In 2014, I published an essay listing ten reasons I am no longer a leftist. Something happened last Monday that hurt my feelings a lot and reminded me of another reason: I’m poor. This is counterintuitive. The Left depicts itself as the champion of the poor; the Left depicts right-wingers as hating the poor. Backstage, behind all the speechifying about “compassion,” a very specific left-wing attitude to the poor is abhorrent to me. I encountered that attitude last Monday. I felt disgust, rage, and sorrow.
The average per capita income in my city, Paterson, NJ, is a bit more than half of the US average. One in four persons is living on less than $13,000 annually. Paterson was founded in 1791 by Alexander Hamilton. Thanks to its picturesque facades, Paterson is often used as a film set. In 2019, Steven Spielberg filmed his remake of West Side Story here. Sets are hermetically sealed. Directors, scriptwriters, actors, choreographers, composers, enter this city lugging mobile, self-contained, restaurants, dressing rooms, and even sun and rain. They never breathe the same air as a Patersonian, yet they tell the story of Paterson. When Spielberg was here, using our decaying city as his backdrop, he erected, in downtown Paterson, a set of a decaying city. He came all this way just to use his techno-Crayolas to scribble up a simulacrum of what a decaying city should really look like.
Yes, Spielberg’s set is a metaphor. People who are not poor say who the poor are, why we are poor, and what should be done about us. They script us. They choreograph us. They erect sets blocking your view of real poor people. They announce their own authority and they cry, “Authenticity!”
Everyone negatively stereotypes the poor. I’m poor and I succumb to using slurs like “redneck,” “white trash,” “trailer trash,” and “toothless.” “Redneck” refers to the sunburned necks of those who labor manually in hot sun, like my carpenter brother; like me when I was a landscaper, one of many manual labor jobs I took when I was working my way toward a PhD. “Toothless” is an insult meaning stupid, primitive, and backward. But we all know what “toothless” really means. “Toothless,” when used as an insult, means that those who can afford dental care are comfortable disdaining those who can’t.
Why are people poor? Public policy, socially acceptable attitudes, and tax dollars hinge on the answer. Egos are at risk as well. People want to feel that their theory is definitive. Objective facts are distorted by the needs and desires of powerful people who are not poor.
Eleven years ago, I was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer with a low survival rate. I was an adjunct professor with no health insurance. Hospital administrators smilingly crushed my will and beat my hope into the ground. “There is nothing we can do for you. I’m sorry. It’s the system. I wish I could change the system but I can’t.”
A hardcore right-wing friend, an atheist, had no problem accepting, not only that I would die, but that I should die. I had to, Ginger insisted, accept responsibility for “the life choices you made that resulted in this dilemma.” Social Darwinism uber alles. Ginger is a productive artist, and a bold, feisty, independent thinker. I like Ginger, but I don’t agree with her. Ginger is sure that “People are poor because they are lazy.” I wish Ginger would join me, here in Paterson, for a day or two. She’d never come. Will you? Together we will watch the front door of the building I live in.
With me, early in the morning, you will see black and Hispanic women and girls in distinctive, colorfully patterned, cotton and polyester scrubs and boxy white shoes. Their workday begins, or ends, at dawn. They are rushing to, or home from, hospitals, private homes, and elder care centers. They may change your mother’s diaper someday, or yours. When I was a teenage student, I was one of these girls. I worked full-time as a nurse’s aide.
An hour or so after the health care workers leave for or return from their shifts, children in school uniforms head out, holding their parents’ hands. Teacher aides accompany them. One of the on-foot commuters is a school secretary. Carmen is a pleasant, bilingual woman and the mother of ten. She looks amazingly young for her age, and I’m grateful to her for her kindnesses to me. Her kids all look attractive and healthy and they don’t get into trouble so she’s doing something right.
After the school-related departures, a short bus pulls up. The driver disembarks. He takes the arm of a very thin, silent young man with cerebral palsy. The young man grips his walker tightly. The driver guides the young man onto the bus via a descending ramp.
