcastic college age son and the cynical brother who says he only worships Baal get together for dinner. The occasion: Christmas, of course.

That’s right, our Christmas tree is festooned with lights and bulbs. An angel adorns its top proclaiming the good news of Jesus’s birth. Our halls (such as they are) are decked out. There are cookie tins stuffed with ginger snaps and butter cookies.  Charlotte Church’s coloratura voice is coming out of speakers singing, of course, Christmas carols. Our porch and garage door are lined with blue lights that I put up weeks ago to celebrate the Christmas season. We have all the signs of Christmas except for the Christ part. We’re having ourselves a fully secular Christmas.

If you had to pick a Christian among us, I would come the closest. The roots of Unitarian Universalism are in Christianity. There are in fact many practicing Christian UUs, although I can’t find them in my “church” which seems to be at least half atheists. Still, UUs generally admire Jesus, such as he is imperfectly revealed to us in the gospels. I don’t think he was divine, as is true of most of us UUs. Also I don’t put much faith in prayer or miracles, but I do think Jesus probably existed and obviously inspired enough people so that his ideas carried forward after his death in a viral manner. There is no historical record of his existence outside of the Gospels, but that’s good enough for me; it passes my Occam’s Razor test.

Of course there is no evidence that Jesus was born on December 25th anyhow, but it is convenient to the winter solstice, which was likely why it is celebrated on this date. There used to be a lot of heathens around and if you are going to convert them you have to work with their natural worship dates.  So most likely we are celebrating the birth of a man who might well be fictional, that most rational people cannot consider divine, whose birthday we don’t know and whose legend is known only because oral tradition was eventually written down and then rewritten, often with errors and omissions, over the centuries. Along the way we picked up saints, including a Greek bishop called St. Nicholas, and morphed this single aesthete into an obese citizen of the North Pole who dwelled in his own small kingdom full of elves and flying reindeer, and that fly despite the absence of wings. St. Nick magically supplies toys just one night a year to all the good Christian children in the world and keeps up an impressive schedule making appearances at local shopping malls. As adults we of course laugh at this childish nonsense, even while seventy three percent of us Americans also profess to believe that Jesus was born to a virgin.

Myth has morphed into rarely challenged creed. A compelling new book suggests Judaism was simply made up by a bunch of elders in an attempt to unite the Judeans and the Galileans so they could fight common encroachers. If correct there was likely no Abraham, no Moses, no enslavement of the Jews in Egypt (for which there is no independent record), no burning bush, and no forty years of wandering in the desert of the Sinai which, lacking an oasis, would probably kill a large group of Jews dead within a few weeks anyhow.

And yet still we celebrate Christmas, and this includes the hopelessly secular among us like most of my family who, sadly, were raised as devout Catholics. My adult daughter, a professed atheist and now back in her bedroom after graduation, is fully into the Christmas season. She was pushing us early to put up Christmas lights and the Christmas tree. She was ready to deck our halls and could be heard singing Christmas carols in her bedroom. She was aghast that I forgot to buy some kielbasa for Christmas breakfast, a tradition that dates back to my deceased mother and which we carry on, if I don’t forget about it, on Christmas mornings. So it was off to the Food Lion before they closed Christmas Eve for some of the sacred sausage, served with scrambled eggs somewhat hurriedly before unwrapping presents under our Christmas tree.

No White Christmas this year, which is actually par for the course here in Northern Virginia. You can expect one every fifteen years or so. However, it was cold enough to qualify for Christmas, with temperatures that never made it officially above freezing despite clear skies. Walking this afternoon for exercise and bundled in my warmest parka, I felt gratitude, not just for Jesus but also for warm houses. Living outside in this weather like our distant ancestors did must have sucked. The only people these days who have an inkling of what it is like are our homeless, the exact sort of people Jesus would have cared the most about. As we raise our eggnog and sing our carols, we try not to think about them. Let them sleep in the woods in a tent and get dinner out of a dumpster. Sadly, some of our leaders clearly want to increase their ranks, and in the recently passed budget agreement succeeded by reducing food stamp allowances and heating assistance and ending long-term unemployment benefits. This is based on the curious and erroneous belief that this will make them get off their duffs and earn a living, but really was done because they are sadists absent compassion for anyone not like them. For many of these poor, 2014 will be bleaker than 2013.

