Saturday, February 11, 2012

Charles Dickens on Food Stamps

During the holidays, I came across an article that explained why Ebenezer Scrooge could well be thought of as the first of the '1 percenters'.

Intrigued and somewhat amused, I read as the author detailed why we can now think highly of Mr. Scrooge and his previously perceived hard heartedness.

The author explains that Scrooge would have to have been highly involved in the economic/political dealings of the day that would have naturally provided many jobs and thus provided more help to his fellow man than any donation he gave after his ill-fated and now sadly viewed spirit visitations.

As I said, I was amused. But then I realized that the author might be serious.

I read aloud to my husband and father the quotes about Bob Cratchit being obviously unambitious and therefore deserving of the salary he collected. Also, the author notes, Cratchit should be happy to have any job at all, given the economic climate.

Hold this thought.

This week, HRH Queen Elizabeth II is celebrating the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens' birthday.

Charles Dickens was an interesting, and tremendously talented fellow. If you haven't ever read his original works, you have still been influenced by his works.

What made and makes Dickens so singular was his devotion to the lower classes. In a day and age when upward mobility was perhaps more en vogue than even now, Dickens was determined to portray a different side of the lower classes than the public was used to experiencing.

Charles Dickens was no stranger to difficult circumstances. As a child, he was forced to work 10 hour days in order to support his family, as his father was in debtor's prison. This exposure to very poor circumstances gave his future work the authenticity that makes Dickens so likable.

Despite his rough start, Dickens enjoyed a considerable amount of fame. His writing was immensely popular during his lifetime, and he was read widely by those of all classes. His work was enjoyed by none other than Queen Victoria, and Dickens found himself reading some of his plays to the Royal household.

It was an interesting dichotomy that Dickens presented. He wanted to champion the rights of the poor by simply making the plight of the poor more visible. In a world dominated by class structure within class structure, the normalizing of the evils of poverty was earth-shattering. Or, perhaps, class-shattering.

In 2012, I find it difficult to think in terms of lesser classes or lesser peoples. But I don't have to look far to remind myself that these ideas are more prevalent than I care to admit. Certainly we know that other countries participate in class systems that are more than just socioeconomic nods. India is known for their treatment of the 'Untouchables'. Native tribes on virtually every continent war with one another either in fact or in principle. My own country segregated people based on their color...and it wasn't that long ago!

Historically, humans have been known to categorize. We like it. It helps us keep things in order, or so we think. Male, female. Old, young. Rich, poor. Pretty, ugly. Enemy, friend. We need to know what to expect, how to control, where to go.

But a darker side always shows up, even when we are unaware. The lines used to keep us in safe parameters are suddenly vice-like and cruel. Women have been denied legitimate occupations in many cultures, simply because of their sex. The 'weaker sex' couldn't possibly endure the rigors of a job. Those with the gift of metal working are put into a trade because they are good at what they do. But then they are punished for not receiving a gentleman's education, and treated as ignorant. If you happen to be the offending color of the day, you will be looked at as a threat, just for walking down the street. Oversimplification, of course. But you see that this characterization falls on both good and bad sides.

During Charles Dickens time, it did not do to think of the lower class. They were there in that class because God put them there. The overlords were higher creatures, and this actually isn't a stretch. God in his especial favor gave greater power, beauty, knowledge, and wealth to those who deserved it. They were set apart to rule the masses of ignorant droolers that kept the factories going. Kings were literally a higher race than humans. The stairs went down from there, and Dickens wasn't near the top, at least not for most of his life.

I don't believe that we are all created equal. I will never be a professional football player. I am terrible at sports. I can believe in myself and drink all the Gatorade in the world and still not make it. We don't have equal talents and abilities. You cannot expect your child to excel in all things mathematical just like Joseph Goldstein, because your child isn't Joseph Goldstein.

When we tell our kids that 'anyone' can be President, we don't actually mean it.  What we mean is that nobody will be kept from being President on account of gender, race, color, creed, or any other label aside from 'born in Montreal', which is incidentally the label that is keeping me out of the White House.

These ideas were born out of a system that kept people from being and doing what they were perhaps gifted in, if they weren't from the right family or didn't own hawking gloves. And also the reverse, that those who had the gloves were naturally equipped to do whatever their heart desired.

The American Way that we are so proud of doesn't say that Tommy and Sally are the same. We say that Tommy and Sally should have equal access to the same things in order to allow them to grow and live in the ways that God or nature has created them to be. I don't think that everyone should go to college. We've mixed the systems, in my opinion. Everyone who has a gift or hunger for education should be allowed to go to college, no matter if their father is a butcher or baker or hawking glove maker. We've said that everyone now has to excel and be the same, which is not the way we started out. I think this current view of 'democracy' will in the end create a bigger class struggle.

My example:

I've been reading about food stamps lately. In most states, a family of four qualifies to receive government assistance for food if they make less than 23,000 per year. I think that this is a great program, and anyone that qualifies should sign up. I would have qualified not so long ago, but just didn't know it. It would have been a great help to my family. In a perfect world, we wouldn't need government assistance of any kind, because in that perfect world we would all take care of one another. But where I leave off, someone has to pick up. That someone, in the modern world, is government. I can help those I know, if I know of their need and I have the ability. But people fall through the cracks, children go hungry, and this is wrong. Again, I think that it would be best if we all gave enough to one another when we needed it. But everyone has to participate in order for that system to work. Thus, government assistance.

