"The Greater Depression"
By Cognitive Dissonance
"Once or twice a month Mrs. Cog and I pack up the car and head to Winston-Salem, North Carolina. For us poor mountain folk, that’s the big city and the best destination when our need for certain items calls for visiting particular stores. Each trip down from the mountain elicits at least one observation about recent changes to the Matrix. For example, Mrs. Cog noticed the big box stores appear to be reducing their selection significantly. Once it was brought to my attention, it was suddenly obvious they were narrowing their inventory to those items with high margins and quick turnover. Essentially they are abandoning the rest of the low margin consumer market to the likes of Amazon.com, Wallmart.com and so on.
But what we stumbled upon as we hunted down a used book store near the heart of Winston-Salem was a bit surprising to say the least. It is common to find beggars and panhandlers working the stop light at busy intersections. Often they are soliciting the right hand turn lane or narrow island of grass separating the traffic flowing in opposite directions using the tool of their trade; a cardboard sign describing their particular plight in hand written black marker.
Two or three years ago the physical condition of the beggars clearly indicated distress, usually by way of their unkempt appearance and worldly possessions gathered on or around them as they solicited. These were ‘street’ people doing whatever they had to do in order to make it through another day. Sure, some were drug and alcohol dependent, others just trying to make a quick buck tugging on the heart strings of those passing by. And some were hard core street people making some money the only way they could considering they had no home, no transportation and no support system.
I’m not here to judge because at one point in my life I was that man on the corner begging for a meal and a night out of the cold. Long before finally turning my life around, I wallowed in the socioeconomic lowlands for a decade or more. I blame no one or thing but myself for my ordeal. But that doesn’t make my experience any more or less real. Nor does it invalidate what I am today, here and now. It is simply a part of the woven fabric that constitutes the whole me.
Over the last year or so the quality, if not also the quantity, of beggars has gone more upscale, with many of those on the side of the road appearing better dressed, washed and groomed. As well, their signage has morphed from a simple plea of “Please Help!” or “Homeless, Anything Will Help” to more involved explanations such as “Between Jobs, Need Some Help”, “Lost My Job, Then My Home” right down to the truly crestfallen “I Can’t Feed My Family. Please Help!”
In addition, the cast of characters has greatly expanded. It is somewhat common these days to find a man or woman holding a sign begging us to help their family. Off to their side on public display, usually ensconced under a shade tree or other such cover, is the actual family we presume needs our help. That must have been one interesting family meeting.
While it’s one thing to scam the general public on your own, it’s another thing entirely to involve the spouse and children in the ruse in so obvious and blatant a manner. The ‘tell’ I look for to indicate sincerity is the level of obvious embarrassment etched on the faces of the children and spouse. In fact, when I encountered one such situation a few months back, the look on the teen’s face instantly compelled me to roll down the window and pass out twenty bucks. She most definitely was not faking it and would rather have spent the day in hell than on that street corner. There was just no way she could hide her immense embarrassment and public humiliation. Sadly what I saw was just another family on the express elevator down to poverty.
Mrs. Cog and I have assumed this change in the face of roadside solicitation was simply another indicator of the ongoing and escalating rape and pillage of the American middle class. Being the oldest of our union, I clearly remember a similar descent by members of society into monetary purgatory during the 70’s and early 80’s. Then again, the people motoring by back then were much more likely to help the fallen than people are today.
Our most recent encounter was simply more of the same. A Caucasian couple, presumably husband and wife, were working the side of the road. She was front and center while he was just off to the side in the shade looking forlorn and beaten. I don’t know which was more haunting, his face or hers. But I do remember seeing the same face staring back at me in black and white images from the Great Depression. The last Great Depression; not today’s Greater Depression. You’ve seen those images. I know you have.
Take a good look. Look at the eyes. See the body language. This is the face of the fallen.
She was clearly middle class, possibly even professional middle class, with freshly washed hair, presentable clean clothes and very light makeup. It was a breezy day and she was trying in vain to keep her long straight hair in place. Clearly her appearance mattered to her, her head held high as she unflinchingly faced the people she was soliciting. This wasn’t arrogance or false pride, but simple straight forward dignity on display. Her sign said it all. “We are both working, but not enough to pay bills. Please help.” For just a moment, try putting yourself in their shoes. Can you imagine the conversation they must have had over dinner last night?
The wife, looking tired and depressed, to her husband. “Honey, we need to talk.”
“Honey, we need to talk…now.”
The husband, clearly irritated and angry, snaps back. “Yes, I know. What do you want to do?
Silence. Neither wants to be the first one to say it.
She finally tries the back way around. “Marcia at work says she knows a friend who did it last week and made more than a hundred dollars in a day.”
He shifts in his seat, but doesn’t respond. Encouraged, she pushes forward.
“She said be sure to bring food and plenty of water. And your dignity because it’s not your fault. (Pause) We’re good people, we’re working but we just don’t make enough money to pay all the bills.”
