The Casual Blog

Tag: Elizabeth Bishop

Bears, happy Juneteenth, and a solution to poverty

On our way back from the Outer Banks, we took a detour through the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.  We saw two mother bears, each with two cubs, a barred owl, a flock of white ibises, and various other interesting birds, reptiles, and plants.  We were excited, and also worried, to see a rare, critically endangered red wolf standing beside Highway 64 and looking at the traffic.  Hope he or she is OK.

I you, like me, have an affectionate interest in wild animals, I recommend Vesper Flights, by Helen Macdonald.  It’s a collection of short personal essays about the natural world.  Macdonald explores the thrill and peace that nature can bestow, and helps us appreciate its fragility.  The NY Times review is here.    

This week Juneteenth became a national holiday.  Some Americans are just now learning about the original event, June 19, 1865, when African Americans in Texas first learned that slaves had been declared emancipated.  The basic idea of the holiday is to celebrate the end of slavery and beginning of freedom.  

Most of us surely agree that this is a good reason for celebration, though not all.  As I was practicing my golf swing at the range, I overheard an older golfer speaking disparagingly of the new holiday, and adding that “they” were “taking over.”  I wondered how he could have such an ignorant and poisonous idea, and then I remembered:  “us” and “them” was the basic framework a lot of us were trained in from birth, and some still are.  These ideas have long, hard-to-pull-out roots.

Also, racial segregation is still the rule in most American neighborhoods, schools, and churches.  There’s room for discussion about the details of why this is true in 2021, but plainly a lot has to do with the legacy of slavery.  One consequence is that it takes effort to get to know people of a different race, which increases the difficulty of dislodging our early training in the caste system.

But there are also other forces at work.  This week Thomas Edsall’s NY Times column examined the causes of so-called populism of Trump and similar movements elsewhere.  Edsall quoted various thinkers who identified economic forces, including artificial intelligence and other technology, robotics, and globalized outsourcing, that continue to cause job losses and threats to status for many, causing increasing insecurity and fear.  

Demagogues whip up these fears and blame minorities and immigrants for these losses.  Those with good reasons to feel economically insecure are often latch on to simple solutions to their problems, especially when they resonate with their early racial training.  

Why don’t we just eliminate poverty?  It sounds like something we could all agree is a good idea.   But as Ezra Klein wrote last week, poverty is a well accepted part of our economic system, and eliminating it would threaten some valued privileges of the privileged. 

As Klein explains, Americans rely on low wage workers in order to have cheap goods and services.  In this light, it makes sense to resist raising the minimum wage above the poverty level, allowing workers freedom to organize, or extending jobless benefits.  If low wage workers were less desperate, they might well not take jobs that are mind-numbing or dangerous and pay barely enough to survive.  Employers would have to provide better working conditions, and better wages and benefits.  They’d lose some profits, and all of us would have to pay higher prices.

 

This aspect of American-style capitalism is seldom discussed, but worth discussing now.  We learned from the covid pandemic that our government can organize massive resources in a hurry to address economic distress.  We may have assumed before that there’s nothing we can do to help the mass of people who work at or below the poverty level, but we now have good evidence that that’s just not true.

Klein’s piece discusses a recent study out of the New School proposing a promising approach to mitigating poverty:  a guaranteed annual income of $12,500 plus an allowance for children.  The payments would phase out for those with incomes above the poverty level.  It would require a budget increase of about 20 percent, which could be paid with taxes at about the level of other wealthy nations.  

It’s an interesting idea, though it obviously runs hard against the grain of neo-liberalism.  Indeed, Republican leaders in several states are currently looking to cut emergency covid relief, including not only  money but also food programs, on the theory that workers won’t work as required unless they’re truly desperate.  We have here a very dark side of American capitalism.  Just as was true before 1865, some are willing to watch people starve, if that’s what it takes to force them to work.  

So old questions need to be asked again:  how much do we value human life?  How much suffering are we willing to inflict in the name of prosperity?  What are we willing to sacrifice to move towards a more just society?   I’m hopeful, though I wouldn’t say confident, that our better angels are ascendent.

On a completely different subject, I want to recommend a short essay on Elizabeth Bishop’s famous poem, One Art. The essay in the Times by Dwight Garner and Parul Seghal is beautifully presented, and gets straight to the point.  Even if you aren’t much interested in poetry, you might find something of real value.  

Losing things, and joining a protest

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Protest march in downtown Raleigh, February 11, 2017

It’s been almost 3 hours since I last lost something, which is a slightly sad thing to be pleased about.  Lately my little things — car keys, access cards, reading glasses, my tablet device, my phone — have gone missing more than usual.  I find them eventually, but the interval between losing and finding is tense and uncomfortable.  It could be early onset Alzheimer’s, but I suspect the cause is Trump.  With his non-stop boasting and lying, his cluelessness on every vital issue, his shameful targeting of minorities,  and his general shamelessness, he’s got me spinning and oscillating with amazement, laughter, and fear.  That could be what’s impairing my brain.  

It may be no coincidence that I’m seeing more references to losing things.  I’ve heard multiple citations recently to the famous Elizabeth Bishop poem One Art (“The art of losing isn’t hard to master.”), which is worth rereading.  And there’s a beautiful, lively, and touching piece by Kathryn Schultz in the current New Yorker entitled Losing Streak.   She writes of her personal losses of little things (wallets, bike locks), and big ones (her car, her father).  Schultz comes up with some fun facts: the average person misplaces up to 9 objects per day, and in a lifetime will spend 6 months looking for lost things.  She identifies some of the possible causes — your spouse, aliens, wormholes.  

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The only disappointment was  that she didn’t zero in on Trump.  But a new piece by David Frum in the Atlantic tends to confirm his potential for making us all losers, wondering what became of our democracy.  Frum points up a critical difference between previous varieties of fascism and Trumpism: Trump doesn’t need to stop holding elections, shut down the press, and murder political opponents to achieve his primary objective:  enriching himself.    Modern kleptocracies grow by fostering cynicism and apathy.  Corruption could become ordinary and expected here, as is already has in many countries.  A possible future is the end of the rule of law.

Frum ends on a hopeful note by encouraging us to all get in touch with our Congressmen and Senators and support good laws.  He seems to be of the view that resistance is not futile.  That’s where I am, too.  Even if it is futile, the alternative is worse.

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Apropos, on Saturday morning I went to a protest in downtown Raleigh– the HKonJ and Moral March organized by the NAACP with some 200 other groups.  Fayetteville Street was packed for several blocks with many thousands of people.

Being in big noisy crowds is not comfortable for me, but that said, it was a cheery noise, and a truly diverse crowd.  There were signs for Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ rights, gun control, reproductive rights, immigrant rights, living wages, health care rights, civil rights, and animal rights, among many others.  There were signs against The Wall, the immigration ban, HB2, voter suppression, Tweeting, and intolerance, among many others.  There are so many things that need resisting that it’s hard to stay determined and focused, but we’ve got to get started.  

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