I was briefly infatuated with Richard Powers listening to this interview:
I was so infatuated that I started looking for the transcript of the show and noting the parts of the interview that struck me as I was out on a walk listening to it. I mistakenly published my notes at some point during the walk, and then just left them published because it was too much work to figure out how to unpublish it from the mobile interface. It’s been sitting at the top of the blog for days now, still only partially finished. My apologies.
Commodity mediated, individualist, market driven human exceptionalism…
…I had this sense that to become a better person and to get ahead and to really make more of myself, I had to be as productive as possible. And that meant waking up every morning and getting 1,000 words that I was proud of. And it’s interesting that I would even settle on a quantitative target. That’s very typical for that kind of mindset that I’m talking about — 1,000 words and then you’re free, and then you can do what you want with the day.
I had heard of Suzanne Simard long before this episode of Ezra’s show. Way back when I first started listening to podcasts. During my binging of the back catalog of Radiolab, I ran across this episode:
To summarize the part of her work that is covered in that episode, trees feed each other through the network of fungi that fill the ground around them. The forest is more than just the trees. The forest exists for its own purpose. A purpose that has absolutely nothing to do with us.
If we see all of evolution as somehow leading up to us, all of human, cultural evolution leading up to neoliberalism and here we are just busily trying to accumulate and make meaning for ourselves, death becomes the enemy. When we enter into or recover this sense of kinship that was absolutely fundamental to so many indigenous cultures everywhere around the world at many, many different points in history, that there is no radical break between us and our kin, that even consciousness is shared, to some degree and to a large degree, with a lot of other creatures, then death stops seeming like the enemy and it starts seeming like one of the most ingenious kinds of design for keeping evolution circulating and keeping the experiment running and recombining.
And to go from terror into being and into that sense that the experiment is sacred, not this one outcome of the experiment, is to immediately transform the way that you think even about very fundamental social and economic and cultural things. If the experiment is sacred, how can we possibly justify our food systems, for instance? It’s only the belief that we share no significant kinds of meditation or emotional life with cows that allow us to run the kind of food system that we run.
I am not nearly as impressed with Neil Postman as both Ezra and Richard Powers are. When I got to that section of the interview, my infatuation with Powers waned significantly. I have some pointed thoughts about Neil Postman, some of which may eventually appear here after I finish working through the two books of his that I’m on again, off again, listening to. In the meantime, here’s a link to the other true prophet that Ezra mentions:
…I think I got the most volume and some of the most varied feedback I’ve ever gotten for any post I’d ever written before. It ran the gamut from “this is easy to do and Facebook can’t seem to do it, so they must not care” or “Facebook is in bed with X group, their behavior demonstrates this.” to “Any attempt to moderate speech violates my freedom of speech.” When I queued up this episode, one of the first things that the guest says on mic is that she figured that the Facebook Supreme Court was just a way to get Facebook out of the crosshairs for making the decisions that need to be made, content-wise:
…and by the end of the episode I was where Jad was “we have to ban Facebook, don’t we?” But then I thought some more about the varied responses to the tests that were put forward to illustrate just how hard it is to make judgements about what is or isn’t acceptable on social media, and I started to realize that what Facebook will ultimately achieve, if it succeeds, is some form of internet protocol for allowing the greatest amount of speech possible without misleading the populace or allowing for the targeting of segments of the population. I wish them luck with their supreme court experiment. Hope it all works out.
Tangentially, there were two more episodes later in my podcast feed that dealt with the same conundrum. Speech, the freedom and limitations of:
I would like to point out that this contingency is covered. There is no need to fret about this subject. If the election is muddied to the point where there is no clear victor, then Donald Trump’s term in office still ends on January 20, 2021.
Donald Trump will not be president after that date. (especially since the election says he didn’t win. -ed.) It is a fixed point in time beyond his ability to alter. The nuclear codes will go to the next person in the line of succession. That person is also set in stone in a way that he cannot change it. The presidency will pass over the Vice President, who will also no longer be an office holder on that date, and it will come to rest on the speaker of the newly seated House of Representatives.
If there is one thing that you can rely on in this alternate reality we currently inhabit, it is that the military will follow procedure and dutifully remove the codes from Donald Trump’s hands on that date and they will hand control of the military to the next person that law dictates is his successor as president. That person will most likely be Nancy Pelosi. That is, if Joe Biden doesn’t win outright. We’ll know when the new legislature takes office.
…you think you know something and then someone asks a question that you don’t have an answer for. A contingent election?
In the United States, a contingent election is the procedure used to elect the president or vice president in the event that no candidate for one or both of these offices wins an absolute majority of votes in the Electoral College. A presidential contingent election is decided by a special vote of the United States House of Representatives, while a vice-presidential contingent election is decided by a vote of the United States Senate. During a contingent election in the House, each state’s delegation casts one en bloc vote to determine the president, rather than a vote from each representative. Senators, on the other hand, cast votes individually for vice president.
The contingent election process was originally established in Article Two, Section 1, Clause 3 of the United States Constitution. The procedure was modified by the 12th Amendment in 1804, under which the House chooses one of the three candidates who received the most electoral votes, while the Senate chooses one of the two candidates who received the most electoral votes. The phrase “contingent election” is not found in the text of the Constitution but has been used to describe this procedure since at least 1823.
Contingent elections have occurred only three times in American history: in 1801, 1825, and 1837. In 1800, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, the presidential and vice-presidential nominees on the ticket of the Democratic-Republican party, received the same number of electoral votes. Under the procedures in place at the time, this necessitated a contingent election the following year to decide which would be president and which vice president. In 1824, the Electoral College was split between four candidates, with Andrew Jackson losing the subsequent contingent election to John Quincy Adams, despite having won a plurality of both the popular and electoral vote. In 1836, faithless electors in Virginia refused to vote for Martin Van Buren‘s vice-presidential nominee Richard Mentor Johnson, denying him a majority of the electoral vote and forcing the Senate to elect him in a contingent election.
I had heard of those three instances in history. I had never looked at how the votes are cast in the House of Representatives. Now that I’ve looked I don’t think I’ll sleep well until after December 8th or December 14th. I won’t sleep well, because the Republicans do control more states in the House than the Democrats do. Once again I’m struck with the injustice of 7 million more votes for Joe Biden not counting as a victory in and of itself.
