fidesquaerens (marta_bee) wrote,

We are the 66%

Over at FB, Gwynnyd and I have been discussing my "noble lie" post, and she has me thinking about several things I'll probably write a post about later. But I'm also in the middle of grading student term papers, and it's not fair for me to do heavy-duty thinking about the very topic several of them are writing about - it puts me in a mindframe that makes it harder for them to satisfy me on that topic than other students writing about other topics. So I'm going to put off that topic for a few days.

In the mean time, there is is something else that's been bugging me, and it's more politics than philosophy. Actually quite appropriate for Thanksgiving, now that I think about it. It all starts with my new favorite song: "I Need a Dollar" by Aloe Blacc

YouTube /// MP3 /// Spotify

I discovered it shortly after the album came out through Spotify, but the song has gotten more wide exposure through a cell phone commercial:

For those who can't see the video on YouTube (sometimes that site doesn't play well with non-Americans, which is why I posted an MP3 of the song above; but I can't download video for some reason): the concept is based off of the complaint to a cell phone company, how many jobs do you need to afford a cell phone? The commercial shows this guy working a variety of low-salary jobs (UPS guy, office grunt, taxi-driver, construction worker, etc.) ending with him using his phone in a moment of peace. Now, if you heed a half-dozen jobs to earn a $15 difference in price each month, those are some truly crappy jobs. But that's not the point. As I take it, the commercial is asking how many jobs you need to pay for a comfortable middle-class (even lower-middle-class) lifestyle, including a cell phone?

The trouble is, that's not really the story being told by the song. It's a kind of modern-day ballad, and there is a story to it. It's about a guy who's having some serious problems because he's lost his job:

I had a job but the boss man let me go
He said, I'm sorry but I won't be needing your help no more
I said, Please mister boss man I need this job more than you know
But he gave me my last paycheck and he sent me on out the door

The man goes through some hard times and eventually falls into substance abuse:

What in the world am I gonna to do tomorrow
is there someone whose dollar that I can borrow
Who can help me take away my sorrow
Maybe its inside the bottle
Maybe its inside the bottle

I had some good old buddy his names is whiskey and wine
And for my good old buddy i spent my last dime
My wine is good to me it helps me pass the time
and my good old buddy whiskey keeps me warmer than the sunshine

I know that some Americans bristle at the "undeserving" poor getting their tax-dollars. I tend to look at at it a bit differently and think that it's not really about deserving but about need. That's a bigger debate for a day when people aren't up to their elbows in turkey gizzard, I guess (I don't want to put a downer on peoples' holiday), but even allowing there's room for legitimate difference of opinion there, I think this song illustrates something quite well. Lots of people who are destitute are on drugs/booze, but that's not because they're bad people - it's because they're in awful situations that might drive anyone to drown out their troubles.

What breaks my heart every time I hear this is the bridge, the opening words:

I need a dollar dollar, a dollar is what I need
Well I need a dollar dollar, a dollar is what I need
And I said I need dollar dollar, a dollar is what I need
And if I share with you my story would you share your dollar with me?

Emphasis is mine here. It's the idea that a person who is obviously suffering

Well I don't know if I'm walking on solid ground
Cause everything around me is falling down
And all I want - is for someone - to help me

but he feels the need to justify it. I live in New York, I'm a pedestrian, I get panhandlers. They can break your heart, and if you don't lock it away they can irritate you when all you want is to enjoy a bit of fun (even just a sandwich at Subway after a long week's work) without having someone come in and ask for money to get some food. And if you really were hungry, I can see why you say whatever you can to get the money. But someone suffering shouldn't have to do that. The fact that they're suffering, while I can afford to eat out every now and then should be enough to give me pause.

I'm thinking about this not only because of the song, but because of a story coming out of Champaign, IL. TL;DR version: video was posted to the public showing an arrest of someone for... resisting arrest. And jaywalking, I think. To be fair, comments I read in an article put out by the local paper make it sound like Champaign is having quite a problem with robbery, lower-class teenagers refusing to get out of the street and generally making problems. So there may be more going on here that makes this situation a little less outrageous. But the thing is, the cops doing the arresting used pepper-spray on the arrestees. And it's making a bit of a splash because of that.

If you've been following news on the Occupy movement, you may have heard of the video shot at UC-Davis where police used pepper spray when they were trying to clear out students who were camping on that university's quad. Again, I could go into the details of that case more and look at whether the policeman's actions were at all justifiable. (I tend to think that the use of dehabilitating, sometimes-fatal chemicals on unarmed citizens, whatever the situation, is always wrong; but I'm something of a pacifist so take that for what it's worth.) What does interest me is this: the Champaign case really only came out after the UC-Davis one. People got upset about the affront to middle-class citizens first, and then the attack on lower-class ones followed.

It's a familiar story. Look at the outrage over TSA airport scanners, compared to outrage over Arabs getting rigorously interrogated. Or look at the outrage over college-graduate unemployment, compared to unemployment in the general populace, or the awful access to benefits and social service among the working poor. I'm as guilty of this as anyone else, for the record. I try to give to charity and work for those that need help, but I also like my creature comforts. Tomorrow I'm cooking lunch at a DV shelter - but then that night I'm going to see a movie in a posh section of Manhattan. My movie ticket, transportation, popcorn, and coffee afterward will probably come close to the food stamps value for a week's worth of food, and I feel like I am "owed" the extravagance after several hard days' work of grading papers. Of course we all care about what affects us most.

But I think it is timely to think about the other guys, as well. Maybe that's something worth being thankful for, that you are not in the social groups that can be pepper-sprayed and society doesn't usually get up in arms about. And then we can move past being aware of how fortunate that makes us, to doing something about it. What that something is, is a tough question - I have no easy answers! - but I think just being committed to the need for action is the first-step.

(And this doesn't even touch on the plight of the poor in the Third World! That's a whole other story. :^( Good God, what a world...)

ETA: The statistic in the subject line comes from a Wikipedia article on the American middle class, which says "Depending on class model used, the middle class may constitute anywhere from 25% to 66% of households." It's supposed to be a riff on the "We are the 99%" meme. And I suppose, like all good (or not) jokes, if you have to explain it, you really shouldn't make it. *g*

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Tags: holidays, politics
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