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)


  1. Part 1 of maybe 3. :-)
    Very nice piece, as usual, Bob. I have a couple of comments to add, if you don't mind. One, I actually have the picture we took of that thatched Mayan house with the television antenna sticking out! I can't put my hands on it immediately, but I know it is among the boxes and boxes of photos I have that have never made it into an album.
    Secondly, I have a teacher friend who took a leave of absence for a year about five years ago so she could go and live with and care for her grandmother who lived in Kentucky. While she was there, she was able to get a Job as a high school English teacher in a local school. Her grandmother's house was basic, but decent by any standards-indoor plumbing, cold and hot water, electricity that was reliable so there was a refrigerator and the other basic appliances we definitely see as necessities today, including a television.
    But this was not the case for many of my friend's students. Quite a few of them came from the outlying areas (I don't remember exactly what town she was near, but it was some distance from any large urban area and in the Ohio River Valley), places where people have lived for hundreds of years with no running water, no electricity, no access to routine health care. My friend wrote to me that she could not believe such conditions still existed in the U. S. Her students were malnourished, were missing teeth because of no fluoridated water supply. In fact, there was no running water in these children's homes. The water truck made deliveries twice a week and water was used only for cooking and the occasional bath....Definitely no welfare queens here. These people were poor, so poor that a middle class school teacher from Riverside was shocked beyond belief at finding such conditions still existing in the U. S.

  2. Pt.2 of 3....
    And lastly, in my last five years of teaching, I was at the Continuation High School. This is the school where kids go when they have turned 16 and are so short of credits that they have virtually no chance of graduation on time. Our program is called "credit recovery". I knew that this population of students existed, but as a regular classroom teacher, I assumed that most of the kids who left the comprehensive high school for the C school were just kids who had messed up in ninth and tenth grades and now needed to catch up. Boy was I wrong......while their were a variety of kids and families and problems, one common theme rang through most of the families. They were poor. They were maybe above the poverty line set by the government (which is ridiculously low if you live in California). Kids wore the same clothes to school, day after day. They literally did not have the money for pencils and paper. They were all free lunch eligible and most of them took it. There were lots of kids living with poor grandparents because mom and/or dad were lost to drugs or prison. There were lots of kids in foster care. There were several kids living with elderly relatives in seedy motel rooms-when they had enough money. But, like Tracy says, almost all these kids homes had TV's. And you know what? That didn't make them any less poorer in the real sense of the word. They lived lives that were still so deprived, so far away from the wealth of amenities that we grew up with and that Tracy grew up with, that it is unimaginable. The point I am trying to make here is that it is not irresponsible for poor people to have a television. Like you said, it is almost a necessity in today's world and one that allows them a moment's reprieve from the hardness of their lives.

  3. Part 3 or 3 (Yay! She's done!)
    Their are other things that this kind of poverty does as well. It perpetuates itself. These kids did not just start messing up in school in 9th grade. Their entire school life has been negatively affected because of their poverty. Their attendance, beginning in kindergarten is irregular because the 5th or 6th grader to whose care they have been entrusted, is not able to do all the things expected of them. They miss a lot of school, too. There is often no one at home when these young kids get home. They fend for themselves at a very young age. And the choices they often make are poor ones because they, like most of us, mimic what they have seen and learned at is a cycle of poverty and ignorance and it is tremendously hard to break. It is not a moral failure in any way. These kids and there families are not slackers trying to game the system. They are human beings deserving of the same respect and the same value that we give to billionaires who try to buy elections.
    I am afraid that some of our conservative friends have a hard hearted streak...a sort of coldness toward people in general and that we liberals are sort of the opposite. We love everybody. We feel sympathy for almost everyone-probably the only people we don't sympathize with are the worst child molesters or murders. But even there, we don't want to put those people to death...... Tony thinks it is basically a personality trait, that some people are just born to be conservative, to the right, if you will; they are born to want to believe that they are being ripped off, or the system is being ripped off in some way and that IT HAS GOT TO STOP!. And there are some people born to look at the same things and say, "So?". Maybe the system is being ripped off and maybe it is not, but if it is, it just doesn't bother us so much, we don't feel personally offended by it. I do think that we left wingers have a generosity of spirit that is lacking on the right....
    I don't want you or anyone else to think I am talking about personal relationships. In those areas, right or left, our friends and family who differ from us politically are just as kind, just as giving, just as sharing and warm. We embrace each other as friends and family wholeheartedly and we would do anything for each other....But in the big political picture we just see the world in very, very different ways.....

  4. Good comments, Deb. I think there is truth to the "some people are born conservative or liberal" idea. In fact, the Wall Street Journal had an article recently describing experiments that revealed specific psychological dispositions typical of libertarians that overrode class and other economic factors.

  5. As a person who has lived in poverty I can give some insight to people having TVs. Its quite easy these days to get one. Lets see, the 25 in. TV I had when my kids were younger I found for free in a wealthy neighborhood when garage sales were going on. I also used to scour second hand stores, garage sales, auctions. Actually, I don't think I have paid more then 20 bucks for a TV through my entire adult life. The nicest one I have had was my parents hand me down. In other words, its easy to sit on the outside and point fingers. Ah ha! They can't really be poor, they have a television, a cell phone, a decent pair of shoes! When looking from the outside in, with no facts making a judgment call in a few seconds is an easy thing to do.