“Language is power, life and the instrument of culture, the instrument of domination and liberation” –Angela Carter
Language has always been the front line in the battle for mindshare. From the faulty soap formula that becomes 99 and 44/100% pure, to the Marlboro Man that transforms a cigarette originally intended for women into a symbol of machismo, we are daily surrounded by this war’s weaponry.
Today the semantic skirmish centers on poverty. Not poverty itself, though—the war on poverty is one long fought—but on the word poverty: its definition, its place in the mind of the body politic.
As a pawn in the larger political chessboard, both the far right and far left are staking claims, forcing us daily into a conversation with words we no longer own. The left argues that the official definitions remain absurd, with many diligent and industrious people forced into a class known as the working poor, where 40 hours isn’t enough for food and shelter, to say nothing of health care or advanced education. This story is always wrapped up in a cycle of poverty imaged in half-broken urban neighborhoods. The far right oppositionally posits a wealthier poor, people who take the Nanny State handout, rarely or barely try to find work, yet still manage to afford oversized rims and plasma television sets.
Both sides play the race and class games while claiming we don’t and they do; both use images that miss the point; both definitions deserve our disdain.
Last spring I learned about poverty in a way that neither extreme really cares about.
My wife and I drove from Louisville, Kentucky to Asheville, North Carolina, traveling down what William Least Heat-Moon calls “blue highways.” We told our GPS to ignore major roads and she (we call the disembodied directioneer “Becky”) took us from small town to small town through rural Kentucky and Tennessee.
Every town was dead.
Store after store had plywood windows and For Sale signs. Parking meters languished, hungrily empty. An occasional pickup truck supported a local resident who leaned on it while smoking a cigarette. If there was a movie theater the marquee was blank; if there was a town square the benches were empty. Meanwhile, just outside of town and away from any main street, the parking lots at the Wal-Marts and Targets and Burger Kings and Taco Bells were full.
Driving further away from the town center brought us to small neighborhoods with kempt houses, neat lawns and bent television antennas. The cars weren’t falling apart, but neither were they new. None had fancy rims.
Once the neighborhoods slipped into the rear view mirror, we came to the farmlands, many still suffering from recent floods. Here you could smell the struggle in the air.
These blue highways, filled with good-hearted, hard-working people, these are the places of poverty in America, the poverty neither the far right nor far left wants to talk about simply because there is no sound bite, no emotionally charged message, to stir people up. This poverty is just about people who need a little help, people who want to restart the small businesses that make up their towns’ lifeblood. But they don’t have a voice; they don’t have a language. There was a time when both Republicans and Democrats cared about these people but that day seems gone now.
Perhaps we can speak for them ourselves. Perhaps, if we ignore the manipulations forced on us daily and think about where the real poverty lies, we can truly address it, truly have the right conversation for a change.