The lies I used to believe

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I remember sitting on the floor of my bedroom as a teenager late one night, fiddling with the radio dial. It was July 4, 1995. I skipped from one station to another, listening to bits and pieces of grunge alternative music, until I was startled by an angry voice. A man was ranting about America, screaming into the microphone so loudly that many of his words were distorted. He sounded like he had just escaped from a mental institution. I gasped and leaned toward the speakers. The man said Independence Day was a joke. If he were sailing on the high seas, he said, and he saw two ships floating toward him — one ship flying a jolly-roger flag and the other ship displaying an American flag — he would steer toward the ship with the jolly-roger. He said pirates were more trustworthy than America.

Right away, I pulled my hand from the radio dial and laughed out loud at the screaming man. He sounded so ridiculous, growling and snarling. I heard him pounding his fists on the desk in front of him. I had never heard anything like it before.

Not only did the show grab my attention, the whole radio station seized me. I spent the rest of my teenage years listening to conservative talk radio – mostly because it was so outrageous and entertaining, but also because some of the philosophical arguments made sense to me. Amid the low-brow jokes about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, I also heard a lot of inspiring messages. The hosts often talked about the importance of setting goals and working hard to achieve them. They said people should have the freedom to pursue their dreams. I remember Rush Limbaugh saying that if you do what you love for a living, people will have to beg you to take a vacation.

I still believe those things – but there are a few things I don’t believe anymore.

The talk show hosts insisted that rich people are hard workers and poor people are lazy sluggards. If you’re rich, you deserve to be rich. If you’re poor, you deserve to be poor.

When I was younger, sitting in front of my radio, I gobbled up this message. I believed that all wealthy people were honest, diligent, goal-oriented citizens … and poor people just needed to get off the couch and find a job.

Now that I’m 34 years old, I know this idea is nonsense. The world is filled with poor people who work hard every day. They work long hours, sometimes juggling multiple jobs, and they still live from paycheck to paycheck, biting their nails and wondering how they will pay their bills each month.

For five years, I worked at a textile mill, barely scraping by. During those five years, the mill never gave me a pay raise. (It wasn’t just me. The mill is known throughout the community for being tightfisted and stingy with the regular employees while the people in upper management swim in cash.) The most insulting thing about the mill is this: even though they refuse to give raises, they happily donate heaps of money to the local high school sports teams.

Why does the mill sling money all over the community? Is it because the company big shots are generous people? Obviously not. It’s because the government gives them tax breaks for their “charitable” donations. They gain money by giving money away.

I think the government should give tax breaks to companies that pay workers well. It might cause greedy old men to become more generous … and it might help some of the hardworking poor people in our country.

(I don’t usually talk about politics on this blog, but I’ve felt really annoyed about this situation lately. I’m not an expert on any of these things at all. My opinion isn’t worth much. But I would rather offer a solution to the problem than simply gripe about it. Griping is therapeutic, but it doesn’t really fix anything.)

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You can click here if you would like to order my novels, Citizens of Purgatory and Under the Electric Sun. My new novel, Citizens of Purgatory, is a dark comedy set in Alabama. It’s roughly based on a few of my experiences in the mill.