A True Friend

When we were in high school, my friend, Danny, went home from school one day to find that his mother had moved. The rental house they lived in was empty, she was gone, and he was on his own. No child welfare worker came to his rescue, and no neighbors took him in.  What little he had of a childhood ended that day when he was sixteen years old.  He never returned to school and I didn’t see him again for about year until I ran into him working as a bus boy in a 24-hour diner located on the west side of Pensacola, Florida.  He told me that for a time he lived in the woods while he sorted things out and found a job.  He’s been working ever since.  Every day, he’s gone off to difficult unpleasant jobs that don’t offer a future that’s any better than the present and a paycheck that most of us couldn’t live on.

Danny isn’t simply an acquaintance. He has proven himself to be a loyal friend for so long and on so many occasions that our not being friends isn’t an option.  We’ve shared apartments, protected each other’s backs during more than one street fight, explored the streets of New Orleans together, shared adventures that will never be retold, and shared the experience of growing from boys into men, and then into middle-age.  He’s seen my very best and my very worst, knows many of my secrets, and he’s never once wavered. Saying Danny isn’t my friend would be like saying my left arm is no longer part of my body. He is my true friend.

To be poor and white is to be defective in the eyes of many

This is why I was stunned and felt betrayed when Danny told me that he voted for Donald Trump.  We don’t normally talk politics and I’d always assumed we were on the same page.  Everything I know about Danny and his life tells me that Donald Trump doesn’t reflect his values or his interests.  I asked myself how he couldn’t see that Trump offered nothing but greater hardship in his life?

Danny explained that his vote wasn’t for Trump as much as it was against more of the same. He felt injured by the Affordable Care Act because he wasn’t able to purchase health insurance, so he lost his income tax refund as a penalty.  He doesn’t closely follow politics so he wasn’t unaware that part of the difficulty he experienced trying to get health insurance was due to Governor Rick Scott’s rejection of federal assistance for people like him.  All Danny knew was he was losing his annual windfall because of something that felt out of his hands.  His employers weren’t providing insurance, and his attempts to buy health insurance were futile.  Being self-employed, I can relate. My wife has spent countless hours on the phone with our insurance agent making sure our coverage continues.

That Danny doesn’t identify with people in the progressive movement shouldn’t surprise anyone.  Working-class white men like Danny are easy targets for progressive arrogance.  To be white, male, uneducated, and poor is to be an exception to the idea of white male privilege and such people are written off lazy, morally corrupt, or engaged in some form of substance abuse.  Unworthy of either compassion or assistance, people like Danny are easily maligned, ignored, or overlooked by progressives who, at the end of the day, care more about their causes than they do the people they’re supposedly trying to save. I suspect that Danny knows this. He may be poor and he may lack formal education, but he’s not stupid, and he reads people very well.

Even if progressives took a moment to talk with Danny, I can’t imagine they’d see him as I do.  Danny speaks in what is often pejorative and politically incorrect language that instantly offends progressive sensibilities. His is the speech of people who work in warehouses, the back ends of restaurants, slaughter houses, and all the other places where backbreaking dirty work gets done. The sometimes-brash offensiveness of his language isn’t hostility or aggression as much as it’s a remaining vestige of personal power for those who live in a world where other people hold most of the power. There are times during our conversations when he gets emotional and the F-bombs start to fall during every sentence, punctuating his language and stories with a brashness that refuses to capitulate to the judgment of the world.  So many of my progressive friends explode with righteous indignation at the very first sign of anything they deem to be tinged with racism, sexism, or any of the other many “isms” claimed as their causes.  What is missed by this self-righteousness that vilifies poor working-class white men like Danny is the understanding that this is the language of the oppressed, not the language of oppression.  It’s like judging a book by its cover.  The outside might be rough and sometimes unattractive, but what’s inside the pages is pure gold.  Danny isn’t a racist, a homophobe, or any kind of hateful person.  He lives in a neighborhood and works in a workplace that are much more integrated than mine are.  His friends and neighbors come from all groups, but I don’t think he’s aware of this.  When he speaks of people, he speaks of their character, of their acts of kindness, and their ethics.  I know from experience that he doesn’t consider race, gender, or sexual orientation for a moment when he sees someone in need.  If he’s able, he helps with a full and complete heart.

The Forgotten America where people like my friend, Danny, live.

The last time I stayed over, which was a few years ago, Danny didn’t have internet or even email. The only piece of technology he had was a second-hand X-Box video game he had hooked up to his television.  Maybe it’s the lack of technology that keeps him from spending his days obsessing over 24 hour news or participating in non-productive Facebook political discussions where we seek out people who reaffirm our ideas and arguments. Based upon our conversations, I sense that Danny spends his time on concerns that are much more immediate.  Will he get overtime this week at work, or will the boss cut his hours?  How is he going to raise $1,500 to pay for the colonoscopy that his Doctor wants him to have that isn’t covered by the low value health insurance policy he’s now getting through his employer? Can he go down the street to the new company that just opened up and get a job that pays 50 cents more per hour?  With problems like these, you would think that he would fully embrace progressive ideas like better wages and better healthcare, but how much does the left really talk about such things, much less actually take action on the issues that impact Danny’s world?  Progressive activists are sure to lose his attention when they begin their tirades about renouncing privilege, avoiding cultural appropriation, and embracing intersectionality – concepts that I hardly understand after more than 7 years of higher education, concepts that all seem to heap the blame for every historical and current injustice in the world upon white males, and which seem irrelevant and ridiculous when you’re stuck on the bottom looking up.

Maybe someday those of us on the left will get over ourselves and stop reducing people to stereotypes.  Imagine the coalitions and relationships that could happen if we simply gave people the benefit of the doubt and offered them a place at the table regardless of whatever warts they might bring with them. Who might join our causes if we let go of moral and intellectual arrogance and replaced it with a sense of true kinship with our communities?  How many other Dannys are out there, sitting ignored on the side-lines?