Simple. Foolish. Thinking. Folk.

December 7, 2011

Virtual Insanity (Jamiroquai) music video screen shot, 1997. (http://www.vid81.com/). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws because of photo's low resolution.

On all sides of the political divide, we bear witness to some of the most unsophisticated thinking that anyone looking back on this time in history could ever possibly imagine.

It’s not just that GOP/TPers like Michele Bachmann or Rick Perry don’t know basic American history or about a constitutional amendment that directly affected their lives as young adults. It’s not just the racial, socioeconomic and gender-based bigotry that Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain have given us for months. It’s among supposedly liberal and moderate political animals as well. It makes me question not only the political process. It makes me think that we should recheck the lead content of our water (tap and bottled), our vegetables and our meat.

Gingrich’s statements over the past few weeks are much more than “unfortunate,” as Tony Kornheiser — an eighty-five-year-old impersonating a sixty-three-year-old — said on his ESPN DC radio show Tuesday. No, Gingrich’s statements are ahistorical, flat-out wrong, borderline racist, and downright nasty toward poor Americans and their children.

Say Anything... movie poster with cropped picture of Newt Gingrich at CPAC conference in Orlando, FL (taken September 23, 2011), December 7, 2011. (Quentin X and Gage Skidmore via Wikipedia/Donald Earl Collins). Released in public domain via cc by 3.0.

To a crowd in Iowa last Thursday, Gingrich said, “Really poor children, in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works so they have no habit of showing up on Monday…They have no habit of staying all day, they have no habit of I do this and you give me cash, unless it is illegal.” Unfortunate is when you mistakenly drop your flash drive down a garbage disposal. This was so bigoted that it was actually dumb beyond words. And even I thought Gingrich had a bigger brain than this.

This comes only a few weeks after telling the Occupy Wall Street protests to “get a job after you take a bath.” As if getting a college education only to become a $60,000 student loan debt-slave and find oneself unemployed is funny. No, Gingrich, you’re a slime ball, utterly out of touch with America and Americans. At least, any Americans who live in 2011 with less than $10 million to draw from.

But the reactionary right isn’t the only group that has spoken foolery of late, showing us how corrupt our system of politics and government is in our age. Media types of all strips have spoken like simpletons as well. Take Charles M. Blow, visual Op-Ed columnist with the New York Times, who frequents on Twitter as a “pox on both your houses” type. Somehow, though, when people talk about not voting at all, his ability to be rational declines almost as far and as fast as Newt Gingrich’s.

Usually Blow does his SMH sign when he reads 140 characters of what he considers foolishness. Not on November 21. On that day, he tweeted, “I must say that I’m shocked at the number of tweets I’m getting from ppl, seemingly prog, who sound resigned to not voting. Shocked!” Blow followed that with “Voting isn’t just about the right to complain. It’s a demonstration of power. Same as wiggling your fingers in the air, but w politicians.”

The question I have for Blow and voting purists is, what alternative universe do you think we’re living in?

Charles M. Blow, visual Op-Ed columnist, New York Times (cropped), January 18, 2009. (Flickr.com via Arlene M. Roberts). In public domain.

Where money isn’t the key to everything in American politics, and doesn’t determine everything from who runs to literally rigging the system on Election Day? And people considering the possibility of not voting are crazy? Really?

Yes, I know how many people fought and died for my right as a Black male to vote in these United States of America. I’ve been teaching about it for half my life. But that America doesn’t exist anymore. This America, this one where Gingrich, Bachmann and Perry are viable candidates, where progressives with ideas for making our nation better are told they’re being “unrealistic,” is one where normal behaviors often aren’t rational ones. In this case, voting for two sides of virtually the same coin makes no sense to many.

I, for one, will vote next year, and — barring Van Jones running or something — will vote for Obama. But unlike Gingrich or Blow, I’m not arrogant or traditional (or foolish) enough to believe that my ideas for how people should behave are the only ones worth considering.


