A couple of weeks ago, EJ Montini, columnist for the Arizona Republic got an anonymous phone call from a 43-year-old woman on the edge of tears. Both she and her husband had lost their jobs and in two months were going to lose their house.
“I’m calling in, and I’m promising myself not to cry,” says the woman on the phone. Even as she says this, however, her voice quivers. She often hesitates as she speaks, seemingly to compose herself.”You always write about things that are going on and the current events,” she continues. “I’m wondering, has anybody noticed in America all of us that are unemployed? I’m 43 years old, and I’ve been working since I was 16. My husband is 45. We’ve been married 22 years, and we’ve always worked. A year ago I lost my job. Six months ago his job was outsourced to India. We have three children, one that’s 18. We were going to try to help them get through college but, um . . . anyway, I was just wondering. There are so many of us and people don’t seem to notice what’s going on.
“I read the paper, and I don’t see a lot of people writing about it. And I know there’s a lot of them out there, because I talk to my friends every day that I used to work with, and there are no jobs.
“And, it just seems that somebody ought to write that a lot of jobs have gone overseas, and there’s no jobs in this country for people that have worked all their lives.
“And . . . I mean, yesterday I was on the phone looking around for shelters because we’ve got another two months before we’re going to get thrown out of our house, and we were part of that middle-class section there. This wasn’t . . . I mean I never thought this was supposed to happen to us. And, I know there’s a lot of people out there like us.
“So, anyway, if you need . . . if somebody would write and make the country aware that . . . I mean I feel invisible.”
I don’t know this woman any more than Montini does, but I know her voice and I know her pain like the back of my hand. I’ve known it for twenty years. That should make it easy to feel empathy with her, but in fact it doesn’t. It makes it harder.
I don’t mean to be cruel or unsympathetic. The noose is tightening around her family, the edge of the abyss is in sight, and I know exactly how that feels. But I am sitting on the other side of the fence, too. She feels invisible now but I and others like me have been invisible to her most of her adult life. She didn’t hear us when we chattered with cold after being thrown out of shelters in the 80’s. She didn’t see us huddling on the streets when automation made us redundant and globalization made us unnecessary. She didn’t call a newspaper columnist because our workplaces got relocated to Indonesia or when the corporations that employed us stole our pensions and left us with nothing. She probably voted for the people who allowed and even encouraged those actions because “it’s good for business” and she was employed so they didn’t affect her, anyway.
Am I being unfair? No, because she says this: “I’m wondering, has anybody noticed in America all of us that are unemployed?” And this: “I read the paper, and I don’t see a lot of people writing about it.” And this: “And . . . I mean, yesterday I was on the phone looking around for shelters because we’ve got another two months before we’re going to get thrown out of our house, and we were part of that middle-class section there. This wasn’t . . . I mean I never thought this was supposed to happen to us.” (emphasis added)
And part of me feels her frustration and fear and another part of me wants to say, “Where the hell have you been, lady? People have been writing about the effects of automation since the 50’s and globalization since the mid-80’s. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs, their homes, their futures just around the time you were getting married. How did you miss that? How could you ignore it?”
She could ignore it because it was just me and others like me. She could ignore it because it wasn’t happening to her and her group but to the unimportant, invisible underclass, and it was supposed to happen to us. Not to her, No, no, never to her. She looked to herself and those around her and she supported policies that were good for her and her friends, ignoring the effects of those policies on those of us outside her group. If we paid the price for her comfort, that was alright even if that price included our lives. We were invisible to her. She couldn’t see us, couldn’t hear us, couldn’t feel the destruction of our hopes or the despair of watching our lives shrink to little more than abject survival. It wasn’t important until it happened to her.
If it sounds like I’m angry, I’m not. I passed anger a good long time ago. There’s nothing unusual about this woman. There are millions just like her.
I once worked as an Organizer for a citizen’s group called Mass Fair Share (it no longer exists) which sent me to the city of Pittsfield in the Berkshires of western Mass. GE had shut down its Pittsfield plant after years of dumping PCB’s in the Housatonic River and burying them a few feet under the soil on their factory site and in empty lots on the west side of town where that site was. As a result, the water on the West Side was undrinkable and, closest to the dumping spots, unusable even for bathing or washing dishes because the contamination level was so high. But the contamination had not yet spread to the East Side of town where the water was still drinkable and people could use their wells. The poison was making its way through the aquifer, though, and our scientists figured that in about a year the East Side would be in the same shape (which in fact is about how long it took).
