June 08, 2018

Bad news this morning

I woke up this morning to the news of Anthony Bourdain's apparent death by suicide. It really came as quite a shock. He seemed like someone on top of the world, but this just goes to show we never really know what's going on inside a person.

I was slow to get on the bandwagon. We don't have cable on the farm, nor do we have the state flower (satellite dish). I first became a fan after my trip to Palestine in 2015, when a friend mentioned he did a show on that. I watched and it seemed like he got it right.

He really had a knack for combing cuisine with cultural observation, political insights, and empathy. (I also have to mention that he was a fellow martial artist who was pretty advanced in Brazilian jiu jitsu.)

When I heard he was doing a segment on McDowell County, WV, I was curious but had a feeling he'd do it right. In my opinion, he did. Here's what I wrote about it in an earlier post:

For natives of the state, it's almost never a good thing when WV gets national media attention. Stereotypes, over-simplifications and poverty porn about. But I'd have to say that aside from a few minor criticisms about certain outliers, he and his crew got it right. The school featured, Mount View High School, is one of the schools my domestic partner teaches at and she knew kids well. I saw some friends as well. And I love McDowell County, which was where most of it was filmed.
I know some people had issues with it, but I think it could have been SOOOOO much worse.
I think the world will be a good bit worse without him. I know West Virginia lost a friend and advocate.

I wish him a good journey to parts unknown.

June 06, 2018

Why we can't have nice things...and how to change that

Philip of Macedon.

People in positions of wealth and power have known the secret of keeping it since ancient times: divide and rule. That statement has been attributed to Phillip of Macedon (382-336 BC), father of Alexander the Great, as well as Julius Caesar (100-44 BC), but the idea was probably already old in their day.

The saddest thing, however, isn't that the rulers do it to us. It's that we do it to ourselves.

Let's look at some real and recent examples in the wake of West Virginia's historic and successful teachers' strike:

*some advocates for the poor were perplexed at the show of support for "middle class" teachers and the apparent lack of concern for those who were worse off.

*some education workers I know have said disparaging things about low-income people who rely on SNAP (food stamps) and Medicaid expansion, apparently not realizing that the same people who target poor people also target public education.

*some people who buy health coverage on the exchange at high prices or who have other poor and expensive insurance may look askance at people on PEIA, asking why tax dollars should be spent on health care for public workers.

And so it goes. Like crabs in a bucket, we pull each other down.

If you want to think of how this plays out on a grand scale over history, think about how people have been divided over race, ethnicity, religion, sex, national origin, etc. And who wins when this happens.

This is why we can't have nice things. So far. As Cassius said in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar,

 “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

Getting past that will require developing a culture of solidarity rather than division. It won't be easy, but I don't think there's any other way forward.

Once again, a bright spot can be found in the nationwide teachers' uprising that began right here in WV. When teachers flooded North Carolina's capitol in protest, their demands didn't just include raises for teachers and more funding for education. They also called for expanding Medicaid for low income North Carolinians.

Todd Warren, president of the Guilford County Association of Educators, was quoted in VICE News as saying, “We think that that's not only the correct and the moral thing to do, but as educators, our students' well-being and their literal health comes first.”

That's an example of the kinds of bridging that needs to happen if we're going to get out of the mess we're in.

June 04, 2018

If they think it's so easy they should try it

Potter Stewart served as a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court from 1958 to 1981. He had some interesting things to say about checks and balances, the importance of a free press and the need for an enlightened citizenry.

However, he’s probably best remembered for his statement on how to identify obscenity. While acknowledging that it’s difficult to define in exact terms, he said “I know it when I see it ... .”

One place I’ve seen it lately has been in Washington, where the same House of Representatives majority that passed $1.5 trillion in tax cuts aimed mostly at rich people and corporations advanced a version of the Farm Bill that would cut basic food aid to 1.2 million Americans and slash benefits by around $17 billion.

The proposed cuts would come from restrictions on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that would affect families, children, low-wage workers, veterans, as well as people recovering from addictions.

Fortunately, the Farm Bill failed by a margin of 213 to 198, no thanks to West Virginia’s delegation. Unfortunately, it’s not over and we can anticipate further attacks on basic food security for vulnerable Americans.

Some of these attacks have already taken place at the state level. House Bill 4001, which passed the Legislature and was signed by the governor earlier this year, is likely to increase hunger without promoting employment. The bill takes a policy of time limits that failed in the nine counties with the best employment and spreads the misery statewide.

Apparently, the people who voted for it think living on a $4-a-day food budget is too high on the hog.

Just to put things into perspective, I thought a little social math might be in order here. Excuse me while I whip out the calculator:

*According to the West Virginia Code, legislators are eligible for a per diem of $131 per day during the regular session. Someone trying to survive on SNAP benefits would have to try to eat for over a month on that.

*Another good contrast is to consider how long someone on SNAP would have to live for the cost of one fancy meal. Let’s say it’s The Greenbrier. Thanks to the power of the interwebs, I found a menu and did the math: one bottle red wine, mid-range, $48; first course bisque, $9; lamb shank entrĂ©e, $49; chocolate soufflĂ© dessert, $14; dessert wine, $17; cappuccino, $5. That comes to $157. If you throw in a 20 percent tip of $31.40, the total is 188.40. People getting by on SNAP would have to feed themselves for 47 days on that.

That’s a week longer than the time Jesus fasted in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry. Come to think of it, I believe he had a thing or two to say about feeding the hungry.

(For the record, I don’t have anything against good food or the finer things in life. I just wish they were a bit more broadly shared. And I don’t mind people who can afford a feast — as long as they don’t try to take food away from those who can’t.)

*Here’s one more. The richest 1 percent of West Virginians are going to get a $25,000 tax cut due to recent federal legislation. That’s an annual food budget for 17 people on SNAP. Or, at current benefit levels, someone on SNAP would have to try to eat for a little over 17 years on that. As in from now until the year 2035.

Those lucky ducks on SNAP.

I only wish that those who want to take away food from people getting by on less than the cost of a fancy cup of coffee would actually try living on that much. It might be good medicine.

As Shakespeare put it in “King Lear,” “Take physic, pomp; Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel, That thou mayst shake the superflux to them, And show the heavens more just.”

(This appeared as an op-ed in the Charleston Gazette Mail.)