For those of us lucky enough to have some wealth and privilege, we can wrap ourselves up inside our houses, sing carols in front of a hearth (probably with a gas log), tell and retell dated family stories, eat too much food and mostly forget about Jesus. If he were alive he’d probably be suggesting that we bring some food and eggnog outside to our neighbors in the woods, or maybe invite them inside our house for some home cooking, a shower, use of our washing machines and a night in a clean bed. Most of us are not that brave, convinced that the homeless are mentally ill, thus likely to strangle us in our sleep. We like the idea of being kind to those less fortunate to us more than the soiling our hands through the actual doing of deeds. Some of us will work in a soup kitchen for a day or two. Some may even give out blankets to prevent hypothermia for the homeless. To the extent that I put my values into action this year, it was to talk for five minutes with the guy from Goodwill who empties my trash in the office on Christmas Eve, learn about his son and daughter and wish him a happy holiday. I also bought $75 in gift cards for a local 16-year-old teenage girl through the Secret Santa program at our church. I also give money to charities, but this is an implicit admission that I want others to do the work that I can’t seem to do personally. I too am hypocritical, although perhaps less than most.

Yet still we huddle around our tree on Christmas Eve, unwrap our presents on Christmas Day and listen to holiday tunes on the player, many of which proclaim a savior was born today. Looking at our actions toward each other, there’s not much evidence that Jesus succeeded. And while none of us believe in Jesus’s divinity, we do sort of wish, like Santa Claus, that he actually did all those wonderful things. We just haven’t drunk enough spiked eggnog to short-circuit the logical parts of our brains.

If we could actually minister like Jesus, well then perhaps Christmas would be worthy of our celebration.

 
The Thinker

Money is freedom

Americans celebrate freedom. Everyone is free, we proudly proclaim. But what exactly is freedom anyhow? Freedom amounts to being able to do what you want when you want to do it. Based on this criterion, it’s clear to me that some of us are freer that others, and those are people with more money. When you have a lot of money, you have the freedom to go backpacking in Tibet. You are probably not going to realize this particular freedom if you are a product of a single-family household and your mother lives in subsidized housing.

We sometimes celebrate the homeless as free people. Perhaps there is a certain freedom in being a vagabond. You can go where you want but chances are to get there you will have to walk. You had best not walk into certain planned communities, particularly in Sanford, Florida. A George Zimmerman type anxious to try out the Stand Your Ground law may kill you. The homeless are free, but you are likely to frequently go hungry. I understand that the dumpsters behind neighborhood Burger Kings offer al fresco free dining opportunities. Sleep will probably be uncomfortable as you will be outdoors and subject to the elements. You likely won’t be allowed to sleep just anywhere, not even places you would think you would be, like a public park. So be prepared to be rudely woken up at 3 AM and asked to shuffle along, or hauled to a nearby police station and booked for being a vagrant. There you can at least you can get free meals and a warm place to sleep.

For most of us, this freedom is very limiting, and something to be avoided not embraced. In fact, it is a faux freedom. Wild animals have this sort of freedom too, but no one envies them. However, with money freedom becomes tangible. Money can buy you freedom from constant hunger and provide a safe place to call home. With more money it can buy health care and likely keep you out of a whole lot of unnecessary misery. With even more money you can become educated, attract a quality mate and take regular vacations. With yet more money you can take exotic vacations, afford homes in the Hamptons and maybe run for political office.

So in reality freedom is not so much about being free, it is about the how much freedom you can afford to purchase. And that depends on how much money you or your parents have. Consequently, in a nation that values freedom we also value wealth, because the more wealth you have the more freedom you have.

We are also aware that freedom is constrained by law. In many mostly Southern states, your right to vote can be constrained by requiring state issued IDs to be shown at polling places, which curiously affects the poor almost exclusively. Sometimes fewer polling machines show up in predominantly poor neighborhoods as well, making it harder to have your vote count, such as happened in areas around Cleveland in the 2000 election. The consequence of actions like these is to give those with money more leverage to influence laws than those with less money. The rich also have disproportionate resources to influence others politically. This is perfectly legal. In its Citizens United decision, the Supreme Court also asserted something wholly absent in the constitution: that corporations have the same rights as people and can give unlimited amounts to PACs. Unsurprisingly then, our government tends to disproportionately reflect the interests of those with money over those without.

