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The Politics of Helplessness - Part 1

Art\Photo: Dan Hubig © 2018

Art/Photo: Dan Hubig © 2018

This essay begins with poetry by Tadeusz Rozewicz (1921-2014). For most Americans, he needs an introduction. Rosewicz was 18 when he joined the Polish Home Army (the military underground) to kill Nazi invaders and Nazi collaborators. Later, as poet and playwright, Rozewicz was part of the great and harrowing wave of post-war Polish literature and theater, alongside the likes of Anna Swirszczynska, Tadeusz Borowski, Jerzy Grotowski, Jan Kott, Wislawa Szymborska, and Czeslaw Milosz. Underground resistance, German extermination camps, Russian gulags, the Warsaw Uprising, and years of daily life governed by principles of wanton cruelty — it is in this context that these Poles write, though each is different in style and content. The Rozewicz verse that follows is from “The Middle of Life,” as that poem appears in Sobbing Superpower: Selected Poems, translated by Joanna Trzeciak :

I was sitting on the front steps of the house

that old woman

pulling a goat on a rope

is more needed

is worth more

than the seven wonders of the world

anyone who thinks or feels

she isn’t needed

is guilty of genocide

Raw on the page, that stark assertion strikes one as, what: extreme? unfair? A rant, albeit brief? And why bring up genocide, Ventura, when things around here haven’t gotten nearly that far?

There is always the temptation to equivocate — if, that is, one feels safe enough, distant enough, to afford equivocation.

But maybe, while not equivocating, you properly reserve the right to think the poem extreme anyway, and to think that the g-word, genocide, has no place in our present historical moment. And anyway what’s the big deal about one old woman pulling a goat on a rope?

The big deal is: Life is sacred or it’s not.

Equivocate about that, and you are on very squishy ground; what appears flat-and-safe tilts suddenly into the steep-and-slippery, because, if life isn’t sacred, what is it?

Or maybe “sacred,” as a word, is a hang-up? For instance, the claim that life is sacred has been used, and is being used, as a dodge to deny a sacred right: the right of a human being to determine her own fate, up to and including whether or not, and when or not, she chooses to be a mother — a right of decision that must be defended as inviolate.

Still, religion or no religion, I’ll stand by the word “sacred,” because here below we have no one to bless us but each other. Bottom line: Whether life is sacred or not is . . . your choice. In fact, it’s the complete burden of all your choices. For all our choices stem from that one, whether or not we know we’ve made such a choice.

Being, myself, not only in agreement with, but in alliance with, Rosewicz’s giant small verse and its inconvenient conviction that every human being matters, I write here to demonstrate why “genocide” is not at all an extreme word these days in our United States.

targeted helplessness: the central theme and prime objective of the G.O.P


Let’s get to the g-word through the portal of another word that, depending on your point of view, is preferable to or worse than death: helplessness — in this case, the creation of targeted helplessness as the central theme and prime objective of the G.O.P. since well before this 45th president’s attempt at reign.

Issue by issue, consider health care.

  • Abolish Obamacare.

Alongside tax cuts, that’s the G.O.P.’s stated prime goal in recent years. Putting aside that health-care-for-profit is about profit, not care; mentioning, only in passing, that developed republics and even some authoritarian regimes view health-care-for-profit as a barbarity; and noting, quietly, that, of the developed republics, only the United States demands that people live and die by what they can pay for in money; and, finally, attempting to ignore how the 44th president allowed insurance companies to help write his signature law, so it’s no surprise that rates have risen past the capacities of working families to cope. OK to all that. Regardless, the Affordable Health Care Act brought decent care to millions who had none and made it illegal to refuse insurance based on pre-existing conditions.

How much helplessness would the G.O.P. create by abolishing the A.C.A.? Many with pre-existing conditions would be dead in months. Therefore a consistent goal of the G.O.P. would be achieved: terror — the private, enervating terror of what- if?

What if you develop a “condition,” as you surely will if you live long enough? What options will you have? Where can you turn?

As insurance and employment are linked, your boss gets all the power while yours shrinks to nil. A helplessly dependent workforce is an obvious G.O.P. objective. They’ve defeated most unions; linking health care with employment goes far toward creating a culture of serfs.

  • Medicare, the privatization of.

