C. Day's "The Last Chance Democracy Cafe"
February 12, 2004
In our first two episodes, Zach, Horace, Tom and Winston dipped deeply into the subject of economic inequality and the destructive force of big money on American democracy (they've been doing a little dipping into the bottle as well). There's much more conversation (and yes, drinking) to come. But first we will take a brief two episode detour to introduce you to one of the café's true "angels" and then, consistent with the spirit of the now defunct fairness doctrine, we will introduce you to one of its true "devils" as well.
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Last Chance Democracy Café:
If you've ever wanted to meet a true American hero, then drop by The Last Chance Democracy Café around one o'clock some morning and say hi to Maggie.
Maggie works for the janitorial service that cleans the place. She isn't really supposed to get started until closing time, but we cut her a little slack so she won't be late for her second job, waiting tables at the all-night pancake house down the street. She also has a day job cleaning rooms at a cut-rate motel on the other side of town. These three "employment opportunities" share a number of common characteristics, including bad pay, undependable hours, lousy working conditions and the complete absence of benefits.
Welcome to the service sector.
Maggie has always had the knack for pasting a cheerful smile onto a face that otherwise screams out with overwhelming fatigue. Only 29-years-old, she looks more like 40, with deep worry lines and large black swatches below her eyes. Her thick blond hair, her proudest feature back in high school, is cut short now. There just wasn't the time or energy needed to wash it often enough, let alone to make it up the way she wanted. With 3 jobs and 3 kids, the fatigue is well earned.
When she was a little girl, Maggie dreamed of becoming an architect; it's fun to talk to her about, watching her eyes light up in a way you don't otherwise see. It gives you a glimpse of that high school girl -- full of promise and optimism -- ready to tear into life. But an early pregnancy caused in part by a lack of sex education and birth control assistance put an end to college plans. She did "the right thing" and married the father. They were both barely 17. Two more kids arrived by the time they were 20, and, gradually, the stress of so much early responsibility took a toll on both of them. Five years later her husband was busted trying to sell a few grams of cocaine to support his own habit. He was sent up for 10 years under the state's mandatory drug sentencing law and, because of the drug conviction, Maggie and the kids were thrown out of the public housing unit where they had lived for the past four years. Her parents deceased, Maggie was alone.
"I try not to think about how I'm going to make it through the day, "she told me once in a flat, almost detached, voice one night while she was mopping the floors. "If you think about it, you realize it's impossible . . . there's no way you can get it all done -- and then that gets you down. Better to just do it. Go to the next job. Clean up the next kid. Plead with the next creditor; it's all you can do . . . put one foot in front of the other. Just keep going."
Maggie used to get a little help from the government for things like child care, housing and medical insurance for the kids. But when the money got tight after the Bush tax cuts, the recession and the related state budget shortfalls, the eligibility requirements were tightened up. Now, aside from occasionally visiting the food bank and a little help folks here give her on the rare occasions her pride lets her accept it, she's pretty much on her own. That means the oldest boy, just 12, has to take on a lot of responsibility for the younger kids. "I worry about him so much," Maggie told me. "I'm never home and there's so much bad stuff out there. He's a good kid. I trust him. But he's just a kid. He ought to be able to be just a kid."
As you've probably figured out by now, Maggie is one of the almost 15 million people in the United States classified as working poor. Her children are among the almost 8.7 million children who live in working poor families (official government statistics, based upon the inadequate official "poverty level," are somewhat lower, but still shocking in the richest country the world has ever known). And the trend isn't encouraging: Although not all of them meet the definition of the working poor, in total, almost 1.4 million more Americans fell into poverty during 2002. Approximately 17.2 percent of all American children now live in poverty.
It sounds like an oxymoron, doesn't it? Working poor. Two words that have no business being put together. The very concept is a betrayal of the American dream. Yet, for people like Maggie, it's a bitter daily truth.
If the right wing's mantras of "personal responsibility" and "family values" were anything more than empty talking points, you'd think that they'd want to go out of their way to help someone like Maggie. She's the living embodiment of those values. But, of course, they don't. Just the opposite. Take, for example, the mind-numbing cruelty of the Republican congressional leadership in quietly changing the terms of the second Bush tax cut, signed into law May 28, 2003, to remove the child tax credit for families earning between $10,500 and $26,625.