If Trump succeeds in corrupting the vote certification process in an attempt to throw the election to the House of Representatives, all bets are off. Never mind that Donald Trump didn’t win in any real sense of the word, not even the technicality that he took the presidency with in 2016. This time he will steal the election right in front of our faces. What will we do then?
Since the Democrats do control the House of Representatives and since the vote certification can be shown to have been corrupted, I would think that the House could simply refuse to act and allow the line of succession rules to take over, as I originally theorized. It’s not like Mitch McConnell hasn’t done exactly the same thing for the last decade. I guess we’ll find out.
At first I did blame him. You should say there is no loyalty if someone commits crime, but if someone didn’t, then you should not lie about people. Then one day I was so angry when they told me that a detainee lied about me. When I was tortured, I did not blame them anymore, because I was saying, “Wow. This is one way for Allah to show me that I am a weak person too.”
Not weakness. Fallibility. Choosing life over death isn’t a weakness. He lied to save himself. He’s human.
This is episode four in a series from WNYC and Radiolab. Like most of my long-term listening podcasts, I’ve listened to every episode, even some that aren’t on the current podcast list. Since they don’t link the other episodes in the series, I will link them here.
If the only other person that had my name that I could find on Google had been a detainee at Guantanamo, I would have wanted to understand that RAnthony the way that Latif wants to understand this guy. There is a American football player who uses RAnthony the way I do. I wondered who that guy was who was more popular than me.
In the first four episodes we discover just how little evidence existed for why we took him prisoner in the first place. In episode five we go into the Upside Down (is it a movie reference instead of a Stranger Things reference? I wonder) and discover the other side of Abdul Latif Nassir. What did we do to him? What have we done to him in the eighteen years we have kept him locked up. Locked up without trial. Without charges. Without a justifiable reason other than that we wanted to hide away what we had done to him, and to the other detainees in Guantanamo Bay.
This unspeakable act on the United States has really forced me, however, to rely on my moral compass, my conscience, and my God for direction. September 11 changed the world. Our deepest fears now haunt us. Yet I am convinced that military action will not prevent further acts of international terrorism against the United States. This is a very complex and complicated matter.
Now, this resolution will pass, although we all know that the President can wage a war even without it. However difficult this vote may be, some of us must urge the use of restraint. Our country is in a state of mourning. Some of us must say, let’s step back for a moment. Let’s just pause just for a minute and think through the implications of our actions today so that this does not spiral out of control.
Now, I have agonized over this vote, but I came to grips with it today and I came to grips with opposing this resolution during the very painful, yet very beautiful, memorial service, as a member of the clergy so eloquently said, “As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore.”
Associated forces are the mythical sixty-first and sixty-second words in the authorization for use of military force (AUMF) They appear nowhere in the text of the document passed by the US congress, and yet they are the basis for the continuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and were the basis for the support of the war against DAESH/ISIS. They are the basis for the latest strike on Qasem Soleimani on Iraqi soil. They will be the basis for the eventual war in Iran that Republicans desperately want to start next.
Hindsight has proven that Barbara Lee is an American hero. A patriot that puts people like yours truly to shame. Why? Because I acted to quash a resolution by Travis county Libertarians to come out against declaring a war on terrorism. I did this not because I thought that war was justified. I did it because I felt that a political organization that hoped to be given power in some future election could not publically come out against a war that was so demonstrably popular with the masses back in 2001.
I would like to think that if I had been in Barbara Lee’s shoes back then, I might have had the fortitude to stand up for what I believed in, as she did. But I doubt it. I would probably have seen the writing on the wall, as Senator Joe Biden did, and felt justified in supporting a resolution that was going to pass whether I spoke out against it or not.
What I do know now is that the AUMF has to be rescinded. We will never get out of this endless war unless we do rescind it. We are breeding new legions of US hating terrorists with every one of the targeted strikes we engage in now. Unless we like being the most hated country in the world, with our citizenry afraid to travel beyond the country’s borders for fear of being targeted themselves, we have to give up this unwinnable war against terrorism. Unless we want to bankrupt our country in much the same way as we forced the USSR to bankrupt their country in Afghanistan at the end of the cold war, we cannot continue acting the way we have acted since 2001. It is time for all of this hatred and killing to stop and we have to stop it.
There have been several podcasts in my feed over the last year dissecting and observing the subject of poverty. This is probably because of the over-hyped evidence that the majority of Trump supporters were poor, rural whites. The podcasters in their turn feel they need to address the issues raised by these people. The issues that made these poor, rural whites feel so desperate that they would hazard the welfare of us all on a known liar and con artist.
I say over-hyped with no intention of belittling the plight of the poor, or the fact that poverty runs rampant in the modern United States. Poverty is more widespread and more painfully felt now than it has been at any point since the end of World War Two. The disparity between rich and poor today is comparative to 1929, in the time leading up to the crash and the Great Depression. People are poorer now and paid worse than at any point in modern American history.
But it isn’t trade deals that are causing this problem. It isn’t illegal aliens in the US taking our jobs. It isn’t any of the things that Donald Trump or the majority of conservatives say is causing poverty, and his solutions to fix poverty are solutions that not only have been tried before but failed to work previously. So why do them again?
No, I say over-hyped because the rural poor more than likely voted for Trump because the rural poor have been the largest viewing block for reality TV. The rural poor have little other entertainment they can access aside from television. The Apprentice was popular with the same people who voted for Trump. Why is it so hard to admit that these people thought that the character on that show was the guy they voted for in the election? That the lack of broadband access in the rural areas of the US have lead to an information gap that resulted in the election of a con artist to the presidency? That poverty is merely a factor in the larger problem of inequality in America?
All of these podcasts have struck a chord with me. I have blogged both directly and tangentially about this subject in the past. It is not a subject I like writing about. The nerves are raw and the wounds are kept fresh in my current situation of disability and poverty. The series from On the Media, Busted: America’s Poverty Mythsbrought me to tears. I recognized so many tropes from my own childhood. Things family members and friends both have uttered in my hearing. Things that I have been guilty of believing in the past. In this article I will take a more purposeful walk down that memory lane, painful as it is. I want to do this in the light of these discussions by scholars, writers and journalists.
