American Winter is a new documentary that is out right now. It’s about how easily families can fall from middle class into poverty, even when they do everything right.
I watched a free screening of it, along with my brother and a friend, at a community-supported theater that closed down years ago as a for-profit movie theater. That community theater seemed like an appropriate venue.
The turnout was fairly impressive as it was almost a full house. I wonder what impact documentaries can have. I put great faith in knowledge, but it is easy to be dismissively cynical about any positive change resulting.
If anything, I see the fact of such documentaries even being made, much less watched, as the result rather than the cause of changes that are already happening (whether or not it is positive, it would be a bit early to say). Just by casual observation, it is clear that public opinion is shifting and that the former consensus has been eroded. What profoundly saddens me, though, is the knowledge that such cold-hearted capitalism/corporatism not too long ago was strongly supported by so many average people. An entire generation of Americans turned their back on those in need, and too many continue to do so.
It wasn’t strangers far away who supported such moral corruption. Conservatives obviously supported it and even many liberals supported it, probably quite a few of the people around me at that theater. Those who got their slice of the pie thought everything was fine and it apparently never occurred to them what would happen when no one baked any more pies and the last slice was taken.
None of this was forced on the American people, although it could be said that the American people forced it on many others, both the struggling in this country and all around the globalized world. American voters bought the rhetoric hook, line and sinker. Meritocracy, trickle down, free markets… the rhetoric sounded so nice, just as long as it was only other people suffering the consequences.
What woke up the American public was their too late realization that they were part of the struggling masses. A refrain by the people interviewed in the documentary was that they never thought that it would happen to them. Only worthless losers, lazy deadbeats, welfare queens, moral failures, social reprobates, criminal leeches and other inferior types ever need or ask for assistance from others… or so goes the unstated rhetoric that these people had come to accept.
Predictably, people love to judge others for their problems until the same thing happens to them. It is such condescending judgment that allowed it all to get so bad. But why does it take immense personal suffering, not to mention near economic collapse, to remind people of basic compassion and common decency? This frustrates me to no end. Why do we have to let problems become so festering and overwhelming before we even allow honest public debate? All of this is as preventable as it is predictable… or rather it should be preventable because it is so predictable.
One of the major points of American Winter is that for these families poverty was preventable. None of this is a mystery or even complicated. All it takes is the collective will to implement what we know has been proven to work.
This point was expanded in an interesting direction. It is cheaper to prevent the problem than to pay for taking care of it after it becomes a problem.
That doesn’t even include all the secondary costs incurred if the poverty becomes established and continues, especially if it creates a permanent underclass of the severely impoverished: permanent unemployment or underemployment, homelessness, psychological stress and related issues, alcoholism and drug abuse, drug dealing, gangs, crime and imprisonment, violence, increase of homicides and suicides, prostitution, unstable families, divorce, single parents, low grades and lower school achievement, dropping out from high school, not going to college, lack of health insurance and quality healthcare, etc. Add to that all the other problems that go with a shrinking middle class, low socioeconomic mobility, and growing economic disparity: food deserts, obesity, diabetes, malnutrition, STDs, teen pregnancy, and on and on and on, ad infinitum.
All of it is preventable and is less expensive than the alternative. What is most interesting about this is that there isn’t a good criticism that can be offered by conservatives of any variety, especially not fiscal conservatives. Only the most hearltess libertarian or the most belligerent Randian objectivist could dismiss both the moral and fiscal reasons for ending and preventing poverty. It isn’t a matter of not being able to afford poverty prevention. Quite the opposite. We can’t afford to do nothing.
Besides, democracies that get too large of economic inequalities inevitably become banana republics. There is no way to have political democracy without economic democracy. Of course, many on the right would claim they don’t want any democracy at all or else as little of it as is possible, but they should be careful what they wish for. They will get it if they continue to push their luck, assuming we aren’t already past the point of no return.
Meritocracy is presented as a close enough approximation to democracy and/or a replacement for democracy. Hard work is the reward we are to accept for allowing ourselves to be politically disempowered. Voting with our dollars is supposedly all that matters, corporate personhood for corporate ‘democracy’ with the corporation that has the most dollar-votes getting to represent us the consumer-citizens, a la Citizens United.
Indeed, the ideal of a meritocracy is an odd thing, specifically as rhetoric meets reality.
In the documentary, one particular person (a guy with a down syndrome son) demonstrated how this oddness plays out on the personal level. He was one of those who never thought it would happen to him. It was clear that he was deeply ashamed. He said that a grown man in his fifties shouldn’t have to ask his father to pay the electricity bill. How I interpreted this was that he thought a mature adult should be an autonomous individual who is dependent on no one, not even on the closest of family during the most difficult of times.
What seems most odd about this is the simple truth that we all are interdependent on one another. It’s just a fact of reality, not something to be ashamed of. The entire planet is one big interdependent biosphere and humans are the most socially interdependent of any of the species. We humans will deny our interdependency to our own peril.
It has been said, “No man is an island.” Well, I’d say that a self-made man is a mystical beast living on an imaginary island. Even the fairies in fairyland have a hard time believing such a thing could exist.
