In Which I Reluctantly Get a Bit Political
Last night I went out for dinner with Juliette, Jason, and her parents and brother. It was a pretty nice restaurant, not particularly fancy and not outrageously expensive, but with pleasant, dark-wood decor; a relaxed, sophisticated ambience; and a menu that neither pedestrian nor pretentious. Most importantly for me, the ambient noise level was high enough that Jason's outbursts went mostly (but not completely) unnoticed by the tables around us. (They were all very understanding and forgiving, thankfully.)
So there we are, conversing and trying to keep Jason entertained while we wait for the food to arrive, when from the next table, I overhear someone loudly declare "Democrat means you want to pay people to sit around and do nothing." I look up, and I see this teenager--probably 18 or 19--passionately denouncing Democrats, unemployment, and the lazy people that rely on the welfare system instead of getting jobs like they ought to.
The first thought that popped into my head was "Has this kid ever even met a Democrat?" Because, honestly, I've never met anyone who actually wants to pay people to sit around and do nothing. But it's really none of my business what some kid says to his parents about welfare and I don't like to be nosy. Aside from which, right about then Jason was demanding that he be allowed to have all of the bread at the table, so I had more pressing things to occupy my attention.
I really wanted to mind my own business, but the kid had a strong voice and he was pointed right at me. So after he was done telling his parents and grandmother all of his thoughts on what was wrong with the unemployment system, he went on to talk about how awesome it is to have a fridge in his dorm room and how much fun he's having this summer and so on, and I found myself getting angry at him.
Now, look, that kid--whoever he is--is just as entitled to his opinion about unemployment benefits (or anything else, for that matter) as every other person is. If he wants to shout in a crowded restaurant about how Democrats facilitate laziness, it's certainly his right to be able to do so. Furthermore, I agree that the system as it exists now has flaws, and I've heard a lot of sound arguments from some very intelligent people that were substantively not much different from what this kid was saying.
Even so, sitting there in that nice restaurant in that nice strip mall in that nice, upper-middle-class neighborhood, listening to that nice-looking, clean-cut college freshman rant about Democrats and welfare, making his parents laugh about the misguided liberals, it just rubbed me the wrong way. I don't know that kid; I don't know what the sum of his life experience has been and how that's colored his opinions. But from where I was sitting, it didn't look like that kid had ever been poor, or had ever even known someone in any meaningful way who was poor. Or who was a Democrat, for that matter. He almost certainly has never had to financially support himself or anyone else. And I highly doubt he's ever had a family to support or a mortgage to pay, and it didn't sound like he knew anyone who'd ever been laid off.
Do you have to have been poor to be allowed an opinion on welfare? Is it required that you be financially responsible for others before you can talk about unemployment benefits? Of course not. Poor (or formerly poor) people do not and should not have the monopoly on discourse about that aspect of public policy. Nor does that having that kind of experience mean that your opinions are more valid, or that your ideas and observations are necessarily more astute.
In fact, there is no limitation on ignorance or insensitivity at all before we are qualified and entitled to our opinions. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try not to be ignorant or insensitive when we're spouting off about something, especially if we're doing so in public. And I've just known too many intelligent, hard-working, honest people who have had to deal with hard times through no fault of their own to be able to paint unemployment recipients as lazy or useless.
One of my best friends, for example, is a highly skilled and talented engineer who puts in long hours and genuinely enjoys the challenge and technical knowledge involved in his job. The company he was working for happened to be losing money in certain areas, and decided to cut its losses by closing down his division. So he found himself with a mortgage and a baby on the way, and short the major portion of his household income. What would you do in that situation? I'll tell you what he did: he spent eight hours every day finding companies with open hiring reqs, sending out applications, and lining up interviews, and he did that for weeks until he landed another job. And he collected unemployment benefits to help tide him over until he got that job. Is that irresponsible or lazy? Try telling him that to his face.
Fortunately, my friend and his wife are sensible about money and between their savings, unemployment, and tightening their belts a little, they were able to get through that rough patch. Even more fortunately, there were actually jobs to be had. Not everybody is that fortunate.
The point here isn't to say that we do or don't need unemployment benefits or other kinds of social welfare programs, nor to say what forms those benefits should take. There is a lot of room for discussion there, and I'm certain that there are many valid points of view and many good solutions to the underlying problems. No, the point is that I'm sick and tired of hearing ignorant people say things like "Democrats want people to be lazy" and "Republicans hate black people."
We're all entitled to our opinions. But sometimes your opinion makes you an asshole, damn it.