Monday Jul 22

HopenthalerYear5 The Real Hunger Games: A Thanksgiving Retrospective

There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread. ―Mahatma Gandhi

“The married and unmarried children ride home to their Thanksgiving dinner,” writes Walt Whitman in perhaps my favorite chunk of Leaves Of Grass. The line, by itself, ought to give most of us a warm and fuzzy feeling, as Whitman intended it to do, I’m sure.

As it has done with so many rituals and cultural celebrations, the United States has shaped the story associated with this ancient harvest ritual so as to fit into the narrative of our national mythos. It was, in fact, George Washington himself who proclaimed November 26, 1789 as a day of thanks and religious observance. Lest I be accused of Rand Paulism, allow me to properly cite Wikipedia, which claims, “In the United States, the modern Thanksgiving holiday tradition is commonly, but not universally, traced to a poorly documented 1621 celebration at Plymouth in present-day Massachusetts. The 1621 Plymouth feast and thanksgiving was prompted by a good harvest. Pilgrims and Puritans who began emigrating from England in the 1620s and 1630s carried the tradition of Days of Fasting and Days of Thanksgiving with them to New England.”

Each culture shapes these celebrations in its own way, but how the U.S. occupies pagan and other seasonal traditions often bothers me. Of course the crass commercialism is a drag, as is the tackiness of cheap plastic decorations, typically made by exploited people barely alive in foreign lands. But this surface phoniness goes, as well, to the core of holiday celebrations. We too often fail to realize the romantic escapism of “over the river and through the woods.” The comforting heat of the oven in which the sweet potato pie is baking fogs the window, and so we frequently fail to see what really is going on outside. The humor of U.S. presidents pardoning turkeys to free them for a long life of free range bliss is a lot harder to appreciate if one takes the time to note the irony, that the poverty rate in our United States, according to Reuters, currently stands at 16% or more; that’s nearly 50 million Americans who live at or below the poverty line. Feeding America, a domestic hunger-relief charity, tells us that, in 2012, “49.0 million Americans lived in food insecure households, 33.1 million adults and 15.9 million children.” It gets worse: according to a recent report by the United Nations Children's Fund on the well-being of children in 35 developed nations, the U.S. ranks 34th, ahead of only Romania. Anyone not in the poverty boat should be very thankful indeed.

What I love about this catalog section of “Song of Myself” is how Whitman sets us up, in the portion of the excerpt that serves as exposition, to feel full with good spirits and a sense of self-worth until we get to the lines, “The lunatic is carried at last to the asylum, a confirm’d case, / (He will never sleep any more as he did in the cot in his mother’s bed-room.” Oomph. A punch to the paunchy gut; the air is let out of the pretty bubble. After this point, realism is established as positive and negative are fused together, a process of rounding out a flattened national character.

A significant point of the passage occurs roughly three quarters of the way down, when we encounter the juxtaposition of these lines: “The prostitute draggles her shawl, her bonnet bobs on her tipsy and pimpled neck; / The crowd laugh at her blackguard oaths, the men jeer and wink to each other; / (Miserable! I do not laugh at your oaths, nor jeer you;) / The President, holding a cabinet council, is surrounded by the Great Secretaries.” Whitman first takes a jab at those belittling, in a decidedly unchristian manner, a downtrodden woman, reminding us that Christian values are about acts, not lip service to some non-sentient altar. By immediately thereafter presenting us with an image of the president and his cabinet, Whitman means for us to understand that our behavior and self-awareness as a people is tied to those whom we elect to be our leaders. This poem was published in 1855; however, its meaning has never been more important to us than it is today, and this tie-in of cultural identity to politics remains at the crux of what we mean our nation to be, our self-image and how those in other lands see us, too.

One example of how our leaders fail to provide exemplary leadership can be found in the case of Rep. Stephen Fincher, Republican of Tennessee. According to, Mr. Fincher, a farmer by trade, “who was elected in 2010 on a Tea Party wave and collected nearly $3.5 million in farm subsidies from the government from 1999 to 2012, recently voted for a farm bill that omitted food stamps.” In response to criticism, Fincher responded with a quote from the Bible: “‘The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat,’” he said. The article’s author, Matthew Yglesias, rightly points out that the “problem with Fincher isn't that he's scooped up farm subsidies, it's that the appropriations bill he's votes for continues to direct huge subsidies to rich farmers like himself even while he preaches the evils of government spending to support the poor.”

