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october 2008

Those People

Last month, I ran to the nearest Starbucks in Washington, D.C. and clung to my extra hot, no foam skim liberal latte as if my life depended on it. I was on my way to a parallel universe, where I’d have to imbibe middle American Maxwell Original Roast. With Half and Half, no cinnamon – sans NPR or “The New York Times.”  Sans the word “sans.” Where people speak slowly, make eye contact, and most despicably, treat you kindly even if they dislike your views.

What is this circle of hell, that makes the progressive hairs on my head stand on end?  My stepmom’s home in a small town in Southern New Jersey. Don’t get me wrong. I love Jean (my stepmother). That’s the problem.

Jean loves Republican vice-presidential nominee Gov. Sarah Palin.  So much so, that she’ll turn off her “soaps,” to watch “Sarah” on Fox News. For this sin, I should excommunicate Jean from my cathedral or at least cut her head off. How, I wondered, could Jean a working class, 80-year-old, woman be enthralled by Palin, who is believed to be opposed to equal pay for equal work for women? Who believes that women who’ve been raped shouldn’t have abortions?  

What made “Sarah” so appealing to someone like Jean, whose self-interest would be best served by voting for Obama? Shouldn’t the terrible economy trump Palin’s perkiness? How could anyone who I loved–a family member or friend (one of “my people”), be on the side of “those people?”

Maybe it was the Maxwell House or the Cool Whip on my blueberries at breakfast. But to my surprise, I found myself understanding why Jean would root for Palin. Before you could say, “all Republicans have cooties,” I had an epiphany: I am not so unlike “those people.”

Don’t worry.  I haven’t morphed from a latte-hunting, pro-choice lesbian poet into a moose-hunting, Republican Walmart mom. (Not that there’s anything wrong with moose, hunting, Walmart or moms.) Jean and I are different from each other.  We’re dissimilar in age,  sexual orientation, education, sense of humor, religious belief and political opinions. Yet, talking with Jean in her den, I realized that, despite our differences, we share some feelings and struggles.

Jean grew up poor, one of six children. Her father, an alcoholic, became sober, on his own, cold turkey, after a doctor told him that he’d die if he didn’t give up booze. As a teenager, Jean watched her classmates go off to fight in World War II. (“I couldn’t take it,” Jean said when I asked her if she’d seen “Saving Private Ryan, “some of my friends died in the War.”) After high school, Jean went to Duponts, where she worked until she was 65. Though interested in chemistry, there was no money for college. Jean worked as a lab technician, devising many tests for Duponts products (used to treat fabrics).

Like many other intelligent, hardworking women, Jean didn’t get the recognition for her work that she deserved. Though she received “safety” prizes and one test was named after her, Jean didn’t get anywhere near the credit that the male chemists with Ph.D’s got. Along the way, Jean helped to raise her nieces and nephews, cared for my Dad when he was sick and held our family together after he died.

I’m not writing this because Jean is a saint or to persuade you to join her in her admiration of Palin. I don’t think Palin is qualified to be vice-president or share her beliefs about abortion. Nor am I about to become a hetero. (Palin reportedly belongs to a church which believes that we LGBT folk can convert to being straight.) I’m telling you this because I think we liberal feminists have often been condescending to women like Jean. We pay lip service (with pompous, “post-modern,” lingo) to the value of working class and poor women. Yet in our ever-so-bright, intellectual hearts, we don’t really admit low-income women, without at least one master’s degree, into our sisterhood.

I say this because I’ve experienced this condescension.

I’m poor.  Partly, because I’m a “starving” poet.  In part, because I’m legally blind. Due to my disability, I can’t do some of the jobs that “starving” poets can. Sometimes able-bodied employers (some of them from the sisterhood) don’t want to hire me because of my disability. For the same reasons, I don’t have an M.F.A. in poetry. (I was accepted in American University’s M.F.A program, but had to decline because of the steep tuition.) With my white cane in hand, I sometimes clear out a room where a gaggle of the liberal sisterhood is gathered. Sometimes, they turn away in fear or embarrassment because of my disability.

Occasionally, though I have a B.A. in English and a master’s degree from Yale University Divinity School, they’re dumbfounded because I lack an M.F.A. On occasion, the sisterhood doesn’t know what to make of my relative poverty. What can you say to someone who has to think twice about going out to dinner? Adding insult to the injured nerves of the liberal literati, my poetry’s accessible. Worse yet, it combines humor with tragedy. What’s a progressive, post-modernist supposed to make of that?