Not everyone leaves the building on his feet. One elderly neighbor entered and left, for a full year, only on a stretcher. He was an early COVID case. He hung on for a year or so, his cheeks hollowing, his eyes less and less aware. He was foreign-born and an artist and his eyes always had a dreamy look; as if always focused on his distant homeland of blue skies and sunflowers, or his next art project. Now his vacant eyes signaled his imminent, or perhaps, spiritually, already completed, departure.
One day his body finally followed his focus. His wife and daughters abruptly stopped detailing to me, in their Ukrainian-accented English, all the grueling complications they were struggling on several fronts to defeat. Invasive infections had staged a scorched earth blitzkrieg through the old man’s withered frame. I summon memories of this man when I hike Garret Mountain. I used to run into him there. In these sparse urban woods he appeared more at home than when down in the city.
There was a young black girl in a motorized wheelchair equipped with a portable oxygen supply. Then, suddenly, there were those tall candles inside glass jars with saints’ pictures glued to them, flowers, and balloons. Neighbors signed a large card of white poster paper. With their signatures they invoked their fleeting hallway memories of this young girl who never learned to speak; who never had a chance to play or dream of someday romance.
There was an aloof, handsome man, also Slavic, though he would never tell me which brand. “What you mean where I from? I from HERE!” as if I were a member of the secret police and he’d never break under interrogation. He always wore a white shirt, dark slacks – never jeans – tweed jacket, and cap. One day this proud man, to my surprise, in a childlike voice, humbled, asked me to help him do his laundry. His inability to get a coin-operated washing machine to work was an early sign. He, too, is gone.
An Hispanic woman who is wheelchair-bound remains with us. She whips around Paterson’s dangerous streets, tempting fate, insisting that her inability to walk does not define her.
Watching our building, you will see a swarthy, handsome man of middle height, incongruously dressed in a suit and tie. He will be carrying heavy stacks of printed matter. He will be wearing thick eyeglasses. He will exit the building and hesitate before crossing the street. When he finally decides to risk placing his body between impatient drivers and the exits for route 80 and the Garden State Parkway, he steps with a caution that somehow makes you nervous for him. Your nervousness is well placed. The man is legally blind – emphasis on the “blind,” not the “legally.” His documents are Jehovah’s Witness pamphlets. He will spend the day on a Paterson street corner inviting invisible, unsaved masses to taste of Biblical truth.
Around noon or later, you will see a slight man wearing a plastic rosary around his neck. You’ll note his withered hand, held close to his chest at the end of a bent elbow. He has invited me to his place to share rice and beans with his family.
A plump black woman with a beatific face, and wearing a flowing, pastel dress, will chat with you. One day after my cancer diagnosis, feeling pretty bleak, I was taking out the trash. She was standing by the door. She stopped me. She seemed to know. Her voice was like honey. “I’m praying for you, baby. God is stronger than this. He has you in his hand. Remember Daniel in the lion’s den. God was there. Remember Jesus in the tomb. God was there. He’s here now, with you, baby. He’s here now with you.”
The thing is, I hadn’t told her anything. I am not good at small talk and I had no idea what to say when this stranger decided to pour God’s love over me in the form of words. I just stood there, hypnotized by her earnestness, her focus, and her speech patterns, reminiscent of black Christianity going back hundreds of years, to log churches with wooden floors, to walls shaking with shouts of “Amen!” and “Hallelujah!” When you see her, chances are, her son will be with her. He’s an adult, with the body of a boy. He’ll be in a wheelchair. He’s mentally retarded. There’s no husband on the scene.
Don, just below me, was short and gray-bearded and he wore a black trilby hat. Don’s trilby was a time machine. That hat spoke of another era, before John F. Kennedy allegedly torpedoed the men’s hat industry when he refused to wear a hat to his inauguration. Don’s apartment door frame sported a mezuzah, so I bought klezmer CDs at the library sale, put them in a plastic bag, and knotted the bag around Don’s doorknob. I was too shy to knock.
Don suddenly shrank. The nurse’s aide in me recognized Don’s shrinkage as a very bad sign. As this tiny, gnome-like figure walked to the bodega for bags full of canned soup, I asked God to give me a chance to help. God delivered. One night, passing Don’s apartment, I ran into him in the hallway. He was crying. His toilet was broken and no one would help. Entering his apartment, the mold was so strong I could hardly breathe. The roof leaks and the water flows into a streamlet that puddles outside Don’s door. We called various numbers. He told me he was dying of cancer. That was the first and last time we shared words.