The Tea Party itself has tried to cast as much blame as possible on the Obama administration, and while blame enough surely exists to spread around, the narrative suggested by the most ignorant of Tea Party supporters make claims such as these, taken from the Tea Party Command Website: “We will need to rally all those unemployed people in every state to march on DC and Take over! Obama is the reason for our unemployment. He is the DEVIL!”; “I don't know about OBAMA being the Devil, however, be assured he is a MARXIST ACTIVIST, SOCIALIST, STATIST, COMMUNIST and he is out to destroy this country.  We must recognize that fact and do everything that is required to stop this criminal from succeeding”; and “Unemployed people who are struggling in their lives are no threat to the oblamea [sic] regime. Lack of money disables people in the way that they cannot afford to travel, like to rallies in dc. Lack of money keeps people from purchasing firearms and ammunition, and paying the fees for their licenses, these things add up quickly. Unemployment created by government economic policies is a way for the regime to have a mass of people under their control and oppression.”

The facts, however, point more toward Conservative rather than Democratic policies as being most culpable. Sasha Abramsky, writing in The Nation, points out the following: “The percentage of people in poverty is roughly the same as in 1983, in the middle of the Reagan presidency, as well as in 1993, at the end of twelve years of Reagan/Bush trickle-down economics. A far higher portion of the population lives in poverty than was the case in the mid-1970s, after a decade of investment stemming from Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty; and far more live in poverty today than did at the end of Bill Clinton’s eight years in office—years in which the earned-income tax credit was expanded, unemployment was kept to near-historic lows, and poverty rates fell significantly.” She goes on to claim that “our poverty numbers have risen to such a high level exposes the fact that as a society, we are choosing to ignore the needs of tens of millions of Americans—as we have done for much of the period since the War on Poverty went out of fashion and the harsher politics of Reaganism set in.”

Of course, one cannot place all the blame for poverty on the party of no. As The Huffington Post reported, in early November, “Both parties already have agreed to cut billions from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (Food Stamps). As of November 1, payments dropped from $668 a month to $632 for more than 47 million lower-income people—1 in 7 Americans, most of them children.”

The issue, with its competing narratives, is even more complex than many of us are willing to allow. To bring up just one example, how does the issue of poverty tie into that of racial relations in the United States? The Occupy Democrats web site states, “When President Reagan started the myth of the welfare queen, it created the belief that, ‘inner-city people,’ aka blacks, were on welfare and belonged to a ‘taking class.’  Republicans to this day still attempt to paint this picture for anyone who will listen.” However, according to the United States Department of Commerce, 12,800,000 of us currently receive welfare benefits, and 46,700,000 of us are on Food Stamps. The percentage of black Americans who receive welfare benefits is 39.8 %; the percentage of white Americans who receive these benefits is 38.8%, just a 1% difference. Of the remaining recipients, 15.7 % are Hispanic, 2.4 % are Asia, and 3.3 % are other. So much for that handy racial myth!

Want more complication? How about thinking through the myth of America’s “broken” education system? According to the Tea Party Patriots web site, “Since 1958, the U.S. federal government has radically increased its control over the education of America’s children and, in doing so, has limited the freedom and choice of parents and students. Tea Party Patriots believe in empowering parents and students to choose the best education options for themselves.” The Tea, thank goodness, knows where to place the blame: “We know what the problem is.  Few are willing to say what the causes of the problem are or what the solution is. The causes are the educational establishment that has built up in the last few years.  Yes, you can read that as the Education Unions. They are more interested in protecting teachers and politics than education. The schools continue to get worse and worse, and union dues go to make sure we elect politicians who will protect the educational mafia.”

Not so, says David Sirota in a piece on AlterNet, arguing, “we know that American public school students from wealthy districts generate some of the best test scores in the world. This proves that the education system's problems are not universal—the crisis is isolated primarily in the parts of the system that operate in high poverty areas. It also proves that while the structure of the traditional public school system is hardly perfect, it is not the big problem in America's K-12 education system. If it was the problem, then traditional public schools in rich neighborhoods would not perform as well as they do.” Sirota points to a new study from the Southern Education Foundation: “Cross-referencing education data, researchers found that that a majority of all public school students in one third of America's states now come from low-income families.” Sirota concludes by stating what many of us in education understand to be the obvious: “In short, if we were serious about education, then our education discussion wouldn't be focused on demonizing teachers and coming up with radical schemes to undermine traditional public schools. It would instead be focused on mounting a new war on poverty and thus directly addressing the biggest education problem of all.”

