Image from Feed our Vets
In the May 30th broadcast of Democracy Now!, Juan Gonzalez and Amy Goodman interview Smita Narula of the International Human Rights Clinic at NYU’s School of Law, co-author of "Nourishing Change: Fulfilling the Right to Food in the United States" (pdf). The interview begins at the end of that day's broadcast, at around the 47:00 minute mark.
Amy introduces a clip of Congressional Republican Steve King:
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers in both chambers are moving to drastically cut the nation’s Food Stamp Program through the farm bill. In the Democratic-controlled Senate, the Agriculture Committee has approved proposal by Republican Senator David Vitter to drop permanently anyone convicted of a violent crime from ever getting food stamps. Meanwhile, the House Agriculture Committee has approved $20 billion in cuts to the Food Stamps Program over the next decade. The cuts could result in nearly two million people losing access to food stamps and 200,000 schoolchildren losing free school lunches. One of the most vocal supporters for cutting the budget for food stamps has been Republican Congressmember Steve King of Iowa. He recently claimed President Obama is trying to expand what he called "the dependency class."Intro: "The Dependency Class"REP. STEVE KING: We want to take care of the people that are needy or the people that are hungry, and we’ve watched this program grow from a number that I think I first memorized when I arrived here in Congress at about 19 million people, now about 49 million people. And it appears to me that the goal of this administration is to expand the rolls of people that are on SNAP benefits. And their purpose for doing so, in part, is because of what the gentleman has said from Massachusetts. Another purpose for that, though, is just to simply expand the dependency class.
That a sitting politician can utter such a dehumanizing (and ultimately Orwellian, as we shall see) phrase is an indictment of the sickness in our society.
If you are a Democrat, or a progressive/liberal, and are inclined to nod in agreement, let me stop you for a moment. Because the response from the all-American opposition is to say, "no, we are not expanding the dependency class, we are providing a temporary bridge." A bridge to... not being dependant, I presume?
Most people would agree that knowingly allowing people to starve to death is barbaric. A significangly smaller pool of people would agree that using hunger as a motivational whip to induce "productive behavior" (read: get a job) is also barbaric.
Or would they?
The All-American Inalienable Rights
Let's step back for a moment, because the right to eat has never been explicitly mentioned in our founding charter, nor is it among the "inalienable rights" articulated by our in-your-face manifesto to King George. Although it does say only that "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" are among those rights, it rather leaves it to the imagination as to what the others might be. One might wonder how rights could be enjoyed without the right to food, but...
...And when one looks at the actual Constitution and its Bill of Rights, it is clear that the right to "life" is really not clearly codified. There are all kinds of qualifications around liberty and the rather vague "pursuit of happiness" as well, really.
Such legalistic caveats aside - I think that it's fair to say that it is ingrained in the patriotic character to hold a few "American" values as sacrosanct. Let's leave aside the right to a good breakfast - since that's not usually associated with the American ethic, anyway - but ponder instead for a moment our feelings about, say, the freedom of speech. For some, the rights codified in the Second Amendment might be an even "grippier" thought experiment - and go ahead with that if that is your predilection - but I am shooting for the wider audience here.
For All Americans?
I know what you really think.
You think that Americans have to deserve their rights. In that, there's nothing inalienable about them at all. You have to be a certain kind of "American."
You either have to have money, or you have to have an income.
The tapestry that is America today is so woven from the threads of this ethic that you are right now thinking, "No shit."
If you are too lazy to have a job (or too unlucky to have been born into wealth, or to have "scored" with an exploitable talent or patent), then you are not entitled to your rights as an American.
If you are willing to let someone's stomach grumble in order to "motivate" her to do something for someone else so that they can get paid in order to eat, then I know that you are willing to suppress the free speech of that person if they are not "pulling their weight." Because eating is a more immediate life-imperative than is speech. (If you deny this, and remain so patriotic as to assert that you would protect a person's speech even as you let him starve, then you are a disingenuous ass.)
And, if you are willing to let someone's stomach grumble in order to "motivate" him to do something for someone else so that they can get paid in order to eat, then you are willing to let that person starve.
Because some people don't like joining the "dependency class," and that brings us to...
Outro: The Orwellian "Dependency Class"
Representative King's lament about the expansion of the "dependency class" is a laughable lie. What King and, quite frankly, the average American fears is not dependent people at all, but independent people.
A person whose basic needs are provided for is a free person, a truly independent person. A person who can decide upon how and when she spends her days, whether it be in a traditionally "productive" manner, in creative pursuit, or in idle contemplation. A person who does not have to submit to the will of an employer in order to purchase the right to eat, to simply remain alive.
A person could decide that he has no interest in material goods beyond his basic needs, perhaps to briefly take on some work if there is something specific he might desire.
This is what you fear. There is something unsavory about it. Admit it. People being given the permission to be idle, if they so choose. You do not like this.
In America, "the land of the free" is an empty platitude. "Freedom" is not an American value at all.
It is better - it is much better - to let people go hungry.