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Friday, February 28, 2003
By Paul Ford
Working that orange alert out of my system.
Let me just get this out of my system. It's going to take around 1500 words, and it won't be my best work, and then things will feel better around here. There was this editorial in the Wall Street Journal, discussed in the Washington Post, calling for us to increase taxes for the poor. The poor, the editorial said, are “lucky duckies,” (a phrase immediately parodied by the outstanding Ruben Bolling), getting away with fiscal murder.
Thinking of the tax-the-poor folks, and their utter failure of empathy, a sincere, considered part of me wants to exercise my second amendment rights, and engage in reasoned debate like, say, Brando at the end of Apocalypse Now. I see myself armed, breaking into a meeting at the Wall Street Journal, screaming, “I am coming for you rich people! Slithering like a snake! I am coming for you! Lunging like a jackal! Hraaa! Urr! Graa!” Then vanishing in a cloud of smoke.
When I hear that poor folks aren't taxed enough, I think back to those years when, suddenly, unexpectedly reduced to poverty from the middle class, my mother and I ate so much canned tuna that we would swell up during the hot summer because of all the mercury in our bloodstreams. After the 10,000th tuna fish sandwich, I began to identify with the fish. I started taking baths instead of showers. I would see a fisherman and start crying.
We were American poor, not world-poor. We had floors and plumbing, and a car of sorts. We had windows and never contracted malaria. But, even if it was American poverty, it still felt lousy and I wouldn't want anyone to go through it. I remember being driven around in our $500 yellow car (the 1978 Ford Fiesta, the only car which could be crushed with one hand and put in your bookbag), wearing one of my two pairs of pants. The car was painted with dozens of bright preventive burnt sienna spots because we couldn't afford a whole can of rustoleum, and once every few weeks I pushed it to the garage, where we hoped they'd cut us a break.
I stopped going to school for days at a time. It seemed pointless; everything was always on the edge, about to fall over, stretched. Would we be able to stay healthy? We felt, constantly, as if we were on the edge of a chasm. Add to that depression and close quarters. But we held together. I had a computer from better times, and I kept using it. We continued doing puppet shows for spare scratch. I ended up at a school for poor kids. My mom took in boarders, held onto her house, got a job that paid the bills. My dad chipped in. It worked out.
But if someone, like the United States government, had said, “we need another $1000,” something would have gone. The mortgage, or the phone, or the health care. You can't imagine unless you've been broke how incredibly linked everything is, how the cost of fixing the car, the cost of health insurance, the cost of rent, is connected, how that $1000 might be the domino that knocked down the other dominoes, the difference between me going to college and on to live a satisfied middle class life and me spending life trying to scrape up enough for a six of Bud. Yes, really.
I lucked out. I had local grandparents, sympathetic teachers, and Jeff, a local minister, gave us food when we were scraping. My father got it together. My mother held on. I got into Milton Hershey and ended up in college. And because everyone was fairly well educated (and white, which means a lot of privileges even if you're poor), and could get access to the things we needed, the poverty didn't last that long. About 3-4 years. We all eat Thanksgiving together, and it's hard to remember that time. I even had a little 5-year moment when I sort of forgot my roots and became the worst sort of new-economy wanker.
But if someone had come in back in the day and wanted to take away some money, if we didn't get that refund out of Mom's taxes, then forget it. No Ftrain, possibly no Paul. Seriously. It was that tight. And even if it wasn't that tight, goddamn it, we deserved a monthly trip to Dairy Queen too, you fuckers, and maybe even a few nice shirts. It just makes me wonder at the inhuman lack of empathy of the person who would tax the poor. I know such a proposal will not get through the House, I know someone has erected a windmill at which I can tilt, but how can anyone lack empathy to that point? How can someone be that awful to even suggest that?
