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“By creating an image of vast, decentralized, kindhearted effort, an image that is fueled by every fund-raising letter or event, every canned goods drive, every hunger walk, run, bike, swim, or golf-a-thon, every concert or screening or play where a can of food reduces the price of admission, we allow the right wing to destroy the meager protections of the welfare state and undo the New Deal. Ironically, these public appeals have the effect of creating such comforting assurances even for those who do not contribute.”
– Joan Poppendieck, 1998
As the holiday season slides past again, feel-good media stories of charitable giving subside. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the merciless lashing of consumers to buy-buy-buy is decorated with syrupy tales of donated time, money, presents, and food. For a few weeks each year, it’s fashionable to acknowledge a key issue in our atomized and structurally brutish society: Towering inequality. Jesse Jackson called it, more directly, “economic violence.”
Millions of our fellow Americans already live in poverty or dangle a paycheck, an illness, a downsizing away from chronic hunger, homelessness, or untreated malady. Meanwhile rivers of cash flow to financiers, arms merchants, venal mercenaries, and sadistic thugs we call “America’s allies” overseas.
Here, in the depths of wintery commercial riot and mall plodding, the diversionary tale loops through: Stories of some tax-deductible corporate donation, or volunteer-driven charitable meal for the “less fortunate.” Normally invisible, society’s swelling surplus/discarded laboring class makes a brief cameo appearance. People casually thrown under the economic bus, America’s disposable domestic casualties are captured in news camera lenses as grateful recipients of somebody’s charity. Then the season ends, the feverish Sell-O-Mania subsides, and the cast-offs lose their utility and their visibility for another year.
Sixty years ago this month during another Holiday Season, the United Nations General Assembly, adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Prodded by Eleanor Roosevelt, the world body put its stamp on what the Guinness Book of Records calls the “most translated document” in the world. Here of course, the most translated document is the most ignored. The UDHR’s claim that food, shelter, freedom of association, and dignity are vested rights to which we are all entitled is inconvenient to our masters, therefore largely unmentionable.
Article 22 states:
“Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international cooperation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social, and cultural rights indispensable for his (sic) dignity and the free development of his (sic) personality.”
In case there was any confusion on the matter, Article 25 continues:
“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself (sic) and his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood…”
The UDHR, to which the US is a signatory, envisions “national effort and international cooperation,” as the means to these ends. Private charity is not mentioned. But there’s now a warm bipartisan consensus that the State’s resources are better devoted to opportune wars of aggression, planetary plunder, and the serial weaving of golden parachutes for the corner office crowd.
The now alien UDHR is effectively banished from any remotely public discussion. When I experimentally proposed language from the Declaration for inclusion in Maine Democrat’s party platform a few years ago, the suggested plank was summarily dismissed as too radical/controversial.
There’s no stomach in these times for open confrontation with those who control the money, the media, elected officials, the military and the para-militaries. Making a run at those elements would likely prove at least unpleasant, possibly punishing. So we do what’s permitted. We shop. We vote for the smarmy, manipulative creeps presented to us. We consume the hollow distractions provided by celebrity culture. And we accept the caustic assumption that voluntarism is the only, perhaps the best way to provide for our fellow humans — the mass-produced victims of societal hit-and-run.
Feeding America (formerly America’s Second Harvest) recently released a survey of the local food banks which dot our landscape and dispense so-called “emergency food.” UDHR aside, Americans have no claim of a right to food, but they may receive some if they can prove their personal emergency-status to public or private institutions. The survey describes a widening spiral of collapse which threatens America’s private patchwork of tattered nutrition “safety-nets.”
“We are in a national crisis,” says Vicki Escarra, Feeding America’s CEO.” We have some food banks reporting as high as 65 percent increase in need. There are record numbers of new men, women and children, who never thought they would need food assistance. Some of those seeking help are so unfamiliar with available emergency food assistance that they are having difficulties navigating how to access food.”
Of course, “navigating” through the land-of-the-free’s Balkanized jumble of dis-spiriting “services” demands an acquired skill-set. It isn’t easy to live in poverty, as more and more are discovering. And people who don’t have enough money for food also usually have problems with housing, healthcare, transportation as well. Check your human dignity at the door as you become a “navigator” in this netherworld.
Martin Luther King Jr. once called for sharing the country’s vast wealth through a guaranteed annual income, sufficient to provide the basics of food, housing, and the rest. Such a system, combined with universal healthcare, free post-secondary education, and a first-world public transportation network would amount to actual social security, through national effort.
60 years ago this month, we pretended to believe in such things. More civilized nations still do. But here in Soup-Kitchen America, it’s “liberty and …(dented cans) for all.”
RICHARD RHAMES is a dirt-farmer in Biddeford, Maine (just north of the Kennebunkport town line). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org