Book 8, pages 146-147
Everywhere I go I meet a shocking lack of understanding among people toward the
suffering which is all around them. People in the North talk about the poverty
in the South, but are unable to see the poverty in their own ghettos. People in
the East talk about the Indian poverty in the West without seeing their own
black poverty; people in the West talk about the blacks' poverty in the East,
but don't see the Indians' poverty on their own doorstep. And in the South they
don't talk about poverty at all.
I saw the most striking example of this
blindness in Mississippi when I got a lift with a representative of the usual
optimistic type. He talked on and on about how this was a country with
opportunities for all. Everyone can be successful, if only they want to. Anyone
can become a millionaire in ten years. If you have the strength and desire you
can pull yourself up by your bootstraps. I hear the same phrases so often while
riding down a road with shacks on both sides, that I probably wouldn't have
paid any attention to it if we had not on that particular day been passing
through a completely flooded stretch of the delta. It was in the poorest part
of Mississippi, where you see almost nothing but tin-roofed shacks inhabited
by poor tenant farmers, whose only property is often just a mule and a couple
of pigs. The Mississippi River had recently overflowed its banks and a lot of
drowned mules and pigs were lying along the road. People sat on the roofs of
their shacks, and in some places only the chimney stuck up above water. Others
rowed around their houses in boats trying to save their drowning mules. After
we had driven through these surroundings for about an hour, I asked him if he knew the expression "to let people paddle
their own canoe," after which I asked to be let off even though I knew it could
be days before I got another ride in that part of Mississippi.
One day I was strolling down the street in Detroit with a black woman who had
been a Black Panther when she was sixteen, but who was now a Trotskyite and a
feminist. We were on our way to a Trotskyite meeting, so it must have been on a
Friday. I always go to such meetings on Fridays in the big cities, as they
usually serve free coffee and cake. On Sundays and Wednesdays I usually go to
coffee get-togethers in the churches.
At a church it normally takes only an
hour before you get your coffee, but with the Trotskyites you really have to go
through hell before you get your final reward. Often you have to sit through a
stiff three-hour sermon about saving the "masses," but then on the other hand
you throw yourself upon the cake with that much more joy afterward. Well, on
this Friday, when we were on our way to our cake-for-the-masses meeting, we
passed a beggar on the street standing with outstretched hand.
Then the thing I
least expected happened: the woman totally spurned the beggar, knocking his
hand away. I was rather shocked and asked her why she had not given him any
money, since I knew she had some. "That kind of nonsense has to wait until
after the revolution," she replied. I thought it over a bit and then asked
slightly provocatively, "Well, but what if the revolution doesn't come in his
lifetime?" There was no more talk on the subject.
In contrast to the middle class, from which these two instances come, people in
the upper class are often
touchingly helpful toward the poor and their sufferings, if they accidentally
catch sight of them. I encountered a stirring example of this in Gainesville,
Florida, when I lived with a rich man who owned an insurance company.
One day I
went with him when he was out helping a tenant farmer pull his only mule out of
a mud hole it had fallen into. The tenant farmer was standing down in the
mud hole in water up to his neck, struggling to keep the mule's head above
water, while the rich man sat up in his helicopter trying to hoist the mule
out. The situation was so much like a cartoon in a communist newspaper that I
couldn't help laughing, but neither the proletarian nor the capitalist could
see the fun in it. It would be perfect if the rich man himself fell into the
mud hole, I was thinking. My pious hope in fact came true, for shortly after,
when he landed and approached the water hole, he slipped in the mud and
unluckily broke his leg. Since he would have to stay in bed for some time, I
was allowed to borrow his Mercedes, and it was during one of my drives in it
that I found Linda's shack far out on a deserted back road.
Letter to an American friend
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