Effectively money not only buys freedom, but also allows some measure of being able to take away freedoms from others. Lately the aspiration that all should have roughly the same amount of freedom has been classified as socialism, a strange assertion for a nation founded on the assumption that all men are equal. Make health care available to all regardless of their ability to pay, and poorer people will effectively have more freedom, but in the eyes of many it is an unearned freedom, thus it should not be allowed.

How does one earn more freedom? If freedom is wealth, it happens through acquiring wealth somehow, which can be hard to do without a good education and the right connections. Some time back I wrote about the rags to riches myth. Yet there was one famous president who arguably demonstrated that it was possible to ascend from rags to riches. He was our greatest president: Abraham Lincoln. He had no formal education and never went to law school, yet he became a lawyer and eventually president of the United States. How on earth do you get to become a lawyer with no formal education? At the time it meant convincing the Illinois Supreme Court, which had only recently become a state, that you were competent to practice law. Honest Abe did it somehow.

Rest assured that Lincoln’s tactic no longer works in Illinois or likely in any other state. If you want to practice law, you had best get a law degree and join the local bar association. That of course will require money, and it’s unlikely some benevolent nonprofit will be giving it to disadvantaged inner city youth. Anyhow, if you can acquire a law degree then maybe the Illinois Supreme Court will deign to let you argue before it. Since Abe’s time, Illinois has tightened its standards on who is allowed to acquire higher levels of freedom, and it is generally doled out only to those with the means. In effect, it has cut one pathway that enabled someone to go from rags to riches. There are virtually none left, but the Republican myth remains that there are all sorts of ways to achieve the impossible.

We have created all sorts of barriers to keep people from moving from one socioeconomic level to the next. If it happens at all, it requires superhuman effort. Few of us are supermen, so we are virtually doomed to fail and we will stay in our social class. This seems to be fine for those who are already have wealth. Indeed, they seem anxious to add additional barriers that have the effect of making it even harder to ascend up the socioeconomic ladder. This is done in the guise of welfare reform, reducing or eliminating subsidized housing, and strict time limits to food stamps and unemployment benefits. The effect is to give certain classes of people more freedom than others and through lowered estate taxes give them the ability to extend those freedoms to their children. It also helps ensure a permanent underclass of citizens and keeps a permanent upper class as well.

The lack of defined pathways to become upwardly mobile feeds resentment and fosters insular behavior, heightening class-consciousness and dividing us as a society. To understand the brouhaha in Wisconsin, one has to look not at the bottom of the income scale, but at its middle and the brazen power of those at the top to push the middle class further down the income scale by lowering their pensions, making them pay more for their health insurance and not allowing collective bargaining. In effect, through legislation the middle classes’ freedom and wealth is being moved to those with more wealth. Ironically, this is classified as being part of a pro-freedom agenda. The reaction by a vulnerable but politically important middle class was entirely predictable. It was fed by cluelessness and a sense of superiority of those with wealth that they know better. Mostly it is due to a fundamental unwillingness by those in power to understand the connections that implicitly bind us.

Some of the wealthy understand this connection. They know that their wealth is predicated on keeping the other 99% hopeful for a more prosperous future. They understand that marginally higher taxes on their income are actually an investment in their prosperity. Moreover, the smartest ones understand that for society to be stable there must be viable economic ladders to move between all financial classes. Most of those ladders have disappeared, mostly between the lower and middle classes, but also between the middle and upper classes. These ladders do not appear magically, or they would exist now. Instead they must be constructed by civilized society. While capitalism helps provide the wealth that makes these ladders possible, they do not occur from largess, but are a result of government.

In truth, upward mobility is what truly drives growth and by extension wealth and freedom. It is in the best interest of the rich to empower the poor and the middle class so their talents can be maximized for the benefit of society. For when that happens, rather than wealth trickling down from the moneyed, it trickles up. All are enriched, all share the benefits of greater connection, and all share in a greater freedom. It is a formula that worked well for America until it was abruptly changed with the election of Ronald Reagan. To become great as a country again we must rebuild these economic ladders. The decline of our country will be marked by the day when we deliberately destroyed these ladders of hope and opportunity.

