Tuesday, December 16, 2014

They Say Christmas Is About Jesus

On my way down Conner Street, a man standing on the corner in front of the Judicial Center was illuminated in my headlights. He held a sign that read, “Christmas is about Jesus.”

I smiled sadly. I’ve grown cynical about those trying to enforce what this time of year is “really all about.” But I also realize it’s no small matter to stand in the rain in the dark flashing a religious placard at people, so I want to think he’s sincere. Yet, what he means by “Jesus” may not be what I’m thinking of.

As I drove on, the man and his sign disappearing in the rear view mirror, I thought about the self-satisfied Christians I see around me, those who want to talk endlessly about Jesus and yet eagerly and smugly spout half-truths and myths about the poor. That hateful disconnect gnaws at me this time of year.

A lot of people want to talk about Jesus but aren’t much interested in his teachings about the poor. It’s an inconvenient truth to be glossed over while we think about redemption.

Scanning the talking heads on 24-hour news channels in recent years it was easy to find the indignant, teeth-gritting insistence that welfare recipients be drug-tested. The underlying suggestion: “They’re all lazy drug users, right? They’re not getting my money to spend on drugs!” Never mind that states that have tested found relatively few drug abusers and cost taxpayers far more than was saved by creating a bureaucracy to administer the tests.

Yet, another class of welfare recipient is let off the hook. Every time you buy food or drink in a restaurant in the greater Indianapolis area you’re paying a tax for Lucas Oil Stadium. Do we drug test the millionaires profiting from those government handouts? Jim Irsay? Andrew Luck? The Lucas family? Our farmers also take welfare checks, the checks we’ve given the clean name, “farm subsidy.” Why aren’t we drug testing all of these people? They take government handouts just as surely as welfare recipients.

We might have scared Jim Irsay straight and actually saved taxpayers some money if he were forced to reimburse us some of our tax dollars with his millions.

Funny that once somebody has money in their pocket we stop asking questions. The Jesus I read about didn’t. He started by doubting the people with money. I’m disheartened that our secular impulse to hate the poor gets disconnected from our belief that Christmas needs to be about a guy who urged us to love the poor.

Maybe it’s because most people don’t know that the average family taking government assistance has at least one adult working full time – but that job doesn’t pay enough to live on. Yet we feel free to hold their feet to the fire, casting them as lazy and suspected drug users while ignoring our farming and football welfare queens.

In the angry, carefully manufactured political emails that slither into my inbox, I still hear welfare recipients stereotyped as the black inner city welfare queen who wears a fur and drives to the grocery in her Cadillac to buy cigarettes, booze and birth control with her food stamps.

When you discover how easy it is to prove so many of these stereotypes wrong, you realize that people don’t believe it accidentally, they’re not simply mistaken, they WANT to believe these things. I guess most of the white, middle class Christians sending me these hateful emails don’t realize that the average welfare recipient isn’t black and inner city, but in fact white and rural.

Hoosier humorist Kin Hubbard once wrote, “It’s no disgrace to be poor; but it might as well be.” If Jesus was on Twitter, I bet he’d sound a lot like Kin Hubbard.

Of course most Christians care about the needy, offering assistance through their churches, Habitat for Humanity, and many, many other organizations. Still I puzzle over the anti-poor undercurrent found mostly in our political debates.

As I scan social media, I routinely find little memes like the one at right posted by good Christian folks. It’s got about it what Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness;” sounds like it’s true, but it isn’t.

For over 30 years America has been redistributing wealth – from low and middle-income workers to those at the top.

Those at the top of U.S companies – who in most cases do not own the companies they work for, continue to pay themselves and their colleagues more and more and more, while whittling away at pay and benefits for those at the bottom, lobbying against unions, and against having to pay their fair share of taxes. And this is so enshrined as a supposed moral foundation, if point it out you’ll be accused of class warfare.

You can’t multiply wealth by dividing it? That’s precisely what America did in the 1950s – you know, in the “good ‘ol days,” when the wealthy paid more than 90% of their income in taxes and union membership was high. It was a time when the difference between a CEO’s income and that of an entry-level worker was much smaller than it is today. Much, much smaller.

And the economy boomed. And the middle class grew.

The author of this twisted list of 5 “truths,” and the endless number of folks who shared it on their Facebook walls must not be aware that the average welfare recipient takes welfare for a relatively short period of time and doesn’t in fact live on it their whole life. Some do, but that’s not the norm.

And the notion that half of the public believes, “they do not have to work because the other half is going to take care of them,” is astonishing in its arrogance. In that 50% of Americans are the elderly who spent their lives paying into social security and are now drawing it (and still paying taxes), active duty soldiers and vets getting promised pay their earned by protecting us (and still paying taxes), and people getting unemployment benefits after paying unemployment insurance taxes for years (and still paying taxes).

I was told once that figures can lie and liars can figure. It’s one of the truest things I ever heard.

When your hatred gets so strong you lump the elderly, the soldier and the laid-off worker into a bundle with the few who truly scam the system, well, you’re an overachiever, though not a very admirable one.

But, don’t forget, “Jesus is the reason for the season!”

This blind hatred of the poor is what makes me sad when people say, “Christmas is about Jesus,” because so many of them also refuse to embrace Jesus’ message about the poor, instead happy to cast the poor in the ugliest of lights, holding up the extreme worst and pretending it’s the norm.

