Art, Poverty, and George Orwell

 

orwell1Little Rock       In the New York Times, A.O. Smith, one of their critics who writes frequently about movies, wondered at length in the paper where our artists were when we needed them now to weigh in on the issues of class, race, and galloping inequality in the United States.  Where was a new John Steinbeck writing Of Mice and Men?  Or an Arthur Miller and The Death of a Salesman?   Or Mike Nichols and Silkwood or the more recent Debra Granik film, Winter’s Bone, on the silver screen?  In a surprising rarity, he admitted being obsessed with the economic crises of our time and desperate for voices that spoke to the issue in convincing and moving ways.

            All of which recalled the vivid images of the precariousness of work revealed so starkly in George Orwell’s often neglected classic, Down and Out in Paris and London, which I found myself re-reading recently.  Orwell known best to many readers for his dystrophic 1984 or Animal Farm, wrote of his own experience working as a casual laborer in the back of the house in hotels in London and bistros in Paris.   It is shocking to read because so much of it seems unchanged from what might be reported in numerous cities now, even though Orwell published his book in 1933 in the heart of the worldwide Great Depression.

            Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickeled and Dimed:  On (Not) Getting by in America updated some pages from Orwell, but her experience still wasn’t the deep dive, emersion and desperation of Orwell, where reading of his time, I felt he might starve to death any minute when he had no clothes left to pawn.

            Orwell describes hunger in a very personal way, “You discover that a man who has gone even a week on bread and margarine is not a man any longer, only a belly with a few accessory organs.”  In another passage, he writes that “Hunger reduces one to an utterly spineless, brainless condition, more like the after-effects of influenza than anything….”  And again, “Complete inertia is my chief memory of hunger….” Yet, on the full side of the Thanksgiving feasting tables, we read more Republican rants about bootstraps and the poor making their way without sufficient food or support?

            Orwell writes with relief in Paris of finding a job as a dishwasher.  The hours are punishing and wage theft is standard, all of which continue to be true for much of precarious employment in the same cities and throughout the world.

“…I set to work rather hurriedly.  Except for about an hour, I was at work from seven in the morning till a quarter past nine at night; first at washing crockery, then at scrubbing the tables and floors of the employees’ dining-room, then at polishing glasses and knives, then at fetching meals, then at washing crockery again, then at fetching more meals and washing more crockery…The work did not seem difficult, and I felt that this job would suit me.  It was not certain, however, that it would continue, for I had been engaged as an ‘extra’ for the day only at twenty-five francs.  The sour-faced doorkeeper counted out the money, less fifty centimes, which he said was for insurance (a lie, I discovered afterwards).”

Besides the fact that Orwell was a gifted observer of his own condition and circumstance, as well as the economic and social conditions around him, it is unsettling to think that 80 years later we have still done so little to deal with inequality and precariousness.

Orwell shares a caveat in this regard though that is worth remembering, because it is less art that holds the answer that A. O. Smith is searching for than social movements.  Orwell warns that,

“A man receiving charity practically always hates his benefactor – it is a fixed characteristic of human nature; and, when he has fifty or hundred others to back him, he will show it.”

Hear!  Hear!

 

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Preparing for the Implementation of Obama’s Immigration Order

Angelica Salas
Angelica Salas

Little Rock       When CMS, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, got ready to implement the Affordable Care Act in route to signing up 10 million people for health insurance more than $100 million was allocated by the federal government for navigators and another amount as large for community clinics and a like amount in the states in order to assist in enrollment in this new program.  Now within months up to 5 million people will engage in a similar process of applying for work permits and pushing mountains of paper through the Department of Homeland Security to determine their eligibility under the still to be established terms and procedures to take President Obama’s executive order on immigration and translate it into on-the-ground reality.  And, if 5 million might be eligible, many millions more will be trying to figure out if there’s any chance they are eligible or might qualify in some way or another. 

            Here’s the big difference though.  The task of advising and assisting these millions will not be facilitated by hundreds of millions of dollars of grants from the federal government.  The burden will disproportionately fall on the nonprofit, social service sector.

            Steven Choi, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, estimated that “the new and expanded programs could draw more than 250,000 applications from New Yorkers in the first few months, posing what he described as a ‘massive human services challenge.’”   In New York, they are trying to put groups and money together to meet the surge of expected interest, but that’s not going to be the case in many of the red states where this order is being resisted aggressively, and some of those states like Texas, Arizona, and Florida are where interest will be extreme.

            Angelica Salas, director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA) told reporters in Las Vegas where President Obama formally announced his order that he had stopped on the way out of the hall and told her, “Now sign them up.”   That’s a tall order with limited resources even though Angelica will no doubt get some help from the state of California, but even so with an estimated quarter of the eligible in California her office and many others will be overwhelmed.

            This is a golden opportunity but it’s not hard to see the bumpy road ahead in our “red” states where nonprofits will be besieged.   There are a couple of months to get ready, but volunteers, lawyers, churches, unions, and others in cities and towns throughout the country need to think about “citizen wealth centers” as we are that can be prepared to offer assistance.  This opportunity is only real and will only work, if as the President instructed, we can “sign them up.”  It’s something we know how to do, but are going to need a lot of help to make happen.

            People get ready!

 

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