…and I will start this journey of introspection with the writer/journalist Stephen Dubner and his podcast Freakonomics,
James Truslow Adams, born in 1878 to a wealthy New York family, became a financier and, later, an author. He won a Pulitzer Prize for a history of New England; and later he wrote a book called The Epic of America. Even though it was written during the Great Depression, Adams took a fundamentally bullish view of the United States.
His book was hugely popular, and as best as we can tell, it introduced the phrase “The American Dream.” Adams defined this as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” The phrase caught on, and not just a little bit. Especially among our presidents…
…The Stanford economist Raj Chetty has been working with large data sets to try to understand why so many Americans are no longer living the American Dream. When it comes to economic opportunity, Chetty and his colleagues found huge regional and even local differences throughout the U.S.
As he told us, kids growing up in San Francisco have about twice the chance of living the American Dream as kids from just across the bridge, in Oakland. Why? One easy explanation would be that the people in those different areas are just different – they have different abilities, different cultures, different job opportunities. And that certainly has some explanatory power. But Chetty and his colleagues found the story isn’t that simple…
…This is hardly a new idea – that growing up in a poor neighborhood isn’t the best launching ground for economic success. This idea, in fact, led the Clinton Administration to experiment in the mid-1990s with a program called Moving to Opportunity.
Okay, so young kids who move out of a high-poverty neighborhood do much better later on. What, exactly, does this signify? What’s going on in the poor neighborhoods to depress income mobility and what’s going on in the better neighborhoods to increase it? Answering those questions has become a big part of Raj Chetty’s work.
The above hits the high points of that Freakonomics episode, without getting into the meat of it, which is excellent. The scholar Raj Chetty‘s five factors address my personal experiences of poverty directly. It was because of this episode that I felt the need to write more on this subject, but the title of the post comes from a segment of another podcast, which was introduced to me through this episode of Radiolab,
In a 5-part series called “Busted: America’s Poverty Myths,” On the Media picked apart numerous oft-repeated narratives about what it’s like to be poor in America. From Ben Franklin to a brutal eviction, Brooke gives us just a little taste of what she learned and shares a couple stories of the struggle to get ahead, or even just get by.
This episode features an excellent overview of the 5-part series; enough for the casually interested, but not enough for someone who remembers the shock of sudden poverty as a child. A now old man who lives in poverty due to illness, disability, a truly lackluster US economy, sexism/ageism in the workplace directed at the Wife, etc. But I don’t want to get ahead of the narrative, and discussing the particulars of my experience in poverty even in the general sense gets ahead of the introduction provided in the full five part series from On the Media.
As the Freakonomics episode mentioned, It is actually twice as easy to move up the income ladder in Canada as it is in the US. This is a travesty, an ongoing insult to America, this delusion we live under. What delusion is that? The delusion that the US is the best country in the world to live in, that we provide more access to social mobility than anyplace else in the world. It simply isn’t true. Hasn’t been true for a good, long time.
The first episode of the On the Media series is an introduction to the reality of poverty in America. It is the boxing glove on the fist of the next three episodes that drive home the fact that we Americans really don’t have a clue what it is to be desperately poor in the US. Even I only vaguely recognize the lives that the truly poverty stricken must live. The reason for this is that I profited from the status of my parents. My parents, in their turn, benefited from the status of their parents; white, working class, upwardly mobile christians with land. My paternal grandparents had enough property that they farmed at first, and then sold land to the city and to new families moving into the bustling township that Leoti, Kansas was after the dust bowl. They sold and profited as the town grew around them, just like the dreams of all Americans play out.
“Cultivation is at least one of the greatest natural improvements ever made by human invention. It has given to created earth a tenfold value. But the landed monopoly that began with it has produced the greatest evil. It has dispossessed more than half the inhabitants of every nation of their natural inheritance, without providing for them, as ought to have been done, an indemnification for that loss and has thereby created a species of poverty and wretchedness that did not exist before.”
The possession of land leads to wealth, if one is lucky enough to own the right piece of land at the right time. The Steele family in Wichita county, Kansas were those kinds of people. The fact of their ownership of land made them powerful within the township. The location near a then-growing town gave them a chance to sell off some of their property for cash, something that there is never enough of in any small town. People have to eat, after all. They have to have somewhere safe to sleep. All of this costs money in the modern economy, and the only way to get money is to work or be born into it. So I wasn’t born into poverty, at least.
I was born overseas to a father who was stationed there in the military, a mother who enjoyed being overseas for the first time but really didn’t enjoy the constraints of a military wife in the 60’s. She returned to the states not too long after my birth, and my father left the military as soon as his mandatory term of service was up. They returned to my father’s home on the high plains of Kansas as I mentioned. My father grew up in a little town named Leoti that would be so small you would miss it if you blinked, if only the main roads went anywhere near the place. My father’s family had settled there a few decades previously and Grampa had several thriving businesses in the town. One of those businesses was sold/given to my father when he left the military, and he settled down with my mother for the happily ever after that all young people believe in.
Did I say “happily ever after?” Yeah, that never showed up. Dad took to drinking a fifth of bourbon every single day as he struggled to deal with bringing in enough cash to support his growing family. Mother was unhappy because the family kept growing and her husband didn’t seem to be around much to help. The fighting got worse until it damaged the furnishings and frightened the children, and the divorce wasn’t long after that. Coming out of the 40’s and 50’s and the attitudes about women and families, the ridiculous notions of money and politics, wealth and poverty and the meaning of all these things all wrapped up together, the surprising part of this story is that some women put up with the way life was for them. They put up with it instead of leaving. Maybe they had better husbands?
The story of my pre-teen life was pretty common for the time. By the mid-70’s when the divorce happened fully half of all marriages went that way. Prior to World War Two women were expected to stay home, raise children and provide for the running of the household which encompassed pretty much everything you can imagine. Everything you can imagine, if you imagined a self-sufficient household operation that was a day’s horseback ride from the next nearest town, a train ride away from the nearest city with running retail businesses in it. A household without running water or electricity. That is what frontier life was like just two generations into the past for me, four generations from the time of this writing. My grandparents remembered towns without electricity, the introduction of indoor plumbing and the automobile.
Automobiles made the difference. This fact is spelled out in the heaps of rusted metal you can find dotting most older farmsteads. When the old car dies you leave it where it sits and buy another one, just as you did the tractor and the harvester. On the Wife’s family farm you can still see her dad’s first tractor, parked on the edge of the field where it died, rusting into nothing as the decades fly by. It still sits there even though the farm itself has changed hands twice since her mom sold it. Sold it because there just wasn’t any reason to keep it any longer.