Enough of that. I'm assuming we all know someone who is between jobs or going back to school or has medical debt or *gasp* actually wants to work as a school teacher their entire adult life. Think of those people in your life that might qualify for such programs. Keep them in mind as I jump to the next point.

Recently there have been studies about the food assistance program. The stamps of yore are now debit cards, thankfully removing some of the stigma that stampers had to endure. These cards, while handy to most, have been used in places like Las Vegas strip clubs and luxury island cafes. The studies are also showing that the cards are being used on low class heart killers like Cheetos and Twinkies.

The result is that there are efforts in place to change who can apply for this type of assistance, and what they will be able to use it for. I'm going to say that generally speaking, if someone can get to a luxury island, their need for a food assistance card is legitimately in question. I can think of ways around it, but that sounds fair enough to look into. My problem is really with the other side of the study.

Perhaps, lawmakers are arguing, those who rely on government assistance for their food supply, should be told exactly what they can and cannot eat. Doughnuts would be vetoed, but vegan burritos would be in. Or maybe not, depending on which health expert you contact.

I think that we live in a very unhealthy country. We are overweight, we don't exercise, we work too much and stress too much. It wouldn't be a bad idea if maybe all the doughnuts were vetoed. But we also have the choice to eat or exercise, based on our station. My daughters aren't allowed to eat cookies for breakfast because they aren't wise enough to know it is bad for them on nearly every occasion. But one day they will, and it will at that time be their responsibility. They might throw up cookies after breakfast, but that will be their right. As I am in charge, I am allowed to eat cookies for breakfast. But I don't, because I know better. Most of the time.

If we say that adult members of our country aren't intelligent enough to make such decisions, we are buying in perhaps ever so slightly to that class mentality. Mentally handicapped persons might need such guidance, as would those who are truly uneducated about basic nutrition. These people exist for sure, and I hope that there are systems in place to be of help to them. But when I think about all the people I know that are on or could quality for food assistance, I know them to be wise enough to know that circus peanuts aren't a heart smart option. They aren't lesser people with lesser faculties. Quite simply, they just have less money. (Which is, just so we are clear....indicative of neither character nor education but bank statement.)

Are we seriously going to approve the idea that those who have less money are necessarily in need of guidance? Are we able to assume that those who have money are necessarily able to provide guidance? Does this inversely imply that those of greater means are in no need of nutritional guidance? Or is it acceptable to eat unhealthy items as long as you are paying for it, so to speak, out of your own pocket?

Let's bring it all together now.

I find it ironic that Dickens was so popular during his time. He held a magnifying glass to the eyes of the Victorians, and tried to show them that Genus Lower Classicus wasn't a different breed. And though they didn't change overnight, they did learn to love dirty little Oliver Twist. Factory kids weren't nasty little gutter rats anymore when they had a back story. Suddenly the Victorians understood. Maybe Tiny Tim wasn't a lazy little blighter. Maybe he was! But it wasn't a given. He might have real issues, just like those that plague any of us that are lucky and unfortunate enough to be called human.

The point that the Scrooge article's author didn't get was that Scrooge was unkind. He didn't care that he was fueling employment. It was an unintentional side effect of his greed. He wouldn't have cared, and might even have been upset to know that others were getting something from his careful hours of counting and saving.

The point that Dickens wanted us to see was that Scrooge's eyes were opened. He saw other people, as his nephew says so eloquently, 'not as a separate race of creatures fellow passers to the grave'. They were sometimes in need of his good cheer, his wisdom, his smile, or even his money. But never, not ever, his disdain.

Charles Dickens would have told people not to feed their kids Cheetos for breakfast. But, in the end, it is their affair. They do the best with what they have, just as all of us try to do. A government that undermines the choice of an individual to select breakfast cereal is a weeee bit overdoing it. They can educate, but then they need to trust in the fact that people, no matter the size of their pocketbook, are capable of making choices. Sometimes the choice is bad. Sometimes the choice is good. And, every once in awhile, the choice is even great.

The beauty is in the ability to select and guide your own future. It might be as big as deciding to be the next President. It might be as little as giving your kids Oreos for a special treat because they are working hard at school. But we all are able to be part of our own destiny.

I, for one, toast good Charles Dickens for showing us all how to better appreciate our fellow man. We aren't a different race, just different players. The stage looks different from one side than it does from the other. I toast Dickens with the hope that one day too, I may have my words in the hallowed halls of literary timelessness. I toast him also with Cheetos and beer, knowing he would heartily approve.

Happy Birthday, Charlie. God bless us, every one. 


Talitha said...

Hear, hear! Well stated as always, Beatrice.

Kelly J. Sims, Esq. said...

There is inequality everywhere.

People can promote equal rights to the best of their ability; but, life will always be unfair.

"All men are created equal," is a legal principal of justice (the ideal being that all people should have equal access to justice and their 14th amendment right to due process of law -- the "honeymoon killer" being the latest example of this) but life is -- and never will be -- fair.

Some people go to war and are killed. Others go to war and are wounded, while others never go to war at all.