I AM RECENTLY returned from a week-long sojourn in Flagstaff where I slept on the floor of my man Jones and spent the days eating potato chips and the evenings watching rented westerns on the VCR. Every lad on the planet ought to effect a similar escape at least twice annually, to maintain some degree of grip on reality.
Jones is good for this sort of thing because he combines a subtle mind with an idiot-simple credo, and has the further gift of enunciating that credo in sentences you can diagram on one line.
Anyway, in between movies one night, Jones and I were discussing Colt revolvers and mountain-bred horses, in the context of human self-reliance, and meandered tangentially into the subject of the new Republican world order and the welfare state. Jones' personal ethic and my own lean toward the Emersonian view on self-reliance, tempered by a pragmatic realism rooted in late 20th century America and tinged overall with good-natured optimism.
Applied to the present case, this frame of mind translates into a view that Newt and the thugs in Congress, like Fife and his lads in the Legislature, are out to enrich themselves and their ilk by punishing the poor, the young, the dark-complected, the under-educated, under-employed, under-represented.... But at the same time, both of us recognize there are certain undeniable truths about this beleaguered underclass that doctrinaire liberals would rather not face: First among these is that they will always be with us. The Bible tells us this, in the Old Testament.
The second Awful Truth is that they are growing more numerous daily. The Bible didn't predict this, but it did plant the seed from which this terrible harvest has grown. From the earliest biblical injunction to go forth and multiply, religious literalists have embraced multiplication to the exclusion of any other mathematical possibility.
And so the tribes of man have grown, while at the same time the expectations of individual men have grown, and the technical magic of man has proceeded apace, and so on. About the only thing that hasn't grown is the planet's capacity to support all these people and all this foolishness. We find ourselves today confronted by grim realities perhaps too monstrous for us to comprehend, while at the same time we are handicapped in
our attempts at comprehension by the fact that within the living memory of the senior among us remains a time when many of these problems either didn't exist, or were on a scale that we could tackle and solve.
But it got away from us, whether we let it, abetted it, or it just accelerated and grew beyond our speed and might to control.
The root of the problem is global, universal, and it has to do with the birth rate. Human population is approaching a head-on collision with the finite limits of geography--space, water, air and food--and the United States finally is being sucked into vortex.
Welcome to the Third World, America.
I was groping around near the bottom of a bag of barbecue potato chips and reaching for my second Coke, treating Jones to my four-bit lecture on the coming revolution in America, the scenario in which Newt's Republicans drive the underclass so far down and so far out that they take to the streets with rocks and bottles, knives and inexpensive firearms to win back a share of the Bye, Bye Miss American Pie.
Jones detected that wistful wisp of the liberal dream that remains in me, and pointed out that the population explosion, in tandem with all sorts of other factors of expectation versus reality, has put our problems out of reach of classic liberal solutions just as surely as they are beyond the grasp of the conservatives.
"Some alcoholic teenager in a tin-can trailer out in Ash Fork, whose mother and grandmother grew up on welfare and had six kids apiece with six different fathers, who only show up to beat-up the old lady, steal the ADC check and try to cash in the food stamps for beer money...that kid is not ever going to get the point that he ought to get out of bed on a cold morning with four feet of snow outside, shovel his way out to a car that won't start, then hitchhike to another town where there's a minimum-wage job where people laugh at him, and be on time, or call in when he's sick--though he doesn't have a phone--do all that for a job that will not even support him, let alone a family."
Well gee, Kris, when you put it that way....
Of course he's right. Just a generation ago, your father worked at one job, say, at a shoe store, and your mother kept house and cooked, and the family got by. Sure, it was an Ozzie and Harriet, sexist, role-modeled society. The point here is an economic one: a single bread-winner, even at a dead-end job, could support a family. And in small-town U.S.A. even the families without bread or bread-winners, could often count on neighbors, churches and charities to help them over the hard times.
Today we've got twice the population to contend with, most of it packed like rats in maze-like cities, and we don't know our neighbors, go to church or contribute to charities. For Newt and Co. to invoke the notion of old-time charity, orphanages and church pot-luck suppers to feed the masses is nothing but nostalgic bullshit. Times have changed. Not only has population exploded, but the job market has shrunk. High-tech has given jobs to machines. Low-tech has given jobs to Third-World sweatshops where kids work for pennies a day and gather at night around TV sets to watch McDonald's commercials that show black and brown and yellow and red people like themselves, living in America, driving Camaros and wearing hundred-dollar sneakers.
Welcome to America, Third World.
I listen to the guys around the breakfast table at the cafe in my little town. Jones listens to the guys in the maintenance department where he works, and we both hear a lot of the same:
Goddamn loafers won't take the jobs that are out there. They've got a free ride and they won't let go of it. The more illegitimate babies they have the richer they get...
Well it's not true, but then I can't blame the old guys for believing what they do. In their day opportunities were greater. They had a father and a mother to grow up with and learn from. For most of them there was a job available and it paid a living wage.
Today these things are no longer true. It takes two, sometimes three jobs to support even a lower-middle-class family in the style to which television has made us accustomed. This leaves the kids at home alone with the television to be mother and father, teacher and mentor to them.
Is it any wonder that poor children, from homes without fathers and second- or third-generation welfare mothers never learn a work-ethic? Who the hell is going to teach them? How in Christ's name are they going to take seriously what they hear from school teachers and prosperous adults who have no clue what their world is like?
And in the end, what are we going to do about it--Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal?
"Well, AIDS showed promise," Jones said, "but it's undemocratic. The old plagues were a little less specific as to lifestyle, but they were inefficient. What we need is some kind of disease that's fast-acting and impartial."
I agreed, and added that the threat of nuclear war might soon be a warm, fuzzy memory.
"A fission bomb would be nice," said Jones.
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