We weren’t farmers. We were never going to sign up for that life. The automobile made city life bearable because you could live in the outskirts of the city and commute downtown for work. In the city you don’t need to make your own clothes, you can go to the store and buy them. You can go to the store and buy them, that is, if you have the money. Money has been the limiting factor imposed on the poor for longer than any of the now living can remember. Longer than those who came before us can remember. Further back than even our great-grandparents and their parents time.
Brooke meets Carla Scott, a young woman in Cleveland forced to sell her plasma for bus fare after a series of events derailed her life, as well as Carla’s nonagenarian grandmother, Grace, a hard-line believer in “personal responsibility.”
Personal responsibility orpaying for every mistake you’ve made for your entire life. That would be costly, and hasn’t been my experience. This is the privilege of white skin in the United States. It certainly hasn’t been luck that has seen me through to now. I’ve told myself all my life I make my own luck. I make my own luck because 50/50 chances almost never fall my way. Even so, there are many behaviors that I have engaged in that would have resulted in imprisonment and probably death, had I been caught doing them while black.
While I was near homeless for a few years living in friend’s spare rooms and sleeping on enclosed porches, I never had to sell plasma. I didn’t have children of my own to tend to before I was ready largely because I knew what a pain children could be. That was one of the many lessons I learned being raised by a single mom.
The benefit of city living masques the machinery of poverty creation. Having everything you want or need available at a store for purchase makes the delusion of self-sufficiency seem quite real. Self sufficient, if you have the money to buy these things. Self sufficient, if you have work that pays money. I have always had work because I would do just about any job offered to me. White, young, male, with no tattoos and no piercings. Maintaining the illusion of normalcy was more important than personal desires. The illusion of a fine, upstanding middle class status kept me working.
Poverty waits for those who fail to maintain the illusion. Jobs that go to others. Careless sex that leads to children. Drug addiction. Tattoos and piercings that announce your rejection of white bread America. That inner-city poverty of slums and ghettos? The tattooed and the pierced? The drug addicted and the ne’er-do-well? That poverty has moved out into the country from the cities. The rebellion that motivated the election of Donald Trump was generated in rural America, in the persons of the last victims of a grinding poverty that has plagued the poorer neighborhoods of cities since their creation. I noted the rural American bellyaching rang hollow to me in the essay I named after him,
Oh poor, misunderstood me whining by rural whites strikes me as just this side of pathetic. As if urban blacks don’t have problems, haven’t had worse problems for the better part of two hundred years.
I know what grinding poverty looks like even though my experience with it was mercifully brief. That time was right after my parent’s divorce. For a time after kicking the alcoholic out of our home my mom tried to make the best of life in rural Kansas. We got to keep the house. Dad moved into a trailer parked behind his service station. He managed to wrangle down his child support to $300 which wasn’t enough to cover the cost of keeping a roof over our heads, even though that roof had been home for as long as we could remember. Mom took her first job outside the house since going to college, a job teaching Head Start to Leoti preschoolers, a job that was taken from her because she didn’t have a teaching certificate. She left college to get married and had no saleable skills aside from homemaking, a job she couldn’t do anymore without a husband.
So she remarried. The new husband was a nice enough guy when we met in Leoti. As soon as we left Kansas and moved to Texas, the trouble started. The poverty got worse. Dad stopped paying the child support and only restarted it after mom sued him to get it. The stepdad also started drinking heavily, and he was a mean drunk. There were a number of times where my mouth got me in trouble and I ended up on the floor. The last time I saw him was the day he brought another woman to the house. After watching him abuse my mother wordlessly for months, after being the victim of his abuse during that time, having him show up and flaunt his girlfriend in my mother’s face was too much. When mom sent us into the house and told us to hide, I waited behind a door I knew he would come through if he did come in for his stuff. I waited with a high vantage point and a heavy blunt object. I wanted to make sure that if the opportunity presented itself, there would be a near guarantee of killing him. I hated him that much.
Luckily for both of us, the opportunity never occurred. He left without his stuff. I was on a plane to stay with my father in Kansas within the week. Psychotherapy was part of that process. I was the lucky one. The luckiest of the four children who endured the stepfather. I had a room of my own in my father’s house. I had running hot water at the tap. I had a mother and father who were concerned for me. I never appreciated this fact, this blessing, until visiting my mother in Texas and seeing what hitching her cart to the stepfather’s wagon had wrought in the end.
The unlucky ones? They had one bed for the four of them to share. Mom went through another divorce, which means those three siblings went through it with her. The garage apartment they found in the tiny town they had ended up in didn’t have a reliable roof or much in the way of indoor plumbing. They had to heat water on the stove to fill the bathtub so that they all could bath each night. My mother had taken the next of dozens of jobs she would eventually hold, working the night shift running that blight of the American landscape, a convenience store. Virtually the only profitable business in yet another small town whose only claim to fame was being on the road to somewhere else.
When I saw how bad their living conditions were, I cried. We siblings then made the first of several pacts that followed over the years. After a few weeks of mutual badgering, our parents in their separate hostile camps were convinced to let the rest of the kids move back up with dad and his new wife. I didn’t appreciate having to share a bed with my brother again, but at least they had hot water to shower with. Television to watch. Decent schools to attend, back in the good old days, when Kansas still believed in investing in young people.
For the first time in my mother’s short life, she was free. No children to supervise. No husband to cook for or tend to. Free to try and advance her skills by returning to school. So she did that. She moved to a larger town in the area, a town called Sweetwater. It was a town with a school, a town big enough for a trade school, but not so big that it became expensive to live in. She took business classes and worked odd jobs. She was probably about as happy as she had ever been.
This happiness was short-lived. This is a section of the story that I wrote about at length here,
Dad had remarried, but found the chore of raising 5 unruly children too much to deal with so he sent us back to our mother in Texas to live. The 5 of us crammed ourselves into whatever housing she could afford on the wages for whatever jobs she could get.
…She just went back to working at fast food joints, bars and restaurants, the odd convenience store job as the demands for housing, clothes and food for her growing children required.
