In Which the Class War Is Alive and Well

I do not like Nicholas Kristof, the journalist, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, and member of the New York Times editorial board. I tell you this not because I expect you to care necessarily, but merely to get my biases out in the open. Given that his history is one of defending injustice and exploiting people in poverty all across the world through the pages of possibly the most influential news source in that world, it’s one of my greatest pet peeves that he is so fawned over by so many liberals. This time, however, instead of cheering sanctions that harm the poor across the oceans, or bashing unions for wanting basic utilities and support, where he usually takes his tourism, he’s brought his usual offensive, patronizing language back home to the United States.

In his Sunday column, Kristof tells the story of how he went down south to Breathitt County, Kentucky, and found a community of people who depend strongly on Supplemental Security Income, a program benefiting eight million Americans who are aged, disabled, or impoverished to such a degree that they cannot operate in society without the assistance. This is a program which helps, albeit insufficiently due to the half-hearted way in which America cares for its neediest, the most marginalized people, the citizens and aliens who have near nothing to call their own. These are not the middle class people being argued over by Republicans and Democrats on the campaign trail and in Congress, the ones who they swear they’re working to fix the huge and terrifying fiscal cliff that they have made up. These are the true poor of this country, the working classes and severely poor that both sides are too scared to talk about for fear that they might remind the wider public that they exist.

Kristof, though, manages to miss the point entirely in his analysis, committing a classic case of correlation not implying causation. He makes the case that American conservatives have a point after all, that being that our social welfare system can cause people to become entrenched in bureaucracy. However, as you might imagine, he also manages to indulge in that finest of right wing pastimes, that being to call poor people lazy.

“Some young people here don’t join the military (a traditional escape route for poor, rural Americans) because it’s easier to rely on food stamps and disability payments.

In short, Mr. Kristof believes that in our country it is easier to live on food stamps and a $700 check every month than to join the military. He goes on to refer to the people of Breathitt County as being greedy welfare queens, deliberately sabotaging their children’s schooling to keep all that government money for themselves, while characterizing those same children’s learning disorders as being “fuzzy” and “less clear-cut” than previous generations, completely erasing any conversation on the appalling state of mental health care for the poor in our country. Amongst his other appalling claims, possibly the biggest problem is that he wrote this entire column based on nothing but hearsay, apparently from a single source, and, quite simply, the facts are not on his side. For instance, from the Center for Economic and Policy Research:

In the real world, these two things — basic economic supports for low-income parents caring for severely disabled children and educational initiatives — are complementary. As Rebecca Vallas and I have documented, in papers for the National Academy of Social Insurance and the Center for American Progress, the data show that Supplemental Security reduces family economic insecurity and supports parents’ efforts to best care for their severely disabled children.

Angus Johnston decided to do the thing that the man Bill Clinton called the greatest journalist in America completely forgot to do, and actually read the stats on Supplemental Security from the Social Security Administration. He found the following facts about the 1.1% of children who depend on SSI:

  • Fewer than thirty percent live with both parents.
  • Half live in a household with at least one other person with a disability.
  • Almost seventy percent saw a doctor three or more times in the last year.
  • Nearly half visited an emergency room at least once in the last year.
  • More than half have a disability described as “severe.”
  • Forty-three percent have a physical disability.
  • Eight percent are described as mentally retarded.
  • Seventeen percent have had surgery in the last year.
  • Among teenagers, nineteen percent are unable to bathe themselves.
  • Thirty-six percent of those requiring mental health care are not receiving it.
  • Seventy-four percent of guardians reporting a need for respite care are not receiving it.
  • A quarter of those needing disability-specific transportation assistance are not receiving it.
  • Their average total family income from all sources is $1,818 a month.

In short, Kristof, writing for the mighty New York Times, has created a column that is little more than unsupported drivel. He bases his argument for the ending of one of the few programs that helps the severely underpriviliged in this country on no evidence whatsoever, and characterizes those he apparently wants to help in incredibly patronizing and romantic tones that erase their agency. The fact that this man has such a respected voice in our national press, and that with this kind of blatant disregard for facts and for the very people he reports on, is shameful. And frankly, to call Kristof or the New York Times as a whole “liberal” any more is simply laughable.

Rather than simply leave on a depressing note on how the corporate media is out of touch and does not serve the people, we should take this column as a teaching moment. This piece shouldn’t be shunted into the background; rather, it should be used as a primary document to instruct others on what privilege and blatant disregard for those less fortunate looks like. Here, we see that misinformation about and disdain for the voiceless is very much alive and well, even among supposedly left wing people. Classism is not a right wing phenomenon, and we must remember, with this column as Exhibit A, to remain vigilantly skeptical, especially among those who might seem to be our allies.

One, two, three, four, I declare a class war.

Resistance is a Personal Act: Egos, Levinas, and an Ethical World

Recently, I had an interaction in the comments section on a supposedly skepticism-based blogging site, on the particular part owned by a man with appalling facial hair who writes inane, pretentious blather about how bad “females” and social justice is. If you don’t know who this is, I am very jealous of you.

