When I say we tell the poor like it or lump it, I'm not exaggerating in the least. Just consider by way of way of example the way we demonize the hungry, the folks who rely on SNAP - the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, what we used to call, and often still do call, Food Stamps - for food purchases.
A Wisconsin state representative wants people getting SNAP benefits to have to go to "privately run food pantries" - more bluntly put, he wants "separate but (no doubt) equal" grocery stores for poor people.
One member of Congress has called on his constituents literally to spy on what people using EBT cards buy at the supermarket and to question them if they think anything they are buying looks suspicious or "inappropriate."
The state of Wisconsin has a list of precisely what you can and can't buy with your SNAP benefits right down to things like what type and size of canned beans you can buy.
Maine wants to say SNAP recipients can't use any of their benefits for candy or soda because heaven forbid poor children should have something fun or a treat.
It's not just SNAP, not just Food Stamps, it's all assistance in all forms. More than 20 states have extensive lists of what cash assistance can't be used for - with one state official insisting the list has educational value in that it sends the message that cash assistance should be used for necessities. Because of course the poor are unaware of the need for food or clothing or housing or medicine or transportation or whatever else and we have to "educate," that is, control, them, all for their own good, of course, because they are inferior and can't be trusted to make their own decisions.
And then there is the drug testing. No matter how many time it turns out that poor people looking for help are less likely to use drugs than their richer fellow citizens, no matter how many times it turns out that forcing applicants to submit to a drug test winds up costing the state more than it saves, no matter now many times these programs are miserable failures that do nothing more than brand all poor people as drug addicts, still they get pushed.
And the thing is, that's why they get pushed: They get pushed, and they get public support, because they label the poor as druggies, because we are prepared to assume that all poor people are somehow inferior, they are irresponsible, they are lazy, self-indulgent, moochers who spend all their time and money getting high. They're not like us! And because they are poor, rules of privacy protection and against self-incrimination don't apply to them.
We put demands on the poor that we simply do not put on the rich. It does not occur to us.
In his recent book Divide, journalist Matt Taibbi refers to "a creepy inverse correlation between rights and need" [emphasis in original] that exists in the US, where the protection of Constitutional, of basic human, rights is inversely proportional to how rich you are. Put another way, the poorer you are, the less rights you have.
He cites the example of CalWORKS, the state of California's what would in the past have been called welfare program. Everyone who applies for aid and is accepted must agree to have their homes be preemptively searched for evidence of fraud at a time of the agency's choosing, which of course they do not tell you in advance because then you could hide the evidence of fraud of which they assume you are guilty - and if you're not there when they come, you can be declared "uncooperative" and denied aid. In short, not only are you in effect a prisoner in your home until this raid takes place, the Fourth Amendment does not exist for you and neither does innocent until proven guilty - because you are poor and need help.
Can you even conceive of someone declaring their children as deductions on their tax return being told they have to agree to have their home preemptively searched to prove those kids really live there and really are dependent on them? Remember, that deduction is a benefit, a tax benefit that by cutting your taxable income puts extra money in your pocket just as surely as does any cash aid to a poor person - in fact, in both cases, that is the idea: giving you more money to spend. But can you imagine anyone being told they have to surrender their Fourth Amendment rights in order to claim that benefit?
You know, some of those drug-testing regimens not only want you to be drug-tested to get benefits, they want you to be tested on a regular basis to keep them.
Can you even imagine, can you even conceive of, someone declaring a home mortgage deduction on their income taxes being told that every year that they do so that they have to submit to a drug test to prove that they are not using the benefits we are providing to them to get high?
The fact is, of course you can't. You can't imagine a non-poor person being told they have to surrender basic rights in order to obtain a public benefit.
But you can imagine it being done to a poor person; in fact, it happens every day and you know it happens every day. It is the great unacknowledged evil in our society - unacknowledged because even though you might be aware of the fact that the poor are treated differently, it doesn't register that way, it doesn't register as an evil the way equally blatant racism and sexism do. In point of harsh fact, it often doesn't even register as an evil but is perceived by far too many of us as a good thing, a proper thing, a right thing, to assume, to build public policy on the idea, that poor people are lazy, ignorant, drug-addicted frauds just sitting on their asses waiting for a handout.
Although most of us would be loath to admit it, the fact is, that is what many of us believe even if we would not express it so bluntly. The tell is that we don't as a society regard the different, the cruel, ways the poor are treated as an evil.
