Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Push, by Sapphire

After making a quick and dirty hundred bucks cleaning my sister's room for her (worst part: it was worth $100), I was headed home via South Station and realized I was bereft of fun reading, so I stopped at the little book shop in the middle of the concourse for something fun. When I went to check out, I saw that Bill Bryson had a new book out - review up next week! - so I bought that, but before that caught my eye, I had selected Push, by Sapphire, upon which the movie Precious was based. I handed it across the counter and the nice guy looked me right in the eye and said "make sure you're in a good mood when you read this, okay?" in the same tone you would expect if your mother was watching you get ready to go fight a herd of dragons with a pointy stick. It was fairly intense. I promised I would, and then got distracted by the Bryson book, which is just as well, as the train I caught to go home was one of the old crusty ones they run on the commuter rail sometimes and they always make me weird and sad.

Today I'm back in my sister's cozy North End apartment and decided to give it a read. It's a quick one, but it's heavy. I have not seen the movie, so someone will have to fill in with any comments on that aspect in the comments. It is a remarkably sad book. This is the story of a woman for whom being able to read at the age of sixteen is a massive achievement, abused in every way and saddled with more baggage than most of us could ever imagine. When we meet her, she is pregnant with her second child by her own father, who has been raping her for years. Her mother is an incredibly ignorant, foul human being who sees her daughter as no more than a device for sexual pleasure, food delivery and a permanent position on welfare. The only spot of light is the alternative school that Precious is sent to by a guidance counselor, where she is able to be away from her life for a while, make a few friends, and gather some meager skills. She begins to have actual aspirations for the first time in her life, and her progress in this realm - the development of a soul - is remarkable. The progress she makes in the social sphere, however, is less thrilling.

I've been talking with friends about politics more than usual lately because as I'm sure most are aware, it's a very contentious cycle in American politics this year and Election Day is closing in. It occurs to me that people like Precious and those like Bill Gates are the greatest challenges to any political system. Creating an environment where the average person is reasonably able to live and reasonably free is not that challenging. If everyone was born with a socially and economically clean slate, with abilities within a narrow range, it would be fairly easy to keep everyone content and busy. The challenge comes when you need to keep those average people happy while making sure that those who fall far below the average and shoot high above it are also allowed for. Accomplishing that balance is extremely difficult, and I think we're seeing a realization of that more and more as American history - and world history - moves forward.

I think that we should always be working towards human greatness, but doing so means understanding that there are two kinds of human greatness: individual and universal. There may only be a Churchill or an Alexander or a Washington or a Caesar once in many lifetimes - maybe even once in history - and these are the people who represent the pinnacle of human greatness as a whole. You need to leave room for these unimaginably creative thinkers to explore the full reaches of their minds while still grounding them in reality. But to find these people, we have to ensure that everyone is striving towards the apex of their own ability, and that's harder than you might think. "Everyone's individual ability" means having room for the system for genius and also for people who are barely able to function. Though a developmentally delayed person may never be able to do more than have the most basic job, they still should receive enough education to do that basic job the best they can. Precious is a woman so crippled by her circumstances that she cannot read and write at the age of 16. This book shows the effects of that inability: she is unable to make real moral judgments, certainly unable to articulate them, is choked by a kind of passive bigotry, and has very little idea of what options she has to get out of this situation.

A lot of people on the right want to gut these social welfare programs, and to a certain point I understand that, because abuse is rampant and the mechanisms designed to get people off of welfare are often ignored or broken down. The usual response is something like "they need to work hard and pull themselves up by their bootstraps." For a lot of people, doing just that is an option. Working hard and disciplining oneself can bring you to a better place in life. But some people are starting without bootstraps, without a clean shirt in which to go to a job interview, without a shower. If we destroy these programs, make no mistake, we WILL continue to pay for these people one way or the other, particularly with an expanding lower class and a growing disparity between the rich and the poor. Whether it's paying for medical services or police services or any number of problems that follow poverty, or even eventually cleaning corpses off the streets, which I mention not as a scare tactic but a basic reality - I don't think anyone wants to leave human cadavers laying where they fall, even if you can get comfortable with the idea of letting people live or die by their circumstances (which I admit I am not) - eventually, we will pay.

It's human nature, I think, to read this story and cling to the fact that Precious is probably okay because she wrote this book and a wildly famous and successful movie was made from it. It's very tempting to add on a happy ending, and maybe for Precious herself that's all right. But you need to remember that for every Precious, there are hundreds of people without book deals, without vigilant guidance counselors, without defense and without dreams. It is for those people that we need to work and care. They are humans too, no matter how hard they may be to see.

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