The reason why I commented there at all was because this person, who is, according to his blog, studying to be a mental health counselor, had posted about being an observer at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, as part of a graduate course, and his evaluation of them revealed that he was, to say the least, unfit to ever be a counselor. He focused not on the AA attendees’ desires to beat their addiction, but on how uncomfortable he found the religious aspects of that meeting. He made the meetings all about him, and his beliefs, treating those he observed like test subjects and not human beings; when I pointed out this latter fact to him, he was bemused at the possibility of not treating human beings like lab rats.

What this man did was erase people’s agency because he thought they were odd. He treated their use of religious language as, essentially, being indicative of mental illness, which any thinking person knows is horseshit.

I’m not interested in picking apart this vacuous blogger’s point of view, however. That’s a lost cause, unfortunately. What I would rather do is share a personal narrative about how caring, and treating people decently, can make the most important difference.

It has now been more than ten years since I was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor, which, despite not being cancerous, had grown large enough where, had it continued unchecked, would have killed me in a few days’ time. And that nearly happened, because after two weeks of having migraines, when my mother took me to the doctor to schedule a CAT scan, the MD we saw refused to do so. They treated me like a number, someone whose concerns didn’t matter enough to have a simple test done. Fortunately, my mother isn’t the type to take no for an answer, and I got the surgery I needed thanks to her persistence and my privilege in having parents with jobs that provided excellent health insurance.

Since that time, I’ve gone back to the same hospital, to the same doctors, dozens of times for checkups and, seven years ago, another surgery and a round of radiation treatment. At every step along the way, I have been treated like someone who matters. Not just my doctors, but the nurses, technicians, and other staff who have been a part of my treatment have been kind, understanding, and helpful, answering every single question my mother and I asked, of which, as you might imagine, there were many.

This simple fact of having my agency and intelligence respected along the way is, I think, one of the most important aspects of why I have recovered as well as I have. These things may seem trivial to those who have been taught that what matters most is reason and rationality, and that emotions are pesky things for the weak, but how we treat our fellow human beings makes a huge difference in not just our sensibilities, but in how we make other people feel. And that latter part is essential, if we want to live ethical lives.

What do I mean by this? I must indulge in a slight bit of philosophy to explain. My conception of ethics is formulated largely from the work of the Lithuanian philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who could be described, I think, as being subject to a Woody Allen-esque kind of neurosis; his ethical system is the product of an unceasing worry about how I move through the world. Whereas someone like Hegel was perfectly satisfied with the inability to truly know another or to understand fully the nature of my own actions, Levinas has none of that confidence. Ethics, for him, arises in the question of the ego as it relates to alterity, or a questioning, of my self-consciousness. In essence, because we are not able to quantify exactly what makes us who we are, we can never be sure what we are doing is right or not.

Thus for Levinas, ethics is not an obligation to public service, as in Kant, or the result of self-understanding in Hegel, but a critique, an access to consciousnesses of other humans; but, whereas Hegel and Kant believe they can relate to others to a certain degree, for Levinas, others cannot be comprehended, at least, never in their entirety. Yet, we find ourselves completely in thrall to others; it is always to other human beings to which we have our sense of duty, but we can never know truly what we must do to fulfill that duty; furthermore, we know that we can never fulfill that obligation. Our moral lot in life is, to use Simon Critchley’s terminology, to be subject for our entire existence to an infinitely demanding ethical subjectivity to which our debt can never be paid. Such an utter lack of surety naturally leads to a nervousness, a neuroses, which, for Levinas, dominates all day-to-day interaction.

In plainer language, then, I wish to formulate an ethics wherein our obligations are to the bettering of the world and ending of all systems of oppression. Though Levinas is certainly not perfect, it is his system that allows me to best conceive of this on a theoretical and practical level; other more academic conceptions, like those I briefly mentioned by Kant and Hegel,  are removed from the practical concerns of the everyday world, which I believe, is an ethical wrong; I fail to see the relevance of philosophy that is not done to make a difference in how the world works. This is the power of Levinas for me; that he knows that we shall never truly comprehend our fellow human beings and yet he will never cease trying; what is inherent to Levinas that is missing from Kant and Hegel is the graft, the struggle, the endless grasping for betterment. Being ethical relies on the effort expended by us, not by mere theorizing.

We should always be seeking to improve the world around us. That should start with those we interact with on a day to day basis. Whether we see them around campus every day or only know one another through the internet, having respect for our fellows, regardless of beliefs, is the kind of action that begats goodness. When we do this, and interact not purely based on our own minds, but taking in the concerns of struggles of our fellows, we create a resistance with the power to accomplish great things.

This post is a bit haphazard, I think, but my point is that change is made by us, on a personal level. When we shut up inside ourselves, and believe our consciousnesses to be the only ones that matter, like the blogger I wrote about at the start of this post, all we do is cause harm. The doctor who refused to schedule a simple test thought this way, and nearly caused me great harm. The common denominator of all harm is a lack of engagement with the greater consciousness of the population. It is only by caring for one another, taking each other’s beliefs into account, and having a true discussion based on evidence and respect, and ruthlessly checking our own assumptions a la Levinas that we will have a just world. This must happen everywhere, in everything we do, to make this world one where injustice ceases to exist.