I read Poor Magazine founder Lisa Gray-Garcia's (aka Tiny's) remarkable Poverty Criminal memoir this weekend, and am reminded of how complicated reality can often be, and how, in our puny inadequacy, we create categories of meaning that serve as placeholders for what remains beyond our grasp.
What on earth do I mean by that?
That reality is seldom as neat and clean as we'd like. As a result, we often collapse complexity into simplifications that are based in wishful thinking, denial, and the intense need to make sense of the mess that we're in.
Take Iraq, for example. Richard Lugar, in his carefully calibrated call for troop withdrawal, has upstaged the Democratic field by acknowledging the need to end this war without resorting to the dishonest wishful thinking and victim-blaming that has, sadly, permeated the more leftward "troops out now" position.
Hillary Clinton, for example, talks about how we've done our part by liberating the Iraqi's and bringing them democracy, and now they need to step up and take responsibility for running their own country so we can bring the troops home now. This is the brain dead liberal logical extension of Bush's "as they step up we'll step down" mythology, and contains the fatal flaw of accepting the premise that the US being in Iraq has something to do with freedom and democracy.
In making this error, which seems common to the liberal-democratic "left," the mushy position that follows looks, to most thoughtful people, a bit like victim-blaming idiocy, and thus cedes the legitimacy in this debate to realists like Lugar.
In an NPR interview, I heard Eric Ricks, the author of Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, offer this metaphor for the liberal-democrat position. It's like we've amputated a guys legs, and now, because we've given him a really expensive new pair of sneakers, we're complaining that he isn't running fast enough.
Democrats can't and won't say that this is a war of empire and advocate for the radical solutions and atonement that follow from that sort of honesty. This leaves them arguing from false premises, looking like childish idiots, and again, ceding the legitimacy to the likes of "realists" such as Lugar.
Messy, messy reality.
How does this relate to Tiny's beautiful and thought provoking memoir? This, more than anything, is a book about her incredibly dysfunctional relationship with her mother, which is also an amazing and moving story of intense and unconditional love. Both things, paradoxically, are true at once.
Tiny's mother, Dee, was plunged into poverty by divorce and single-motherdom when Tiny was four, and the PTSD demons of her own history of abuse often rendered her unable to cope. Dee and Tiny became Dee-and-Tiny, a single entity so thoroughly entwined in their co-dependence that Tiny was unable to attend school or form normal teen relationships. She basically cared for her mother from the age of five forward.
Tiny describes their relationship in terms of embracing non-western notions of multi-generational family and rejecting the cult of individualism that places self-advancement over community and family. While these ideas have some legitimacy, they also feel like an overly simplified PC-speak rationalization for a relationship that was unhealthy at its very core.
And yet, who's to say what would have been better? Garcia (Tiny) is probably right in that the alternative was a State intervention that would have defined her mother as unfit. The State rarely offers poor families what they need to succeed. It is less complicated and expensive to "protect the interests of the child" by punishing the damaged and poor and pulling their families apart. The realities of multi-generational poverty and dysfunction are often beyond its capacity.
So, what do Tiny and Iraq have in common? That neither chose their realities. And that not every problem has a good solution, and that we play the cards we are dealt as well as we can.