Slumming Lords Spinning Stories Out Of Suffering

December 15, 2010

New York City – “Doing the slums” – A scene in the Five Points / from a sketch by a staff artist, Policeman leading upper class people through the Five Points neighborhood, Published 1885; December 15, 2010. Source: http://memory.loc.gov/service/pnp/cph/3c20000/3c22000/3c22600/3c22660v.jpg

In July and August ’83, my family’s first summer on welfare, then US Secretary of Agriculture John Block decided to do an experiment involving food stamps, at least as reported by USA Today at the time (unfortunately, USA Today’s archives only go as far back as ’87). He had himself and his family “live” off of food stamps — $58 worth — for a week.

Official Secretary of Agriculture Photo, John R. Block, December 15, 2010. Source: http://news.siu.edu/news/April04/040104pr4039.htm

Mind you, Block didn’t move them out of their comfortable home in NW DC to live in SE Washington or off North Capitol Street and New Jersey Avenue. They didn’t stop buying clothes, driving cars or paying their other bills. No, for a week, the Block family — including their nineteen-year-old daughter and the daughter’s equally anorexic nineteen-year-old friend — bought their food with food stamps to show how hard (or easy) it was for a family of four to budget for all of their eating needs on the government welfare dime.

Last week, Mediabistro.com reported on twenty-three year-old Daily Caller reporter and American University grad student Matthew Boyle’s work to do a three-story account of his food stamps experience. “You wouldn’t think I’d qualify….I don’t meet the traditional definition of a poor person, and in fact I’m not poor. But that didn’t matter to the District’s Department of Human Services. They approved me anyway,” Boyle said. Then Boyle gave his income. “I make $600 a month writing for Daily Caller and another $493 as a teaching assistant at AU. My rent is $1,365.”

Sorry Boyle, but by income alone, you qualify for food stamps, because unless things have changed since my grad school years, only your part-time reporter income counts as traditional income from a workforce standpoint, enabling you to qualify. By definition, you are poor, no matter your middle-income and elite university sensibilities.

But there’s a more important point than shattering Boyle’s socioeconomic views of himself that I need to make here, though. It stems in part from these strokes of Boyle’s keyboard: “The arrangement works because most of my rent and other expenses are covered under my student loans or paid by my parents (thanks, Mom and Dad).”

Vintage Food Stamps. Source: http://slashfood.com

Yes, this is what makes your situation a middle class one, your loans and your parents. As if millions of other people who are poor or solidly middle class haven’t received help from loans, parents, or, God-forbid, food stamps. That someone with Boyle’s background shouldn’t qualify because his parents have the dollars to bail him out.

It’s downright idiotic to complain about qualifying for food stamps. There are millions of other people with similar incomes, including grad students, who are grateful to have the program to supplement their income so that they can eat and pay rent. It’s also a bit arrogant to see the system as flawed from the contrarian perspective of a White middle class outsider — one who is technically poor at present — who thinks that it’s too easy to get food stamps.

This goes beyond John Block or Matthew Boyle, though. I took a creative nonfiction writing class to help kick-start my transition from academic writing to other, more literary forms in September ’01. The class was mostly made up of folks who saw themselves as middle class, many of whom were White. For one particular personal literary account assignment, four of these students decided to interview homeless men and women, all of whom were of color. I think that was the last class I showed up for, to hear these students talk about how touched they were by the horrors that had affected their subjects.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to understand or even help others less fortunate than us. The need to go slumming so that you can tell a story, though, is all too typical of a superficially minded society and journalism community. I didn’t need Block’s August ’83 experiment to know that it was hard to shop with food stamps — I shopped every day for my mother with them, and usually with a tinge of bitterness about using them. Boyle’s slumming to uncover inconsistencies is an example of yet another wannabe journalist making their name off of others misery.

These are stories that would be much better told by someone who’s either lived the experience or is extremely knowledgeable of the people and subjects involved. But in our screwed up world, people like me are too biased to tell these stories, in articles and in books. And people wonder why writers like James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison became expatriates or bitter later in their careers.


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