It was a point of pride to my mom that she never took food stamps. That she never had to go on welfare. Her memory is a bit more selective than mine. We may never have needed food stamps, but we certainly ate a lot of government bread and cheese. Drank a lot of government milk. I got a job as soon as I could after moving back in with mom. I knew even before she explained it to me, there was no way we’d survive if I wasn’t working. So I started sacking groceries and cleaning up at night at one of the two grocery stores in that mid-sized Texas town. I took a lot of food that the store was going to throw away home with me instead, one of the benefits of being the flunky who throws out the trash. We never went hungry, but that is just barely the truth.
I spent my senior year in high school as a stranger in a school I didn’t really want to attend. I preferred the Kansas schools of the time. Kansas’ investment in higher education (now abandoned) Kansas’ belief in better times ahead (ditto) Texas was meaner. Texas was harsher both in climate and attitude. That mythical Southern hospitality is the velvet glove over the iron fist of crony capitalism and repressive social structures designed to keep the poor in their place.
I attended the same trade school my mom had moved to Sweetwater to attend and I made the best of the illusions I had been fed as a child. That I could be whatever I wanted to be. That I had no limitations. That all I had to do was work hard and I would make the grade. That I could live happily ever after, too.
In the third installment of our series, “Busted: America’s Poverty Myths,” we take on one of our country’s most fundamental notions: that America is a land of equal opportunity and upward mobility for all. And we ask why, in spite of a wealth of evidence to the contrary, does this idea persist?
With the help of historian Jill Lepore, Brooke traces the history of the “rags to riches” narrative, beginning with Benjamin Franklin, whose 18th century paper manufacturing business literally turned rags into riches. We hear from Natasha Boyer, a young Ohio woman who was saved from eviction by a generous surprise from strangers… only for the miracle to prove fleeting. And we consider the efficacy of “random acts of kindness” and the fateful role of luck — where you’re born, and to whom — in determining success.
Much like Benjamin Franklin in reality, as detailed in this segment of the story, I moved away from the family that was a drag on my ability to succeed on my own. Their poverty making my poverty that much harder to ignore, that much harder to escape. After a brief, heartbreaking few months trying to establish myself in Kansas back living with my father, trying to make good on promises made to a girlfriend I had left in Kansas and failing at that rather spectacularly, I returned to Texas and moved up the road from Sweetwater to Abilene for a brief time, living on my own. Like everyone who transitions to life on their own, that was quite a shock. I think it was the month driving on a leaky tire because I couldn’t afford a new one that brought home just how hard it was going to be to make the grade. Just how remote the possibility thathappily ever after might ever occur.
“It’s alright to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”
It was while living in Abilene that I noticed that I effectively had no boots and thusly no bootstraps to draw myself up by. I had a limited education, most of which I provided for myself through voracious reading. I clearly had a problem producing work in my chosen profession, a barrier that I had never realized was mine alone until that time. There was no one with money in my immediate family. I knew no one in Abilene aside from co-workers at jobs I no longer had, and I wore out their welcomes in pretty short order. I even had to borrow mom’s pride and joy, the first new car she had ever bought for herself, just to get myself out of the rut I’d made in Abilene and move myself to a new, hopefully more promising locale, San Angelo.
It was in San Angelo that I met the Wife, working at one of the many odd jobs that came my way. It was there that I dragged the rest of my Texas family, after I finally found a job that paid money and had rented a house that would fit all of them. It was there that all of them eventually went to college. It was a long, hard struggle even getting to that level, the level where I felt I could attempt to repay a debt to my mother that I knew I still owed. But I was still poor, just not as poor as I had been. In order to not be poor I knew I was going to have to find a bigger city. Bigger cities require more architecture, more planning, more design, and I knew that was a demand that I could help satisfy if I could just get there.
In the fourth installment of our series “Busted: America’s Poverty Myths,” we examine the strengths and shortcomings of our nation’s safety net. Government assistance does help lift millions out of poverty each year — indeed, without it, poverty would be twice as high — but those in the most dire circumstances often slip through the cracks.
With the help of Linda Tirado, author of Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America, and Matthew Desmond, author of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, we consider how anti-poverty programs can actually keep people poor and offer little hope for a way out.
Also, Brooke meets Margaret Smith, a Columbus woman made homeless after a violent crime derailed the life she’d carefully built with her six children. And we visit an Athens County food pantry that provides not just meals to the community, but also school supplies, clothing, furniture, job training, home repairs, disaster relief…even burial plots.
In the city there is no illusion about the temporariness of prosperity, of hearth and home. If there is any real difference between city life and country life, it is the illusion of permanence that country life affords. In the city you pay by the month for everything including hearth and home. You never stop paying for anything, ever. New cars, bigger houses, longer commutes, more roads, taller buildings, denser usage. The city is a meatgrinder, and the meat it grinds is human. Best not to watch it happen if you have a weak stomach.
It’s true, there are more opportunities in the city if you can afford to go there and look for them. I took that leap almost thirty years ago now. Left what I see now as a quiet little town of a hundred thousand people; ten times the size, and more, of my hometown of Leoti at its peak. Austin boasts more than a million citizens now. if you incorporate its far-flung suburbs, there is something closer to two million people who work and live here because of Austin being here and pretty much for no other reason. It certainly isn’t for the weather, which is Texas hot nine months out of the year.
There is a little joke in Austin that if you move here and don’t have allergies, wait five years. You’ll have them, just wait. I had allergies before moving here and I never intended to stay here. Fate has kept me here, year after year in spite of my intentions to leave as soon as I was assured of an ability to provide for my family. I was ill before I got to Austin, and my illness has gotten worse every year I’ve been here. The symptoms which had no name eventually got so bad that I found a name for them, Meniere’s. Finding that my symptoms had a name is the only reason I’m alive to write this uplifting little post today. Having a name for what keeps me from working is what gets me disability payments that kept my now-grown children fed while they were still growing. The disability made me worth more alive than dead; so I’ve kept living, to the consternation of many.
Disability isn’t a carefree life of freedom and bliss. Ill health is generally hard to endure even without the grinding poverty that accompanies it in most cases. The poverty is inflicted on those of ill-health by the system itself, not as a function of their relative worth. The cost of treating illness is itself a function of building the wealth of countless millions of healthcare professionals, people who would be as poor as I am without people like me coming to them for treatment. Without Social Security and Medicare paying my bills, I’d have taken my own life years ago. All those thousands spent to educate my children, house, clothe and feed them, would never have existed. Their promising careers, the careers of my Texas family who went to college because I brought them somewhere that had a college, all of the people who benefitted in some way from the work that I’ve done if not by the simple existence of my health issues, none of them would be where they are now had I simply not existed. Had I been cast aside like the poster-waving homeless visible on every city street corner in the US.
Nothing hits so hard for me as being in my car pulling up to an intersection, and having someone come to me with their hand out. I can’t look because I know that if I give in to my desire to help everyone around me, I will soon be the one standing on the street corner holding a sign. See to your own needs first, as any properly trained triage attendant knows. You can’t help others if you end up needing help yourself. I have clung to the top edge of a vertical drop into non-existence for more than a decade now. Every single cent of every dollar spent in the last ten years having to be justified in some way. Kicking myself for ever frivolously spending anything in the years that I had money, not realizing that those years would be the briefest of all.
When reporting on poverty, the media fall into familiar traps and pundits make prescriptions that disregard the facts. So, in the fifth and final installment of our series, “Busted: America’s Poverty Myths,” we present a Breaking News Consumer’s Handbook: Poverty in America Edition. It’ll equip you with the tools to spot shoddy reporting and the knowledge to identify coverage with insight.
With help from Jack Frech, former Athens County welfare director; Kathryn Edin, co-author of $2.00 A Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America; Greg Kaufmann, editor of TalkPoverty.org; Matthew Desmond, author of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City; and Linda Tirado, author of Hand To Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America.
Like him I really don’t have any answers aside from the plain observation that what we have attempted so far in the realm of aid to the poor has failed, utterly. We must begin again if we ever hope to improve the human condition. The only sane way is to approach the problem with the knowledge that we don’t know what will work before we try it. So it will profit all of us to make sure that what we are attempting can be tested for effectiveness before we embrace it as true and real.
One final video for this article. Another take on the problem of wealth in America. The concentration of wealth in the hands of far too few people.
Editor’s note. This article was originally written for the blogspot url in 2017. I retitled it, rewrote the beginning of the article and moved it up to its current publish date after Trump’s bullshit about the end of poverty started making the rounds in 2018. It was ported over to WordPress with the rest of the Blogspot content, and then updated in October of 2020 for the new url. I toned down the language slightly so as to not alienate the people I wrote the article for. You are welcome.
How will you shoot dozens of people if your gun doesn’t reload itself?
If you want law enforcement to predict the future without violating your rights, without taking away all the guns, without turning America into an science fiction dystopian nightmare, you HAVE to give them the tools to do the job.
If we want gun rights the way the gun defenders suggest they exist, the way their constitutional interpretation represents them, we will have to follow the rules of 17th century militia induction and assume that all adult residents of a region are militia members, and we will have to train everyone in weapons usage and assess their abilities accordingly.
The militia authority can then establish who can be relied upon to use what weapon and require those people to keep arms ready at all times for reason of regional defense. This is the way that the verbiage in the constitution works out. The military is subordinate to the civil authority. Civil authority has dictated that the militias will be organized under the National Guard. Every adult person in the United States is a member of the local militia. Everyone will immediately be enrolled in the Guard for the purposes of weapons training and assessment. We cannot have weapons in the hands of the untrained, and the proficiency of the soldier in question has to be known in order to ensure that they are properly trained in their military role. This is what it means to have the at-will right to keep and bear arms, especially military grade weaponry. You will be trained, and you will be assigned a weapon that suits your abilities.
It is either that or we have to interpret the constitution differently, and allow that the government has the authority to deny weapons to people who are not certified, trained and insured to handle those weapons. And if gunnuts start making comparisons to knives we can talk about training people with knives too. A lot of these arguments descend to the level of the ridiculous extremely fast.
Well you don’t want anyone to have weapons
I want everyone to know how to defend themselves and to be trained in the best methods of achieving that goal. Weirdly, escaping from a threat is probably the most useful method of self-defense, and the gunnuts I’m frequently arguing with never fail to reject the idea that the sensible thing to do when confronted or threatened is to run away if you can.
I have talked about both these slants on the subject previously:
The ability to move is just about as fundamental as it gets. It is why the human species has adapted to so many different climates on this planet. We travel and set up shop somewhere else where there isn’t already ten thousand other people trying to live. Where resources aren’t already owned. Where our lives are not threatened by a greater number of others who want what we have and/or need to survive. A classic defensive strategy, not to be where your enemies are looking for you.
Travel is a right. Limitations on travel without due process is a violation of our rights, what the government is supposed to be safeguarding for us. So the existence of the (Terrorist) no-fly list outside of due process is a constitutional violation of our rights.
All transfers of ownership of registered NFA firearms must be done through the National Firearms Registration and Transfer Record (the “NFA registry”). The NFA also requires that the permanent transport of NFA firearms across state lines by the owner must be reported to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).
This is especially true in the light of workarounds that have been affected to make semi-autos into full automatic weapons. If there aren’t a plethora of semi-autos to modify in the population, there won’t be the problem with the mass shootings we currently have.
The problem is not going to get any better on its own. This is because population pressure is the likely culprit for the increase in mass shooting events in the last twenty or thirty years. There are simply more people living more densely than ever before in human history, all across the face of the planet, and that statistic is only going to increase if you look at projections into the future. America is only one facet of this problem, but we are the outlier when it comes to availability of weapons of mass destruction.
Local control is the reason that weapons are so prevalent in cities in the US today. City ordinances are generally pretty harsh (even in Texas) on weapons usage, even weapon carrying, but you can’t just stop and frisk everyone or expect every traveler to let themselves be x-rayed for weapons everywhere they go. So the local ordinances are overwhelmed by modern commercialism and the movement of populations. Weapons manufactured in other locals find their way into the cities where the police are already overwhelmed and don’t have time to track down every weapon in the city. Track them down so they can confiscate them. This was the law in Chicago and Washington DC for decades, no weapons allowed within the jurisdiction of the city authority unless they met specific criteria written into the law.
What is now needed is a revision to national laws. Some kind of coherent, proven method of harm reduction that applies to whole regions. Restricting all semi automatics to licensure and insurance requirements are in that vein. I don’t see the harm in allowing weapons for self-defense. What I do see harm in is claiming self-defense as your reason for having weapons, when what you have is a weapon that will demonstrably inflict collateral damage while you are defending yourself. QED, a weapon that fires multiple shots quickly and easily.
There is no way to be safe from harm. But there also isn’t any real justification for having a weapon that reloads itself for the next trigger pull, and propellant powered reloading is the mechanism that allows semi-automatic weapons to be become fully automatic, thereby upping the body count when firing into a crowd. If you have to work a bolt or a lever to reload, you aren’t going to be hitting 600 people in a crowded mall before the crowd disperses. That is simple math.
The mechanics of getting a weapon to reload automatically after being fired is quite tricky to pull off. Putting all semi-automatic weapons into the same category as automatic weapons will restrict the availability of those weapons and cartridges. The average city-dweller can defend themselves with a revolver, never mind that statistics show you are more likely to be killed by your own weapon than you are to kill others with it.
Almost all mass shootings are carried out with long guns. Not having a semi-automatic weapon easily accessible would achieve the goal of ending mass shootings as we have come to know them. The counter argument to this observation runs along the lines of machinists being willing to put themselves at risk by manufacturing and selling semi-automatic weapons out of their garages; but you aren’t going to see a lot of machinists willing to be targeted for lawsuits if they start cranking out semi-automatic weapons on the cheap, and then those weapons are used to kill a bunch of people.
Again. There is no way to be safe from harm. People who are afraid are not reasonable people. Which is why you can sell people afraid of what an authoritarian government or a criminal element represents on the idea that they are safer with a weapon for self-defense. This is statistically simply not the case. Women are more at risk of being killed by someone else with their gun than they are of killing someone with it. Men take their own lives with a gun far more frequently than they use that very same gun for self-defense. Guns are not the answer to worries about personal security.
I am all-in on making people feel secure. I am neurotic about locking doors. I tried to get my children into self-defense courses when they were younger. I think everyone should be trained in hand-to-hand defensive tactics. I think every woman should be trained in how to kill a man with their bare hands, if not actually outfitted with whatever weapon they are comfortable with, at a cost borne by the government, in the furtherance of ending violence targeting women. All-in on teaching women to fight back, equipping them to fight back. This is how you reduce the numbers of women who are victims, stop making them victims-in-waiting.
But that doesn’t negate the simple statistic that the presence of a weapon means that the weapon will be used against the owners of the weapon more often than not, especially in the case of women.
I grew up in rural Kansas. I currently live in Texas where, if you drive out to the country, you’ll still find a firearm and/or gun rack in every vehicle. I have owned weapons in the past, including semi-automatics. I understand gun culture even if I’m no longer immersed in it. I was a gunnut once. Owning a weapon is shorthand for having independence in the US; and this delusion we live with, that weapons keep us free, is probably the largest blind spot most Americans have. We are being robbed blind by thieves as I sit here typing and no increase in firepower will stop that theft. Understanding how modern battles are fought, and where, is how we get a handle on that theft. The first step is admitting we don’t understand what is happening, and then trying to figure out what is going on.
Information inequality is the biggest contributor to the gap in the perceptions between rural and metropolitan, the poor and the wealthy. I live in Austin, one of the high-tech hubs in the US. I have the entire knowledge of mankind available to me in a fraction of a second. All I have to do is know what question to ask, and the internet will give me the answer to that question. Day or night, rain or shine. If my home fiber-optic cable happens to be down, there are an even dozen places within walking distance that can get me equivalent access for free or nearly free. I don’t watch TV. I don’t listen to the radio. I read, and I do that voraciously. I listen to targeted podcasts and audiobooks almost constantly.
I can do this because the metropolitan area and my own economic niche I carved out when I was a productive member of society allows me access to this information that easily. But I have relatives that live in the country. Going out to their homes is almost like turning off my mind. They watch TV and still pay for cable so that they can get at least that much entertainment. They are limited by their cellular data plans, cannot access the information that they need to make informed decisions even if they knew they needed to ask questions before making decisions that they simply don’t have the knowledge for. They aren’t stupid, they are uninformed because the entertainment that they can get access to doesn’t offer them any real information. They don’t even know that they are missing information that is critical to making whatever decision is in front of them.
We are living in a Dunning-Kruger experiment of hellish proportions in the US today. Whole segments of the population are asked to render opinions on subjects that they have never had exposure to, and they only know of a subject because of the advertising in the form of infotainment that they get from mass media. That is a recipe for disaster, a disaster we are currently living through.
Imagine what it would be like to be able to get access to the information you want right now, the websites that contain the info you need to bolster your argument or to prove that your initial perceptions are wrong. Fully half the time I start out writing anything, I discover that I am wrong on some key part of my understanding which then alters the narrative that I’m composing as I’m writing it. I go through this process on an hourly basis.
And the most important understanding that I have developed over years of attempting to understand a myriad of subjects is that NO ONE is capable of digesting the amount of information required to make knowledgeable decisions on every subject. It simply can’t be done by the average human being. There is literally too much information now for any one person to know what the right answer is to any random question without spending days, weeks, months and years studying the problem. We, as a people, need to accept this fact. That expertise has a value that we should support. That we don’t know everything we need to know and truthfully can’t know it all at one time.
When it comes to weapons and the statistics of their use, we are all dealing with a subject that we think we understand, with views that we are loathe to give up crafted over a lifetime. Most ideas about guns and the proper way to respond to gun violence, simply don’t work to alter the statistics that more knowledgeable people bring to the table. In order to have a criminal record that will disqualify you from owning a gun, as the laws are currently written, you have to have committed a crime that disqualifies you. This means that we cannot screen out the unknown quantity of people who should never have access to firearms.
There is no specific need to throw large amounts of lead downrange quickly, the one thing that automatic and semi-automatic weapons were designed to do well. Ammosexuals will argue that their weapons have to reload themselves or they aren’t worth anything. This simply is not the case and limiting access to these weapons would radically reduce the numbers of deaths and almost instantly end most of the mass shootings, because the weapons that allow them simply are priced out of the range of people intent on creating mayhem. Will they turn to other weapons? Some of them will. It will at least require them to work harder to conduct their mayhem, meaning we’ll catch more of them in the process.
But in the meantime we have people who shouldn’t have access to guns being given access to the best killing machine that money can buy, available at every sporting outlet in the country. This is a surefire recipe for disaster.
Good guy with a gun? Self-defense? If you see someone breaking into a car, do you shoot first, or do you try and figure out why they are breaking into that car? I’ve broken into my own vehicle countless times. It took years for me to start carrying a spare set of keys around with me and/or making sure I had my keys on me before locking and closing the car door. I’m glad no one ever shot me for breaking into my own car. Is it self-defense to shoot someone for breaking into car? Really?
We’ve had people right here in Austin shot for breaking into cars. The specific shooter that I’m thinking of was acquitted because the thief brandished a screwdriver before being shot, or so he claimed. We don’t know because the thief is dead and the only witness to the incident was the shooter. In any case we have a pedestrian who is dead in someone’s driveway because he had a screwdriver and was purportedly caught in the owner’s vehicle. A screwdriver!
This is insanity. I’m all for self-defense, as I’ve said many times. I’m a Texan whether I like it or not. Self-defense arguments are in my blood. But a guy threatening you with a screwdriver deserves a bullet?
What he deserves is to be disarmed and hauled before a judge. A criminal record will keep you or him from ever owning a firearm, which is a finding that should have been applied, at minimum, to the shooter himself. If you shoot someone, you probably shouldn’t have access to firearms for at least a few months of cool down time. Good luck even getting that minimal amount of change enacted into law.
This culture you’ve created, the cost of your so-called freedom. The face of this kid. You want ALL the victims, the victims of war, gun violence, racism, sexual assault, all of it, to be silent. You can’t face it, because it makes you ashamed and you don’t have the guts to look it in the eye. So you don’t have to do anything. You’re cowards, America. Just like your president. Fortunately for our future, however, kids like David Hogg are not.
A little known fact about the case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission is that the political organization Citizens United’s only reason for existing was and is promoting lies as truth, and to do this using public resources. They have no other purpose other than to create political art and then publish it as if it was the unvarnished truth.
Citizens United are not documentarians. They are propagandists. They create false narratives which are not the same as a documentary film which claims to be the truth and so should actually reflect something that is true. Much like Michael Moore’s films in that they both propagandize, neither should be able to promote or even publish their falsehoods in a free and fair society because neither of them really wants to say something truthful about the world we live in. If you want to write fantasy, write fantasy. Don’t pretend your fantasies are real.
Money is still not speech. Money isn’t a lot of things that people think it is.
Here is a link to Oliver Sacks’ last work, The River of Consciousness. I have enjoyed listening to Oliver’s contributions to Radiolab over the years. His are some of my favorite episodes. I will miss him.
“You would never know if I relapsed,” he said to me. “I was very good at being an addict.”
No, honey, you weren’t. None of us are. We think we are cleverly hiding it. We think we have it under control. We think we are getting benefit from it. We think we are the exception to the rule. We think we will be able to prevent it from consuming us.
I have taken out the garbage in my home (eldest son always gets that job, ditto with husbands) for my entire life. Consequently I know what people throw away in the house. I know who recycles and who doesn’t. I know who is doing what based on what garbage appears in their waste cans. It is extraordinarily hard to disguise behaviors that create garbage, behaviors that leave behind evidence which must be destroyed if you want that behavior to be secret.
My dad went through an astronomical amount of Canadian Club, Black Velvet, etc. At least a fifth every, single, day, without fail. I must have hauled several tons of discarded glassware to the ashcan over the course of the years I lived at home with my parents. We kids knew the drill. Ice (this much) bourbon (that much) water (a much smaller amount) He always drank, all the time. It wasn’t until the drunk driving laws started appearing that he knew he was heading for trouble, because he couldn’t be without his glass of bourbon and a cigarette (Pall Mall‘s) at any point in any day. Couldn’t do without it (them) until the cancer started.
When the cancer started it became imperative that he stop smoking and drinking, and he still couldn’t do it. He just didn’t know how to stop. He switched to low-tar cigarettes first. No more filterless Pall Mall’s, it was Carlton‘s or whatever else he was trying that week. He insisted the low-tars were filled with cabbage leaves, but he had to have a smoke. The bourbon took longer for him to give up. He switched to cheap beer when it finally became clear he was going to have to stop his addictions, not understanding that he was going to have to actually stop the behaviors entirely. He smoked and drank until they stopped allowing him to eat because of throat cancer. In the end the addictions killed him by causing the cancer, and that is what I remind myself of mentally every time someone offers me a cigar or I pour myself a drink.
I stopped smoking cigarettes ages ago because I could feel the drag they were putting on my lung capacity, and that process took years. One of my sisters now runs a cigar shop and I have to decline offers of cigars every time she comes to town or we meet with relatives who have seen her recently. I can feel the itch of a lifetime nicotine addiction in the corner of my mind just thinking about picking up a coffin nail. The air in the Steele household was blue with tobacco smoke for my entire childhood. Nicotine was in the air I breathed every day until I left home and had to infuse the drug by smoking it myself. Kicking that habit was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and it took years of mentally associating the desire to smoke with the smell of a the bars I worked in as a young adult, reminding myself of the stale smell of smoke, sweat, alcohol and vomit that permeates the air of a bar before all the people show up and renew the smells with life.
My dad loved to tell a story about me when I would drink with him. One thing my dad was really good at was spinning yarns, and he could talk all day and night if you let him. He was a certified master of bullshit and I could sit and listen to him talk for as long as anyone would let him talk. I was fascinated by his ability to just make stuff up on the fly. The bare bones of the story went like this; The first time my parents took me along for a fine dining experience, one that included courses of meals and an after-dinner drink, I cried for the glass of cognac they sat in front of my father. My father, being the indulgent person that he really was, wanted to see what I would think of the cognac. Would I hate it? Would I reject it because of the alcohol taste? He didn’t know. So he handed me the snifter and as he told it “You drank it right down. Sat there for a few seconds. Then you cried for more!” It always got a laugh and I laughed right along with him.
I am reminded of that story every time I crack open a new bottle of brandy or cognac, which is about the only thing I will drink these days; and I will drink a quiet toast to my father on those days. It is because of him that I am not an alcoholic, and that is probably the best lesson I learned from him. I have often wondered what he would have made of the efforts to end addiction these days? Would any of them have helped him? Would he have wanted help?