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“Where Is The Love?”: Compassion Isn’t A Sign Of Weakness, But A Mark Of Civilization

When I’ve written recently about food stamp recipients, the uninsured and prison inmates, I’ve had plenty of pushback from readers.

A reader named Keith reflected a coruscating chorus when he protested: “If kids are going hungry, it is because of the parents not upholding their responsibilities.”

A reader in Washington bluntly suggested taking children from parents and putting them in orphanages.

Jim asked: “Why should I have to subsidize someone else’s child? How about personal responsibility? If you procreate, you provide.”

After a recent column about an uninsured man who delayed seeing a doctor about a condition that turned out to be colon cancer, many readers noted that he is a lifelong smoker and said he had it coming.

“What kind of a lame brain doofus is this guy?” one reader asked. “And like it’s our fault that he couldn’t afford to have himself checked out?”

Such scorn seems widespread, based on the comments I get on my blog and Facebook page — as well as on polling and on government policy. At root, these attitudes reflect a profound lack of empathy.

A Princeton University psychology professor, Susan Fiske, has found that when research subjects hooked up to neuro-imaging machines look at photos of the poor and homeless, their brains often react as if they are seeing things, not people. Her analysis suggests that Americans sometimes react to poverty not with sympathy but with revulsion.

So, on Thanksgiving, maybe we need a conversation about empathy for fellow humans in distress.

Let’s acknowledge one point made by these modern social Darwinists: It’s true that some people in poverty do suffer in part because of irresponsible behavior, from abuse of narcotics to criminality to laziness at school or jobs. But remember also that many of today’s poor are small children who have done nothing wrong.

Some 45 percent of food stamp recipients are children, for example. Do we really think that kids should go hungry if they have criminal parents? Should a little boy not get a curved spine treated properly because his dad is a deadbeat? Should a girl not be able to go to preschool because her mom is an alcoholic?

Successful people tend to see in themselves a simple narrative: You study hard, work long hours, obey the law and create your own good fortune. Well, yes. That often works fine in middle-class families.

But if you’re conceived by a teenage mom who drinks during pregnancy so that you’re born with fetal alcohol effects, the odds are overwhelmingly stacked against you from before birth. You’ll perhaps never get traction.

Likewise, if you’re born in a high-poverty neighborhood to a stressed-out single mom who doesn’t read to you and slaps you more than hugs you, you’ll face a huge handicap. One University of Minnesota study found that the kind of parenting a child receives in the first 3.5 years is a better predictor of high school graduation than I.Q.

All this helps explain why one of the strongest determinants of ending up poor is being born poor. As Warren Buffett puts it, our life outcomes often depend on the “ovarian lottery.” Sure, some people transcend their circumstances, but it’s callous for those born on second or third base to denounce the poor for failing to hit home runs.

John Rawls, the brilliant 20th-century philosopher, argued for a society that seems fair if we consider it from behind a “veil of ignorance” — meaning we don’t know whether we’ll be born to an investment banker or a teenage mom, in a leafy suburb or a gang-ridden inner city, healthy or disabled, smart or struggling, privileged or disadvantaged. That’s a shrewd analytical tool — and who among us would argue for food stamp cuts if we thought we might be among the hungry children?

As we celebrate Thanksgiving, let’s remember that the difference between being surrounded by a loving family or being homeless on the street is determined not just by our own level of virtue or self-discipline, but also by an inextricable mix of luck, biography, brain chemistry and genetics.

For those who are well-off, it may be easier to castigate the irresponsibility of the poor than to recognize that success in life is a reflection not only of enterprise and willpower, but also of random chance and early upbringing.

Low-income Americans, who actually encounter the needy in daily life, understand this complexity and respond with empathy. Researchers say that’s why the poorest 20 percent of Americans donate more to charity, as a fraction of their incomes, than the richest 20 percent. Meet those who need help, especially children, and you become less judgmental and more compassionate.

And compassion isn’t a sign of weakness, but a mark of civilization.

By: Nicholas D. Kristof, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, November 27, 2013

November 28, 2013 Posted by | Poverty, SNAP | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Fried, Whipped And Canned”: Thanksgiving Isn’t Healthy And I Don’t Care!

The guests at Ilyssa Israel’s Thanksgiving table will get a chance to try a couple new healthy dishes she’s adding to her menu, such as roasted Brussels sprouts with quinoa and cranberries and garlic mashed cauliflower instead of potatoes. But those will be served alongside the traditional green bean casserole she makes every year – you know, the kind with cream-of-mushroom soup and those fried onion bits that come in a can.

Israel, 37, an executive assistant from Secaucus, N.J., will use her late mother’s recipe of sprinkling breadcrumbs on top followed by six pats of butter. “It’s so not healthy for you, but I don’t care,” she says. “It’s comfort food. My mom passed away when I was 27. When I think back to our Thanksgivings together, I think of happy times, and that meal always included this string bean casserole.”

