On Valentine’s Day, which will forever be known to the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland as the day their young lives became forever associated with trauma, Allison and I decided to watch something old, and romantic, so we could not talk about the daily horrors for a few hours. We had that luxury, of course.
We quickly picked Casablanca, which neither of us had seen for years. What struck me watching it again, beside how great it still is, is that beside the main three (or four) characters, you are meant to deeply sympathize with the young couple trying to get out of the city.
We’re primed to sympathize with them, to feel their plight, to feel the agony of their neverland time in Casablanca. This isn’t just because they are young and attractive, but because the opening narration perfectly lays out their situation.
With the coming of the Second World War, many eyes in imprisoned Europe turned hopefully, or desperately, toward the freedom of the Americas. Lisbon became the great embarkation point. But not everybody could get to Lisbon directly, and so, a tortuous, roundabout refugee trail sprang up. Paris to Marseilles, across the Mediterranean to Oran, then by train, or auto, or foot, across the rim of Africa to Casablanca in French Morocco.
Here, the fortunate ones, through money, or influence, or luck, might obtain exit visas and scurry to Lisbon, and from Lisbon to the New World. But the others wait in Casablanca — and wait — and wait — and wait .
You can feel their desperate pain. These are people whose lives have been upturned by the horrors of war, by the mad headlong rush of violence into their lives. They are broken and shattered and scared and lost, half-dead, barely clinging onto hope. We feel for them, because they are human, and we can see ourselves in them.
We have the same situation in Syria, today. Millions of people have had their lives turned inside out, blown apart by a savagely cruel war. They spent their lives under the cadaverous pallor of the Asad regime, and when some rose up, peacefully, they were slaughtered. Over the next 7 years, their country has been turned into a charnel house, ripped apart by warring factions inside the country (especially the regime), transnational groups like ISIS, and international actors like Russia, Iran, the United States, Saudi Arabia, now Turkey, maybe Israel.
They fled across the self-same Mediterannean. They fled to Europe, many with eyes toward America. But we didn’t see them as people. We saw them as others, verminous danger, and closed our doors.
That’s clear in the latest budget, and it is clear in, say, the dozens of refugee resettlement centers that are being closed under Trump and Paul Ryan.
But that’s the GOP. That’s who they are as a party, and it is clear in issue after issue: cruelty is the point, and empathy is a weakness. It is not a coincidence, nor a distortion, that their President is a man entirely incapable of empathy, and whose primary instinct (other than self-aggrandizement) is to be cruel to those he thinks are weaker than him.
It’s how he became President after all, and in every move he makes and every reaction he has, and in every piece of policy crafted in the head of Paul Ryan, making the lives of actual humans even worse is the primary goal. Punching down, and pulling the last shreds of a decent life from those who have so little.
Blue Apron Food Stamps: Misery Is The Point
If you scour this great land of ours, you’ll certainly be able to find a few people who have taken advantage of the food stamp program, who use them to buy lottery tickets or booze or caviar or something. It turns out that there are crooks and scam artists everywhere. Why, I recently read about a New Yorker who had to pay a $25 million fine for running a fake university!
But for the GOP, those stories are the only story. The poor, you see, are morally deficient. Not all the poor, of course; the white working class has been destroyed by the neoliberal elite. Their poverty is the result of huge systemic forces. But the others? Not so much.
That’s why the food stamp program has always been a huge GOP wedge issue. They hold it up as an example of the government helping lazy blacks, giving taxpayer money to “those people”. And those people, brother: they’re crooks.
That 40% of food stamp recipients are white isn’t hypocrisy; it is the point. Racist politicians use that as an issue for punching down. You, sons of Ohio, you have just had some bad breaks. But those people are thieves. They’re crooks. They’re living off the fat of the land, lounging around in their Cadillacs eating t-bone steaks, while you struggle.
Becuase of this, there is a political incentive to be as cruel as possible, to show that you are attacking the bad people, the sponges and thieves. It’s political, but for this generation of GOP reps, who are fully immersed in Reagan-era racist poverty-bashing, it is also a true belief. The poor deserve to be poor, because of moral failings, and the deserve to be hurt because of it.
