Monday, December 2, 2013

'Tis the Season for Noblesse-Obliging

That most blessed season of heartwarming rags-to-riches Hallmark and Lifetime specials is upon us once again. The same moralizing plots are foisted upon us year after year. One favorite is the debunked conservative prosperity gospel, in which the poor mom working three jobs is rewarded for her toil with a millionaire hubby from Santa. The other is the Scrooge legend, in which the millionaire boss fires everybody, they suffer, he notices in the nick of time, and he hires them back with a one-time bonus and a one-time-only party in the mansion.

Looking at this year's line-up, I think I'll skip "A Nanny for Christmas" which appears to be lifted straight from the unctuous "The Help" script. We really need another story seen through the lens of the witchy workaholic who finally recognizes that her overqualified babysitter is not only intelligent but a human being with a heart, and thus for about ten minutes racism and classism are overcome forever and ever Amen.  

It's also the special season when the exalted New York Times deigns to notice how the other half lives. While most of the coverage of the poors is geared toward affluent paying readers who may not have a clue, and the paper has gotten some well-deserved criticism for its dearth of poverty coverage this year, there are signs of improvement. To her credit, the Gray Lady Bountiful seems to be going well beyond her traditional Neediest Cases charity series and actually featuring front-page stories about poor people and covering the recent labor actions by minimum wage retail and fast food workers. Whether this is a mere seasonal fluke, or whether this trend continues into January remains to be seen.

 Meanwhile, the unemployed and underemployed cracking the Times paywall are faced with the same old "it's the time of year to reflect on those less fortunate than oneself" bromides by what many consider to be the paper's most liberal columnist, who ends his latest effort with the usual heavy sigh of "of course, raising the minimum wage to an insulting $10 an hour is politically impossible" in this fraught climate, etc, etc.

But do not despair, Other Half. Because this is the season of CNN Heroes, advertised as a "star-studded" extravaganza even as it purports to celebrate the marginalized.  This show is in the genre of the traditional holiday Sugar Crumbs propaganda, in which the rich and famous assuage the guilt of possessing obscene wealth by showing up in their designer duds to give us the warm glowy pleasure of watching the lesser people grovel before them. It's a combination of the Cinderella legend and a beauty contest.You go to the ball, compete with other paragons of virtue for the grand cash prize, and then it's back to rags and pumpkins and selfless toil.

This show was preceded last night by another holiday standard: other people's misery, sugar-coated. In "To Heaven and Back" CNN  cashes in on the current heaven craze by showcasing near-death experiences. The moral of these stories is that we should feel better about sickness and death because going toward the light is a totally awesome experience. There was one particularly vile segment about a woman whose cancer miraculously went away when she saw the Light and she finally realized that getting sick was her own fault. I strongly urge you to avoid this show like the plague. It is guaranteed to destroy your joy and make you feel guilty for daring to complain about any personal pain you may be experiencing.

 It's the season of a deluge of celebrity emails in which "Madonna has graciously allowed us to use her name in our LGBT human rights in Russia appeal" and Beyoncé gushes "I don't usually write to you, but," and politicians from our 9% approval rating Congress demand payment based solely upon the other side being worse than they are. Don't like food stamp cuts? Incensed about the mean people trashing Obamacare? Send Senator X a donation and he'll see what he can do. And click that "Send the Republicans a message!" petition link at your own risk. Because I don't have to tell you that these people always share your name most generously within their own fund-raising cohort.

It's the very short season when those same politicians jostle for position in the PR campaign of empathizing with regular people. This year, the go-to scene is the encampment of fasting immigration reformers on the National Mall. (It always helps when protest movements tie in ever so nicely with your own legacy legislation, geared toward increased militarization of the border and attracting more international low-wage labor to our shores.)

And lest you're worried that the rich don't do enough to celebrate each other, you'll be pleased to know that based on the feat of producing twins herself and being a "parent role model supporting women giving birth to healthy babies after full-term pregnancies," Jennifer Lopez will be receiving the Grace Kelly Award from the March of Dimes at a star-studded luncheon in Beverly Hills this coming Friday.

Hey, it's only December 2. We've got a whole month of noblesse oblige yet to stomach. So stay tuned, and keep the antacids handy.