It was only at the Paterson Museum memorial service that I discovered that Don had rubbed shoulders with Jack Kerouac, Bob Dylan, and Allen Ginsburg. “Kommit’s father was a tap dancer. His aunt and uncle were in a Yiddish theater troupe.” Don was a Marine. Don was a Beat poet and artist. Don was an adjunct professor, in New Jersey colleges. Don was a high school substitute teacher. Don was poor.
Giovanna Cecchetti, who lived upstairs, brought me food when I was sick and could not leave the apartment. After I got better she drove me to a grocery store. She was a painter, with both exhibitions and sales, and an adjunct professor. Giovanna rescued one of Paterson’s many feral cats. The beast never tamed and it used to attack her guests and Giovanna herself, as she slept. Giovanna had lung cancer. She traveled to Peru and ingested “Mother Ayahuasca.” Ayahuasca could not save her. Giovanna was poor.
Hallway sounds inform me that there is at least one jazz saxophonist, and at least one drummer, in this building. They both sound very good and I’m glad that they don’t live next door to me. Judy, a bald black woman, saw me walking to work one day. She pulled over to give me a ride. I introduced myself. When Judy heard my Polish name she explained that she is a jazz singer who had been an invited performer in Poland.
Late in the day, after her workday is over, you will also see an old woman with a cane exit the building. “Aha!” you may think, observing the old woman’s wobble. “Clearly she’s drunk! That’s why she’s poor!” Well, no. The old woman is me, and there’s a long story behind that unsteady gait, none of it involving drugs or alcohol.
You will see me wobble over to an old man so covered in dust that you know that even the spaces between his toes are packed with dirt. He is leaning over the railing, smoking a cigarette. The setting sun casts his shadow onto the raceway below him. From the eternal look of this working man, he could have spent his day hanging drywall for a new strip mall, or raising the pyramids, or driving spikes at Promontory Point, or doing masonry on Machu Picchu. When I say hi, in a language I’m not at all sure he understands, he raises his head and looks at me with a face that is inscrutable, amused, resigned. He nods, in a universal body language.
A website claims that “Over 35% of Paterson’s residents live with a disability, which is fully double the national percentage. Less than half of the disabled persons in Paterson are able to find gainful employment that they can perform in spite of their disabling conditions.” “Uninsured households appear to be one illness away from financial catastrophe…. over half of all bankruptcies are associated with health events,” reports one scholarly article from 2010.
Health problems don’t explain all poverty, but anyone watching the front door of this building would note that many here are working, if low income jobs, and many are either handicapped or chronically ill themselves, or they have handicapped or chronically ill children or elders. Some are artists or performers or writers, and our addiction to creation may have sealed our economic doom. So there you go. “People are poor because they are lazy,” isn’t always true.
There’s something you won’t see while you watch the front door of this building. You won’t see people driving up in big, fancy cars, and hugging the residents. I’m very self-conscious that I’m always alone on holidays: Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, my birthday. I am not alone in my aloneness. From the empty silences and the lack of wafting aromas, it seems that my neighbors are alone also. The nurse’s aides still don their uniforms. The saxophonist still fills the halls with the same sounds of secular days. The black guys who stand around on the street corners do not alter their custom. I don’t hear that special laughter of children sparked by holiday joy. In this building, on the streets, people wear the same second-hand uniforms they wear every day.
“Socially isolated individuals are more likely to be in poverty than those with larger circles,” Brookings reports. “The poor have no friends, not even their neighbors, but the rich have many friends.” What cynic said that? God. It’s Proverbs, 14:20.
Sometimes when I talk, on social media, about being poor, I am trying to give folks a sense of what day-to-day life is like. My sink has been leaking for two years. I’ve installed buckets but it’s hard to tell where the water is coming from so the buckets are an imperfect band-aid. I’ve summoned the super. He comes; he taps; he mutters. The leaking stops for a while and then starts up again. Mold is getting worse, as are my allergy symptoms. This building is two hundred years old. The constant wet under my sink, as well as in the hallway, from leaking spots in the roof, has got to be undermining an historically significant structure.
