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Busting the Myth of the Welfare Queen

Reading Liberally Page Turner
by Amanda Milstein, Living Liberally

When I was a small child, my father, who often votes for Republicans, was explaining to me the difference between Democrats and Republicans. "Republicans want you to keep the money you worked for, and Democrats will take it from you and give it to people who never worked a day in their lives and make you live on the side of the road in a cardboard box. Mommy votes for Democrats — why don't you ask her why she wants you to live in a cardboard box?"

Thankfully I developed a slightly more nuanced view of the American political system. For those who still believe my father, Myth of the Welfare Queen, by David Zucchino, the story of two welfare mothers who are doing anything but living the high life, comes to the rescue by providing a detailed look at the lives of welfare mothers during the Clinton administration.The book follows Odessa Williams and Cheri Honkala, two welfare mothers in North Philadelphia who know that welfare reform might snatch the benefits they depend on at any moment. Odessa's children are all adults, but she is saddled taking care of a plethora of grandchildren, many of whom have serious health problems. Cheri runs an organization that seeks to bring attention to the plight of Philadephia's poor and works tirelessly but sometimes inefficiently to gain attention for her cause. We find out later in the book that she and her son are able to eat because of her late-night gigs as a topless dancer — that is the only way she can think of to support herself while being a full-time activist.

Odessa is the heroine of the book — we follow her as she visits her son in prison, sells people rides in her car, goes fishing to stretch her food budget, and picks through trash bags in order to cloth her many grandchildren. Odessa's children aren't always on the ball — one son is imprisoned, one daughter is a prostitute whose children live with Odessa, and one of her granddaughters keeps on having children while refusing to further her education or find a job. Not everyone in North Philadeplia is eligible for sainthood — but Odessa is doing everything she can to straighten out the lives of her family members while Cheri works to make people aware of the plight of urban poor people.

The story takes place in the Clinton years under the shadow of impending welfare reform—the women know that they system they rely on is going to end, and they cannot quite imagine their worlds without it. They are anything but lazy, but Odessa, who is ill, cannot possibly work and care for all of her grandchildren and children simultaneously, and Cheri knows how important welfare is to the many families involved with her advocacy group. The Myth of the Welfare Queen does an excellent job of creating empathy for the extremely hard working women who require welfare to allow them to support themselves and their families in an economy that won't give them many feasible alternatives besides starving in a cardboard box.

When Prison Builders Become Prison Profiteers

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Reading Liberally Page Turner
by Amanda Milstein, Living Liberally

A friend said Hi to me on the subway while I was reading Prison Profiteers, an anthology of shocking articles about the privatization of prisons edited by Tara Herivel and Paul Wright. I had to send him an e-mail explaining that if I had looked like I was about to throw up it was not because of him, but rather because I was totally and utterly disgusted by the account I was reading about medical conditions going untreated in prisons managed by private corporations.

The paragraph I was reading when my friend saw me was about the medical neglect of a 57 year old man who was imprisoned for rape:

David stood now to show me the belly and the hernias, the condition his body had arrived at through an utter lack of attention… His belly was enormous, taut and pasty, seemingly glued to his gaunt frame. At the front of it, a hot-pink hernia, about the size of a grapefruit, seemed barely attached where the belly buttons should have been, giving David's midsection the overall contour of a giant breast and nipple…

…To describe David's scrotum as swollen and red would be a failure of language. It was about the size of a rugby ball, so raw and irritated, shiny and crimson, that it almost seemed to be covered with blood. David hung his head. "They give me aspirin," he said.

Later, when I heard that David had died of indeterminate causes and that his body had been cremated, I realized that I had probably been the last person outside the prison staff to see David alive, to see what his body had become from all those years of mistreatment, and I wondered: can such a secret be kept?

A rapist, David might not be the most sympathetic of criminals — but no one deserves to be forced into an environment where their medical needs will not be met. Furthermore many of those receiving atrocious care are not rapists, but drug dealers or minor criminals, who have not been sentenced to death or illness by neglect. Medical neglect is not the only problem faced by prisoners—in the United States prisons are often run by corporations who put the bottom line ahead of prisoner safety, the security of the general population, and pretty much everything else.

We now live in a country where one out of a hundred adult Americans is currently in prison. Prison Profiteers describes a system where corporations have significant control and very little accountability to the public—where a prisoner's spider bite can go untreated until his foot requires amputation due to lack of antibiotics, where medical appointments are deliberately scheduled on court dates, and when sometimes the only way to a safety and job training is to join a Christian missionary group, and where prisons have particularly high phone rates that can financially destroy family members with whom they are trying to stay connected.

I have been able to talk about little else but prison reform since finishing this book — my desire to discuss it with one friend was so great that I shipped him a copy even though he lives in England. As progressives we talk a lot about the need for healthy food for children, welfare benefits, and a living wage—but we also need to be talking about issues that impact the 1% of American adults that are incarcerated, and why our government is farming vital work out to corporations who seem to be doing a terrible job of it.

