Friday, March 5, 2010

What If The Pilgrims Had Landed in California?

I know. It sounds like a frivolous question. Like trying to imagine the Salem Witch Trials as a giant LA surfing party. Or the first Thanksgiving as a celebration at the Ferry Building one Saturday morning in San Francisco, with 20 varieties of lettuces and artisanal cheeses.
But there's a serious side to my question. Because I have the deep and disturbing feeling that many of the attitudes one group of Americans have toward their fellow Americans is some kind of a nasty carry over of those dark, cold, depressing New England winters, a cultural vestigial remain of a period of hard scrabble times and close brushes with societal extinction.
How else to explain the data on American attitudes on poverty and the poor as reported by William Julius Williams in "More Than Just Race"?
What Wilson says is deeply disturbing; it's fundamentally a "blame the victim" national mindset: ". . . the popular view is that people are poor or on welfare because of their own personal shortcomings."
Wilson cites three different surveys conducted in 1969, 1980, and 1990. Analysts looking at the first two surveys found that most Americans believe that ". . . in general economic inequality is fair." That's right. Economic inequality is fair.
In all three surveys, Wilson reports, ". . . more than nine out of ten American adults felt that lack of effort was either very or somewhat important in terms of causing poverty."
In 2007 the Pew Research Center did another survey. That one revealed that "fully two-thirds of all Americans believe that personal factors, rather than racial discrimination, explain sy many African Americans have difficulty getting ahead in life. . ."
The kicker comes when Wilson compares these results to a 2007 survey of the EU. Only 20% of EU respondents agreed that poverty is a result of "laziness and lack of will power." 37% attributed poverty to "injustice in society."
No wonder Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning said, "Tough shit" when confronted with the impact his filibuster had on poor people. After all, it's their own fault!
No wonder there's even a debate about whether it's alright for America to be a nation where 40 million people don't have health insurance. If they'd go out and work their way out of poverty, they'd have the same lousy health insurance the rest of us have! It's their own fault!
Of course, if there were a terrible earthquake, or a natural disaster--something outside the control of each of us as individuals--and 40 million of our fellow citizens were suddenly homeless, needing medical attention, shelter, food, clothes, and a fair shot at a job, I'd like to think Americans would grab their cell phones and text millions of dollars of emergency aid to those in need. I'd like to think we wouldn't shrug and say, "Tough shit." Or blame those who got hit worst for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or deserving it.
At times like that, I like to think that if the Pilgrims had only landed in California, we might all be a little more generous of spirit, a little less morally judgmental, a little less likely to blame the victim, a little more likely to see that we're all in this together.

All Rights Reserved 2009 (c) Alan Webber, Rules Of Thumb