Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Why Do We Criminalize Poverty?

There's been an ugly development in Portland, Oregon. But we live in an age of ugly developments. Our worst instincts are being worked on every day. There's a major network devoted to exploiting our fears and hatreds. So we shouldn't be surprised to read that a masked avenger in Portland, calling himself "Artemis of the Wildland", is urging his neighbors to target the poor and the sick. One of the targets responded in the pages of The Guardian.

People who get aid have to take delivery through a crowd of hateful stares. Why do we do this? We are instructed to, certainly. Goaded into it by right wing media. (Watch "The Five" or "Fox N Friends" on FoxNews and you realize the nastiest bullies and mean girls of your childhood now earn six figure incomes on TV.)

But there must be something in us already. A lot of Americans are dominated by their "lizard brain", the autopilot deep in their heads that reacts to fear and loathing, the part of the primitive brain that caused ancient peoples to stone outsiders and abandon infants if they had red hair.

In difficult times that reptilian way of thinking re-emerges and there are powerful individuals that like to encourage that mindset because primitive, fearful, hateful people are easier to control. They are less likely to help their peers, less likely to organize into unions and more likely to follow corporate authority. They are the ones who wore brown shirts in 1930s Germany. We could call this lizard brain "the fascist brain".

Why don't we think differently in hard times? Some do. Many hardworking and luckless people are kind, generous, helpful, and nonjudgmental. Poor people, in fact, tend to be more selfless and generous than rich people. Which also means they tend not to judge the rich negatively for the enormous wealth shift these past few decades from working people to those who own for a living. Maybe that needs to be taught too...

Instead of stigmatizing poverty, criminalizing and punishing it, we ought to stigmatize unearned wealth. Why do we think badly of people who need food stamps even though they are working hard? Why not stigmatize the Walton family members who own 40% of the nation's wealth? They earn their billions off the labor of minimum wage employees, then they instruct them to apply for government assistance to feed their families. That kind of behavior takes more gall, more ugly nerve than applying for foodstamps after a long day's work in a warehouse.

Maybe we should stigmatize the corporate CEOs who accept large government subsidies and pay no taxes, who then give themselves billion dollar bonuses... Maybe we should stigmatize the Republican congressmen who vote against hurricane relief aid for the east coast but demand flood aid for their districts. Maybe we should stigmatize the Republicans who have voted 42 times to defund the Affordable Care Act (calling it socialist when it isn't), while accepting totally free socialist healthcare from the US government themselves.

Before we stigmatize the working poor or the sick and elderly who are unable to work, maybe we should cast a critical eye at the extremely rich who are subsidized by millions of average working taxpayers. These creeps spend their extra millions (freed up by our public subsidies) telling the rest of us who to hate and who to attack. They deserve that hate more. Want to know where our broad prosperity has gone since 1980? Look at their offshore bank balances. There are people we should be angry at and it isn't the poor.

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