Myth, Symbol and Political Mobilization

            A member of the editorial board of our local newspaper, The Roanoke Times, recently offered a thoughtful column on the overwhelmingly venomous tone and character of letters, emails and blog comments the paper had received in response to an article in July 2011 detailing the realities of living in a census tract in the City of Roanoke that might properly be called a “food desert.” Such locations are so labeled because their typically poor (and often disproportionately minority) populations, who very often do not possess their own means of transportation, lack a supermarket within a mile of their residences and therefore have a difficult time achieving a balanced diet, even if they understand the fundaments of doing so. For the story, the reporter tracked a resident of one such food desert neighborhood who monthly takes a cab to the nearest supermarket with her two children and grandniece to do her basic grocery shopping. She does so because she relies on the federal Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program to help to feed her family and that aid arrives on the first day of each month.

            Significantly, not once did the original article quote the woman complaining about her need to take a cab to the store, or the difficulty of providing fresh fruits and vegetables for her loved ones, or demanding that more be done to assist her family in its difficult straits. Nonetheless, the editorial writer reports that the article drew angry screeds from citizens complaining about how undeserving the poor population is and that the woman profiled should be grateful for the support she received. Given that the journalist reported that the target of this ire never articulated the views commenters ascribed to her, the column writer was struck by this public response. She argued that the negative outpouring reflects the way in which some elected leaders are framing the policy conversation today, dividing the populace into competing groups. I agree and suspect, too, that the commentary’s author is correct that the negativity at least partly reflects not that too much is undertaken to assist the poor, but that too little is now being offered to help many who may not fit classic definitions of poverty and who are struggling in the continuing aftermath of the nation’s deep recession. That said, I think this episode illustrates something else as well that has implications for whether our citizenry can engage in the requisites of democratic politics.

            What intrigues me about this incident is the fact that those writing to express their anger, disdain and worse, attributed specific values and attitudes to the woman profiled. These were not the product of the situation reported, nor did they represent the individual involved. Instead, they reflected prevailing myths and stereotypes of the poor generally. Our nation has always distinguished between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor and has long imposed tough criteria to ensure that those who receive public aid are in fact needy, in many instances, very needy indeed. This concern arises from our collective devotion both to hard work and to our desire not to “waste” public resources. These are surely laudable ends. What is hardly so admirable is a propensity to label all of the poor and needy as undeserving wastrels or worse, and to imagine, on that abstract basis, that our already (relative to other Western nations) low levels of support for the indigent are undue and to scapegoat “the poor” accordingly as the source of the nation’s current (or future) economic challenges. It is factually neither.

            Indeed, what is fascinating about this case is how quickly a share of the populace ascribed stereotyped attitudes to a woman simply because she was poor, and then jumped to all manner of negative conclusions as a result. Many of those who wrote were clearly willing to seek a scapegoat for the nation’s woes and to fix their opprobrium on the convenient symbol of “the poor.” And yet, this propensity is all too human, surely at least in part a product of a collective desire to make sense of the difficulties so obviously afoot now. Nonetheless, to stigmatize a group and to mobilize against it as the font of ills not of its making is to deny that group its rights and to undermine our common quest to secure a morally decent democratic polity. The continuing challenge to democracy in tough times (indeed, at all times) is whether cooler heads can prevail in the policy conversation and whether citizens can temper their angry desire to assign blame to someone or something for their difficulties with a more sober review of unfolding circumstances. Coming days will test the goodwill and judgment of the American populace generally. Only time will tell, but this episode reveals the very real (and very hardy) dangers that now confront our collective democratic project.