Thursday, April 15, 2010

Long, Rambly, Stream-of-Conscious Thought

I'm not the hugest fan of J.K. Rowling. Don't get me wrong - I've read all of Harry Potter. I've read all of Harry Potter several times. One of the sweetest gifts my sister has ever given me was, using her own money, preordering Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, so I could have it The Day it came out. I got it, and read it all in about 8 or so hours. Straight. And bawled like a little baby.

Which, actually, brings me to what made me not the hugest Rowling fan. She kills so many of her damn characters! Which, yes, ironic, coming from a Whedonite. But Whedon always makes me feel like that character just *poof* died, and there was nothing anyone could ever do about it, seriously, it wasn't even his idea - it totally just happened, just like in life, ya know?Rowling's deaths always seemed a little... forced. And then, I started recognizing some bad gender themes, plus the whole "Dumbledore was always gay!" thing with little going on in the text to truly back that up, going down and I was less of a fan.

That being said, maybe I am a huge fan of Rowling as a person. Maybe I'm just not the hugest fan of her authorship of children's books. Which, you know, is always possible. Why? Because I am in love with this piece written by her, especially this part:
I had become a single mother when my first marriage split up in 1993. In one devastating stroke, I became a hate figure to a certain section of the press, and a bogeyman to the Tory Government. Peter Lilley, then Secretary of State at the DSS, had recently entertained the Conservative Party conference with a spoof Gilbert and Sullivan number, in which he decried “young ladies who get pregnant just to jump the housing list”. The Secretary of State for Wales, John Redwood, castigated single-parent families from St Mellons, Cardiff, as “one of the biggest social problems of our day”. (John Redwood has since divorced the mother of his children.) Women like me (for it is a curious fact that lone male parents are generally portrayed as heroes, whereas women left holding the baby are vilified) were, according to popular myth, a prime cause of social breakdown, and in it for all we could get: free money, state-funded accommodation, an easy life.

An easy life. Between 1993 and 1997 I did the job of two parents, qualified and then worked as a secondary school teacher, wrote one and a half novels and did the planning for a further five. For a while, I was clinically depressed. To be told, over and over again, that I was feckless, lazy — even immoral — did not help.
It isn't that I think everyone on any country's welfare is automatically someone who could become Rowling, or that we should have a welfare state because Rowlings are possible from it - that if only we support the poor, they could become multibillionaires themselves. Instead, it is about worth. It is about what we think we owe the most vulnerable in our societies. It is a "there but for the grace of the mysteries of capitalism go I" thing, too, but it is also something else.

The poor are easily knocked down. I don't mean, you can easily knock a randomly specific poor person down. I mean that, good economy or bad economy, the poor are easy targets of anger and derision. Because, well, it is the easiest way to separate the poor from us. If the poor are poor because they are lazy, they are not like us. If the poor are poor because they are shiftless, they are not like us. If the poor are poor because they choose to be uneducated, they are not like us.

Here in America, there's an awful lot of race baggage that gets mixed in with the class and - yes - gender baggage. There's the "welfare queen" stereotype, for one, and that is one that still holds strong today. As in, a woman where I work, just today, told me that there were women out there who were popping out kids in order to get state assistance and were "working the system instead of just working". My response? There have got to be easier ways to game the system. And, the women my co-worker was describing are almost assuredly minorities, because she did the "Those (Name of City) people" thing that the less uncouth people in my office do when they are saying something with racist undertones that they don't want to just say with racist tone-tones. Which I, on one hand, appreciate because, hey, it means that these people understand that saying "all (blank) people are like X" is unacceptable. But on the other hand, it makes it harder to say, "whatever do you mean, 'those (Name of City) people?" Because the only answer to that seems to be, "You know...."

Sorry, tangent there. Anywho. What I'm saying is this: those on the edges of our society - and that society over there across the pond where Rowling lives and is commenting on - are generally the ones pushed totally off the grid when someone decides we need to tighten our government's financial belt. And it makes short-term political sense. You don't want to do anything that could anger people who actually have money and power, because those people with money and power can come back and make your political career a living hell. Because they have money and power. I mean, look at what happens when you decide to not make an expensive, unnecessary, and unwanted military plane! It riles up a whole bunch of powerful people. Including one Chris Dodd! Who should know better!

Which is why J.K. Rowling wrote this piece. Because there are a ton of people on that edge. And she has been there. And they are routinely made to be less important, the dredges of society really; and because of that, cuts to the very social net that keeps them afloat are seen as being perfectly reasonable.

Other parts of the budget - the military budget, for one, or Medicare and Social Security - are more sacrosanct. Not saying they'll never be touched, but one is seen as the way to prove you are a tough politician who would never, ever endanger the country and the others are services used by huge swaths of the country, swaths of the country who have money and power. This is true to the point where Republicans (Republicans!) were defending Medicare last summer in an effort to derail health reform.

And what does that mean? Well, it means that I think we need to stand up by our poor. I think it means we need more people like J.K. Rowling - people who those regular folks respect and like and admire - to stand up and talk about what it is like to be poor. What it is like to need those government programs, and how much it can hurt when they are not there. It means we may have to reevaluate who matters, and who should be taken care of.

9 comments:

John said...

Right on! I agree with the political part of your post, but I don't really have anything to add to it. So on to the Harry Potter stuff!