I emailed, wrote, and phoned Phil Murphy, my Democratic governor. After several months, an inspection team arrived. I showed them the leaking roof spots. I mentioned the suffocating miasma in Don’s apartment. “Your sink is leaking,” they authoritatively announced. “We’ll contact the super and tell him to fix it.” That did not happen. The roof is still leaking. At least management places orange cones around the puddles.
I am trying to communicate how frustrated, how futile, how powerless you can feel; how Sisyphean even every day tasks can become; how even a prediction of rain can spark anxiety. Muscles and nerves adopt a constant catastrophe posture. It’s hard to relax.
When left-wingers and right-wingers toss out their “expertise” and “solutions” for poverty they so rarely mention one of our worst enemies, a dragon we must confront and spear on a daily basis if we don’t want to sink beneath the surface. This dragon is not laziness nor is it racism. It is learned helplessness.
Last Monday a perfect storm of three different events hit. First, I had a minor medical emergency. I am treated by a charity institution, where I and others play the role of a slightly more evolved guinea pig. The doctors scheduled procedure X. I knew I’d be treated in a large, bright room where patients are visible to each other, where doctors and students discuss patients’ private health matters in front of strangers, where pain relief is imperfect. For days beforehand I unsuccessfully tried to talk myself into being brave. As I traveled the twenty miles I was physically shaking. I arrived only to be told that my insurance had not okayed the procedure. They could have phoned me and told me not to come; they didn’t. Nobody phones guinea pigs.
Another dragon we must constantly fight reared its scaly, fire-breathing head. This familiar enemy insisted to me that I am worthless. The judges that determine human worth, doctors and insurers, who are clearly better than I, have voted me down. Struggling against the persistent phantoms, learned helplessness and personal worthlessness, I returned to Paterson.
This neighborhood is nicknamed “Heroin Heaven.” Over the years, when I’ve encountered overdoses on the street, I have approached. I say, very loudly, “Are you okay? Do you need help?”
They don’t answer. They can’t focus their eyes. They move more slowly than sloths. And they do move; they are trying to accomplish something. They are not relaxed, as if lounging on a divan, savoring their high. It’s as if all their muscles had turned to rubber and they are in dreams where they are trying to run but can’t. Their intentions are trapped inside muscles that they themselves have paralyzed.
I can’t just walk away. I phone. “There’s a person on Ellison Street. He appears disoriented. Perhaps high. I’m asking if he needs help. He doesn’t respond.”
“We’ll send someone.”
I stand and wait. I don’t want to leave these people alone. Anybody could do anything to them. This is a dangerous city. They are vulnerable and defenseless. I would not want to be left alone were I in this state.
When the emergency rescue vehicles arrive, young, handsome and fit men emerge and don purple Nitrile gloves.
“He’s high,” they say to me, dismissively. As if I am so naive. As if I am wasting the time of municipal employees who have more pressing tasks to attend to.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“Thank you for caring,” they indulge me.
As I walk away, I resolve. I won’t phone next time.
But the next time I, again, can’t walk away. And I call. And the emergency rescue vehicles arrive. They, again, show annoyance. This has happened many times over the years.
Until last Monday. When I came back from the medical facility, all my futile courage in tatters around my feet, as I struggled against learned helplessness and personal worthlessness, I saw a pretty, young white man on the sidewalk at the intersection of Curtis and Ellison.
I’d been seeing this particular junkie around lately. He looks to be in his early twenties. He’s thin, blond, and pretty enough to be a rock star. He swaggers. Last Monday, he was not swaggering. He was squatting, as if trying to relieve himself. His hands hung uselessly down at his sides, his knuckles just scraping the sidewalk. His head was lowered. His body swayed ever so slightly.
I watched his phone slide out of the back pocket of his jeans and clunk to the sidewalk. His hand attempted directed movement. He tried to pick up his phone. He could not. As I watched him, I thought. I could just pick up his phone and somehow attach it to his body so that it would still be there when he regains full consciousness.
I could call for help.
I stood there for a long time.
