The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Othering the Poor

Charles Blow has a strong column in today's NYT. While I agree with his political analysis, though, I think the most important point he makes transcends partisan politics and deserves to be looked at separately:
But another problem may be more broad-based: the way that many Americans look at the poor with disgust.

As Susan Fiske, a Princeton professor who has studied people’s attitudes toward the poor for more than a decade, told me on Friday:

“The stereotypes of poor people in the United States are among the most negative prejudices that we have. And people basically view particularly homeless people as having no redeeming qualities — there’s not the competence for anything, not having good intentions and not being trustworthy.”

Fiske’s research shows that people respond not only to the poor and homeless with revulsion, but they also react negatively to people they perceive as undocumented immigrants — essentially anyone without an address.

If some people’s impulse is to turn up a nose rather than extend a hand, no wonder we send so many lawmakers empty of empathy to Congress. No wonder more people don’t demand that Congress stand up for the least among us rather than on them.

As Fiske so aptly put it: “It seems like Washington is a place without pity right now. A town without pity.”
I am reminded of Mark Twain, specifically of his creation Pap Finn in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Pap Finn is--well, here's a quick summary for you:
Pap Finn in a drunken tirade complains about the U.S. government. Now Pap is what is called “poor white trash.” He is the laziest man on earth. He lives on the charity of others, and if he is forced to earn a dollar he catches a fish on a trot-line—the laziest form of fishing—and trades it for whiskey. (A trot-line consists of a fishing line stretched across a stream with several baited hooks dangling into the water. It is a form of passive fishing. The “fisherman” simply “runs” the trotline every morning by unhooking the catch overnight.) Huck describes Pap’s skin as “fish belly white” because, like a carp or a catfish, he is also a scavenger or bottom-feeder. After he steals Huck and they flee to a cabin across the Mississippi River, he forces Huck to “run” the trotline—the laziest man on earth doesn’t even go to the trouble to unhook the fish.
Here is the drunken tirade:
“Oh, yes, this is a wonderful govment, wonderful. Why, looky here. There was a free nigger there from Ohio—a mulatter, most as white as a white man. He had the whitest shirt on you ever see, too, and the shiniest hat; and there ain't a man in that town that's got as fine clothes as what he had; and he had a gold watch and chain, and a silver-headed cane—the awfulest old gray-headed nabob in the State. And what do you think? They said he was a p'fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages and knowed everything. And that ain't the wust. They said he could vote when he was at home. Well, that let me out. Thinks I, what is the country a-coming to? It was ’lection day, and I was just about to go and vote myself if I warn't too drunk to get there; but when they told me there was a State in this country where they'd let that nigger vote, I drawed out. I says I'll never vote agin. Them's the very words I said; they all heard me; and the country may rot for all me—I'll never vote agin as long as I live. And to see the cool way of that nigger—why, he wouldn't a give me the road if I hadn't shoved him out o' the way.”
I know, reading that language, so casually used--it's shocking today. But note the point Twain is making--Pap Finn occupies the lowest position of the socio-economic hierarchy. But for his race. He has someone to look down on, even though the someone is immeasurably more educated, accomplished and worthwhile than he is. His virulence stems in part from the fact that if he can't look down on the "P'fessor in college," then Pap must confront the truth: He's at the bottom of the scale.

I bring this up, because here's what I think is embedded in the research of Fiske and in Blow's column: We live in a time of profound economic insecurity. Really, we do. And don't look for any sudden improvement. The worldwide shift toward defined benefit retirement plans, and its concomitant negative effects mean that economic insecurity will stretch on for decades, most likely, as (from the first link) "the transition from DB to DC plans in private sector pensions is shifting investment risk from the corporate sector to households. Households are therefore becoming increasingly exposed to financial markets and retirement income may be subject to greater variability." (Love the use of "maybe" there; the underlying assumption of DC that the individual can invest their portion of the retirement fund as skillfully and as intelligently as, y'know, the people whose profession it is to do that--why, how could that go wrong? See Yglesias at the second link for more).

What we have, therefore, is a world in which anxiety, both social and economic, have become dominant threads in the lives of many Americans. And one way people deal with profound anxiety is by convincing themselves that the system works for those who work hard and play by the rules (to use every politician's favorite cliche) even when it is clear that it does no such thing--that there is a significant level of randomness and arbitrariness built in. And to do that, it helps to "other" those who do not make the cut--as Pap Finn "othered" African-Americans, free as well as slave, as all too often, we "other" the poor.

I volunteered in a homeless shelter run by my church for some years. Those who were our guests came form all walks of life--some life-long professionals who had medical issues, some people who had just had appallingly bad luck, and some who made terrible mistakes, but had no safety net but that which we provided. They were us.

And, if we do not pay attention to where our society is headed, instead of rationalizing the problems we have away, we may all too easily be them.

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