As for killing characters, I didn't think it was excessive until the final installment, where it really seemed like she had decided to ramp the body count up to ridiculous levels for the sake of illustrating how dire the final battle was. I'm still mad that she axed both Lupin AND Tonks, two of my favorite characters. I get the whole "one couple at most can survive intact" thing, but killing both of them was just unnecessary. and as for the "Dumbledore was gay" thing, where it doesn't seem entirely irrelevant it seems tacked-on. I treat it like I would such things in real life: it's really none of my concern.

petpluto said...

It was so excessive in the last book!

But, I felt, starting with book 4 or so, every death was there to Prove a Point and Isolate Harry More. Which, fine. Long standing tradition of hero tale, yada yada yada. And yet, when I went back and reread the books when, say, book 6 came out and then again when book 7 came out, that pattern really stuck in my head. Like, the Way to Make Harry a (Man) Hero was to take a majority of the adult figures he could lean on and kill them dead. And I? Wasn't a fan of that.

Plus, then she killed Hedwig and it was ON!

And then Lupin AND Tonks, which, I have to say, really pissed me off because Harry was freakin' Godfather to their kid and can't the 17 year old catch a break and not have all sorts of adult responsibilities always thrust on his really thin shoulders?!

ANGER!!

Sorry. Oh, and glad you agree about the political stuff!

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mikhailbakunin said...

The British welfare state is massive and it's becoming a real challenge for the government to finance all of its entitlement programs.

Cameron's argument is that the current system essentially incentivizes poverty and unemployment by providing transfer payments almost indefinitely to people who become dependent on the system.

This is very similar to the argument that Bill Clinton made when he helped to push through welfare reform in the late 90s.

Clinton's welfare reform strategy remains controversial, but much of the research seems to show that it actually helped to reduce poverty rates and unemployment.

As is often the case, though, this stuff is complicated and the effects are difficult to measure. There seem to have been mixed effects on family and child well-being, for example. (The Urban Institute has a very nuanced study on the impact of welfare reform.)

What I find distressing about Rowling's piece is that she comes across as a bit of a pro-welfare ideologue. Whether the massive welfare state is causing more harm than good is largely an empirical question. But Rowling's whole article relies on question begging. Cameron argues that more charitable intervention and less state assistance is better for society (and for single mothers). Instead of engaging Cameron's arugment, Rowling presumes that he's wrong, and simply charges that he's out to get single-mothers.

petpluto said...

Clinton's welfare reform strategy remains controversial, but much of the research seems to show that it actually helped to reduce poverty rates and unemployment.

Sure, partly by tying welfare to work, which then also incentivized women to bus themselves farther away from their familial unit in order to keep their welfare. Which, in turn, pushed more costs for things like daycare and took more time away from child-rearing. And although you linked to a study that probably mentions the same thing, I know this because I witnessed it.

Before and during welfare reform, I was living in a low-income neighborhood where most of my neighbors were on some sort of state assistance or another. And that impacts my own view of welfare, along with welfare reform.

Because of that, I'm less likely to be whole hog for incremental reforms. I'm more likely fight for structural changes - how we see families, how we see those on welfare, and how we can shift society toward a more sustainable structure for those on the bottom rung.

I don't think we've truly come up with a way to do that yet. And I think that a lot of the proposals do good in terms of government spending and reinforcing certain notions (marriage=yay!, for one) and looks good to middle class voters - because who wants to be paying for deadbeats?

But I remain unconvinced that reworking the system in the ways that we have is, in actuality, a straight up good for single parents and those on welfare. As you said, nuanced issue.

Rowling presumes that he's wrong, and simply charges that he's out to get single-mothers.

Now I'm making a scrunch-face at you, because I did not get that from the article at all.

I got that she is less than thrilled with both parties in their handling of those on welfare, but that she finds the Tories to be worse. And I didn't see her as saying she thought the Tories (and Cameron in particular) were out to get single mothers so much as asserting that what they proposed to do wasn't going to help. Because they'd been there before, and it hadn't helped. And because it would do nothing to change, for instance, the prevailing wisdom that women would have babies to jump the public housing line.

Those are two separate issues. Saying, "this isn't going to help those women who are where I was 15 years ago" is different than saying, "You want poor single mothers to suffer". You seem to be categorizing Rowling's position as the latter, both here and in your own post on the subject.

mikhailbakunin said...

And I didn't see her as saying she thought the Tories (and Cameron in particular) were out to get single mothers so much as asserting that what they proposed to do wasn't going to help.

Well, she explicitly said that the Tories were "hostile" to families like hers, and that they are intent on marginalizing single mothers. I don't really think my phrasing was a stretch.

Saying, "this isn't going to help those women who are where I was 15 years ago" is different than saying, "You want poor single mothers to suffer". You seem to be categorizing Rowling's position as the latter, both here and in your own post on the subject.

But Rowling, as far as I can tell, doesn't really offer any evidence that Cameron's policy recommendations aren't going to help single mothers. She simply asserts that they will not, and then argues that these policy recommendations point to "the renewed marginalisation of single mothers."

petpluto said...

But Rowling, as far as I can tell, doesn't really offer any evidence that Cameron's policy recommendations aren't going to help single mothers. She simply asserts that they will not

She says that when these types of policies were in place before Labour came into power, they did not help single parents. Ergo, if essentially the same policies are put into place again - less guaranteed funds, more reliance on charity, but now with a handy-dandy marriage tax credit - then single parents will not be helped.

If Cameron admits, as Rowling asserted he did, that the marriage tax credit was more about the message than a policy that will truly alter these single parents' lives, I think she has a point. If Cameron is seeking to cut money to the welfare program without radically altering the program so that the way money is spent changes for the better and therefore makes the program better, for less, then I think she has a point.

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