Reading Liberally Page Turner: What Book To Give Your Conservative Uncle This Holiday Season

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Well, O'Reilly is getting even more ballistic than usual, so y'know what that means - the holiday season is upon us. With the first night of Hanukkah this evening, with Christmas and Kwanzaa only a few weeks away, some of our minds turn to gift-giving. Namely, what to give to that conservative uncle/aunt/friend who constantly e-mails you conservative spam and  turns every family get-together into a political referendum. Figuring that knowledge is power, we asked some of our favorite activists what book to give our favorite conservative this winter. Happy Holidays!

David Dayen, The Right's Field and Calitics: My conservative uncle would get one book for the holidays - The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams. After all, if they want to live in a country with an ascendant conservative movement they're going to have to find another planet...

Steve Perez, United Federation of Teachers:  I'll recommend Singularity Sky by Charles Stross. Three reasons: first, it's fiction, and I prefer that to a polemic. Second, it's a good book, funny and smart. Third, there's a lot of progressive science fiction being written, and IMO it doesn't get the attention it deserves.

Elana Levin, Drum Major Institute: That Howard Zinn history book could be a good one to convert him. For your apolitical teenage cousin, though, they should get Jessica Valenti's book, Full Frontal Feminism.

James Adomian, Resident Open Left Bush impersonator and comic: What's the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, by Thomas Frank. Judging by its cover, it looks like it could very well be a volume dedicated to gloating over the triumphs of Nixon and Reagan - one of those hateful books advertised in the back of National Review. But start reading it, and you see what a dupe you've been for voting on the culture war all these years, when all along it was the sons-of-bitches in the big corporations and the big banks whom you've been boosting at the expense of your own economic welfare! Throw that yule log on the fire, Uncle Wingnut!

Josh Bolotsky, Living Liberally: If your conservative relative is anything like mine, they're not getting their politics from the books they read - it's from the talk-radio they listen to. So the solution is not to get them a physical book. The solution is an audiobook, to first do triage on the problem and stop them from listening to the thing influencing them in the first place. My suggestion? The most recent Stories From Lake Wobegon collection by Garrison Keillor, Never Better. Filled with midwestern values and tales of small-town life that any social conservative would embrace, and punctuated every so often with gentle paeans to progressive politics (a shout-out to Title IX here, an ode to gay rights there). Showing the relative that being a solid traditional American citizen and holding progressive politics aren't in conflict is the first step.



Jay Hazen, Reading Liberally: Moving a Nation to Care: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and America's Returning Troops, by Ilona Meagher. Often the human costs of war are obscured at the time of conflict and well beyond, and it is happening again. My conservative uncle is a big fan of chain emails with pictures of flashy billion-dollar fighter jets twisting into formation for a tight little bomb pattern. This book is a reminder that for all the rhetoric of movement conservatism, responsible government makes more of a difference than an extra three F-22 Raptors in the lives of our military families.

Lee Camp, Laughing Liberally comic: Give them a fairy tale because they're already cut off from reality. It will make them feel at home.

Reading Liberally Page Turner: With a Name Like "Albus"...

by Justin Krebs

dumbledore.jpgThe revelation last week that Albus Dumbledore, the powerful and wise wizard of the Harry Potter series, was gay caught the attention of the entertainment news.  It earned the wrath of the the religious right and Bill O'Reilly (who called it part of author J.K. Rowling's "gay agenda."  And most importantly, it received applause from the audience of children and families to whom Rowling was speaking.

This is the reaction that matters -- because Harry Potter readers are soon going to be running the world and their beliefs will triumph while O'Reilly joins anti-wizard Jerry Falwell in the hereafter.  Messages of hate from the religious wrong are having less and less impact in this next generation -- while messages of love, like that Rowling offer, are gaining traction.

As we've written about before, there are groups that are using the lessons of Harry Potter to promote an agenda of social justice and awareness, chief among them the HP Alliance.  Its founder, Andrew Slack, was recently featued in an LA Times article on the "Seven Clues That Dumbledore Was Gay." 

Among the tongue-in-cheek tells -- his sense of style, his "flaming" phoenix pet and that his name's anagram is "Male bods rule, bud" -- are reasons more core to the HP Alliance's mission:  Dumbledore's openness and sensitivity.  As Slack argues:

Rowling said that she viewed the whole series as a prolonged treatise on tolerance....Like the LGBT community that has time and again used its own oppression to fight for the equality of others, Dumbledore was a champion for the rights of werewolves, giants, house elves, muggle-borns, centaurs, merpeople -- even alternative marriage.

The Alliance's aim to promote issues from genocide in Darfur to workers' rights in America isn't a stretch -- these lessons are in the novels, even if readers don't realize how political the message is.  Should we be surprised that a story-teller does a better job communicating values than many of our politicians?

So the religious right is right to be worried.  Their stranglehold on our culture has been broken.  Jerry Falwell would never have been able to stand up to Albus Dumbledore in a fight.