When 140 characters isn’t enough: Paul Chislett August 2 2016

WARNING: Middle Class generalizations ahead!

The views expressed here are mine alone.

Frankly, it’s not that often I get into a Twitter debate (Twitterbate?). But when I do there’s only so far one can go with 140 characters at hand.

Recently I posted on Twitter (@chislettshakeup) an article, “America’s hidden homeless: Life in the Starlight Motel” by Carolyn Bick (@CarolynBick).

The article examined the lives of several people living in a U.S. motel as the only option they had other than a shelter or a tent city. Bick showed the human drama of suffering in an economic disaster – the classic human interest piece. For me, if we don’t go beyond the personal and ask what has happened to cause these working class people to be living in a motel one step up from a tent city or perhaps suicide, then what’s the point other than to be a voyeur of the suffering of others?

I Tweeted the article because I believed it was well written and showed what poverty looks like and how people struggle to make the best decisions they can with what they have. My comment in the Tweet was “welcome to the post-industrial nightmare. Neither #Trump nor #Clinton have a clue”.

I use social media in large part to ask those larger questions in an attempt to give deeper meaning to the suffering I may read about. Especially in this case of this story I attempted to put myself in their shoes. Isn’t that part of the promise of social media – to be able to experience the plight of others, good or bad, in order to learn and take some kind of action no matter how small to help bring about change? Think social media and the Arab Spring and Occupy.

In my day to day activities, and here as well I make no judgement or pretend I’m doing more than someone else, most of my time is at the Windsor Workers’ Action Centre where non-union workers have nowhere else to turn, many of them are recent and established women newcomers of colour, and the very definition of the precarious reality of  the working class is routinely ignored by the media. So I am not surprised to see a story on families living in motels, cars, and tent cities.

So, left unexamined in the article is the ‘why’ of such poverty. From my own study and observations, the false promise of free trade and globalization coupled with the abandonment of citizens to varying degrees by governments has led to the undeniable and extreme inequality around the globe and right here in this city. Governments have become enablers of global capitalists. I suppose to some it’s a leap to read these very sad personal stories that include family members cutting others out of a will and link the poverty to the larger political and economic structures. But link them we must if we are to organize for real systemic change. (Read about the Solidarity Economy)

The Twitter exchange about the article between a local journalist and me began when she focused on the personal evil of one brother cutting his sibling out of a family will and thousands of dollars. She called it morally wrong, and so it was. Yet such actions by ordinary people in their personal lives affects, maybe, several people directly. Those responsible for the economic and political system that drains wealth into the coffers of a few, who wage war over resources and strategic control of parts of the earth, who manage to siphon literally trillions of dollars into off-shore accounts for wealthy clients, thereby depriving governments of tax revenue – these are decisions that affect billions of people – and are deliberate and calculated. My point was that it does no good in the struggle for justice to judge people already down.

The fight needs to be taken to the wealthy and powerful for it is their decisions that leave working class people in motel rooms wondering what the hell happened, while billions are spent on weapons and war. It’s their system of exploitation, war, and social abandonment that needs to be grappled with. It is this blind spot – this refusal – to take on the hard work of resistance to an insane system, and fighting for something fair, equitable, and just on the part of many middle class people that is so very frustrating to see. It seems it’s just so easy to bash the poor from some moral high ground while letting the real culprits off the hook.

We can sit in judgment of others (poor bashing) and continue with our daily lives and vote for tax cuts and freezes, or we can examine the moral outrages of those who manage the system – moral outrages that dwarf the failings of individuals who are struggling as if drowning.

The existing economic and political systems have been deliberately constructed over the last 30 years and were designed to dismantle the re-distributive role of government. The post-war Canada that many of us knew was not created by charitable giving. It came into being when working class people fought for the right to unionize, fought to elect governments that created socialized medicine, a public pension plan, income support like unemployment insurance and welfare, affordable housing ensuring, and so on.

Today, middle-class suburbanites clamour for tax cuts and give to charity as if that’s political action. Middle class suburbanites (remember I’m generalizing here) bought into the free-trade era mantra that taxes are a burden rather than an investment, that government is too big and too wasteful and only the private sector can properly manage affairs; that free trade will raise all boats, and that a knowledge economy would free workers to – well – starve.

That’s where we’re at and working class people are suffering, politicians offer whatever  focus groups say will sell, and what’s left of the middle class contents itself with illusions that the status quo will protect their interests – or they do get angry and then vote for the likes of Stephen Harper or get bamboozled by the likes of Justin Trudeau.

If, as they say, you sign the back of your pay cheque rather than the front: you are working class and we better get organized for systemic change, not sit in judgement of our peers.

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