Rick Santorum possesses some vile views on gay rights and abortion (like thinking rape victims who get pregnant should just accept this “gift from god”), but he seems like such a brutally strange and damaged person that I’d pity him if he weren’t in such a position of power. Ron Paul seems sincere and I don’t disagree with his anti-war and anti-war-on-drugs stances, even if some his other positions bug me (not to mention his ugly newsletters, the racist content of which he’s never explained satisfatorily). Mitt Romney has the nonplussed cheesiness of a local news anchor.
All members of this trio possess varying degrees of harmlessness, as far as I’m concerned. So with Rick Perry out of the race, Gingrich stands above all of them as, hands down, the worst human being of the bunch.
Among them, Gingrich is the most eager practitioner of Bully Politics. This has been a feature of the Republican arsenal ever since Barry Goldwater and part of the general pushback against New Deal/Great Society ideals we’ve seen since those days. However, it’s never been practiced more brutally than now, and never more gleefully than by Newt. When he talks about making kids work as janitors, there is vengeance, and almost glee, in his voice. When he sneers at Juan Williams during a debate, he all but invites the riled-up audience to attack his outnumbered questioner and seems not too concerned about the consequences. He is never happier than when he attacks those can least defend themselves.
When Gingrich called Obama a “food stamp president,” it was an obvious dog-whistle statement. (Subtext: “Remember, guys, he’s BLACK. And he’s gonna give YOUR money to OTHER BLACK PEOPLE.”) But apart from the badly disguised racism, it was also part and parcel with the delight he takes from attacking the least of us, joyfully positing that the poorest among us are the most deserving of our scorn and ridicule.
Hearing this, I had an immediate, visceral, infuriated reaction, for reasons I couldn’t quite articulate at first. Yes, it was a reprehensible attitude, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on exactly it bothered me so much. And then it all flooded back to me, a memory I’d done my best to bury: My family was once on food stamps.
My dad drank himself out of a job by the mid 1980s and was completely unemployable for several years. My mom, who’d given up a career to raise me and my two brothers, was forced to reenter the workforce. Before she was married, she’d worked with computers (the punch-card kind). Now she worked in a picture frame factory. She might have been able to aim higher, but that would’ve required a long commute, and with three kids still in school and my dad out of commission, this wasn’t a possibility. The factory job was in our town and allowed her get out of work in time to be home when we got out of school.
My mom struggled with the idea of applying for food stamps, to the point of talking it through with me. (Being the oldest, I was her sounding board; she didn’t have many friends she could to turn to.) She came from a German Catholic background, which is a lot like Irish Catholic, only with slightly more guilt and a spartan work ethic. It is a background that tells you to keep your nose grindstone at all times, with an emphasis on self-reliance that bears a vague resemblance to the kind seen in North Korean propaganda.
The thought of asking for help to feed her family was humiliating. She told me what food stamps were and that she was considering applying for them. It sounded fine to me–we could get money for food? Sign me up. But my mother was very resistant. “If you do that, then the government OWNS you,” she said, in a voice mixed with anger and shame that I can still hear ringing in my head.”
Soon, though, she had no choice. My mother realized her pride wasn’t worth starving for, and that her job at the factory could only go so far. She cried when she went to social services to apply for the food stamps, humiliated, but she told me later that being parent means giving up a good chunk of your pride. (Now that I’m a parent myself, I concur.)
She absolutely hated using them. Back then, food stamps were still actual stamps, these comically large, dollar-bill-green things that came in checkbook-style perforated stacks. Ripping them out at the cash register at the local Grand Union killed her, I know it did. But she did what she had to do.
I still don’t know how my mother managed it, but through these lean years we never wanted for anything we truly needed. We had a roof over our heads and clothes to wear and, thanks to food stamps, three meals a day. We didn’t have a lot of “stuff” that our friends had, but we didn’t need a lot of stuff. Growing up this way made me appreciate the things I do have. Looking back on it, would my life have been appreciably better if I’d had the cable TV and the VCR and the Transformers I really wanted? I doubt it.
Eventually, my father sobered up and was able to work again. All told, we were only on food stamps a few months; we could have continued to apply for them, probably, but my mother dreaded another social services trip, and somehow we managed to get by on what we had until we were once again a two-income household.
Since I went through all this, when I hear Gingrich (or anyone else) imply that people on food stamps are just lazy bums who don’t want to work, it infuriates me. I would guess that most people on food stamps are in situations like ours: single parents (or essentially single parents, such as my mom) unable to work full time because of their children, who need the assistance to make ends meet. Our poverty was forced on us because my father had a disease, alcoholism. Of course, it was a disease that he was responsible for curing, and after a time he did. But before that happened, were we supposed to starve to teach my father a lesson? What did his children or his wife do to deserve the punitive world that Gingrich and his ilk wish to impose on us?
Let’s suppose for a moment that I’m wrong. Let’s say a significant number of food stamp recipients are lazy, really don’t want to work or make more out of their lives. Even if that’s the case, why are we angry at them, the lowest of the low? Do we really think they’re all carefree bacchanalians laughing at us dumb working slobs? No one on food stamps is having a great life. No one. I promise you that. Whatever they’re “getting over” the rest of us is so sadly infinitesimal, and the existence it subsists so undignified, it is not worth one iota of the anger directed toward it.
If we’re going to get mad at people who do nothing and suck off the public teat, why not get the pitchforks out for corporations who we had to bailout when they ran the economy into the ground? People who not only went unpunished, but are somehow collecting multimillion dollar bonuses now, even though their companies still aren’t profitable? In the grand scheme of things, who deserves more of your contempt? Who has impacted your life in a tangible, negative way?
Hating poor people is a sad fact of our modern culture. Whether it’s People of Wal-Mart or Shit [ETHNIC GROUP] Say or the opening episodes of any season of American Idol, our society is one that gets its kicks from laughing at the lowest man on the totem pole. In the 21st century, we find nothing more hysterical than the man who doesn’t realize how much he doesn’t have.
I don’t know if Newt Gingrich has struggled in his life, but he clearly knows how to tap into the psyches of those who have. He knows there are people in his audience who have asked for help in times of need from family members, friends, maybe even the government, too. And now, having survived those hard times, they want to deny that help for others, as if this will somehow blot up the embarrassment and shame they feel. It is an anger and resentment borne of the shame of having been there, and the fear of winding up there again.
I still feel embarrassed and almost guilty to even remember the fact that we were on food stamps. Even the construction we use–on food stamps–implies shame, as if you could be “on” them the same way addicts are “on drugs.” Prior to writing this post, the number of people who know we were on food stamps could be counted on one hand. I never talk about it, and I would guess even my closest friends, maybe even some of my extended family, don’t know about it.
I even asked my mother if it was okay to write about this, because I didn’t want to embarrass her or dig up any bad memories. In retrospect, she says food stamps were “great,” because they helped us survive. But she also remembers the sting of having to rip them out and use them, and how that pride kept her from reapplying when we could have used the help a little longer. It’s this odd feeling of knowing you have nothing to be ashamed of, yet never, ever wanting to talk about it or even think about it ever again.
So I don’t condone this harsh view of public assistance, though I do understand it, because I’ve been there, and I know the impulse to push those feelings far, far away. Gingrich, however, is a monster for exploiting it. In a just world, we’d save our shame for allowing him to get as far as he has.