According to a U.S. Department of Education study, “about one in five public schools was considered high poverty in 2011 … up from about to one in eight in 2000.” This followed an earlier study from the department finding that “many high-poverty schools receive less than their fair share of state and local funding … leav(ing) students in high-poverty schools with fewer resources than schools attended by their wealthier peers.” In an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, published back in December of 2011, Helen F. Ladd and Edward B. Fiske write, “No one seriously disputes the fact that students from disadvantaged households perform less well in school, on average, than their peers from more advantaged backgrounds. But rather than confront this fact of life head-on, our policy makers mistakenly continue to reason that, since they cannot change the backgrounds of students, they should focus on things they can control.” They point out, “No Child Left Behind required all schools to bring all students to high levels of achievement but took no note of the challenges that disadvantaged students face. The legislation did, to be sure, specify that subgroups — defined by income, minority status and proficiency in English — must meet the same achievement standard. But it did so only to make sure that schools did not ignore their disadvantaged students — not to help them address the challenges they carry with them into the classroom.” And they point out what should now be clear to thinking American, that “requiring all schools to meet the same high standards for all students, regardless of family background, will inevitably lead either to large numbers of failing schools or to a dramatic lowering of state standards. Both serve to discredit the public education system and lend support to arguments that the system is failing and needs fundamental change, like privatization.” The essay concludes with this statement, one that we should have considered at least as carefully as we did what sort of pie to have after our dining orgy on Thanksgiving: “But let’s not pretend that family background does not matter and can be overlooked. Let’s agree that we know a lot about how to address the ways in which poverty undermines student learning. Whether we choose to face up to that reality is ultimately a moral question.”

This stuff hits us all where we live. In my own state of North Carolina, according to the N.C. Justice Center, “1,708,000 people in North Carolina saw a cut in their food assistance benefits this fall, when a temporary boost to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) expired, according to data released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) discussed in a new report from the Washington, DC-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.” 1 in 6 North Carolina households reported serious problems affording adequate nutritious food at some point last year, according to data released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), approximately 1.7 million North Carolinians—including 51,000 veterans—saw their food assistance cut when a temporary boost in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits ended at the end of October. Governer Pat McCrory, in August, announced his new education plan. The $7.9 billion budget for K-12 schools eliminates teacher's tenure, discontinues the North Carolina Teaching Fellows program, and offers no raises to teachers, whose salaries are already one of the lowest in the nation. And so, in North Carolina, even the teachers of the impoverished are now nearly at the poverty line themselves. A very vicious cycle continues.

Aristotle wrote, “Poverty is the parent of revolution and crime.” To that short list we can add that it is as well the parent of ignorance, poor health, and the sort of cultural immorality of which we who live in the United States are guilty. It may be so, as Albert Einstein said, that “an empty stomach is not a good political adviser.” However, it is also so that a very full stomach isn’t either. For those that got, it is easy enough to be thankful, especially thankful that he or she is NOT one of those who ain’t got. But Whitman, at poem’s end, reminds us, “And these one and all tend inward to me, and I tend outward to them; / And such as it is to be of these, more or less, I am.”

And what would Jesus say? He’d say, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. ...”

[The pure contralto sings in the organ loft]
Section 15 of “Song of Myself”
—Walt Whitman