A couple of weeks back, I had run into this pretty white boy outside the Zona Urbana Cantina. Here’s a weird little personal detail. I pray for the success of businesses I pass as I walk. I pray for the advance of capitalism and initiative. I pray for ledgers in the black. I admire, I am grateful to, anyone who opens a respectable business in Paterson. An island of decency, of normality. I pass so many abandoned silk mills. Their empty eye sockets radiate their sanction of chaos and misery to match their own shame. New businesses demand regular hours, courtesy, cleanliness. You never know how far a new business’ insistence on normal human life might spread, as light from one candle spreads. I pray for the success of Zona Urbana Cantina.
The day that I ran into the pretty blonde junkie outside Zona Urbana, he was able to see and converse. I approached him. “Are you okay? Do you want help?” my go-to icebreakers.
“I could use some spare change,” he replied.
“I’m not going to give you any money,” I announced. “But I will walk with you to the Salvation Army. They will give you a roof and food. We can walk together.”
“No thanks. That’s okay.”
“If you change your mind, snag me,” I said.
“Okay,” he said, that day. He could talk, that day.
Last Monday, he couldn’t even pick up his phone and place it back in his pocket.
Curtis and Ellison is an intersection where drivers coming from Route 80 and traveling to Wayne, a well-to-do, mostly white suburb, are temporarily imprisoned in our daily dystopia by a traffic light. Junkies panhandle here. There is a Salvation Army three hundred feet from the intersection. The stopped drivers can’t miss it. It’s directly in front of their windshields. The Salvation Army sign is large, red, and white. The junkies could go there. They prefer their grimy clothes, their despicable lives and early deaths, to the Salvation Army’s roof, food, and hope.
Junkie Girl worked the intersection of Curtis and Ellison for years. She was skinny and white. She wore a grime sheath, as if she’d greased herself and then rolled on the floor of an auto mechanic’s shop. Her skin had the look of a late winter macadam road: rutted, potholed. “You may not think of it in this way,” the American Addiction Centers helpfully points out, “but the skin is also an organ … drugs can cause a variety of infections, sores, inflammation, or even rotting.” Junkie Girl’s skin was at the rot stage.
I remember, when I was a teenage nurse’s aide, watching my patient die of cirrhosis. Her skin was the exact color of green camouflage. Addiction is so romantic. Not.
Junkie Girl’s walk was bold. As she weaved between oncoming cars, her sashay announced, “I used to be hot. You would have wanted to have sex with me. You owe me money.”
Junkie Girl used Paterson Public Parking Lot # 7, where visitors to Paterson pay to park, as her toilet. She would drop her pants, in broad daylight, with an air of arrogance and contempt, and defecate. There’s no reason to wonder why Paterson, for all the federal dollars it rakes in, can’t attract shoppers to its reduced-sales-tax stores or tourists to the Great Falls National Historical Park.
Junkie Girl tied a black plastic garbage bag, full of her belongings, to a wrought iron fence around Federici Park. She ate take-out food and dumped her Styrofoam containers on the park, ignoring the nearby garbage can.
Federici Park contains flowering plants, a bust of Christopher Columbus, a three-tiered fountain, and a flag pole displaying an Italian and an American flag. The park is a remnant of Heroin Heaven’s former residents, Italian immigrants.
Otto Gross, a Paterson old-timer, rages against the dying of the light “We were all poor! But we swept our stoops. You tried any of this, the Italians would kick your ass, cops would kick your ass, and your parents would kick your ass.” Bill Palatucci, our former schoolmate, has become a name in New Jersey Republican politics. His grandmother used to live on Ellison Street. Otto and Bill, rooted in this very neighborhood, grew up with very little. They are both, now, well-to-do, productive citizens.
The Left, busy as Spielberg’s set designers, erect a façade around Otto’s and Bill’s life stories. “Otto and Bill are doing well because they had white privilege!” the Left insists.
Otto’s parents immigrated to the U.S. as sharecroppers under a special program. When they left Minnesota they were close to penniless. Otto’s dad got a job in Paterson working with asbestos. They were so poor that eight-year-old Otto was malnourished and nearly died of pneumonia. He had to spend months in a hospital. His health is forever damaged. When he was finally released, “My father shoved the hospital bill under my nose … he beat the s— out of me because I cost them so much money.” At school, not just fellow students, but one of our teachers harassed Otto for being German. White privilege.