In a graduation speech in 1978, Hoosier bard Kurt Vonnegut said, “It is a tragedy, perhaps, that human beings can get so much energy and enthusiasm from hate. If you want to feel ten feet tall and as though you could run a hundred miles without stopping, hate beats pure cocaine any day. Hitler resurrected a beaten, bankrupt, half-starved nation with pure hatred and nothing more. Imagine that.”

It is not helping the poor that will be the end of any nation, it is hatred.

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Friday, December 5, 2014

Temptations Of An Addict

I was 13 years old and raking leaves in the front yard with my father on a Sunday afternoon in late October. A man who looked to have started his day dressed for church trudged down the sidewalk with a sport coat draped over his arm, his collar open, necktie pulled loose and one tail of his shirt hung over his belt. He stopped and asked, “Do you know anywhere in this town I can get gas, even just a couple gallons to get me to my next stop?”

My dad’s shoulders slumped. He was having an internal struggle with competing motives–one selfish, one altruistic. He’d been hoarding gasoline in 5-gallon cans in the garage to protect his commute to Kokomo and he’d told no-one he had it–didn’t want others begging in just this sort of situation. But he would not leave this wayward salesman stranded. There was not a single gas station open in our town, and besides, gas was scarce. “I’ll sell you 5 gallons,” my dad said.  “Aww, Jeezus! Thank you,” the man said. They muscled a gas can into my dad’s trunk and drove off to wherever the salesman’s car and its empty tank had coasted.

When you’re raised in a country where folks feel entitled to gluttony and gross consumption–so much so that you didn’t even recognize it as a problem until a moment of depravation, you remember the scarcity. But in the years since, I’ve often felt like I was the only one who remembered.

Weeks earlier, Middle Eastern oil producing countries (OPEC) had declared an embargo on oil sales to the U.S., and there we were with our pants down, everyone, and I mean absolutely everyone, driving big gas-guzzling cars. Who was tooled-up for making fuel-efficient cars? Japan. The handful of years ahead would see a painful revolution in the economy around my little town.

The once untouchable American automakers staggered and gasped for air along the ropes like an aging, overweight prizefighter in the ring with a young, smart, chin-jabbing upstart. My father’s and my brother’s jobs relied on the auto industry, as did a close aunt’s and uncle’s. Our town had a fire truck and piston ring factory, and those close relatives drove to Kokomo everyday working for Chrysler and Delco.

Some people blamed the government. Others blamed auto company bigwigs. Some blamed the unions. Nobody blamed themselves.

Because of that oil crisis and another 6 years later, the decade ahead was marked by economic, employment, financial, and daily living upheaval across the country. Everyone began driving smaller cars, dropping their ceilings and lowering the thermostat to save energy, moving closing to work to shorten their commute and taking vacations closer to home.

In my first year of college I wrote a poem for an English class. I still recall some of the lines:

If I die on foreign soil,
Will you remember me?
If I die for foreign oil,
Will you drive a mile for me?

But Reagan got elected and loved on oil producers and murderous dictators in the Middle East. In the years ahead when things got hot in Iran or Iraq, our navy reflagged oil tankers and escorted them through the Persian Gulf at the cost of tens of billions of tax dollars, masking the true cost of oil. It showed up in our taxes, but not at the pump.

And that useful time Americans spent in oil-rehab in the late ‘70s–that time spent learning to conserve and save money and clean our environment was squandered. We went back to big cars and our gluttonous habits like a heroin addict fresh from the Betty Ford Center, yet once again with a needle in his arm – the pusher soothing us that we had a right to muscle cars and big trucks–even if just for a commute. “C’mon. We’re fuckin’ Americans!”

In the years since, gas prices have soared and collapsed in irregular cycles. During the soaring we buy more fuel-efficient cars and curse the oil companies for their greed and whoever is in the White House for their incompetence. During the collapses we’re in mindless ecstasy, like a food-deprived dieter on a milk shake and french fry binge, and buy extended-cab trucks and urban assault vehicles as if there’ll be no price to pay. We’ve gone to war against dictators and crawled in bed with brutal bastards in countries with oil, claiming it’s for high-minded reasons. But somehow we seldom apply our “high-mindedness” to countries that have no oil.

Even if the average American doesn’t notice, the rest of the world does. It’s why they either blatantly hate our fucking guts, or simply don’t like us, or at best, only mistrust us, much as friends and family of addicts don’t trust them, even when they’re on the wagon. You never know when they’ll go off the rails again and start stealing and betryaing to get their fix.

And here we are again at a pivot point. Our country is producing oil at a 20-year high, natural gas at an all-time high and alternative fuels at an all-time high. The price of oil is in free fall and we just elected a new congress whose campaign funding came in barrels from energy producers.

They, and our impulses, want us to consume.

We’ve made some impressive headway in producing and using energy more wisely – in a way that could start to turn the corner on global warming and keep our current environment healthier. We’ve started to do it in a way that considers the world our kids and grandkids will inherit, as opposed to our usual, selfish, immediate reflex to go back to the way things used to be. A smart person would say of the collapse in oil prices, “I will not be taken in by this temporary reprieve. I will stay the course to a different life, free of these relentless, destructive, booms and busts.”

But what I’ve seen since that warm October day in 1973 leaves me cynical. I am not hopeful. I call myself “The Contrarian” for a reason. I would not be surprised if we leave the wind turbines to rust in the fields, bulldoze the solar panels to make way for bigger parking lots, and turn Prius drivers into the butt of our jokes (if they’re not already), and then buy even bigger, more ridiculous cars. And then of course, when prices go back up because of our staggering overuse, we’ll blame the oil companies and the government.

Couldn’t be our fault.