The pure contralto sings in the organ loft;
The carpenter dresses his plank—the tongue of his foreplane whistles its wild ascending lisp;
The married and unmarried children ride home to their Thanksgiving dinner;
The pilot seizes the king-pin—he heaves down with a strong arm;
The mate stands braced in the whale-boat—lance and harpoon are ready;
The duck-shooter walks by silent and cautious stretches;
The deacons are ordain’d with cross’d hands at the altar;
The spinning-girl retreats and advances to the hum of the big wheel;
The farmer stops by the bars, as he walks on a First-day loafe, and looks at the oats and rye;
The lunatic is carried at last to the asylum, a confirm’d case,
(He will never sleep any more as he did in the cot in his mother’s bed-room;)
The jour printer with gray head and gaunt jaws works at his case,
He turns his quid of tobacco, while his eyes blurr with the manuscript;
The malform’d limbs are tied to the surgeon’s table,
What is removed drops horribly in a pail;
The quadroon girl is sold at the auction-stand—the drunkard nods by the bar-room stove;
The machinist rolls up his sleeves—the policeman travels his beat—the gate-keeper marks who pass;
The young fellow drives the express-wagon—(I love him, though I do not know him;)
The half-breed straps on his light boots to complete in the race;
The western turkey-shooting draws old and young—some lean on their rifles, some sit on logs,
Out from the crowd steps the marksman, takes his position, levels his piece;
The groups of newly-come immigrants cover the wharf or levee;
As the woolly-pates hoe in the sugar-field, the overseer views them from his saddle;
The bugle calls in the ball-room, the gentlemen run for their partners, the dancers bow to each other;
The youth lies awake in the cedar-roof’d garret, and harks to the musical rain;
The Wolverine sets traps on the creek that helps fill the Huron;
The squaw, wrapt in her yellow-hemm’d cloth, is offering moccasins and bead-bags for sale;
The connoisseur peers along the exhibition-gallery with half-shut eyes bent sideways;
As the deck-hands make fast the steamboat, the plank is thrown for the shore-going passengers;
The young sister holds out the skein, while the elder sister winds it off in a ball, and stops now and then for the knots;
The one-year wife is recovering and happy, having a week ago borne her first child;
The clean-hair’d Yankee girl works with her sewing-machine, or in the factory or mill;
The nine months’ gone is in the parturition chamber, her faintness and pains are advancing;
The paving-man leans on his two-handed rammer—the reporter’s lead flies swiftly over the note-book—the sign-painter is lettering with red and gold;
The canal boy trots on the tow-path—the book-keeper counts at his desk—the shoemaker waxes his thread;
The conductor beats time for the band, and all the performers follow him;
The child is baptized—the convert is making his first professions;
The regatta is spread on the bay—the race is begun—how the white sails sparkle!
The drover, watching his drove, sings out to them that would stray;
The pedler sweats with his pack on his back, (the purchaser higgling about the odd cent;)
The camera and plate are prepared, the lady must sit for her daguerreotype;
The bride unrumples her white dress, the minute-hand of the clock moves slowly;
The opium-eater reclines with rigid head and just-open’d lips;
The prostitute draggles her shawl, her bonnet bobs on her tipsy and pimpled neck;
The crowd laugh at her blackguard oaths, the men jeer and wink to each other;
(Miserable! I do not laugh at your oaths, nor jeer you;)
The President, holding a cabinet council, is surrounded by the Great Secretaries;
On the piazza walk three matrons stately and friendly with twined arms;
The crew of the fish-smack pack repeated layers of halibut in the hold;
The Missourian crosses the plains, toting his wares and his cattle;
As the fare-collector goes through the train, he gives notice by the jingling of loose change;
The floor-men are laying the floor—the tinners are tinning the roof—the masons are calling for mortar;
In single file, each shouldering his hod, pass onward the laborers;
Seasons pursuing each other, the indescribable crowd is gather’d—it is the Fourth of Seventh-month—(What salutes of cannon and small arms!)
Seasons pursuing each other, the plougher ploughs, the mower mows, and the winter-grain falls in the ground;
Off on the lakes the pike-fisher watches and waits by the hole in the frozen surface;
The stumps stand thick round the clearing, the squatter strikes deep with his axe;
Flatboatmen make fast, towards dusk, near the cottonwood or pekan-trees;
Coon-seekers go through the regions of the Red river, or through those drain’d by the Tennessee, or through those of the Arkansaw;
Torches shine in the dark that hangs on the Chattahoochee or Altamahaw;
Patriarchs sit at supper with sons and grandsons and great-grandsons around them;
In walls of adobie, in canvas tents, rest hunters and trappers after their day’s sport;
The city sleeps, and the country sleeps;
The living sleep for their time, the dead sleep for their time;
The old husband sleeps by his wife, and the young husband sleeps by his wife;
And these one and all tend inward to me, and I tend outward to them;
And such as it is to be of these, more or less, I am.