Meanwhile, in keeping with the theme du jour, here are some comments I posted to the Gray Lady over the long holiday weekend. First, to Charles Blow's excellent personal piece on how it really feels to be marginalized. (some readers accused him of pivoting at the end to that odious "personal responsibility" mantra so beloved of conservatives, but I didn't read it that way at all. His point is that working hard against all odds is a worthy goal in and of itself.):
You nailed it, Mr. Blow. This constant attack on the poor by the plutocrats and the right wing politicians controlled by them is finally becoming the subject of a counter-attack... in this column, in progressive blogs, in labor protests against big box gulags, in the refusal of Seattle machinists to accede to Boeing, in a group of passengers who walked off an airplane in solidarity with a blind man bumped from the flight because his service dog interfered with corporate decorum. Oh, and let's not forget Pope Francis's epic put-down of the capitalist Masters of the Universe and their sadistic crusade against the human race.
The MOTU have constructed for our climbing pleasure more of a mountain than a hill. There are hordes of zombie propagandists and deficit scolds at every pass, who'd sooner throw us off one of their many manufactured cliffs than look at us. And when we talk about reaching the promised land, let's not strive for the same tippy-top inhabited by the Forbes 400. The struggle should not be to join them, but to beat them. We must build a new society based on humanitarianism, not consumerism.
In the words of Orwell: " Until they become conscious they will never rebel. And until they have rebelled they cannot become conscious."
So please keep writing columns like this one. While your words may not penetrate the alleged consciences of the Beltway elites, I think you just raised the consciousness of more than a few incipient rebels out here in the real world.
And Nick Kristof, widely admired for his niche beat coverage of third world poverty and human rights violations, proclaims himself mystified that people have turned on him for writing about abuses closer to home -- for noticing that America is a banana republic too, and how shocking it is that readers of his columns are actually castigating their fellow human beings for the "character flaw" of being poor. My response:
Six major media corporations control 90% of what is broadcast in the USA. And all we hear is that the country is going broke, that we can't afford a safety net, and we have a Nanny state culture of dependency.
Instead of hearing the truth that the 400 richest Americans have as much wealth as the bottom 150 million combined, and that the plutocrats are largely sociopaths who'd just as soon the rest of us disappear, we are assaulted with propaganda that pits the middle class against the poor, the middle class against immigrants, the younger middle class against the older middle class, and ad infinitum.
Then, around this time of year, these same billionaires ooze faux empathy and get themselves photographed at soup kitchens. Pete Peterson, who has already spent half a billion of his multibillion-dollar fortune in an effort to slash Social Security, had the nerve to go on "60 Minutes" a few weeks ago to brag about his philanthropy. Walmart, whose heirs own as much wealth as 30% of the American population, but whose workers are so poorly paid that they are on food stamps and Medicaid, is spending a fortune on TV ads showcasing their happy workers.... who then have the nerve to go on strike when they're forced to work on Thanksgiving!
And so, when you write about the poor, you get pushback from people who simply can't believe that a 20% poverty rate in the richest country on earth is the direct result of sadistic policies dictated to our elected officials by the obscenely rich.


Bonnie said...

And one of the blogs (to the right of your column) takes issue with Kristof because he targets "Bad Mommies" pretty exclusively.

"As part of their Let’s Lose the Labels campaign, Gingerbread UK, an advocacy group for single parent families in the United Kingdom, suggest that media follow three basic guidelines:

1.avoid unwarranted mentions of single parenthood;
2.avoid stereotypical language that doesn’t reflect the reality of single-parents’ lives; and
3.tell the whole story by providing context and getting facts straight.
Kristof's latest violates all three, a hat trick!"

...."the stereotypes about working-class parents that Mr. Kristof reiterates are more likely to harden negative attitudes and conservatives’ opposition to public solutions than to produce compassionate responses and support for sensible policies."

James F Traynor said...

Yeah, it's kind of disgusting this time of the year. And slippery, what with all that Noblesse oblige oozing out of the pores of the self-satisfied. Like the poor, they will always be with us - unlike the poor, their condition is irredeemable. At times like this I tend to think fondly of Hannibal Lecter and Dexter. As anodyne and curative to such thoughts I turn to math, though not a mathematician, and turn functions into graphics, pretty things. It's the crazy season.

stranger in a strange land said...

It was nice to see a small outpouring of lamentation for the long absence of once frequent commentator Dennis Neville in the previous Thanksgiving post. I, too, feel the loss of his extraordinary literary contextualizing.

From one of his last comments here:

We can destroy ourselves by cynicism and disillusion, just as effectively as by bombs and guns...

That snippet comes in handy for me when perusing these pages, as illuminating of the world's ills as this blog is. A little outrage is vital, too much bad news tends to drown my incipient rebellion with just that - cynicism and disillusion.

[A little belated gratitude:]

Thanks to all the conscientious Sardonicky faithful, please endeavor to maintain the rich exchange that is the comment section here. And thanks especially to Karen for wading through all the bad news and applying her trademark bite. Oh, how it makes me smile to know that there are some people who refuse to be fooled any of the time.

Happy crazy season to all.

Pearl said...

Bernie Sanders: To Defeat Oligarchy, I Would Run for President | Common
> Dreams

Zee said...

As Nicholas Kristof asks, “Where [indeed] is the love?”

I don't usually read the comments on NYT columns—unless I've been told that Karen or another Sardonickista has something especially pithy to say—but this time I did. And I have to agree, in part, with commenter “Eric, Los Angeles,” (Nov. 28, 2013 at 12:16 p.m., about eighth down the list).

“...[A] contributing factor the lack of empathy [sic] today is an obsession with people who might be gaming the system.

When anyone brings up social programs in today's America, the first word you hear is 'abuse.' It used to be 'need.'

When I was a kid I remember sitting in history class and having the teacher explain that our justice system was built on the idea that it was better to have a guilty man go free than to punish an innocent man. That seemed so cool to me. Like the way an advanced society would work...