That great unacknowledged evil of our society, the one we don't face, the one we refuse to recognize, is called classism and it is our contempt for the poor, a contempt that cuts across lines of gender, age, race, and even income class, a contempt that is pervasive, constant; it is all around us in ways major and minor, big and small. Classism is driven by the moral corruption of power among the rich, but it infects our entire society.
In Divide, Matt Taibbi said "We have a profound hatred for the weak and the poor." When asked how he came to that conclusion - which I would re-label an insight - he said it was from visiting US courtrooms and seeing the different ways poor and rich defendants get treated by the courts.
When a poor person, a person without means, comes before a judge in an inner-city courtroom, he says, the judge doesn't want to hear anything the defense attorney has to say and seems angry at having to deal with this person at all. But when he attends trials involving white-collar criminals, Taibbi says, the judge is often very interested in what the defense attorneys - the plural is deliberate - have to say, even to the point of asking their advice on points of law, and there is a sense of admiration for the accused, who are regarded as somehow special, important, respectable, even superior, people.
As I would sum it up, what the word "justice" means in the US political and legal system depends almost entirely on who is asking for it.
Even the way we donate money reflects that class division, reflects the classism of our society. Repeated studies have shown that, as a percentage of household income, the poorest 20% of the population gives more than the richest 20% - and that gap has grown in recent years. Also to the point is that the poor give mostly to religious organizations and social-service charities, while the wealthy give to colleges, museums, and the arts - in other words, the stuff they themselves use. In fact, of the 50 largest individual gifts to public charities in 2012, not one went to a social-service organization or charity that principally serves the poor and the dispossessed.
We are an unjust society. And I don't just mean an unequal one - I mean a morally corrupt one. A society whose richest - that is, most powerful - members are by that very wealth, that very power, twisted into an ethically-bankrupt indifference to the concerns and needs of others, an indifference, that, precisely because it is expressed by the most powerful among us, again, infects the rest of us.
And it will not change. Not on its own. It's not something we can grow out of as a society, especially because we are now ever-more growing into it. It will not change on its own. It will, rather, only get worse absent direct action against it. And no, neither Hillary nor even Bernie represent that kind of direct action.
Because this is not about faces and this is not about just slowing the decline, which is all your "Hillary's the one"s and "Feel the Bern"s will ever do - now I will grant you that there's nothing wrong with doing that, nothing wrong with slowing the decline, so long as you realize that's all you're doing: You're not reversing the decline, you're just slowing it down. But ultimately, at the end of it all, that simply isn't good enough. A slower decline is not good enough. Because the issue here is about change, about real change; this is about power, about changing power - and when you talk about confronting power in search of real change in power, you are talking about revolution.
Frederick Douglass said it: "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will."
I have said it before: Change is going to require struggle. It's going to require a genuine social revolution. It's going to require disruption. It's going to require people in the streets. It's going to require more, a lot more, than twitter feeds and Facebook posts and far more than "vote for Democrats!" It's going to require a combination of the intensity and determination of the labor movement of the 1930s, the fearlessness of the civil rights movement of the '50s and '60s, the passion of the antiwar and counterculture movements of the '60s and '70s, and the creativity of the Occupy movement of this century.
That revolution does not have to be, it should not be, violent, but it does have to be aggressive. We have to be loud, boisterous, insistent, not just once but over and over again. We have to fill the streets and yes the jails. We have to make "business as usual" impossible. We have to be disruptive, noisy, disrespectful, impolite.
I think of something from some years ago: On May 17, 1968, a group of nine antiwar protesters went into the draft board in Catonsville, Maryland, pulled out a pile of files on men about to be drafted, took them outside, and burned them with homemade napalm before waiting for arrest. At his sentencing, one of the nine, Daniel Berrigan, read a statement in which he said the action was
in consequence of our inability to live and content in the plagued city, to say "peace peace" when there is no peace, to keep the poor poor, the thirsty and hungry thirsty and hungry. Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children, the angering of the orderlies in the front parlor of the charnel house. We could not, so help us God, do otherwise.We, too, have to be prepared to anger the orderlies to overcome those who stand behind them.
Quoting Douglass again,
It is not light that we need, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.We are, I fear, approaching a time when there will be the stark choice: confront or capitulate. Not one of those movements I mentioned could fairly or even rationally be called violent. But each in their own way, in their impact, they brought the fire, the thunder, the whirlwind. We need that sort of storm again.
I hope that revolution comes soon. I don't know if it will, I don't know if it will come at all. No one ever doesWhat I do know is that it is possible and that when it happens, whenever it happens, it will, as do most revolutions, come as a complete surprise to those who are its targets.
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