Sunday, February 27, 2011


November 13, 2008

My friend and high school classmate said the following recently, concerning Obama and "spreading the wealth" (and I paraphrase): Why is it selfish to want to keep your hard-earned money? Why should poor people be given things, why don't they earn them like the rest of us? Why should high income people be taxed to provide services for the low income people? If you give stuff away to them for free, how can you ever expect them to work for it? The following is my reply.


When I was a kid my mom -who, like many of her generation, dropped out of school from necessity because she had to work to support the family- worked hard at a menial minimum wage job in a shirt factory. My step-father was never able to hold down a steady job because he was unstable; we later learned that instability was the beginning stages of paranoid schizophrenia.

We got food stamps. We needed them. Within a few months after Reagan took office those were cut in half. I got free lunch at school; if I had not, there were many days I would not have eaten at all. I remember one terrible 1981 day when I missed lunch for some reason and came home starved; all we had in our cupboard was a can of Crisco, and I knew it was days before my mom's payday. I remember the Christmas of 1981- the only present I got was a new belt. My family was not religious, was very dysfunctional due to my step-father's mental illness, and we were always broke -so I hated Christmas, it was nothing but a bitter reminder of what other people had and I did not. For all the days I went hungry, I had Ronald Reagan and his trickle-down economics to thank. For the food stamps and free lunch program that kept me from completely starving, I had Lyndon Johnson to thank.

It was partly due to the crappiness of my life that I was attracted, as a teenager, to Jehovah's Witnesses and their hope of a better go of it in the next life. I was also attracted by the idea of bringing hope and comfort to other people. It led me to two years of social work with Haitian refugees, an experience I treasure. Unfortunately, it cost me a college education, because the religion forbade it- and when I decided the religion was not for me, I was left with no marketable skills and no degree- and a family to support. I worked my way through college beginning when I was 32. I mopped floors, I moved furniture. My family used WIC and food stamps when we had to.

To this day, sometimes when I stand in line at the grocery store I see someone ahead of me paying with a food stamp card… and sometimes I pick up on the subtle sneers and snide comments of other people in line. I’ve heard people complain, once the welfare freeloader is safely gone, that they were using tax money to buy soda when they could just drink Kool-aid, or water…and once, heaven forbid, that someone was buying a steak. What they did not know, and I did from bitter experience, was that may well have been the only steak that family would see this month. Or that that soda and that steak might be the only comforts that person has in a shit-filled life. And what gives one person the right to say whether or not another person “deserves” to eat a steak (or, for that matter, to have another child if they are poor)?

Before too long I will be going on the job market with a Ph.D from a well-regarded history program and a handful of writing awards- straight into the professional class. This does not equal "upper class", but it is more prestigious and more remunerative than being a janitor was. Now, I could say: This money is MINE, I sweated for it, I earned it, I deserve it, so why should I share it with anyone if I don’t want to? Why should I be obligated? After all, I overcame huge obstacles, and if I can do it so can anyone else facing similar obstacles.

Except I know that last comment is not true. A large part of the reason I am where I am now, when dozens of my relatives are not, is because I was born with certain talents and a certain degree of intelligence, both of which were no more than genetic luck of the draw. What I CAN claim is my own willpower; but willpower alone does not always suffice. My cousins are not where I am- but that does not make me better than them. When I see a destitute person, I know it could easily have been me (and sometimes has been.)

The fact is, our hometown has one of the worst meth problems in the country. A generation ago it was one of the biggest marijuana producers in the country. A couple of generations before that, my grandfather went to prison for supplementing his meager farming income by making moonshine. Everyone talks about being tougher on crime instead of asking the simple question: why is there so much crime? Why is this region so economically depressed that for generations the number one preoccupation of young people has been producing, selling and consuming mind-altering substances? Some would answer: because most poor people are lazy and/or immoral. I know better. I know that most poor people are desperate. The only way out they see is to get high awhile or make a buck helping someone else do so. One of my relatives who was out on parole for making meth learned that his mother was about to lose her house. He was an uneducated convict, the best he could hope to do short term was find a minimum wage job, which would not be enough. Instead he made another batch of meth to raise the money, got caught, went back to prison, and his mother lost her home anyway. I’ve also known more than one young woman who married a man who turned out to be abusive, and was faced with a choice: continue to be beaten, or leave and try to support your kids on a McDonald’s salary which will barely cover childcare. Some risk it- but most end up in a downward spiral. I am not saying any of that is RIGHT, but I am saying there is a reason for it. Poverty kills hope. That is true in inner cities, and it is true in the Appalachian hills.

My mother did not have my advantages. I dare anyone to look me in the eye and tell me that the situation my family was in when I was a kid is a situation we DESERVED, and that if only we tried harder instead of looking for handouts it would have been better. Because that’s bull. Those people, as Everclear once sang, have never been poor and never had the joy of a welfare Christmas. And I further dare anyone to tell me my mother is lazy, or a loser. For that matter, I dare them to blame it on my ill step-father, who was only able to get medical help when he got on disability.