And that’s why the administration’s plan to revamp the food stamp program, and change it to a food delivery service (which they inanely likened to the expensive Blue Apron service), is the peak of this. While it is still giving poor people food, it is doing it in the most dehumanizing way possible.
Though there are already restrictions on how food stamps may be used, the so-called America’s Harvest Box represents a significantly more restrictive approach to food aid. The SNAP boxes would contain peanut butter, shelf-stable milk, juice, grains, cereals, pasta, and canned beans and meat. No word on what SNAP recipients should do if they have dietary restrictions for medical reasons, or if they keep a religious diet. The boxes also will not contain any fresh fruit or vegetables.
Mmm, canned meat! That’s truly the American Harvest!
The point here is to make the lives of people who are already poor even smaller, more constricted, more difficult. Lesser, really. They aren’t even allowed to purchase food that they want. They’ll get canned meat, powdered milk, and some peanut butter. Want a treat for your kid’s birthday? You do, right? You want a cake?
Fuck you. You’re poor.
Of course, their own constituents, the white working class, the 40% of food stamp recipients, will also be hurt by this. But they’ll just figure out another way to make wedge them and minorities, and try to keep playing the same game.
They don’t actually want an economic system where the working class gets better of course. Don’t be an ass. The plutocratic tax bill is proof of that. But they have to maintain these divisions, in order to say that white lives are worse because of black laziness, refugees, and the swarm of Hispanics flooding across the border.
And so we have endless hippie punching. You see it in pledging to keep Gitmo open, and refusing to release people cleared by military commissions, because being tough on Muslims shows strength. You see it in every anti-refugee attack.
But where you see the barren depths of their ideology the most is in their response to school shootings.
No Lives Matter
It’s axiomatic that the GOP doesn’t care about carnage in American cities, except to say that cities run by Democrats are bad, and of course to animalize the poor. But mass school shootings (or other events like Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs) affect white people, the GOP base. So what is the response?
Well, “thoughts and prayers”, obviously, and endless deflection of the gun issue. This was hammered to perfection by Paul Ryan.
“This is one of those moments where we just need to step back and count our blessings,” he told reporters Thursday at a news conference at the Capitol. “We need to think less about taking sides and fighting each other politically, and just pulling together. This House, and the whole country, stands with the Parkland community.”
He also said that he wanted to wait until all the “facts were in” before rushing to judgement, and he said this, of course, with his Periclean sigh, as if the facts of this one would be different than the last one, or the one before that, or any of the 17 school shootings this year, or last year. It’s how they don’t do anything.
It’s more than being bought and sold by the NRA. If they didn’t want to touch gun legislation, that would be one thing. But to not touch gun legislation by saying it is a mental health issue or school safety issue, and then slash the budget for mental health research and for school safety? That shows a deeper issue.
The issue is that they legitimately don’t care. Their is no interest in doing anything, and indeed, undermining any attempts to make people safer, because they don’t want to do anything. It’s ok to have our children cowering in fear, wondering what is next. It’s ok for the rest of us to grow increasingly numb to these shootings, knowing as we do that unless there are at least five kids killed it probably won’t even make the news.
It’s ok that our country is wild and dangerous, that millions live in immiseration despite our vast wealth. It’s ok that staggering inequality is bifurcating American existence. It’s ok that we close our doors to the desperate and hungry of the world. It’s ok to choke any color, any potential happiness, out of the lives of the poor.
There is a deep grayness to their vision of life, one in which most of us trudge digging endless holes in the dirt, carting wheelbarrows filled with mud to the surface int he service of some vast and unknowable program. The further down you are, the worse your existence should be. All humanity, the very basics of what makes life valuable, what makes it more than mere existence, should be drowned in the squelching suck of the pit.
It doesn’t matter if it is your life, or your child’s, or the lives of some war-ravaged refugee, or the Dreamer living in Columbus their whole life, or the black kid in Garfield Park. Unless you are rich, the Republicans do not care about you. They want to inflict more cruelty. It is the whole program, and if it isn’t dumped in November, it might become permanently enshrined.