Thursday, May 31, 2018

Ain’t Nobody Asked You To Speak For Us REDUX (Originally Posted 11/07/17)


NationalReview |  If I might be permitted to address the would-be benefactors of the white underclass from the southerly side of the class line: Ain’t nobody asked you to speak for us.
One of the intellectual failings of conservative social critics is our tendency to take external forces, economic and otherwsie, into greater account in the case of struggling rural and small-town whites than in the case of struggling urban blacks.
Of course there are external forces, economic and otherwise, that act on poor people and poor communities, and one of the intellectual failings of conservative social critics is our tendency to take those into considerably greater account in the case of struggling rural and small-town whites than in the case of struggling urban blacks. “Get off welfare and get a job!” has been replaced by solicitous talk about “globalization.” Likewise, the reaction to the crack-cocaine plague of the 1980s and 1990s was very different from the reaction to the opioid epidemic of the moment, in part because of who is involved — or perceived to be involved. And this isn’t the first time we’ve seen a rash of deaths from opioid overdoses. As Dr. Peter DeBlieux of University Medical Center in New Orleans put it, heroin addiction was, for a long time, treated in the same way AIDS was in its early days: as a problem for deviants. Nobody cared about AIDS when it was a problem for prostitutes, drug addicts, and those with excessively adventurous sex lives. The previous big epidemic of heroin overdoses involved largely non-white drug users. The current fentanyl-driven heroin episode and the growth of prescription-killer abuse involve more white users and more middle-class users.

But there are internal forces as well. People really do make decisions, and, whether they intend it or not, they contribute to the sometimes difficult conditions in which those decisions have to be made.
Consider the case of how I became homeless.

I wasn’t homeless in the sense of sleeping in the park — most of the people we’re talking about when we’re talking about homelessness aren’t. The people who are sleeping on the streets are mainly addicts and people with other severe mental-health issues. I was homeless in the way the Department of Health and Human Services means: in “an unstable or non-permanent situation . . . forced to stay with a series of friends and/or extended family members.” (As a matter of policy, these two kinds of homelessness should not be conflated, which they intentionally are by those who wish for political reasons to pretend that our mental-health crisis is an economic problem.) Like many underclass families, mine lived very much paycheck-to-paycheck, and was always one setback away from economic catastrophe. That came when my mother, who for various reasons had a weakened immune system, got scratched by her poodle, Pepe, and nearly lost her right arm to the subsequent infection. A long hospitalization combined with fairly radical surgery and a series of skin grafts left her right arm and hand partially paralyzed, a serious problem for a woman who typed for a living. (She’d later learn to type well over 100 words per minute with only partial use of her right hand; she was a Rachmaninoff of the IBM Selectric.) I am sure that there were severe financial stresses associated with her illness, but I ended up being shuffled around between various neighbors — strangers to me — for mainly non-economic reasons. My parents had two houses between them, but at that time had just gone through a very ugly divorce. My mother was living with a mentally disturbed alcoholic who’d had a hard time in Vietnam (and well before that, I am certain; his grandfather had once shot him in the ass with a load of rock-salt for making unauthorized use of a watermelon from the family farm) and it was decided that it would be unsafe to leave children alone in his care, which it certainly would have been. He was very precise, in funny ways, and would stack his Coors Lite cans in perfect silver pyramids until he ran out of beer, at which point he would start drinking shots of Mexican vanilla, which is about 70 proof. Lubbock was a dry city then, and buying more booze would have meant a trip past the city limits, hence the resort to baking ingredients and, occasionally, to mouthwash. I am afraid the old realtors’ trick of filling the house with the aroma of baked cookies has the opposite of the desired effect on me.

Our mortgage then was $285 a month, which was a little less than my father paid in child support, so housing was, in effect, paid for. And thus I found myself in the strange position of being temporarily without a home while rotating between neighbors within sight, about 60 feet away, of the paid-up house to which I could not safely return. I was in kindergarten at the time.

Capitalism didn’t do that, and neither did illegal immigrants or Chinese competition to the Texas Instruments factory on the other side of town. Culture didn’t do it, either, and neither did poverty: We had enough money to secure comfortable housing in a nice neighborhood with good schools. In the last years of her life, my mother asked me to help her sort out some financial issues, and I was shocked to learn how much money she and her fourth and final husband were earning: They’d both ended their careers as government employees, and had pretty decent pensions and excellent health benefits. They were, in fact, making about as much in retirement in Lubbock as I was making editing newspapers in Philadelphia. Of course they were almost dead broke — their bingo and cigarette outlays alone were crushing, and they’d bought a Cadillac and paid for it with a credit card.