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O My America: The Good Neighbor

Lawrence Bush
December 24, 2017

by Lawrence Bush

I WAS EXCHANGING holiday gifts and family reports with a neighbor tonight and, for the first time in years, I waded into political waters with him.

I talked about the poverty rate, especially among children, in our country — about 21 percent — and about the merciless quality of political culture in our very proudly Christian country on this nearly Christmas Day. Why don’t we, I said, seem capable of celebrating the astounding wealth that we have created, including the automation and robotics that have rendered so many jobs irrelevant, and simply establish a guaranteed basic income and start cultivating our leisure? Santa Claus is not only coming to town, I said, he’s here to stay!

He shook his head and talked about people who don’t want to work, who want to game the system and be given something for nothing —and about the wonderful, charitable community work that he does through his church and several organizations.

I talked about how it seems to me that most poor people DO work, and work very hard, but can’t make ends meet thanks to the atrociously low minimum wage and the lack of affordable health care. Besides, I said, why can’t we be generous EVEN to people who are lazy, or screwed up, or failures? Why punish failure?

He talked about how hard he works while other people cling to victimhood and try to make him feel guilty for being white and straight. Anybody who wants to try, he’ll help, but he doesn’t want to pay high taxes on his hard-earned dollars so that other people can mooch and wear their pants below their backsides. Besides, he said, socialism doesn’t work.

I’m not talking about socialism, I said. I’m talking about a system in which, according to today’s paper, the three richest Americans now own as much as the bottom fifty percent. Now THAT’S a little bit out of control, don’t you think?

Then we started repeating ourselves, so I left him his gifts and went home with mine after exchanging hugs and warm words about our mutual neighborliness. He is a wonderful neighbor.

My take-away was this: Working-class white Republicans are deeply influenced by an impression of black people as parasitic and NOT hard-working. How this persists, I dunno, because wherever I look, I see people of color doing most of the hard jobs. But the racist undercurrent to conservative politics is throbbingly real — ESPECIALLY in communities where barely any black people live.

More charitably, working-class white Republicans have this virtuous feeling about the work ethic that needs to be celebrated and addressed — and then appropriately extended, in their minds, to non-white working-class people, who most assuredly share it. Van Jones put it well in his book, Beyond the Messy Truth, which I recently wrote about here:

Too often, I heard right-wing pundits suggest that black folks vote Democrat because they are lazy and looking for a handout. They forget that the vast majority of African Americans get up every morning and go to work . . . Not only do tens of millions of African Americans work, we often do the worst jobs or hold down multiple jobs, with low pay and inadequate benefits. . . . African American working-class folks and white working-class folks have a tremendous amount in common. . . . [But] as long as race prejudice is allowed to hijack conservatism, the party of Lincoln will never be the party of color-blind meritocracy, which it claims every day that it wants to be.

There’s also that pride — and it’s well-earned — about charitable work, which a lot, lot, lot of conservative people perform through churches and civic organizations. When I appealed to compassion and Christian charity, and spoke about nearly a quarter of American children living in poverty in America, that did not go unheard by my neighbor.

We have lots more to talk about.

Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.