 
The Thinker

For moneyed Republicans, ignorance is strength

I must credit George Orwell, who came up with the slogan “Ignorance is Strength” in his seminal and dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. However, Orwell was simply summarizing lessons he had witnessed in life. The novel was published in 1949, not too long after the Second World War, and doubtless summarized lessons he learned observing Adolph Hitler, Josef Stalin and others. They succeeded by keeping the population as ignorant and gullible as possible and shamelessly appealing to their patriotic reflexes. The result was that you not only can get millions to believe the ridiculous, but you could also whip them into a frenzy that can translate into enormous political power.

In the Second World War, intelligence and morality eventually won over ignorance and obsessive nationalism, but certainly at a tremendous cost in lives and treasure. It was not coincidence that the war was eventually won by the atomic bomb, a horrific weapon whose use was certainly immoral, but whose power at least persuaded the fanatical and hopelessly brainwashed Japanese to surrender in what looked like would be a much longer and bloodier war.

The 2010 election proved again that ignorance is strength. In this election, ignorance plus apathy made a potent concoction for regaining political power. For many, voting took second fiddle to more important things, like avoiding homelessness. Contrary to public myth, the Tea Party did not spring up spontaneously from the grassroots. Rather, its rise was organized and shepherded by well-moneyed Republicans, principally by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey. He created an organization called FreedomWorks, which among other things organized protests against the Affordable Care Act at town halls across the country. Few at those town halls were offering insightful solutions on how to address the growing number of uninsured. Rather, the orchestrated message was that the ACA was somehow socialistic and thus evil and unconstitutional. Dick Armey proved to be a smart and prescient man, the result of which can be seen today in the U.S. House of Representatives where Republicans and Tea Partiers now wield power and make sure little governing actually happens.

As we approach the 2012 elections, Republican candidates seem to be busy trying to out crazy each other. With a few exceptions, logic, facts and scientific knowledge simply do not matter. Neither apparently does simple humanity. Possession of any of these makes you unelectable. At an earlier debate, attendees roared in appreciation when candidate and Texas governor Rick Perry expressed pride in the over two hundred executions he approved during his term as governor. At a debate in Tampa this week, attendees (presumably mostly Tea Partiers, as it was sponsored by a Florida tea party) cheered the notion that those who cannot afford health insurance should die. It was a scene out of a Charles Dickens novel. Ron Paul, the libertarian candidate, assured us that this is what freedom really means. Without exception, each candidate has pledged to repeal the Affordable Care Act. When asked by moderator Wolf Blitzer who should take care of those without health insurance, the conventional wisdom seemed to be to let the churches take care of them.

Now, if you have a logical brain like me you would start crunching some numbers in your head. The last estimate I saw was that each policyholder paid $800 a year to cover uninsured who show up at emergency rooms and hospitals. About 250 million Americans do have health insurance. If just one third of those were policyholders and each paid $800 to cover the uninsured just for emergencies, this would be over $66 billion a year that churches would have to spend just for their emergency care. Those Republicans who take the time to do the math know it’s impossible to expect our houses of worship to cough up that kind of money to address this problem. It really doesn’t matter because you see it’s the principle of the thing. This is a problem so large that only government can address it, but since it would involve redistribution of wealth, it’s somehow socialism, and thus is not allowed. It is better to let fifty million Americans die early and lead miserable lives than to violate a principle. The expression of this principle elicited yells of enthusiastic agreement from Tea Partiers in Tampa this week. And none of the candidates on the stage had the courage of conviction to say this is immoral and unchristian.

Naturally, just to make the whole thing even crazier, these are the same folk that agree that life is sacred and must be protected. Abortion is especially evil, but providing government money to make sure uninsured pregnant women can carry their babies to term is socialism, as is picking up any costs for their children’s health once born. Every unborn child has the right to be born into and lead a life of misery and poverty, starting from the moment of conception. How very Christ-like of them.

