I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling pretty scared about the future of our country.
And that anxiety won’t go away even if “my guy/gal” wins the White House later this year. Because what the presidential election has revealed so far—hell, what the last 8 years of an Obama White House and a Boehner/McConnell/Tea Party Congress gridlock has revealed—is that our country is getting more and more polarized, millions of people hurling memes and statistics at each other across an ever more gaping distance.
C.S. Lewis described Hell as a place where people are getting further and further away from each other.
I don’t want my guy/gal to win next November. I want to win over people of conscience to a different way of thinking about immigration, poverty, education, health care, gun reform, taxation. I’m thinking about what Barbara Kingsolver said about how in a democracy, the majority sometimes rules hard—and routinely asks the other 49%, the Losers, to get lost. I’ve been on both sides of that equation, and at this point, I feel like 100% of us lose when we are so polarized.
It might too late to win you over, if you think differently from me. It might be too hard. There are a few studies that show our fervent debates on Facebook do actually sometimes change minds—it certainly feels less perilous talking politics in a virtual world than in the physical world. But other data says that even when presented with incontrovertible facts, many people are surprisingly unwilling to change their opinion. Still, I want to try.
And mostly I don’t want to try with incontrovertible facts—because we are at this point so suspicious of each other that our datasets are all but useless. It won’t convince you if I tell you that we pay the most per capita in health care globally but fall a dismal 23rd in outcomes; or if I remind you that Australia, which has a frontier spirit and a hunting culture like ours, saw a 59% reduction in murder by gun and a 60% reduction in suicide by gun (without a corresponding increase in deaths by other means, or a rise in home invasions) after they enacted sensible gun reform in 1996.
But I will tell you how I feel—and why I feel that way. It’s said that conservatives think liberals have no brains and liberals think conservatives have no heart. I know I have both brains and a heart—and you do too. I hope to appeal to both.
What follows is an apology for my liberal politics. Apology, not in the sense of “I’m sorry I’m such a bleeding heart…” but in the sense of making a moral case, based on reason, to win over an opponent or an undecided.
I’ve been thinking about doing this ever since I rode home from my sister’s wedding shower with my cousin L. She has historically voted Republican (I think? Yankees don’t talk about these things…), but we like and love each other anyway.
My cousin was unsettled about the efficacy of charitable giving because of the risk of fraud—she cited her neighbor, who she knew made six figures but who was taking advantage of the food pantry her town.
From there we got into a good conversation about corruption in welfare, whether helping poor people enables them rather than empowers them, and where my family’s charitable giving goes. I’m not sure I did my beliefs justice when we spoke, so I decided to write them out in a more considered way. Here goes: one issue a day, for ten days. I’ll start with probably the nearest to my own experience:
Poverty, American Style
I grew up with a white mother who was smart but crippled by anxiety and depression. She had about a semester of college, and in her good years worked as a secretary for a small architectural firm. But there weren’t very many good years.
Mostly, she was debilitated by her mental illness. She couldn’t hold a job. She would spend weeks on end in bed, or at the kitchen table, working on projects. Those were the days before Bill Clinton took away AFDC—Aid to Families With Dependent Children, so we got a check every month. We had a section-8 voucher, one that allowed us to live in safe neighborhoods and go to decent public schools. We had food stamps that allowed us to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. Even when her depression was pretty bad, my mom was pretty good, most years, about cooking, so we ate healthy—not a lot of snacks or cheap carbs—and good nutrition and health was part of what helped me, eventually, break the cycle.
We had Medicaid. I do remember going to the doctor for regular well-child exams. I also remember that I would have to get very, very sick (days and days of strep throat, unable to swallow) before my mom would take me to the doctor. I don’t know if that was because transportation or cost was an issue, or if she was simply unable to get herself together to take me.
She sought comfort in a long-term unhealthy relationship with my stepfather, who had schizophrenia, PTSD and has been an active alcoholic for most of his life, and in his later years, a heroin addict. They reinforced each other’s mental illnesses and frailties. I grew up pretty fast, becoming independent at a young age.
For high school, I went to a public exam school, one of the best in the country. They routinely send the top 20 students in each graduating class to Harvard, with lots of scholarship money. It educates many poor students of color who otherwise simply would not have a chance to build skills and get access to college and graduate school. 326 of 327 students in my graduating class went to college.
I got into a very well-endowed Ivy League college. My father, a self-employed carpenter, paid only $3000/year for tuition. My mother paid nothing. I paid for my books and incidentals by working at the dining hall, in a polyester polo shirt, the wealthy students sometimes ordering me around because they could (one of them actually apologized to me, years later, at a reunion, for being such a d-bag to me). I was given Pell grants every year, government-guaranteed money for my education, free and clear. I graduated with only $14,000 in student loan debt, which I was able to defer while I went to divinity school and then to Mexico to work at an orphanage.
It wasn’t easy growing up that way—but I often wonder: if those failsafes, helping hands and built-in advantages hasn’t been in place for me, would I be here? Would I have made it? Would I be an ordained minister, helping other people become who God intends them to be? Helping create and save marriages, helping mentally ill people stabilize so they don’t lose everything, helping people in ordinary and extraordinary griefs and crises get to the other side, so that they can keep working (as therapists, schoolteachers, etc), keep paying taxes, keep volunteering with people on the margins, and generally making society stronger by the kind of contributions they are making?
I had a church growing up—a lovely, supportive church; a poor, urban church. The minister visited us and prayed with us. They’d make sure we had Christmas presents at Christmas, gave us rides to church so my mom could sleep. But they never, ever could have provided what the government did in the 70s and 80s, what the government is failing to provide now (or threatening to take away) for other kids in need.
My mother had every advantage as a child—a stable home, a high school education, the offer of college. She was white, well-spoken. But whether it was her mental illness or poor choices talking, she got herself into a vicious cycle of poverty and trauma.
I could have blamed her and my stepfather—I still sometimes do—for not making better choices. But I’m so grateful that, when things fell apart for them, there was a safety net under me.
And now, as an adult—as I grieve my mother, dead at age 64 from smoking-related emphysema, a hermit and a hoarder for her last 12 years of life—as I grieve my stepfather, still living, but broken by mental illness and lifelong addiction—I have more compassion for both of them, and for the many people in my church who suffer from mental illness.
The fact of the matter is, some people—even people who had every advantage in childhood—just cannot take care of themselves. And if we don’t give them the means to live simply and decently—here’s the head appeal—they will cost us a lot more in the long run.
And here’s the heart appeal: we will be accountable for them when we face Jesus, who said “when you failed to take care of the least of these, you failed to do it for me.” (Matthew 25)
That’s why I believe in failsafes and safety nets, to help every single human being in our country reach their full potential—not just for their own health, prosperity and self-respect, but because they better they do, the better we all do.