The experiences of my childhood, and early adulthood, have informed the rest of my life. It is part of the reason I hate social injustice, and want to fight against it as much as I can. It is why, even at times in my life when I have not felt religious, I have admired the teachings of Jesus Christ –who told rich people that if they would follow him they must first divide half their belongings among the poor, and told everyone to pay their taxes, be peaceful, help widows and orphans, give to anyone in need, feed strangers, be kind to people in prison… “whatever you have done to the least of these, you have done to me.”

It is why I don't like the Republican Party. (Not conservatism per se; bear in mind I am conservative on some issues, such as defense and gun ownership…and that I am personally against the idea of abortion, while ultimately being for a woman’s right to choose.) The Republican Party line is: everyone for himself, and devil take the hindmost. “This is America, land of opportunity- anyone can make it here, and should, and if you are poor it is YOUR FAULT, and is in fact a moral failing, and you deserve what you get.” The GOP calls itself the party of Lincoln- yet when Democrats FINALLY gave up outright racism as official policy, Republicans picked it up. Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” was to inflame white Southern Democrats’ fear of blacks and thus win over voters who were pissed that LBJ, a white Southern Democrat, had “betrayed” them by signing the Civil Rights Act. THAT is partly why blacks vote Democrat 90% of the time. And that is why the South is now the only region of the country that is solid red, except in coastal areas that have a lot of Northern move-ins. That’s not my opinion, it’s history, feel free to look it up.

I am not a communist. I do not believe that government should control all industry and commerce, and divide everything equally among the people so that there is neither wealth nor want. When that happens, no one tries, because it is impossible to get ahead. Also, you can’t trust any government with that kind of unlimited power.

I do believe that as citizens we are part of a community, and that government is a social contract between the people and their leaders- we’ll obey you, and pay our taxes, and in return you must protect our community. Protect it from invaders, and from criminals, and from fires… but also, take care of us when we hit rock bottom and give us a hand up (not a handout.) As citizens of the community, we are all responsible for giving the government the means to do all those things. As you may know, one of my specialties is Native American history. Indians have always shared with the people in their community, and never questioned the need to do so. Sitting Bull toured the country with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, and was amazed to see crowds of homeless children in big cities. It was something he had never seen before. He customarily gave his entire salary to these children, amazed that no one else did so.

I believe a culture should be judged by how it treats its lowest members.

I believe profit is good, and necessary, but that selfishness is a sin, and greed is NOT good. I believe that governments SHOULD regulate industry and commerce, and set certain limits for them rather than letting them run wild… for the protection of the public. I said regulate, by the way, not take ’em over.

I believe in a progressive tax system. I believe that an across-the-board flat tax –say, having everyone pay 3% -is wrong because it is unfair. 3% of a poor man’s salary has far greater value to him than 3% of a rich man’s to that rich man- because for a poor man, virtually every expenditure is for necessities. How much of a rich man’s expenses are necessities? I therefore believe it is fair that those who have more should pay a larger percentage, because they can afford it more.

I believe there is a difference between personal morality and the public good. Between sins and crimes. Sins are for your clergy to deal with, not your government. If I choose to join a church, it’s like joining a club… I am implicitly agreeing to obey the club rules to sustain my membership. I am giving that church the right, to an extent, to tell me what to do or kick me out. This rule does not apply to government… the government has no right to tell me how to live or what to think, as long as I am not harming anyone. If I choose to blaspheme, have an orgy, read about magic, or throw a Big Gay Wedding for Mr. Sulu, it’s nobody’s business, especially not the government’s.

A word about government and religion, while I’m on the subject. Republicans –at least the wing of the party that has been dominant since Reagan –tout themselves as the party of religion and family values, as if all Democrats are heathens and they themselves have a monopoly on Christianity. (Reverend King, anyone?) And yet, consistently, almost anyone I talk to who is gung ho about invading another country and killing people, especially those who use the term “bomb them into the Stone Age,” which is a call for genocide… almost anyone who is against paying taxes, against caring for the poor, and in favor of every man for himself and screw you if you fall behind… who are the least likely to be forgiving or gracious to an opponent… that person is almost always a conservative Christian Republican. For those people, I would just like to remind you, the Pharisees were awfully darn religious too (and they hated that radical rabble-rouser Jesus.)

Republicans are about the individual, Democrats are about community. I think every American wants to be a rugged individualist, until he’s the one hurting. Despite the cowboy myths we like to indulge ourselves in… and I’ve written a few of them myself… it has ultimately been communities that built America. And we are only a community if we all agree to take care of each other, not eat each other like rats or toss the weak members to the wolves.

That’s what I believe.

"Smith creates a classic from the first chapter ... a magnificent novel."- Roundup Magazine
Winner of the Spur Award

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