Privatization means nothing more nor less than “for profit.” As it is, without supplemental insurance Medicare is inadequate. For-profit Medicare is a death sentence for many aged on fixed incomes. Terrorism? Old, ill and helpless equals terror.

  • Medicaid, the slashing of.

Even this polity recognizes that some are medically helpless. That’s what Medicaid is for. Slashing Medicaid, as G.O.P. states love to do, allows large swathes of the poor to be, literally, devoured — by microbes!

Does the g-word sound more applicable now? After all, the number of people endangered by abolishing Obamacare, privatizing Medicare, and slashing Medicaid runs well into the tens of millions.

  • Big Pharma, the milking of.

If you can’t afford essential meds you sicken and you die. The G.O.P. doesn’t have this form of murder all to itself.

The Guardian 17 October 2017:

“Nine out of ten members of the House of Representatives and all but three of the US’s 100 senators have taken campaign contributions from pharmaceutical companies. … The industry has two lobbyists for every member of Congress. … Drug companies also contributed more than 20m directly to political campaigns [in 2016]. About 60% went to Paul Ryan, speaker of the House of Representatives.”

We need to step back and look at this for what it is. In many, many cases it is simply murder. For money. Targeted murder. Of the poor. And the old.

We’ve become such a callous bunch that this concept surprises us only a little, if it surprises at all. Because not only are these practices tolerated — which would involve, at least, an act of consciousness (bereft of conscience, but an act nonetheless); more insidious than toleration is that many take this situation for granted: People who can’t pay don’t deserve what they

can’t pay for.

Looked at medically, that concept is nakedly murderous.

“Genocide” is a relatively new and specific word. Coined in 1944, the word joined the world’s vocabulary in 1945 when the United Nations employed it in its indictment of 24 Nazi leaders accused of “the extermination of racial and national groups.” The OED extends the definition of genocide slightly: “the deliberate and systematic extermination of an ethnic or national group.” The poor in general, and the indigent in particular, are not an ethnicity; but, within our nation, they are without doubt a national group.

We do not measure — morally, we’re not brave enough to measure — how many citizens of the United States die for want of money. I mean, where the direct cause of death is no money for treatment, no money for medication, no money for food, no money for shelter.

How they got that way is beside the point. If your reflexive response to what I’ve said is to fill in a hypothetical blank about “how they got that way,” then, in my view, you are a morally deficient and/or morally wounded human being. (Yes, one’s morality can sustain wounds, even mortal wounds — but that’s a subject for a different essay.) The point is, an aptitude for making money is the prime value of this society. And that is how we got this 45th president: because of our values — values of which we rarely speak, but which we rigorously enact. Values that we, most of us, on all sides of the political spectrum, truly live by. My proof: That, as a society, we have accepted that if one lacks sufficient aptitude and capacity for making money one is targeted for death. But really: death. Today, that’s how this society is set up.

Live with it. Or choose not to. Of course, if you choose not to, then you’ve got some talk to walk.

As I write, the Democratic Party is being given a chance it does not deserve: a chance to redeem the worst of its compromises.

Look, I neither like nor trust Bernie Sanders, for reasons to be detailed perhaps some other time; but Medicare For All and Health Care For All came from Sanders and his movement. For this — and for inspiring young activists with deeper integrities than his own — Sanders deserves historical honor. Much to the unease of the Democratic leadership, the party today fields candidates for November’s election that champion Health Care For All and reject the NRA; plus many of them, from Ayana Pressley and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the East Coast to Audrey Denney in California and Beto O’Rourke in Texas, refuse donations from corporate PACs. Some, like Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, are radical; others, like Ms. Denney and Mr. O’Rourke, are fairly mainstream by temperament and conviction; but they’re alike in refusing corporate money and championing Health Care For All. These daring Dems look like — and I emphasize look like — the most unalloyed infusion of decency into American politics in a very long time. If Dems win at least the House, and (by some miracle) the Senate as well, these young fighter-dreamers will have lots of talk to walk. They appear to mean it. Given the murderous (the nakedly and blatantly murderous) state of our politics, they’ve put themselves out there and have earned our best efforts to bust them through.


Michael Ventura © 2018. All rights reserved.

Michael Ventura is a writer who lives in the mountains of Northern California.


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