I’m not engaging in this autobiographical musing to promote anti-intellectualism. I love smart people and I need a large dose of irony to even begin to think of getting up in the morning. Sometimes, I even like John Ashberry’s poetry. Though I have no more idea of what it means than I would if asked to explain a Jackson Pollack painting.

I’m telling you this because I know what it feels like to be patronized. For different reasons, Jean, too, has long endured condescension. Sometimes even from me.

It’s too easy to see women like Jean as uneducated, un-hip and way too religious.

(Jean is not a member of the religious right.  But she used to teach Sunday school at her Presbyterian church.)

It’s far too simplistic to dismiss all women who are pro-life as anti-feminists, choice-stifling creeps. Jean is pro-life and admires many women who opt not to have an abortion. Yet like many, she believes that women (especially those who’ve endured rape or incest), should have the right to have an abortion. To Jean, Palin who is a governor and a mother, “is quite a lady.” She’s impressed that Palin has chosen to raise a child with Down syndrome. “Many people wouldn’t want a baby like that,” Jean said, “It’s not right.  They {people with Down syndrome} can do a lot today.”

The liberal line on this is: Palin is using the baby with Down syndrome as a prop. No one should be forced to raise a child with this or any other disability. And, how does this make Palin qualified to be vice-president? There is much truth in this.

Now is the time for me to tell you again: I’m pro-choice. I don’t want a vice-president who says she’s a foreign policy expert because she can see Russia from Alaska. I expect to be on her enemies list once this comes out. If Obama can’t be president, let Bullwinkle be our ruler.

Yet Jean has touched on a troubling subtext beneath our feelings about Palin. Or at least the feeling among many able-bodied liberals about Palin and her baby with Down Syndrome. The subtext is this:

Anyone who is pro-choice would chose not to have a baby with Down syndrome.

It’s too much of a hardship. And what can those people do, anyway?

According to the U.S. Census Bureau there are 51 million American with disabilities.  That’s nearly one out of every five people. Yet with the exception of David Paterson, the legally blind governor of New York, you’d never know this from observing our body politic.

Years ago, Arthur Miller, the liberal renowned playwright kept his son, who has an intellectual disability, a secret. I love Miller’s work and we are all creatures of our time. I make no judgment on Miller’s behavior with regard to his son. The baby with Down syndrome won’t change my view of Palin. Yet I get why Jean would respect her for raising the baby.

Lastly, liberals sometimes patronize anyone who even hints that they have any kind of religious belief or spirituality. Too often, progressives wrongly assume that belief belongs solely to the religious right. Or that you have to believe in God to be spiritual. As if agnostics or atheists don’t think about the big questions: death, life, justice and love.

A couple of years ago, I attended a conference at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Md. The keynote speaker talked about where poets could submit their work for publication.  “Oh there’s the Harvard Divinity School magazine,” she said, “ don’t bother wasting your time with that.  It’s religious.”

That was news to me.  Because the Yale Divinity School magazine has published poems by poets such as Mary Oliver. But I guess Oliver must have been slumming.

I bet that an element of racism (conscious or unconscious) is likely to be involved when a white person decides not to vote for Obama.

But we liberals should be careful not to attribute all aspects of this decision to racism.

Or to think that everyone who doesn’t vote for Obama is a racist.

I think people like Jean aren’t seeing many of the facts about McCain or Palin. Palin’s charisma is making them lose sight of vital issues like the Iraq War and the economy.

But we who are progressive should remember that we’re not superior beings, sent by our latte goddesses to rule the world. We of the liberal sisterhood have more in common with the moose-hunting gaggle than we think. Like us, many women like Jean have toiled without getting the recognition that they are due. They, too, have been judged on their gender and appearance rather than on their character.

We may live in Latte Land.  They may live in Walmartville. But we are in the same country. Whether we like to admit it or not, we are those people.


©2008 Kathi Wolfe
©2008 Scene4 Magazine

Scene4 Magazine: Kathi Wolfe
Kathi Wolfe is a writer and poet and a columnist for Scene4.
Her reviews and commentary have also appeared in an array of publications.
For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives


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