The first casualty of war is the truth. Tell a lie often enough and it becomes your truth. Urinating on dead bodies; cutting off fingers for sport; murdering women and children; night raid home invasions on civilians; and the most recent embarrassment of soldiers posing with dead body parts, are all possible during times of war because of the original lie that starts the war, which must include dehumanizing the enemy. It goes against human reason, after all, to kill another human being. In most of our minds, every person is afforded simple human dignity unless we have built a condemning scenario around their existence that makes them seem less than human. But, that is the necessary act of war—do not think of the enemy as equally human.
So what happens when soldiers try to regain their humanity? One of my friends who fought as a soldier in Vietnam once told me, “they gave me a rifle, told me to shoot anything that moves, including women and children, and now they expect me to act like a decent human being.” My friend was telling me that he no longer felt he was a decent human being. What does a soldier do with these feelings? I know what my friend did. Although the issue of soldier suicides, is complex, including re-deployment as a factor, a Congressional Report on Soldier Suicides notes that from 2005 to 2009, more than 1,100 service members committed suicide—an average of 1 suicide every 36 hours. This is tragic…
When soldiers return home, one of the recurring themes of recovery has to do with the “re-humanization” process. It begs the question: “coming from a survival mode and with such deep prejudice towards the enemy, how does one regain their former humanity?” I do not wish in anyway to minimize what our veterans have experienced. Many of them have sacrificed greatly and deserve our thanks and when needed, our help. And, there is a difference between hating someone and actually killing someone, although it’s tough to do the latter without the former. But I don’t think we need to have been a soldier to experience the kind of dehumanization I’m talking about.
Have you ever hated someone or some people group? I mean hate to the point where you feel that person or that people group does not have the same right to live as you or perhaps to live as well as you? And then, have you been converted from such hate filled thoughts? It’s an embarrassing position, and it causes us to feel extreme remorse and shame for feeling that way about other people. Recovery from hate may be the ultimate experience in humility, one from which some people can never recover.
Now, I want to make a connection to our current social crisis. Something terrible is happening to our country. One of two, Americans (over 150 million of us) have now fallen into poverty. This includes the perennial poor, “the new poor” (the former middle class) and the “near poor” (those who are just a paycheck away from poverty).* You would think this is a problem that everyone would be addressing. In such a serious social climate it makes little sense for a wealthy Presidential candidate like Mitt Romney, to even mouth the words, “I’m not concerned about the very poor because they have a safety net, if it has holes in it I’ll fix it,” but he did say that! Seriously, Romney’s plan to fix the safety net, as he shared with wealthy donors, is to dismantle many of the social programs that make up the safety net.
Although my concern involves politics, it is not partisan. I understand fully that both parties are tied to Corporate big money and neither party spends time talking about the poor. Presidential candidate Romney’s words are simply echoing what many other social conservatives these days are saying. In general, there is a cavalier attitude towards the poor from a sector of conservatives that reveals their truth, that the poor, and “the other,” are unimportant, making them somewhat less human than the rest of us.
The mis-characterization of the poor has been going on for some time. In this decades old conservative strategy, the poor are intentionally painted with broad brush-strokes, which includes the language to make us believe that the poor, especially the “welfare cheats,” are mostly minorities. In fact, Whites actually receive the lion’s share (61%) of public money. ** The strategy behind these hideous and inaccurate images can be traced back to Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” an effort to move anti-civil rights, working poor whites in the south, over to the Republican Party. Nixon advisers knew that with the right propaganda (i.e., states rights), poor southern Whites, staunchly democratic, could be wooed over to join an anti-federal, anti-big government, anti-welfare cheating, anti-minority Republican Party. The move was subtle, as was his 1971 efforts to begin “the war on drugs,” which in effect, became a continuation of racist policies and laws.
Ronald Reagan picked up the ball by espousing the popular image of the lazy, Black, welfare-queen who supposedly sat home, having too many children and collecting government money. Today, this image still exists to the point that former Presidential candidate Rick Santorum assumed he could gain support with social conservatives by stating, “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money; I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money.” Reagan’s continuation of the “war on drugs,” was also part of the plan; being a pretense to fight drugs, it was in actuality a vehicle to imprison Black, low-level drug users, especially for crack. In fact, Whites actually use drugs at an equal rate to Blacks. Reagan’s actions were instrumental in establishing the current Prison Industrial Complex. America imprisons a greater percentage of its population than any other country in the world but it imprisons minorities disproportionately. In her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander states, “More African Americans are under correctional control today… than were enslaved in 1850.”
The prison and jail population in the United States has increased from 200,000 in 1970 to some 2.3 million today. African Americans are incarcerated at an increasingly disproportionate rate. One-third of black males born today likely will spend at least some part of their lives behind bars; nearly one-tenth of black males in their twenties already live in prison; and almost one out of three black males in their twenties currently remains in jail, prison, on probation or parole, or otherwise under criminal justice control. African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites, and Latinos at nearly double the rate.***
Currently, these same intentions are couched in language such as calling Obama the “Food Stamp President,” when in actuality there were more Food Stamp recipients under George W. Bush. The current conservative campaign against the poor attempts to paint the poor as having bad character, making bad decisions, and being mostly minorities. The greatest symbol of the social conservative strategy today is the vehement attacks from the Tea Party in their campaign to make the first Black President “not one of us.” They continue calling for his birth certificate (even after it was furnished); they call him a Muslim; they call him a Socialists; they call him a Marxist; they (and their network Fox News) denigrated Obama’s pastor (a decorated former-Marine) by calling him un-American; etc. Many social conservatives, now true believers, want to make sure that a progressive Black person never gets another shot at the Presidency. Perhaps they feel Obama is just too close to the profile of the poor, Black, equality speaking menace they are trying to keep down. And, if America can cut education; make housing loans tougher to get; raise the interest on student loans; and keep the prison industrial complex going (especially for poor black men), then those who have always been in power will continue to stay in power.
The extreme Right (now the majority among social conservatives) say they want to “take the country back.” In this attempt they idealize a nostalgic 1950s era America…pre-civil rights, pre-multi-culturalism, pre-the first black President. Their enthusiasm is such that even a non-likable, low integrity, corporate privateer like Mitt Romany, can be a serious threat to a pretty decent incumbent. So what’s the problem? Isn’t this just politics? No, it’s worse than you think.
When the conservative campaign to demonize the poor as “the other” gets so evil that we become a country clearly divided between the rich and poor, between minorities and Whites, between those in power and those without empowerment, at some point, we are all going to realize it was started just as rhetoric, just politics, just a campaign strategy that lasted four decades. After that, (and who knows what the cost of coming to our senses will be?), we are all going to want to be human again. But I wonder, what will we do if we can’t find our humanity again? Like so many soldiers who have lost the final battle, will it be too late for the haters of the poor?
Perhapst it is not too late to call off the evil conservative strategy. It’s up to us. There are many White and other conservatives and moderates who don’t go along with these tactics, but their voice has been silenced. We all need to start calling the far-out Right Wing on their dehumanization of the poor. We can learn to disagree without denigrating one another. Whenever anyone uses the poor or minorities or anyone, in a way that takes away from their humanity—let’s decide to make a fuss. Let’s think it through and offer an alternative. Let’s organize and force them to see the consequences of their innuendos so we can all remain human. It’s not too late to preserve our humanity by finding compromises that work for the poor and marginalized of society and that allows minorities to reclaim their public dignity. We are all Americans. We can change. I hope we do before it is too late…
All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do. Galatians 2:10
*Tavis Smiley and Cornell West interview on Democracy Now, April 19, 2012