“Why Should We Pay?”

13 Oct

As the EBT crisis unfolded, some took the occasion to scold those who were in a position to have their lives thrown into turmoil. We live with the constant, predictable effects of a zero-sum economy that positions some, always, near the brink of crisis or despair, then blame them for their suffering.

As far as I have been able to tell, there was little consistent explanation for the “glitch,” and certainly no adequate reparation. The cruel mirth of some at the suffering of others, people who were in direct danger of starvation, is genuinely shocking, ,if not surprising. I insist on being shocked in the face of callous disregard that so thinly masks a desire, carried through to its conclusion, genocide of “those people.”

Stuart Hall, in the era of Thatcher, referred to the prevailing attitude of the day as “authoritarian populism,” an ideological and rhetorical positioning of some (e.g., “the taxpayer”) as the legitimate recipients of the benefits of civil society and others (“those people”) as illegitimate drains on “the rest of us.” I would argue that this is not strictly about race–although we must remember, among so many similar statements, H. R. Halderman’s citation of Nixon that “the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.” What seems to be happening, unevenly and in a contradictory fashion, is the gradual racialization of class, meaning it functions analogously to race. It also means that “race” retains and re-emphasizes some of its former meaning, having to do with breeding or manners.

As a racializing term, “those people” creates distance from–and legitimates–the “we” that identifies “them.” The basic function is to render “their” suffering inaudible, unintelligible, and beyond the reach of legitimate concerns. It allows “us” not to recognize “our” complicity in “their” plight, and to render “their” plight strictly a matter of “their” bad decisions or unfitness. “They” wouldn’t be in this situation if “they” had been better suited for “today’s economy” (a mystifying abstraction for another day). “They” wouldn’t be killed by the police if “they” obeyed police orders. “They” wouldn’t be spied upon if “they” didn’t belong to a group prone to subversion. “They” wouldn’t be facing starvation due to the failure of privatized governmental services if “they” had worked hard and been “thrifty” like we were. “We” think “they” must not have the talent, the drive, the ambition, the knowhow, the family support, but “we” don’t consider the ways those virtues must be  fostered, permitted, rewarded, recognized, and engendered. We don’t consider all the ways our society communicates to some “this just is not for you.” We see poverty as something that falls upon people, like bad luck, illness, pathology, an act of God, and not as a direct result of “today’s economy,” and we talk about “today’s economy” as though it fell on us from the sky.

“Why should we pay?” Do we shop at Wal-Mart, or Target, or Home Depot, or the other large chain stores? Do we camp in cold parking lots after Thanksgiving beginning our annual tribute to Mammon (in the name of Jesus Christ), filling the coffers of Best Buy, Macy’s, and other stores? Do we pay our tributes at home, ordering from sites like Amazon, marveling at the ease but anxious for our gifts to arrive? Are we then impressed when they arrive, just in time, the waiting forgotten? Do we ever think of the people who work in those places, or their working conditions? Do we know whether they receive adequate pay or benefits? Is there not a relationship between their low wages, and the anti-poverty programs “they” depend upon?

When we fail to imagine those lives, we allow ourselves to imagine that they must be fundamentally different. We imagine they are somehow being punished for their own sins, rather than ours. What would it take to imagine “we” are “they”? Will it be too late then?


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