When Bill’s grandmother lived on Ellison street, Italians, as well as Jews and Poles, could not buy homes in certain restricted New Jersey towns. White privilege.
Junkie Girl was white. She literally s— on Federici Park.
One day, about a month ago, my walls were festooned with flashing red and blue lights. It’s a regular sound and light show hereabouts. I saw cop cars and ambulances at Curtis and Ellison. A few days later, I saw the new arrival, pretty blond boy, panhandling at Curtis and Ellison, what used to be Junkie Girl’s turf. I wondered if the emergency vehicles were there to address her death. If that were the case, I suddenly realized, I would be glad. I shocked myself with that thought.
As I watched the pretty blond boy try to command as many remaining shreds of his humanity as he could, so he could pick up his phone – surrendering his humanity was fine, but losing the phone was unacceptable – I seethed with hatred for every driver who stopped to give money to the junkies at Curtis and Ellison. I wanted to reach into their rolled down windows, grab them by the lapels, drag them through those windows, and beat the living crap out of them. I could feel the force and violence, fueled by my rage, as I smashed them, as I screamed, “You lousy bourgeois narcissist! You want to feel good about yourself. ‘Oh, I’m so magnanimous. I opened up my wallet and thumbed out some bills and shoved them into a junkie’s Solo cup.’
“The Salvation Army is right in front of you! Churches spend hours down here trying to lure just one soul to quit the drugs. I have watched cops on this very street spend hours trying to get one person to get help. The cops you demonize. The Christianity you mock. You just subsidized another day of surrendered and betrayed humanity. The monsters who run the drug cartels should send you an annual Christmas card.”
I thought this as I watched the blond boy reaching for his phone, a phone he’d never touch. I did not phone for help for pretty blond boy, paralyzed on the sidewalk. I walked away.
I wanted Junkie Girl dead. I did not help Pretty Boy. I have abandoned my own values. Feeling learned helplessness, feeling personal worthlessness, I sank into a dark place. I knew I needed help. I posted on social media.
Alex Bensky, a political conservative, offered a thoughtful, compassionate reply. “I live in a decent, middle to lower middle class suburb,” Alex wrote. “When I walk to the library, the brewpub, the drugstore, I walk down clean and safe streets. Every so often I wake up at three a.m. … I take a brisk stroll around the neighborhood … I have no worries about stepping over anyone passed out on the sidewalk or the smell of human defecation or worrying about stepping on a used needle.”
When I was a leftist, I thought conservatives were heartless. There was a great deal of heart in Alex’s response. He heard me. He acknowledged me.
Ted is much more to the left than I am. In response to my post, Ted didn’t say, “I’m sorry that happened to you … mount an appeal to the insurance company for the procedure you need … deciding whether or not to call an ambulance for a junkie is a tough call … ” Ted said nothing like that. All Ted did was post an endorsement for a “great book” by a junkie and prostitute.
I’ve known Ted for over twenty years. Ted is successful and productive, admired and beloved. Ted does many things well and I am grateful for his friendship. Ted has never, as far as I can remember, shown me any kindness. Ted is known among his friends as a man of “compassion.”
What is the disconnect? Ted is a leftist. Ted talks a lot about how racist America is and how badly black people suffer. I’m unaware of Ted actually doing anything for black people, or even having any black friends. My best guess is that Ted’s ethics are formed by his religion, leftism. Evil is white America. Victims are black. Virtue is condemning white America. Liturgy: browbeat white, Christian, heterosexual Americans. Ritual completed and moral duties discharged. I suspect that Ted, and other leftists, are incapable of recognizing human pain that serves no leftist narrative. The actual pain of the person right in front of him, a person who, because she is white, cannot help the revolution along, is utterly invisible to Ted.