Now all we care about is that someone might get away with something. In criminal justice we'd rather execute innocent people than, god forbid, not execute guilty criminals. social services it's all about abuse...

How did we turn into a country where people would literally deny kids - KIDS! - food because some idiot might be gaming the system? Have we become that frightened and vengeful? ”

I confess that I have fallen prey to such suspicions in the past, and, yes, I still do. Because I continue to be amazed beyond all bounds of imagination at the incompetence of both State and Federal governments in their [in]abilities to separate the “guilty” from the “innocent” when it comes to child welfare.

Kristof asks: “ Do we really think that kids should go hungry if they have criminal parents? Should a little boy not get a curved spine treated properly because his dad is a deadbeat? Should a girl not be able to go to preschool because her mom is an alcoholic?”

Well, no. But maybe one of the commenters on Kristof's column had something right:

“A reader in Washington bluntly suggested taking children from parents and putting them in orphanages.”

Do we really benefit underpriviliged children if we provide them with social benefits yet leave them with “criminal,” “deadbeat” or “alcoholic” parents?

If the states really provided “orphanages”—maybe “child welfare centers” would be a better term— that offered truly loving, caring and nurturing environments, would these children not be better off there?

But instead of removing these children from their parents once and for all, the various States have deemed it of paramount interest to keep families together—no matter what the cost to the child.

On the other hand, I have seen state social workers remove children from the homes of responsible parents—and placed them in lousy, foster care—based on pure BS.

To be continued...

Zee said...

Where's the love? (cont'd)--

A colleague of mine—DOE Q-cleared, re-investigated every five years, and, IMHO, a really good person—had one of his four children removed from his home because an anonymous someone reported that that particular child was “underweight.” The rest of the children were “fine,” but because this one child was skinny for his age, he was removed from his parents' custody under suspicion of abuse. My former colleague and his wife are still fighting to regain full custody of this one son after several years.

At my church, one very nice lady has adopted several “special needs” children through the years. One of the children was such a handful that she footed the bill for placement at a highly recommended, special “ranch” in southern New Mexico, at her own expense.

Well, there were allegations of “abuse” at this boys' ranch (which are, as yet, totally unproven). But my fellow congregant's son had made amazing progress at this ranch. The State of New Mexico declined to shut the ranch down, but at the same time ordered all parents to remove their children from the school. (Go figure.)

The mother declined because of her son's great progress. So her son was removed from her custody, placed in lousy foster care, and she faced charges of felony child abuse at the behest of the State of New Mexico.

The charges were dismissed out of hand by a District Court Judge, and the child was restored to his mother's custody. But not before both pain and separation were endured on the part of both mother and child.

So what's my point with this lengthy story?

Well, as I have stated before, I hate for my money and me to be taken for a ride. But I could live with letting some “fraud and abuse” go by if I had any confidence whatsoever that, in the main, the state was doing the right thing overall.

But I just don't. They leave children who might have some hope with parents who will snuff out that hope. They remove children from the care of responsible parents on the basis of mere inuendo.

I have the empathy, but I don't have the trust in my government to do the right thing with either my money or with the children over whom it is supposed to be watching.

So where's MY love? Certainly not with those who have neither the talent nor the skill to help those whom they are supposed to be helping.

The Black Swan said...


Part of the problem is that the State is supposed to be 'us', but is more and more becoming 'them'. The whole point of a democracy is that you have a citizen led government that is supposed to exist for the benefit of every citizen, not for the benefit of the government.
So the government has become a foreign body to the citizenry of this country. It doesn't respond to our needs, or our wants. The police view us as an enemy. CPS has become a faceless beauracracy, when it needs to be a compassionate intermediary between the needs of the individual and the needs of the community. I feel increasingly like a prisoner in a mental asylum; like 'One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest'. Where 'they' know what's best for 'us' and it will be forced upon 'us'.
Everything in the United States is so corrupt and criminal that I don't see reform as possible. I also don't see revolution as a viable option. Something needs to be done, because things can't continue on this path. I don't want my taxes and hard work funding this US gov't, but I would be happy with my money and hard work funding a gov't that actually worked for the society it exists in.
Somehow we need to turn this culture of greed and self-interest into a culture of compassion. So we can live in a world where children don't starve, and where innocent people aren't punished by the state just so we make sure no guilty can escape.*

*But only if you are poor, or black. If you are a rich white person then for sure you can escape any crimes.

D12345 said...

Hi Karen,

I second James Traynor's appreciation for your presence on our computers.

Your comments in the NYT are consistently more insightful, better written and more relevant than the op ed columns they are attached to.

I think it would be appreciated if you started to reprint them all here on the web page. (

I am sure that some slip by unnoticed by many...and this would be a safe haven for them.

All best for the season (!) the year to come and for life in general.

The wilderness needs your voice!

Karen Garcia said...

Thanks so much, D12345. I do repost my Times comments sometimes, but I'll take you up on your suggestion and do so more consistently in the future.