They couldn't move quickly enough to pass hundreds of billions of dollars in "tax relief" to the wealthiest Americans, thereby swelling the national debt. But somehow they just couldn't bring themselves to spend a paltry $3.5 billion to give a small assist to heroes like Maggie.
Yes, I know that the word hero is overused. We have sports heroes, celebrity heroes, even lottery winners treated as heroes (dumb luck elevated to the status of virtue). And it's absurd that we use this same word to refer to pop icons that we use to describe people like Al Rascon, a Vietnam War medic who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor after using his own body to shield other solders from enemy fire and grenade attack.
But even under the most exacting of standards, Maggie deserves to be called a hero. True, she'll never become a "Bush Pioneer." She probably couldn't scrape together $100 to give to the campaign, let alone the $100,000 one has to raise to be a Pioneer. So she won't be able to buy the proverbial "place at the table." But God knows, she deserves to be treated as though she could.
And if George W. Bush can't see that, then he can pray until his knees are grinded into splinters, he'll still never meet any definition of the word Christian that I want to be associated with.
I admit it. I hate what George W. Bush is doing to America. I hate how small he makes this great country seem. I hate the lies. I hate the smugness. I hate the payoffs to wealthy contributors. I hate the neglect of those not rich enough to buy a place at the table. I hate the mortgaging of my children's futures. I hate the class warfare on behalf of the rich. I hate the obsession for secrecy. I hate the misuse of war to sell unpopular policies. I hate the misuse of war, period. I hate the attack against our civil liberties. I hate the smirks. And I hate the arrogance.
But I don't hate Bush himself. I refuse to.
Call me naive, but I don't think liberals should hate. That's for the other side. And boy howdy, can those folks hate. Just listen to conservative talk radio or read any of the selections from the right's hate-of-the-month book club.
And let's not forget the mother of all hates, the right's near epileptic hatred of Bill Clinton. Even now, years after he left office, they can't let go. They don't just hate Clinton -- they hate, hate, hate, hate, hate him with all their hearts. It consumes them like an addict's lust for a fix. Nothing better demonstrates how much hated itself -- a raw incendiary loathing -- forms the nucleus of the modern conservative movement. Clinton, after all, was a very moderate sort of Democrat -- welfare reform, pro death penalty and the like. You can understand why the right would oppose him. But why would they hate him?
I think I know the answer: To paraphrase George Mallory’s famous statement about Mt. Everest, they hate him because he's there. They hate him, in other words, because that's what right wing extremists do, they hate the people who oppose them -- and they especially hate people who oppose them effectively, as Clinton did frequently.
That's one reason why I believe the left should resist the temptation to emulate the right's love of hate. It's a losing strategy. We could never compete with them in a hate-a-thon. They're just too good at it.
There's more to it than that, of course. There's also the basic matter of what it means to be a liberal. Look up the word in a dictionary sometime -- it can be an epiphany. We've heard the concept denigrated for so long, it's easy to forget its power. Here's how Webster's defines liberalism: "A political philosophy based on belief in progress, the essential goodness of the human race, and the autonomy of the individual and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties." If you're a liberal and need more, go beyond the definition of liberalism and read the somewhat longer definition of "liberal" -- it will make you blush.
Then the next time some right winger acts like liberal is a four-letter word, shove the definition down his throat.
But don't hate him while you do it. Because as that definition makes clear, hatred isn't what being a liberal is all about.
I had a good teacher in this. Horace isn't a hatter. He never has been. Passionate? Yes. Opinionated? Sure. Prone to righteous rage? You bet. But raw hate? Never.
Horace was one of the few black drivers to find work in the segregated interstate trucking industry in the early years following the adoption of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. "In those days, I heard the word nigger more times during a single haul than my grandkids will in their whole lives, thank God," he once told me. "How I hated that word. How I hated the ignorance that caused it to be spoken. And I never backed down. But I also refused to hate them back, because if I'd done that they'd have won. And I wasn't going to let them win."
If Horace can resist hate, after everything he's been through, then I guess I can too. So as much as I do hate what the far-right is doing to people like Maggie, I won't hate the men and women themselves. I refuse to.
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"The Last Chance Democracy Cafe" runs Tuesdays and Thursdays for a short while and then every Thursday thereafter. Read all the episodes here.
otherwise noted, all original