It’s not just that behind every successful man there is a woman or vice versa. Behind every successful man, there is any number of things: a healthy community, well off social connections, a privileged childhood, etc. The strongest determinant of wealth in America right now, as was mentioned in the documentary, is growing up with wealthy parents. This is to say that most wealthy Americans inherited their wealth and/or the conditions of their wealth, rather than having earned it through hardwork and merit alone.
This isn’t the American Dream. We’ve been sold a bill of goods. Or to put it into Gilded Age terms, we’ve been railroaded. Plutocray has been the dream of rich white men for centuries, most of the founding fathers included, but plutocracy has been the nightmare of average Americans since at least when George Washington violently put down the first populist revolt.
With the plutocratic rhetoric of meritocracy, one of the great boogeymen is the welfare queen. It took corporate propaganda sold by an actor-trained president to convincingly sell this hatred of the poor, presented with a kindly-looking smile, but sold it was. In the standard narrative, the welfare queen is a poor black woman (the antithesis to the rich white man) who out of wedlock pumped out the children (slut) to get free government money (whore) so as not to have to do honest work (lazy) and so as to live the high life driving expensive cars (leech).
The poor black woman was the target of rich white men’s lust during the slave era, but now that she is free who knows what she will do in retribution for the sins of the rich white men’s fathers. Although a demented dark fantasy, it does have its own internal logic of sorts, not unlike the logic of portraying Obama as his father’s son come from dark Africa to seek his anti-colonial vengeance upon white man’s Western society. It sounds like a Hollywood blockbuster.
Fearmongering aside, who are the real welfare queens?
A welfare queen takes more than gives, especially those who assume benefits as privileges without attendant social responsibilities. This is anyone who personally benefits from publicly-funded services and whose lifestyle is dependent upon publicly-funded support. This is anyone who accepts any kind of community offering or public good, including public resources taken from the commons, without reciprocation and fairness. This is anyone who takes more than they need when others have greater need, anyone who takes advantage of those less powerful and less fortunate, and anyone who disregards precautions about and investments toward the long-term sustainability of society and the impact on future generations. A welfare queen is defined by their selfishness, greed, and sociopathy.
It is clear that I’ve just described the prototypical modern big business. Nothing surprising about that. American Winter briefly touches upon an aspect of this, although all too briefly.
A weird form of corporate welfare has developed. The modern transnational corporation isn’t sustainable itself without massive financial support from public funds. What capitalism has perfected is the externalization of costs.
Without welfare and food stamps, without unemployment benefits and public health services, without public education and state colleges, there would be no functional workforce that could survive on such low wages as offered to most employees. Governments subsidize corporations by paying for what citizens can’t afford with minimum wage. There is something majorly wrong when many if not most of the people receiving government funds and services are those who are employed, yet don’t make a living wage. And when corporations move factories, they leave behind massive unemployment and poverty that is taken care of by the government.
This is is just one aspect of externalized costs. Other aspects include social destabilization and undermining of local economies, bailouts and subsidies, pollution and environmental degradation, and selling below the market value of natural resources from public lands, etc.
The majority of United States citizens would quickly descend into third world conditions if not for the government hiding the consequences slowly destroying American democracy and American communities. As Fran Lebowitz explained it, “In the Soviet Union, capitalism triumphed over communism. In this country, capitalism triumphed over democracy.” Or as the Borg put it, “Existence as you know it is over. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own…” and “You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.”
This sad state of affairs demonstrates a rot at the core of capitalism. This is where American Winter fails to meet the problem beyond emotional appeal.
The documentary lacked a coherent and compelling narrative. I wasn’t inspired because there was nothing offered to be inspired toward. The problems were explained with data and real world examples. I was emotionally moved by human struggle and suffering. But then what? Where is the deeper analysis? Where is the vision?
In watching the documentary, I had an almost passive sense about the portrayal of poverty. It felt like a problem that happened by accident, an unintended consequence of focusing on other things such a decreasing federal spending.
In the documentary, people kept saying that such poverty isn’t what it means to be an American and that such downward mobility isn’t what the American Dream is about. That is fine as far as it goes. There was sadness and desperation, but I sensed no deep outrage. The people were worried about their families, but no one spoke about or was asked about their fears for the fate of America as a country, much less concerns for the suffering and poverty all around the world.
If they had used the middle class family as a jumping off point to get to a larger frame, so much more could have been communicated. As it is, the documentary is a lost opportunity. It isn’t particularly memorable. It is like a hundred other documentaries I’ve seen before. Nothing about it stands out and demands attention.
More importantly, I doubt it would be watched by many who aren’t already aware of the problem and persuaded that it is serious. I can hear in my head how conservatives would dismiss or ignore the view presented. Middle class families as a vague general category don’t make for a powerful symbol that can come close to competing against the dark vision of welfare queens driving Cadillacs, a single poignant image lingering in the collective mind for decades that simultaneously imagines the problem for honest tax-paying Americans and imagines how the cause of the problem is destroying America and the American Dream.
I have a soft place in my heart for liberal do-gooders. Nonetheless, the liberal lack of vision and insight ultimately just depresses me. American Winter is good for what it is, but not good enough for what is needed.