What is it about holiday comfort foods that evoke such strong nostalgia? During this time of year, we crave items we wouldn’t touch any other day: gelatin deserts with fake whipped cream, deep-fried turkey or canned cranberries. Even the most die-hard foodies find themselves saying, “It’s not Thanksgiving until I have Mom’s maple-flavored, marshmallow-whipped sweet potato mash.” And recent research shows that a bit of nostalgia is good for us. When we think of fond memories from our past, we feel more socially connected and optimistic about the future.

The smells, tastes and traditions of Thanksgiving food tap into such powerful emotions, says Dr. Charlotte Biltekoff, assistant professor of American studies at the University of California, Davis and author of “Eating Right in America: The Cultural Politics of Dietary Health.”

“The rituals around holiday food connect us to the fantasy we have of the past, which we imagine was more wholesome, natural and simple,” says Biltekoff. “These connections are stronger than the reasons that normally govern our eating choices, like taste, convenience and health.” In other words, comfort foods temporarily make us feel better about living in a complicated, fragmented world.

The foods we choose to celebrate our national holiday also reveal our deeper values as a country, adds Rachel Laudan, a British food historian and author of “Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History.” Unlike other cultures that celebrate festivals with fancier fare, Americans stick with the basics of turkey, gravy and potatoes. “You don’t have fancy sauces or mousses or elaborate desserts,” she says. “It’s a meal that anyone can cook and encapsulates the middle-class ideal.” It’s also a family holiday and symbolizes motherhood and nurturing, she added.

For Israel, that green bean casserole takes her back to the square, white-walled kitchen of the house she grew up in. “As soon as I take a bite, I feel like my mother is with me,” she says. “We’re laughing and reminiscing, and it’s like she hasn’t been gone for the last 10 years.”


By: Sarah Elizabeth Richards, Contributor, TODAY Health, November 25, 2013

November 26, 2013 Posted by | Family Values | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Like It Or Not, Only In America”: Be Thankful For Our Democracy And The Troops Who Protect It

Six years ago I celebrated Thanksgiving on a small Iraqi base in western Ninewa province. Nearly halfway through my year-long tour on that day me and 9 other members of the military transition team I served with (one man was home on leave) settled in to watch a game of football. No, not the Cowboys or the Lions. In this case it was a soccer match between the young members of an American cavalry troop who were co-located with us at the time and ringers from the Iraqi battalion. Final score, 1st Battalion: 20, B Troop: 2. Or something like that. (The energy and fitness of the young troopers could not overcome the superior passing skills and finesse of the Iraqis.)

The weather in the high desert was changing from the arid heat to the cooler fall. We sat down that afternoon to a meal of hot, or at least warmish, and plentiful “A” rations of some form of pressed turkey loaf and fixings. This certainly was not the feasts available on some of the larger American and coalition forward operating bases throughout the country, and certainly was not as joyous an occasion as being surrounded by friends and family and favorite foods and beverages as available back here in the United States, but in retrospect it was quite good. It certainly was much better than what I am sure some soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines will be having tomorrow in remote combat outposts in Afghanistan. The fellowship of being surrounded by fellow soldiers, American and Iraqi, made the circumstances of being so far from home in a war zone bearable.

So on this Thanksgiving I say we give thanks for many things, even though individual circumstances may dictate the depth of our thanks. But collectively we Americans should be thankful for living in a country where violence and intimidation are not the norms for resolving political differences. Sure, we just exited from a contentious presidential election. And yes there was some hyperventilation about the results from some quarters (just as there was following the 2000 and 2004 elections) and the economy continues to sputter along, but we do live in a country where the deliberate, indiscriminate use of explosives or mass violence to systematically target to kill people simply due to their race, ethnicity, religion, or creed is not the norm. Yes, tragic incidents occur from time to time, but their rarity makes their occurrence all the more shocking.

We should also give thanks to the men and women of the armed forces and other members of the U.S. government and supporting contracting personnel who are separated from friends and family and are providing for the common defense and the advancement of U.S. interests abroad, whether they be in war zones or not. We hope to see you back home soon. For those in harm’s way be as safe as the mission allows.


By: Michael P. Noonan, U. S. News and World Report, November 21, 2012

November 22, 2012 Posted by | Democracy | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The First Thanksgiving: Abraham Lincoln’s Proclamation

The first Thanksgiving was celebrated by the earliest colonists in North America, yet it was not until Abraham Lincoln in 1863 that it first became a national event, its first observance coming just one week after the dedication of the Soldiers National Cemetery at Gettysburg.

Here, according to the website of the National Park Service, is what Lincoln  proclaimed:

The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the  blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these  bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source  from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of almighty God.

In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity,  which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and provoke  their aggressions, peace has been preserved with all nations, order  has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict; while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.

Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of  peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of  augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.

No human counsel hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the  most high God, who while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly,  reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people. I do, therefore, invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and  observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise  to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them  that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to him for such singular  deliverances and blessings, they do also, with  humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience,  commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife  in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as  soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity, and union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United Stated States to be affixed.

By: Peter Roff, U. S. News and World Report, November 24, 2011

November 24, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 1 Comment


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