When the Hollywood types, who are unrepentant members of the 1%, were dropping by New York's Zucotti Park to show their "support" for the Occupy Wall Street protests led primarily by drumming, chanting unemployed young people in Guy Fawkes® masks, I knew the movement was doomed. Just like the Tea Party (which is so 2009), was co-opted by the mainstream GOP, the Occupy movement was being co-opted by the forces against which it protested. Of course, the Hollywood types wanted to be identified with the purity of youthful protest. They wanted to experience, to live into, to participate somehow in this great generational Munchean scream against the power elites, because they knew in their heart of hearts that it had the moral high ground. It is an existentialist dream: to learn by pretending to be something one is not.
John Paul Sartre once described existentialists as people who "believe that existence comes before essence." The elites who show up and pretend to protest against themselves, gain not the moral high ground, but merely an absurdist henna tattoo of truthiness (to borrow a Colbertian term) designed to display what it means to be 25, jobless, highly educated and without hope for the future. The tattoo will eventually wash off and the elite can go back to their everyday world of money, power and privilege. But for now, they bear the marks in their bodies of suffering and protest.
I write this, not as an anti-government “conservative” (a lovely, but meaningless term), but as an enthusiastic advocate of activist, efficient and effective government. In today’s strange political environment, that makes me a “liberal” (another lovely, but equally meaningless term). It was my liberalism that caused me to sign on to the SNAP Challenge, where participants agree to live for a week on a $4 per day budget for food in order to “experience” what the people who really live on a $4 per day budget for food really experience.
I’ve been saving my money all week, so I could go out with friends tonight to Motor Supply Bistro and have a salad. I blew the $7.50 I had saved so far this week on a sliced Fuji apple salad with blueberries and pecans over curly leaf lettuce with feta and an orange-key lime vinaigrette dressing. It was utterly Divine. I would have worshipped it, but I was too busy eating and reveling in the incarnate glory of fruits and veggies. Strangely, I felt that I deserved it: I had grits for breakfast ($.15) and two peanut butter and strawberry preserves sandwiches ($.35 ea) for lunch.
Years ago, when I was much closer in socio-economic level to people who live on food stamps, I was visiting a friend in Atlanta who really did receive food stamps. He described the giddiness of going to the grocery store at the beginning of the month and carefully choosing a month’s supply of food. Carefully, because he was going to include a large, juicy porterhouse or rib eye as part of his monthly allotment. I was shocked—after all I paid full price for all my food, and as a tax payer, I was paying for his porterhouse. Shouldn’t he be buying more peanut butter?
“You just don’t get it, do you? We are barely scraping by most days. Can’t I have a day once in a while where I get to eat something I want, instead of just eating to fill me up?”
Here’s the real lesson I’ve learned this week. SNAP recipients are people for whom food becomes an obsession, not because they are gathering with other rich people to nibble on the latest Pate de Foie Gras washed down with Beaujolais Nouveau, but because they have to obsess with food to simply stretch their inadequate resources over a month. The poor are just like us, with less money. I have not been poor this week. I live in a nice house, I have a great job, I drive a fabulous car, I’m writing this on a computer that costs as much as some poor people’s cars. I could quit this experience anytime I choose. This is all experience, not essence. I am only existentially poor.
But I am more aware that my food choices are just that: choices, not necessities. And though I may not be in the 1% of American wealthy, I am in the 1% of the planet’s wealthy. And I can make better choices, every day, in my ethical and personal life. I can stand up for people who don’t have choices. That’s what this week has been about. And I am profoundly grateful for having been reminded of that.
Woody Allen once said: “I took a test in Existentialism. I left all the answers blank and got 100.” There are no easy answers to the problem of food insecurity in the richest country in the world. But experiencing it, even for just a few days, even in such a limited and yes, hypocritical manner, has made me more determined than ever to keep working on the problem.