Sunday, September 30, 2012

When Liberals and Conservatives Debate...

One of my proudest moments in recent years was seeing my name in David Horowitz's book, "The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America."

However, I was disappointed and resentful that Horowitz didn't include me as one of his "Most Dangerous Professors."  In fact, he barely mentioned me, merely misrepresenting a conversation we had in such a way as to fit his conservative narrative about liberal professors.  I know, I know, I should have gotten over this by now.

I mention this incident because last week I again engaged in a mini-debate with a conservative, but this time not with a well-financed blowhard whose scheme is to bully scholars, but with young Tracy, who is both very bright and very dear to me.  Our discussion (which also included other participants) started with my expressing disgust at the Republican Party's hostility to democracy as shown in its efforts to suppress the votes of minorities and poor people.  Tracy's objections included the idea that poor people aren't really so poor that a small registration fee should pose a problem for them, since a survey she cited had shown that over 60% of poor households in America had 2 to 4 televisions.

Leaving the GOP-suppression-of-democracy issue aside for the moment, I'd like to consider the way perceptions of "what's going on with poor people" starkly divide liberals from conservatives.  The conservative image is somewhat reminiscent of Ronald Reagan's old claim (the one whose significance he totally made up) about a welfare queen who "...has eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards and is collecting veteran's benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She's got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000." Reagan's implied message: "This typical welfare case shows why we have to end our current system."

OK, this was a bald, conservative lie designed to reinforce voters' prejudices against poor people, especially African-American poor people.  Shame on you, Ronald Reagan, for grubbing after votes by promoting bigotry with this outrageous misinformation.

But the television-rich-households-of-poor-people story is not so easily dismissed as is the welfare queen myth, being based, as it is, on real and responsible research.  The question for me then comes down to, "What do these televisions mean?"

As a liberal, my instinctive reaction to Tracy's data was to come up with possible explanations: "How many of these households comprise families foreclosed on, who bought their TVs in better days?  Or, how many are single-parent households, where a recently divorced or abandoned mother with a couple of kids still has the household detritus from better times?"  And so on.  The point is, my liberal instincts told me I had to hold on to my image of poor people: these fellow citizens are desperate and in need of support despite their television inventory.

Tracy's conservative instincts, I'm pretty sure, told her to hold onto the conservative narrative of "poor" people as essentially gaming the system by looking for good times at the taxpayers' expense while enjoying a relatively comfortable lifestyle.

One reason these debates go on year after year is that each side clings to a justifying narrative.  Evidence that contradicts each narrative, even when presented by respectable sources, as was the "television-and-poor-people" study, needs to be somehow "tamed" so that it doesn't threaten the preconceived, politically appropriate narrative.

And yet, I still see poor people, despite their access to Honey Boo Boo and other glories of American TV culture, as hard-pressed.  I have a number of reasons for this.  One is my recognition that television has become, not exactly a necessity, but a near necessity in contemporary life.  I first took note of this while doing fieldwork among Maya Indians in the Yucatan about 40 years ago.  My Maya friends in the village of Pustunich were poor, no doubt about that.  Buying a soft drink for most of them was kind of a luxury.  And yet I was astonished one evening as I strolled down a village path, to come across a thatched hut through whose open door I could clearly see and hear a television - and looking up, sure enough, I saw an antenna poking through the thatching of the hut's roof.  That's an image I'll never forget, a loud and lively television program blaring out of an otherwise darkened Maya thatched hut.  (The other thing I'll never forget was my Maya friends telling me, "Beware the Ides of 2012!" but I don't know what was up with that.)

I drew a specific conclusion about television at that time: "As soon as people can scrape together a few dollars in this twentieth-century world, the first thing they want - even before a refrigerator or a motor scooter - is a television."  This impression has stayed with me ever since, and even been reinforced.  In Hong Kong in the 1970s, I noticed that virtually all of the Chinese families I visited owned televisions, even though many of these families were desperately poor.  One night I was astonished to notice a Chinese squatter family that did not even own a house, but who had thrown together a kind of hodgepodge roof-shelter for themselves in a Kowloon alleyway, watching television in the open air of their dark-alley home.

I think that for people in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, television is the equivalent of a window on the world.  To not have access to TV feels like living in a windowless room cut off from any knowledge of the world outside.

All of this is connected to my sense (as a liberal) that poor people are bad off, even when they have televisions.  To really settle the question of what the meaning of two or more televisions in a poor household means might require an ethnographic study.  But short of that, I'm going with the narrative that my liberal instincts tell me makes sense, though, I'm guessing, a conservative's instincts will tell her or him to be leery of television-owning people claiming that their lives are dominated by a desperate struggle for money.

I've lived among poor people in Asia and Latin America, but I've never lived in a truly poor neighborhood in the U.S.  I do know someone, however, who suffered from poverty in their youth to such an extent that the single parent in charge of the household would routinely hide when police came to the door because of the debts owed by that parent.  Life was a struggle in a dozen different ways for this family - a family that was suddenly plunged into poverty because their insurance company declined to cover an expensive and debilitating illness suffered by one of the parents.  But they did have television.  I feel for the children of this family, but should I begrudge them their television entertainment?  Should I tell them they don't deserve food stamps until they sell their television(s) to buy food?  My instincts tell me no, this is not reasonable, but then, my instincts are liberal.  People with different political philosophies may think differently.

           Rural Chinese  Hut with Satellite Dish
                             (from Travellerspoint)