GE was refusing to contribute significantly to the clean-up. All they were willing to do was lay a few tons of loam over top of the dump-sites, after which they insisted those sites were safe. They even paid to build a playground on one of them to prove how safe it was. MFS was there to drum up community support for a demand that GE be held accountable for what it had done. This was in the early 80’s when the right-wing culture of Social Darwinism was just taking hold and hadn’t yet established itself as it did later.
The effect of our efforts was predictable; in hindsight, I should have known what was going to happen. But I was young and still somewhat idealistic and the danger was so close to them that I was sure they could see it. I was half right–on the West Side, we involved almost everyone in a series of meetings and petition drives; on the East Side, we had doors slammed in our faces, were called Communists and trouble-makers, and told to get lost. Meetings were attended by a handful, petitions went unsigned, and we were subject to threats and harassment whenever we were on the streets.
The difference that a mile–a mile!–made was so stark that even I couldn’t miss it. The East Side wasn’t interested because it hadn’t happened to them yet. Even though they had friends and family who had to drive miles every day to find and bring back a supply of fresh water, it didn’t matter. It hadn’t happened to them, and they wanted no part of a bunch of outside agitators who were stirring up feeling against an employer to which they still felt loyalty and which they hoped would one day come back to town.
There are those who say that the selfishness and tunnel-vision I’ve described is inherent in the beast, that humans have always been and will always be focused on their own narrow interests to the exclusion of everyone outside the tribe, that we will never change, that we aren’t capable of change.
Yet I have lived down here most of my life and seen over and again with my own eyes the generosity and sense of community in those who have the least to be generous with. There are people I don’t like who don’t like me, but when I was in trouble they did what they could to help me anyway, as I did when they were having a rough time. Sometimes it was as big as giving somebody a place to live when they didn’t have one; sometimes it was as small as giving a ride to someone who would otherwise be house-bound so she could do her laundry or get her groceries. If selfishness is inherent in the beast, so is the compassion that comes with the understanding that we need each other, that we’re all in this together and nobody’s getting out of here alive, no matter how extensive their material possessions.
In the last twenty years I have watched conservative wealth spend a lot of its money to spread the Gospel of Selfishness with great success. We learned to look down on the poor because “it’s their own fault.” We learned to look away from hunger, homelessness, and the massive unemployment that led to both because “it isn’t our responsibility.” We were content to close our eyes to corporate greed, theft, embezzlement, and their wholesale abrogation of a social contract that had been in place since WWII and provided us with protections and the solid middle-class to which this woman once belonged because “it doesn’t affect us.” We ignored the warnings all around us starting with studies done in the mid-80’s that the gap between rich and poor was widening and that the middle class was slowly being gutted, eaten away like a body infected with rampant, terminal cancer because we were still middle-class and “it’s never supposed to happen to us.”
It doesn’t have to be this way. I know that like I know the Earth revolves around the sun. I’ve seen the other side of humanity, the side that has some, the side that doesn’t want the poor to starve or the homeless to freeze, the side that doesn’t want poor kids to die because their parents can’t afford a doctor, the side that wants to see everybody with a decent job and the ability to feed, clothe, and house their families on at least a minimal level. I know that in their hearts, most people want that. But I don’t hear this being said in public much, and when it is the sayers are condemned as “bleeding hearts” or “liberal Loons” or “fruitcakes who don’t understand how the world really works.”
It is the ones who say this who don’t understand the way the world really works, and we have to stop listening to them. If this woman and the millions of others like her had fought the depredations and anti-democratic greed of the right-wing twenty years ago, she and her husband would not now be losing their home. If she and the others like her had dared to look around them only three years ago and identified with the first wave of people who lost everything to uncontrolled profit-taking, she and her husband might have fought it and not now be without jobs.
To her and the others like her, I say:
“Ma’am, it isn’t that no one is talking about this, it’s that you haven’t been able to hear them. You–WE–need to start listening to each other, seeing each other, talking to each other. There are more of us than there are of them but only if we include all the people we’ve ignored, all the people we’ve looked down our noses at, all the people we thought didn’t matter because they were ‘different’ from us, ‘less’ than us. They’re not different, they’re not less important. They’re in the same boat we are, and the boat is sinking. We can’t afford the luxury of looking the other way or designating certain others of us as ‘undesirable’. It is all of us or none of us, and sacrifices will have to be made.”
Maybe now she is ready to listen.