His head jerks up; he looks like he’s ready to cry. “I don’t want to do this. Isn’t there some other way we can try?
She fights back her tears, then bites her lip until she can regain her composure. Why does she always have to be the strong one?
Reaching across the table to hold his hand, almost in a whisper she pleads, “I don’t know what else to do. We’re gonna lose the apartment if we don’t pay them some of the back rent. I need your help with this honey. I can’t do it alone.”
His shoulders drop, and with them all resistance. “OK. When?!
Wasting no time, she lays out her plan. “We’re both off tomorrow. The weather is supposed to be ok. Marcia said that stop light near the book store is a good place to try. It’s nearby, so we can walk.”
“Tomorrow’s Friday…payday. People will have money. (Pause) It’ll be OK.”
“Come on, help me make the sign.”
This is my sister, my daughter, my wife, my 'self'.
This is the face of the fallen, of perfectly capable and productive people slowly squeezed out of the middle class through little to no fault of their own. While I don’t know the specific situation of our Jane and Joe, the trend is unmistakable. We’ve seen it germinate, then accelerate over the last few years.
What compels an entire family to stake out a busy street corner and beg strangers for help? Or induces a man and wife to take turns holding a cardboard sign by the side of the road, soliciting help from passersby? This isn’t exactly easy ‘work’ after all. Like I said, I’ve been there and know exactly what they are going through. Many people avert their eyes and attempt not to see what is clearly evident to any who acknowledge the suffering on display. Some make a disapproving face, disgusted by what they see. A surprisingly large number flip them the bird or make some other obscene gesture. And a few will roll down the passenger side window and shout some degrading comment at the solicitor.
But every now and then someone stops and thrusts bills out the window, no time to talk or exchange much more than “God Bless You” because the light is now green and those waiting behind want to move along. Charity waits for no traffic light.
Then there are the very young children strapped into the back seat of passing cars and SUV’s. They don’t often see people standing on a street corner, at least not in places designed strictly for vehicle traffic with pedestrian traffic shunned and displaced. These young children, innocent toddlers really, have no understanding what is unfolding before their eyes. Their life experience is narrow and mostly pleasant. In supermarkets and department stores, those who pass them smile or stop and engage in animated baby talk while conversing with the rents. So, unsurprisingly, several smile, giggle and wave at the human debris perched by the side of the road.
If witnessed as a third party disinterested observer, one can quickly surmise how far they have psychologically fallen by their reaction to these most basic displays of innocent humanity and abject cruelty. Those freshly minted to roadside petitioning will return the smile and even manage a small wave, their dignity and sense of self worth still mostly intact.
But the knife that cuts the deepest are the children just a few years older, after they have begun their social indoctrination and imperial conditioning via boob tube, video game, play ground and parental teachings. You know…the do as I say, not as I do parental teachings. Some of those kids can be downright nasty when they think the rents up front aren’t looking. Other kids don’t really care if they are.
The obscene and angry displays are at first shocking and humiliating, but then mostly ignored with stone faced resolve and resignation. Those further down the rabbit hole of despair and hopelessness have fully evolved their defensive shields and show little to no emotion regardless of what they see, hear or feel. It’s simply too exhausting to do otherwise.
Having been on both sides of the curb, when time permits I try to be observant of the scene in its entirety, of both the actors on stage and the actors in the audience. This is real life drama playing out on your street corner, regardless whether you are cognizant of it or not. One measure of a society is how well, or poorly, it treats its weakest members. It doesn’t get any more real than this.
In the most general of ways I fully understand the anger on both sides of the political aisle. I was born poor and, through drug and alcohol addiction, plumbed the depths of poverty and despair as a young adult. I pulled myself out of the abyss by my bootstraps, by sheer will and determination…or to be more accurate and honest, desperation. While I presently have little in the way of wealth and material goods compared to many in America, I regained my dignity and self-worth through hard work and perseverance.
So I fully understand how one quickly disappears into the shadows when one is poor in America, detritus quickly discarded and forgotten. I get it. But America is no longer that land of opportunity so widely advertised via various glowing screens, for we now have a permanent underclass deeply embedded within the socioeconomic system. And their numbers are rapidly increasing.
Not everyone suffered during the Great(er) Depression.
The rich keep on getting richer while the poor remain poor. Since the (global) financial apparatus is now maintained via various emergency life support measures, meaning those nearest the cash register gain the most, the financial looting will continue until morale improves or the body politic collapses. Or at least until the wide swath of middle class is finished being strip mined and enslaved. Can you say ‘disappearing pension’ and ‘bailed in’?
What we are witnessing is better described as a crumble than a collapse. Only now they aren’t even bothering to dig out the bodies before bulldozing over the entire bloody mess. Those still breathing, walking wounded really, are the ones found panhandling on the side of the road, plumb out of luck and with rapidly dwindling options.
