We need to talk about this.
Through the president’s Twitter account, nuclear war with North Korea has become a credible threat. Millions are in danger of losing healthcare benefits. Refugees—people very much like my own family when my mother moved here—are being treated like criminals. Our president just derisively called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas” in front of Native American veterans. He is such a dangerous figure in today’s politics that even mental health professionals have broken their creed of silence to discuss his dangerous imbalance. We need to address how we helped put him there.
I am a liberal. I espouse liberal values, and vote for liberal candidates. I tend to write articles and essays with liberal interests–they just seem like smarter ideas. I reeled from the presidential election results as much as every other liberal, but I am also poor. I see some things that the wealthier among us sometimes miss, and the truth is that the liberal problem that contributed to Trump’s election has been bothering me for years.
I’m talking about liberal complacency. I’m talking about liberal privilege. I’m talking—yes–about the liberal elitism for which we’ve received so much flak from the conservatives that we don’t want to admit it exists. But it does. And we need to talk about it.
I attended a private grad school, which meant I was one of the only kids who came from a poor background. The school, a Buddhist inspired university nestled in the Colorado Rockies, attracts a certain kind of affluent, usually white, very liberal student. During the evenings of my scholarship, while the mountain air cooled outside, the performance hall stewed with students passionately dissecting the Big Important Issues of the day, which of course included poverty, addiction, and race relations.
Now, I can’t say for sure, but I’m guessing I was the only student who bought her food with SNAP benefits. Among the only—if not the only—whose family immigrated here under refugee status. Certainly the only one returning home to a shot of heroin. Not to say that my economic disadvantage and addiction troubles give me some kind of moral upper-hand. I’m not suggesting that the amount of strife and trauma I’ve experienced makes me less fallible than anyone else, but it does give me some insight to the realities of poverty—how the experience of being poor can lead a person to adopt a mentality that cultivates violence, addiction, and benefit dependency as a norm. How the “poverty mentality” is created by chronic poverty, not the other way around.
I became pregnant during my last year of grad school, and enrolled in a methadone program to help myself stabilize and get off of heroin. My husband and I rented a basement apartment in Lafayette, a wealthy suburb of Boulder, Colorado. Our landlord was a retired “life-coach” and a self-avouched liberal. She offered us the unit upon meeting us, then made every attempt to revoke our tenancy.
She called us days before our move-in date to tell us she had “changed her mind”—we convinced her it was unethical. After that, she announced we’d need to pass background checks before we could sign the lease (we did). A few months after moving in, she attempted to evict us because my husband didn’t engage in long enough conversations with her kids. She called this “child endangerment,” before I mentioned tenant rights. Another day, she revealed to me that her children’s biological mother had been “abusing methadone” during her pregnancy. It was clear that this woman had appreciated the idea of housing a low-income, ethnic couple in addiction recovery far more than the reality, even though we kept to ourselves and paid our rent on time.
When we finally moved out, I flashed her a middle finger though the back window of the car. I couldn’t help myself. She’d spent our entire tenancy making my husband and I feel deficient simply because of our background.
These experiences with my landlord and grad school cohorts exemplify the general attitude present within liberal circles. They are willing to offer the benevolent advice, the helping hand, the Grand Solution, but when it gets real—when one of the subjects of discussion talks back, she is shut down. It’s not always as blatant as my landlord’s erratic behavior. Sometimes the silencing comes in the form of a nod and a smile; sometimes it sounds like “yes, but;” sometimes it is the opportunity to share a narrative of addiction or poverty only to be typecast as that caricature and nothing more (*ahem* editors who accept my addiction stories but nothing else).
Even though the liberal elite are advocating on our behalves, this attitude leaves many disadvantaged populations hungry. Humans want to be heard, sometimes even more than we want to be helped. When we feel robbed of our voice, we rebel. It’s the reason why so many Republican votes come from poor areas, even though many Republican values harm those same people. It’s absolutely the reason why so many people decided to vote in a president who was not a politician.
While at grad school, my fellow students concocted noble plans to save the world with passion, smarts, and kindness. They discussed the problems that bodies like mine pose—poor bodies, toxic bodies, damaged bodies, ethnic bodies—and how to fix us, for our betterment of course. When I showed up strung out and catastrophic, however, they turned their backs. No one offered to help me, though they did offer a nebulous, general compassion to “addicts” at large. I was an outsider. When I added my say on the issues, I was usually met with smiles and nods before the same exclusive conversations resumed, unchanged. This “lofty savior” mentality, which excludes the imperfect voices of the lower-class, is what caused liberal America to be so woefully blind-sighted by the election. Trump’s presidency? A huge middle finger in response to chronic silencing.
The objectives of liberal politics are decent. We strive for a better, more just world. That is a beautiful thing. The ideals behind the coveted conversations that took place inside my school performance hall aren’t bad, per se. Liberal ideals are powerful. Equality and freedom from oppression are worthy goals. But the voices of the disadvantaged need to be included in our problem-solving; not simply as the subjects of discussion, or oddities to be dissected, but as real parts of the solution with valid—and valuable—experiences. There is no place for elitism in equality.