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The Help and social justice

I saw The Help again tonight, and it has me up late thinking thinky thoughts.

In particular I was touched by a series of scenes involving one of Hilly's maids arrested for stealing. The maid has twin sons and though she and her husband have been saving for years toward the tuition, they're about $75 short. They're faced with the real possibility of having to only send one. And Hilly refuses because God doesn't give charity to the able-bodied. She sits there among fine china and a table full of food and says this like she's doing the maid a favor. Later in the movie, the maid finds a ring and pockets it, and then is arrested in a truly humiliating way. Even the other maids are manhandled by the police, and Hilly's maid is beaten because she demands her purse.

All of this to send her sons to college.

Now, of course theft is wrong. But so is a world as unequal as this, and as prone to abuse. (The movie ends with one maid being accused of theft and almost arrested - and definitely losing the job that had given her life meaning - because of her role in writing a book about her experience.) The maids make less than minimum wage, with no sick days or paid vacations or health insurance. There's very little justice, but there is a lot of self-righteousness from the inner circle of the Junior League - Hilly's decision about what is best for her maid's children, and her decision that the Afro-Americans of Jackson would be all excited about a charity drive to fight starvation in Africa, for instance.

What really drove this point home to me, though, was a sign I saw walking home, for a college loan foundation. It had an Afro-American staring up in rapt curiosity at floating chemical symbols. And I was actually reduced to tears, because I care deeply about education. I actually think university education through the bachelors degree at a state school is basically a right, given good enough grades and work ethic and all. It really shouldn't depend on family finances. It does, of course. And loans is not always the answer. But I was moved by how much better it was, to give all families a decent way to finance an education if need be so they don't have to depend on charity. Loans, for all their imperfection, don't put someone else in charge of a decision that should be yours. Charity does. I actually teared up a bit at seeing that sign.

I really hope people will remember this when we think about politics. Because politics matters. To bring down the debt you cut back spending, and the argument seems to be that if the government does not provide things and there's less taxes collected people will give more to charity. Problem is, charity means some individual gets to decide if you get the money you need. Charity is no replacement for a society where there's an even enough distribution of resources so a hard-working couple who save up for a decade can actually afford to send a child to college. Two of them, even, because sometimes the working poor have kids. If you make reasonably good choices and still can't meet a reasonable level of expenses - well, it's not charity you need. It's justice.

I'm not saying that the government gets everything right. Far from it. But But this idea that if we just let private charity take over everything would be hunky-dory? Well, charity is great for a crunch. Charity is better than the lack thereof. But it's also more than a bit insulting, and it's no replacement for a fiar and well-regulated society. Today kind of drove that home.

This entry was originally posted at http://fidesquaerens.dreamwidth.org/4982.html. Please comment there using OpenID.

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