I’ve known Merlin for almost forty years. His friends assess him as “compassionate.” I’ve tried to communicate to Merlin how academia discriminates against poor whites and Christians, people like me, people like my students. Merlin attributes leftist institutions’ discrimination against poor white Christians to climate change. I’m not kidding. I’m really not. Climate change, he insists, makes people unjust and unkind. The proper response to human pain is to promote anti-natalism. Fewer people means less injustice. Telling people not to have kids is Merlin’s kindness.
It’s not just that the Left has decided, in recent years, to turn a deaf ear and a stone cold heart to the ethnically inconvenient poor. It’s not just, that even as they insist on not caring about us, they pretend that they are our saviors, and that their “compassion” renders them above any critique. It’s not just that they stereotype conservative policies as motivated purely by tight-fisted greed.
It’s that they, again, like Spielberg, erect their façade around us. Social Darwinist Ginger says I’m poor because of bad choices. Leftists say something much uglier. White privilege is infallible leftist dogma. If a white person, a recipient of white privilege, is poor, that person must be an unspeakable monster. So insists the Left.
“After the revolution,” the Left says, wealth will be redistributed, and everything will be great. Meanwhile, there is nothing we can do to ameliorate our fate. The Left insists that the poor must wallow in misery, and thereby prove capitalism’s wickedness.
I reject that message. In my struggle against learned helplessness and worthlessness, what keeps me going are conservative values. Working hard. Keeping myself and my dwelling clean. Cultivating an attitude of gratitude. Doing the right thing, even when no one but God is watching. I’ve been prescribed opioids more times than I can count. I took them to relieve pain. When I felt myself getting high, I cut back, and lived with pain. Self-denial, stoic endurance, and living today in a way that makes tomorrow better: these are conservative values.
When I talk up these values on social media, leftists mock me mercilessly. These values oppose the explosive and destructive rage that advances revolutions. Rather than cultivating an attitude of gratitude and forgiveness, leftists want me to dwell on my misfortunes and blame politically designated enemies. I am not to recognize how I’ve been sabotaged by identity politics in left-wing academia. Rather, I am to blame climate change. I should not work for the best life I can under the conditions I find myself in. I should rebel and destroy.
The Left’s contempt for conservative values in the microcosm, as practiced by me, one person, is reflected in the macrocosm, in the wider society. We all know that the courts and the police are imperfect, but in neighborhoods like Paterson we know how necessary the police are. The Left demonizes the police. That demonization, and subsequent police retreat, has resulted in many more deaths of poor people. The left’s rejection of values on every front, from the rejection of the Judeo-Christian tradition to the rejection of the SAT to the rejection of law and order hurts poor people the most; see here, here, and here.
The left champions the demographic they assess as most opposed to mainstream culture. Panhandling junkies, in their worldview, are superior to poor people who are struggling against learned helplessness, a sense of worthlessness, and trying to keep their husband and father with long-term COVID alive another day.
When I’ve debated the panhandling issue on social media, I make a simple suggestion. “Take the money you planned to give to the junkie, and give it to the Salvation Army, and to the churches that work down here.”
“Oh, no, no, no, no, couldn’t do that,” they say.
They can never give a reason.
I’ll say the quiet part out loud. They give to junkies, and not to the Salvation Army or the churches, because they endorse and underwrite the transgressive, deviant, junkie life. They don’t want to underwrite the simple human decency the Salvation Army and the churches represent. At the same time, they want the junkies to stay among us, the poor. They want the poor kids you and I watched walk to school, the kids in this building, not their kids, to pick their way around discarded needles. They want Carmen, my neighbor, not their mother, to find her car windows smashed so that some junkie could steal the spare change she keeps in the console to pay parkway tolls. They want my blind neighbor to step in human feces as he walks to his ministry work; they sure don’t want that for themselves. Leftists love junkies – junkies that torment the working poor.
A thought experiment. A donor gives Ginger and Ted ten thousand dollars with instructions to spend the money on improving life in Paterson, NJ. I think Ginger would spend the money making life better for the school kids, the blind Jehovah’s Witness, the young man with cerebral palsy, the new businesses opening up. I think Ted might do this. He’d divide the ten thou up into five dollar bills. He’d distribute those bills to drivers stuck at the traffic light on Curtis and Ellison. He’d instruct the drives to distribute the money, five bucks at a time, to junkies.
Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery.