Poverty of Ideas

Via Matthew Yglesias, we find a link to this insightful post from Phoebe examining an irreconcilable tension between defining one’s social consciousness by what’s fashionable and defining it by reality—often unpleasant, almost never chic. The story Phoebe references features an attempt to stave off gentrification that is more likely to reinforce the divisions between the rich and the poor than diminish them in any way.

Even activists with the best of intentions don’t always take the best course of action; it’s hardly uncommon for plans meant to alleviate poverty to have the opposite (and unintended) affect. It’s truly frustrating how inept we continue to be, across the board, in effectively dealing with endemic poverty. We’re the richest nation on earth, yet U.S. childhood poverty now ranks 22nd, or second to last, among the developed nations (only Mexico scores lower), and:
Twelve million American families--more than 10 percent of all U.S. households--"continue to struggle, and not always successfully, to feed themselves." Families that "had members who actually went hungry at some point last year" numbered 3.9 million.
We’re not even very good at acknowledging it, no less solving it. One of the things that has always bothered me about the reception of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 as a Democratic polemic is that it simply wasn’t one. F 9/11 was about classism; Moore was (rightfully) angry about the rich bitch powerbrokers who have control of everything in the Beltway (and everywhere else, for that matter) and their willingness to perpetuate a classist system that ensures a volunteer military will always seem like an attractive solution for youth in poverty-stricken communities.

If a Democrat with the same ties to Saudi royals were president and led our troops into the same war under the same circumstances, Moore would have made the same film. Liberals just conveniently overlooked how hard Moore was on the Senate Dems (especially Daschle and Gephardt, who looked like total asses) at the beginning of the film. I understand why ignoring the complicity of Dems in a lot of what was covered in F 9/11 was attractive; if the Dems hadn’t been such a pathetic, capitulating excuse for an opposition party for the preceding four years, but instead had given their constituency something around which to rally, Moore’s film wouldn’t have been immediately embraced by a nation of angry liberals who were just so fucking glad to have someone finally be willing to take on Bush. (And because Moore is an inveterate attention whore, he gladly played the role of liberal mouthpiece when his film was received thusly.)

Ultimately, it was a very effective film about classism (and associated racism), but it shouldn’t have been the rallying point for Dems in the manner it was. That it filled that role so easily speaks to the void left by our elected representatives, and they deserve the blame for its status as liberal battle cry eclipsing its more important message of the wrenching dichotomy of the Haves’ America and the America of the Have-Nots.

The one man who was able to clearly articulate the real message of F 9/11 was John Edwards, whose “Two Americas” stump speech was roundly castigated by conservatives as contrary to the American spirit (which should have been our first clue that he was really onto something). Genuinely dedicated to finding solutions for lifting Americans out of poverty, Edwards now heads the Poverty Center at the University of North Carolina. And although none of us really want to hear his son-of-a-millworker story ever again, it is surely no coincidence that the candidate who has truly known poverty was the one who was best able to communicate its ugly, oppressive reality.

One of America’s most unattractive—and dangerous—habits is our collective inability to be self-critical, and although we on the Left tend to be better at it (thereby eliciting continual charges of anti-Americanism from our less reflective opponents), we’re still far too reluctant to stare our underclass in the face.

We want to protect Social Security and the 40-hour work week, we want to raise the minimum wage and provide universal healthcare, and we believe that every child should get a quality education from teachers not hampered by unfunded mandates. But a comprehensive strategy to eradicate the worst poverty—the kind that is beyond struggling to pay the gas bill; the kind that means hunger, or homelessness—eludes us. It is in no small part because we are reluctant to talk about the reality of Americans who are living as though they were in a third-world country.

There will likely always be working poor in America; capitalism all but demands it. But beyond the working poor are those who have fallen off the edge, those for whom the safety net in which we believe and for which we fight so passionately was not enough. Where are the nearly four million American families that went hungry at some point last year, and what are we going to do about it?

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