In fact, Republicans believe in no government handouts to poor people ever. (Big business subsidies, of course, are exempt.) Rep. Peter King (R-IA) is in a froth about the unemployed. They are on the dole and just being slackers, he asserts, as if they can snap their fingers and find employment somewhere. If you are unemployed, you must be lazy and shiftless. He’s hardly the only Republican to say this aloud, but perhaps is the most vocal. No one, at least no one poor or unincorporated, should get any government assistance ever. They must raise themselves up by their own bootstraps somehow, without a dime of government money, without access to nurturing teachers, nutritious food, affordable housing and a stable family environment. If you try hard enough, and clap enough, Tinkerbell is sure to come to help.

Never mind that their educations were heavily subsidized, unless their parents were wealthy enough to home school them or send them to a private school. Never mind that their relatively wealthy parents lived in high-income neighborhoods with good public schools and kept them clothed and fed. Never mind that their parents gave them access to many of the keys needed for success: like good colleges, tutors, cars, orthodontics, regular checkups and don’t forget those inheritances from Aunt Martha. Those things had nothing to do with their personal success. They just came with the skills reflexively.

The obvious effects of not giving the poor a helping hand are to increase the number of poor and keep them disenfranchised, which in reality is fine with them. The real long term effect is to turn the United States into a second class country, since we reached top tier status by creating and sustaining a middle class at some expense from the wealthy. All the “pick yourself up by your own bootstraps” stuff is bullshit even they don’t believe in.  They just want cheap labor and to be in charge, and you can stay in charge if you keep them disenfranchised and poor. And many of them are also sadists. But just in case the poor and compassionate might want to vote for change, make it hard for them to vote.

Republican-dominated states across the country are busy doing just this: making absentee voting harder, toughening voting requirements by requiring government issued photo IDs to vote, and by requiring students to come home to vote. These tactics of course get supplemented with the usual voting day shenanigans: fewer voting booths in poor neighborhoods and robocalls to minority voters with threatening or misleading messages about voting. It doesn’t hurt to have a Republican lawyer on site and some white guys in a police car parked outside the polling place either. Some states are getting exceptionally creative. Pennsylvania Republicans want to have electoral votes allocated by the vote in each congressional district, effectively disenfranchising voters in densely populated areas, like Philadelphia. It’s like another Orwell novel, Animal Farm. Some animals (Republicans) are more equal than others.

Ignorance is strength, providing Republican leaders do not really buy their own bullshit. In their hearts they know they are a minority party and will likely be a larger minority party in the future, since demographics are against them. So keep the bulk of Republicans in a lather about issues that appeal to their basic fears and prejudices. This involves mostly a lot of hot air about abortion, God, guns and NASCAR. Keep their flock prejudiced and it will lead to a better America, well, at least for the well-capitalized Republicans with the money who insist on holding onto the bulk of our wealth. As for everyone else: let ’em eat (someone else’s) cake.

 
The Thinker

Let’s throw those bums a bone

Merry Christmas to you, particularly if you happen to be Christian. Presumably, the birth of Jesus means more to you than it does to me. Because I do not believe in Jesus’s  divinity, I cannot claim to be a Christian, except perhaps in spirit. Like most Americans, I participate in many aspects of Christmas anyhow. I am not beyond festooning my house with Christmas lights, putting up a Christmas tree and even putting an angel on its top. Aside from the usual presents under our tree for loved ones who rarely need nor want what I buy them, I was a real Santa Claus this year. It did not involved donning a red suit, but it did involve spending about $100 on presents for a 3 year old girl named Jaylee, for whom I am a Secret Santa. I won’t meet her but she will get things she really wants but which her family cannot afford, including a Dora the Explorer doll and a three wheel scooter. We also spent a few hundred dollars on food for the homeless that we donated to a nearly empty community food bank.

Nuclear moneyed families will use the occasion of the season to tune into various holiday TV specials, some of which are actually religious. Most of these turns out to be feel-good shows, like the latest Hallmark holiday special starring my heartthrob Jewel Staite. In it, apparently two people and a motherless boy find love, not in Jesus, but in each other. Many of these specials are animated, and many are frankly dreadful to watch, even for children. Many contain more saccharine than saccharine itself. Most people would say that A Charlie Brown Christmas is the holiday special that most closely evokes the religious aspects of Christmas. For me, How the Grinch stole Christmas is most appropriate for our modern times. It is clear that Jesus was no fan of the rich. The Grinch epitomizes the soulless, possession-obsessed, anti-poor overlords about to overrun our House of Representatives, people so soulless they cannot wait to cut unemployment benefits and food stamps, even for their own constituents.

If ever there were a time when we needed more of the true Christmas spirit, 2010 would be it. Food banks are bare. Homeless shelters are overflowing. The only way to get Congress to extend unemployment benefits is to continue to borrow obscene amounts of money to give tax cuts to millionaires who don’t need the money and have been living on government largess for much of the last decade. 99’ers (those unemployed for 99 weeks or more) are now out of luck and will get not even coal in their stockings, which at least would provide a little heat. Instead, they will likely soon be found standing in a cold queue for a cot in their local homeless shelter. Letting them eat cake is clearly too rich for them, but apparently cheaper than buying them fruits and vegetables. With their food stamps benefits exhausted and their food pantries empty, their next dinner may come courtesy of the dumpster behind the local Wendy’s restaurant. To add to their misery, Lord, it’s cold out there, at least here in northern Virginia. We’ve gone weeks without seeing forty degrees and today we are getting gusts of wind up to forty miles an hour. It has only occasionally crept above the freezing point.

Not that we, especially us purported Christians, really will care all that much. We will comfort ourselves with the fantasy that through ensuring that our citizens are miserable, we are providing the virtue of self-reliance, all at no cost to our wallets. We are teaching them to fish, so to speak, although many of them are reeled in like fish. Our legislators whine that we cannot afford to put them on Medicaid or give them emergency housing. The social safety net is so yesterday. The homeless can spend their days shuttling between the dumpsters at Wendy’s, the line at the homeless shelter and the emergency room for their pneumonia, which is fine with us because none of these are on our commutes. Out of sight, out of mind.

Surely, all this recession-fed self-reliance and austerity will eventually bear fruit, although so far in Ireland, Greece, England and elsewhere the evidence that austerity has any advantages beyond making the less moneyed more vulnerable and scared cannot be found. All this is necessary because we have been living beyond our modest means, but also because while the rich like being rich a lot, they like being richer even more, and have no qualms if it is done by making the middle class impoverished. It’s good to be a creditor and if you threaten to stop loaning money, even first world countries get scared and start cutting spending.

It would be great if the so called Christians and humanitarians among us would practice what we profess. In two days, we celebrate the birth of Jesus who implored those of us with possessions to give them to the poor. There is little sign that the rich will do so, unless they can be bribed to write it off on their taxes. With the top one percent of the country owning over 42 percent of the national wealth (as of 2007), the rich can afford to pay much more to feed, house and cloth our abundant poor. Much of our national misery is self-inflicted because wealth redistribution is now anathema. It has to be voluntary, but the rich at least cannot seem to summon the will to pony up some small measure of their vast treasure at this miserable time. In short, the vast majority of them are apparently as Christian as Attila the Hun.

So Merry Christmas to all of you who are food, sleep and/or shelter deprived. With luck, the winter won’t leave your old coat too threadbare. As for the rest of us, while raising that glass of eggnog, let’s acknowledge our true feelings about the poor and the homeless, as found in this Bob Rivers’s parody of the of tune “Home for the Holidays”:

Oh there’s food for the homeless on the holidays
‘Cause no matter how filthy and uncombed
If your down on your luck, you can really graze
For the holidays we throw those bums a bone

I met a man who drank and smelled of pee
He was headin’ for the local mission for some homemade pumpkin pie
Pan-handlin’ folks are always hangin’ round by the discount liquor store
And they’re not too brand specific
Gee a buck would be terrific

But there’s food for the homeless on the holidays
There’s a turkey just like Mama made at home
If they pine for redemption from their heathen ways
Come the holidays we’ll throw those bums a bone

Take a piss in your pants til you smell like you’re from France
Put some vino in a crumpled paper sack
Though you’re smellin’ like a beast you’ll treated to a feast
want second? Come right back!

There’s lots of food for the homeless on the holidays
Have some pumpkin pie and ham with provolone
We don’t care if they eat dog food on the other days
When you call a cardboard box your home sweet home
For the holidays we’ll toss those bums a bone

 

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