At some point basic human decency has to walk in, look around, nod, and begin kicking ass. I can hear eyes rolling, but damnit, I'm not asking anyone to give up their house and make their kids wear hemp pants, and drive an SUV made of recycled aluminum cans and mud, or whatever. I'm asking them to be like my brother, who's a director of human resources at a big engineering firm with links to the military, who makes sure that women and minorities in his firm are treated with respect, because they definitely would not be without oversight. He is proud of doing this, of making his workplace safe and fair for women and non-white people. Yes, it's the law, but he prosecutes it fully and carefully.
I was so proud he is my brother when he told me that “women have a hard enough time, the workplace needs to be fair for them.” I can't tell you. My brother is using his position of power to make sure that people feel safe to do their jobs. That's good work, that's the way I want to be, the way he is. That's the way we were raised.
We do not see some things alike. He's a Catholic, I'm an athiest. I could never work for the military (my professional web site actually says this outright, which is probably stupid of me), but my brother is ex-Navy and sees it very differently than I do, and from a place that I know is profoundly moral.
I know he understands why I go to protests, and I know why he joined the Navy. And I doubt we'll ever argue over our differences, because somehow they're not that great, they just make sense, and our similarities are more important: that people should be respected, that you shouldn't take things too seriously, that we loved our grandfather, that scotch and cigars are great from time to time, that a vacation should involve a log cabin and no running water. Being a good man is what we both struggle to do. The emphasis there is on struggle; I am not yet a good man, by my own definition; I am still selfish, still afraid where I should be brave, I should have faith. I do not treat all people as true equals, and I look for power instead of ways to give more away far more than I do the right thing.
I know my brother is working on it, too. You get there, little by little. Whether by prayer or hope or just closing your eyes and being someone better in your fantasies. You don't do it to save the world but because it's just part of being human, trying to make this into a world where everyone with a story can tell it, and someone else will listen.
But what I'm saying is, I hope you will remember to be kind to the poor, even when they are annoying and unattractive, and to those who do not have as much power as you, and even more than kind, fair, and even more than fair, generous. Because whether you believe in Jesus or Allah or no one, whether you believe in a strong market economy or collective farms, there's ideology, and then there's decency, and if you can't have decency, then fuck ideology, you're no friend of mine or anyone, and I hope Pete Seeger comes to your house and sings “Little Boxes” until you, too, want to exercise your second amendment rights.
I'm a Phil Ochs man, myself. Pete Seeger is a pain. And by you, I mean, as always, me. Because who am I to tell you what to do? I wish there was a way to make that really clear, that this is not punditry, it's not moral prescripture or political advice, it's addressed from my heart of wishes to the world and the future; it's me trying to be better than I am so that I might have something towards which to strive.
I'm sorry to lecture, I have no place from which to speak, and I have as much blood on my hands as anyone. People ask me for money and a lot of times I don't give it to them. I'm kind of broke, and not giving a damn thing to charities, when they need it most, and I could find SOMETHING. I've got to fix this. It's so easy not to fix it. No one punishes you for being selfish. I know that the people who read this site, whether Republican, Democrat, Progressive, Liberal, Libertarian, or other, are almost all people who are striving and hoping like me, people who do want to see people treated well and fairly. I know, and must remind myself, that progressive pinkoes like me don't have a monopoly on decency. That you can live a very different life and still do the right thing. Like my brother. Like millions of people trying to live their faiths.
You didn't need to hear all that. But I am so frustrated with the lack of empathy I keep seeing, the sort of profound ignorance that seems to be everywhere, O'Reilly calling Mexicans “wetbacks,” politicians totally ignoring their constituents, this radiating wave of bullshit that seems to be filling America, fantastic and excellent America, and robbing us of a sense of the future, turning tomorrow into a series of orange alerts—that I can't write anything else until I get it out of my system.
And the best way to do that is to write stories, not screeds. I will now try to set the soapbox on fire and get back to spinning tales. And once I settle down, whether I get into grad school, or get a full-time job, it's definitely volunteering time. I have to put my acts where my mouth is (since I don't have that much money).
This essay was funded by Oliver, a dog who loves peace, biscuits, and walks.