Mrs. Cog once observed while surveying the human wreckage that it’s a recession when it happens to someone else, a depression when it crashes into you or me. If I have no eyes to see and no compassion to feel, does that middle class panhandler camped on the corner really exist? The Matrix would have you believe not.
The cognitive conundrum is simple; the official numbers tell us one thing while our lying eyes another. Those running the show helpfully inform us all is well, the recovery nearly complete and consumer nirvana just around the corner. Just a few more Federal Reserve cash machine refills and flushes and all will be as right as rain.
Here’s an ugly truth, one that has ALWAYS been self evident for all to view with the courage to see. The intent of government statistics is not to tell you or me the truth, but to allow us to remain comfortable with the public lie. And while liberal and conservative alike bemoan the state of the state, hypocrisy reigns; don’t you dare touch my piece of the public pie.
Just because one slice comes from gainful employment via defense contracts or Wall Street alchemy while another is served a la mode via various liberal educational institutions or Silicon Valley magic means nothing. The real world definition of public hypocrisy is complaining about the quantity and quality while still firmly attached to the rapidly diminishing teat. Or in this case, Uncle Sam’s wealth redistribution and Ponzi enabling purse strings. Make mine to go and hurry it up.
Anyone who sincerely thinks the root cause of all our problems lay way over there, on the other side of the divide, really should consider cutting back on the ideological bong hits. I strongly suggest it’s time to just say no, then attempt to clear our severely befuddled heads.
Whatever our globally heralded ‘constitutional’ political system might once have been, it clearly no longer is. It’s regressed to the point where it’s every man, woman and child for themselves. Confirmation of our decline springs from study after global study showing America’s solid hold on the lower middle of world rankings…and sinking fast. Which is precisely why the USS Titanic, just like all Titanic’s in the past, will continue sailing straight forward until it wrecks on the rocks in plain sight. We all know the only class with reserved lifeboats is first class and above.
Anyone who still thinks a corrupt and hopelessly dysfunctional political system can be ‘fixed’ by changing a few figure heads at the top desperately wants, no needs, to believe this public fiction above all else. Thus the canned statistics continue to be pumped out. “See, if we just tweak a little here and remove that over there, things are sure to get better.”
Don't avert your eyes. This is the face of exhaustion and hopelessness.
The fiat spice flow is all that counts. And everyone at every level, including those dwelling at the bottom, intuitively knows this. If a dysfunctional system remains severely dysfunctional even though everyone claims they prefer otherwise, someone is lying somewhere. What is actually going on is everyone is lying, to themselves and to each other. And deep down everyone knows it.
This is the big lie. Those who wish to manage us know one amazingly simple fact. If everyone is lying and no one wishes the lie to be exposed for fear they will miss out when the truth is told, then perpetuating, twisting and manipulating the lie is the path to total control. Massage the narrative and you control those enthralled and dependent upon the narrative.
The key to a really good lie is to mix in some truth. When we speak ‘truth’ to others, especially unspoken ‘truth’, it helps smooth over the lingering lies that remain tightly bound to what we identify as our ‘self’. This is how we intellectually support our own glaring hypocrisy.
Ramp up the moral certainty and righteous indignation and we’re off to the races, all doubt and introspection abandoned on the side of the beggar’s road in our quest to save the world from ourselves. Of course, since we are righteous and morally correct, we can never admit this to our self, let alone to anyone else. This deeply embedded and desperately hidden cognitive dissonance is the root of all the suffering we create and the source of our everlasting insanity.
Despite what liberals, conservatives, libertarians, socialists and communists say, this isn’t about saving the world. On a personal level, the only level that counts, this is about personal redemption from our big lie. And by hook or by crock we shall be redeemed.
Unfortunately there is no redemption, only absolution. And the absolution must come from within, from our own hand and only after a brutally honest self examination, then an inner cleansing is complete. Since this is precisely the route we do not wish to pursue, the inner tension continues to increase exponentially.
Once we crest the peak and start our descent, we cannot hold on tight enough nor do we have the courage to let go and change course. Therefore we drive our own ship of state directly onto the rocky shoals. The nation simply follows the individual in the same manner the body follows the direction of the head. Try walking in a straight line while your head is turned all the way to one side or the other. It simply can’t be done. Inevitably you change course. On the flip side, try walking to the left or right while keeping your head fixed on a point on the horizon.
Neither you nor I can personally save those people begging on the side of the road. The socioeconomic system is failing because we are failing morally, physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, as individuals, as a community and as a nation.
I needed to hit rock bottom before I became willing to do what really needed to be done, to look directly in the mirror and conduct a fearless moral inventory. Only then could I start to change everything connected to my own big lie so the healing could begin. We as individuals and as a nation need to follow the same prescription.
But ‘We the Nation’ are not willing to do this just yet. This is because we as individuals must take the first step forward, to admit we have no choice but to stand on the busy street corner and beg complete strangers for help. A little humble pie does wonders for a tormented soul. I’ve been there before and I stand ready, willing and able to be there again. What about you?"