Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Vengeance Machine

Most readers know about the Great Wal-Mart Run of 2013. A two-hour computer glitch on Saturday, October 12, caused Electronic Benefit Transfer cards (EBT), formerly called Food Stamps, to show no limit in eleven states. Media coverage focused on two Louisiana towns, Springhill and Mansfield, where welfare recipients swarmed Wal-Mart, charging massively overloaded carts to their temporarily bottomless accounts.

Much public response has been downright ugly. The Washington Times, which has Tea Party ties, accused recipients of grabbing “everything they could get their hands on”—specious, since limits on what recipients could buy remained, even while monetary limits collapsed. And after officials corrected the glitch, the Boston Herald carped, “it’ll take the liquor stores and tattoo parlors weeks to make up their lost weekend business.”

Such vicious language permeates social media, which often magnifies reprehensible opinion. One of my contacts called the Wal-Mart throng “Pure animals,” while another crowed, “I say jail time! And loss of any and all benefits for life!” Calls for mass arrests, harsh punishments, and Solomonic righteous payback abound. Such opinions rule public feedback, as few apologists have yet appeared defending Saturday’s vulture behavior.

Nor will I defend anybody. Saturday’s events, despite their brief, localized nature, constitute theft by any definition. Just because you leave your car unlocked doesn’t mean you’ve given me permission to ransack your trunk. Public officials have already announced their refusal to honor Saturday’s charges, leaving Wal-Mart holding the bag for thousands of dollars in unlawful purchases (which, frankly, America’s wealthiest retailer can absorb).

But even with such unambiguous legal and public sentiment against Saturday’s events, opinion merchants continue whipping each other into competitive heights of outrage. The Herald and Times quotes above represent not only the common vindictive tone, but the complete disavowal of facts. Start with this important detail: outside op-ed circles, local and national sources agree that Saturday’s vulture shoppers purchased only one category—groceries.

Mansfield, Louisiana, is a poor town of barely 5,000 residents and little economy. Its population is two-thirds Black, one-third legally impoverished, and like many rural communities in this economy, inordinately reliant on public poverty protection. Springhill is wealthier and whiter, but its two largest employers, Georgia-Pacific and Trane, recently moved their facilities overseas. Not surprisingly, this has meant a substantial increase in demand for EBT protection.

Nearly twenty years ago, chronic unemployment forced me briefly onto Food Stamps, back when they were still printed on paper. The experience taught me important lessons in asceticism, since it’s hard to survive on less than five dollars per person per day. You quickly develop a tolerance for mustard sandwiches and porridge. And EBT only covers food; no matter how necessary, it doesn’t cover shoelaces, light bulbs, or other “luxuries.”

Imagine living like that for years, because your regional economy cannot absorb surplus workers. Now imagine that, for two hours one Saturday, you could purchase red meat, whole-grain bread, and unreconstituted orange juice. Hungry people do stupid things; this hardly makes news. Yet this doesn’t permit us non-poor citizens to use borderline-racist language (animals? Really?) or demand Les Miserables-ish vengeance.

This lack of fundamental empathy justifies frequently repugnant language. Howie Carr, the Boston Herald columnist quoted above, regales readers with tales of a woman’s “designer purse,” three EBT cards, and “a wad of cash that would choke a horse, all 50s and 100s.” Worse, this anecdote, and others about “layabouts” and “illegals,” come second- and even third-hand—what urban legend specialist Jan Harold Brunvand calls a friend-of-a-friend (FOAF).

Does Carr, or anyone like him, really believe such language advances the debate? When he compares immigrants and the poor to “the Tsarnaevs,” will he win anyone to his position? Probably not. Such language inflames sentiment, which makes Carr seem normal. But it prolongs debate, impedes justice, and reduces important deliberations to playground trash-talk competitions.

Rather than calibrating vengeance, how about addressing underlying problems that created Saturday’s vulgar stampede? If those Springhill and Mansfield Wal-Mart employees have kids, statistics indicate, there’s a better-than-even chance they have EBT cards themselves. We romanticise white-picket-fence communities, while rural economies bleed dry. We demonize EBT recipients, while bolstering the banks who imploded the economy in 2008.

Saturday’s Louisiana hayride is unlawful, and its perpetrators should face consequences. But it’s also limited in scope, unlikely to recur, and completely understandable from ordinary human motivations. Subsequent spiteful feedback makes less sense. Worse, it jeopardizes American standards of justice. Let’s pause, check our sentiments, and make decisions based on facts. Remember, the vengeance knife cuts both ways.

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