I am a bleeding heart liberal.
In 2003 I sat on my roommate’s bed as I watched her on her computer, eagerly waiting for the conclusion and results of the online meme that would judge “Just How Liberal Are You?” When I saw her move aside so that I could see her 96%, I was crestfallen. The test had proved that she was a better person than I was. And she probably was. After all, she actually went to the Gay-Straight Alliance meetings that I had kept wanting to attend. She campaigned for NORML as I wished to, although neither of us had touched a drug in our lives. And she was three liberal percentage points higher than me, which was the biggest test of all that she was better.
I was politically minded from the beginning. At five years old I was asking my mother, “Mommy, what’s the difference between a Democrat and a Republican?” She answered me with words that haven’t left me since, “The difference is, Democrats care about people, and Republicans only care about money.” I lied on my bedroom floor with my chin in my hands, my elbows on the hard wooden floor for hours. In front of me, the quarter I had earned through the suffering of losing my tooth, and next to it, a picture I had drawn. Five stick figures, two of them taller, and a crudely drawn dog.
In 2005 I dropped out of school. I’ll pretend that I did it for reasons more grandeur, but truthfully I was just on the edge of being kicked out for my falling GPA, the scholarships I had worked so hard for in high school were running out, and I was tired of other people trying to run my life.
I was staunchly liberal by this point, having worked on the Kerry campaign—that is, the anti-Bush campaign. I felt defeated as a person and as a Democrat, knowing that if I had just worked a little harder, I could have made some real change in the country. John Kerry had told me that great movements start with one person, and so I moved back to my hometown, and tried to capture ideas to make that elusive “difference.”
Joining Ameri*Corps was one of the more selfish things I have done. I did it for my own haughtiness. For the ability to say that “I made a difference.” I did it for the pity I would receive for living on seven hundred dollars a month. I did it to justify shopping at Goodwill, which had long been my favorite store. I did it to earn brownie points, and to earn percentage points on memes of the past. And surely, a year fighting for literacy, training tutors, and writing grants was going to make me more liberal than ever.
“To be good is not enough when you dream of being great” -- Anonymous
Eagerly I jumped in, with a focus on family literacy. I planned to perpetuate my wisdom among the masses. After all, I came from an upper-middle class family, so that must mean that I knew how not to live in poverty. The great speaker and writer Ruby Payne had impressed on me that poverty and illiteracy follow each other in a seemingly never-ending cycle, and I was there to break the circle, to make a sustainable change, and to change the world.
The family learning workshops I planned in government subsidized housing had a minimal turnout. The free healthy dinner and school supplies I was giving away didn’t have the effect I had intended. The pamphlets I had put out with every flyer, encouraging family learning time weren’t working. Eventually I realized you have to lose some to gain some. Pizza and door prizes it was, in exchange for getting to disguise my learning workshops as “family fun nights.”
Pizza and the hope of a free bike brought in many more people, and I got to know many of my clientele very well. Some had fallen on hard times due to a death, a learning disability, a layoff. I felt great when talking to these people, helping them get back on their feet, being able to provide the resources they needed for training to further their career, the right people to talk to about getting funding for their child, free counseling programs to help them deal with personal problems. These were the families that made me realize how full my commitment really was to Ameri*Corps, and to making a difference. These are the ones who should receive temporary assistance when all else fails.
I met one woman with five children who single-handedly changed my life. She was a struggling mother with no father in the picture. She couldn’t afford school supplies for her children. She would talk to me for hours about the stresses and hardships in her life. And she pissed me off. Her income was welfare, subsistence from her church, and food stamps. Her five children had four fathers, two of whom sent child support checks, one of whom was rich. “Thank goodness,” she used to tell me. Her car was much nicer than mine, and rented. Not leased, but rented weekly from Enterprise, for the sum of $1300 per month, as she didn’t have the credit to actually buy a car. Her teeth were real gold, she was proud of this and often flashed me her blinding smile. Her TV was flat paneled and well over 50 inches, and her children had Nike shoes and no notebook paper.
I tutored her personally (when she bothered to show up for our weekly sessions). Her children were tutored all at the same time, on her request. I recruited three more tutors for that time of day so that we could meet this request. She insisted that coming to the library once a week was enough of a hassle, and didn’t let her children check out books, because they had “things to do.” We worked on budgeting, on family planning, on the importance of her children’s education. We worked on how to improve her credit score. We talked about reading to her children, and helping them improve, as her 9 year old was still flustered by the alphabet. I didn’t help this woman because I liked her. I didn’t help her because she deserved it. I dreaded our sessions, and I hated the strain she was placing on the economy and on her children. I did it because I am a good person. A Democrat. A bleeding heart liberal.
And yet, this woman was everything I hated about the blue states and their views. My devilish mind concocted fantasies that were not only conservative, but far beyond fascist. First would come my TV show, “Melissa Knows Best” where I’d outshine Dr. Phil, because I really did know best. Citizenship would never be automatic, and current denizens of the country would need to pass the same tests we require of immigrants looking to become naturalized. IQ requirements would be a stipulation of voting, and I alone would know the code to the sterility switch I would install in every man and woman, and only flip to the “on” position when the person in question had passed my intensive course on how to be a good parent. It would be my own form of birth control, and only those who would make good parents would have the ability to have children—capped, of course, by their financial means to support them.
As I looked through my life, my work, my friends, I saw so many people who I would insist came on my TV show. How were these people making such messes of their lives, and what could I do to fix them? I was financially sound on the $700 a month living allowance that had me working 80 hours a week, and I saw families daily who earned more than me by being irresponsible, and still didn’t have the gas money to drive your children to the library. They were making quick work of the money that they didn’t even deserve. Have another child you can’t afford, get another tax break. Can’t afford for college? No problem, we’ll pay it for you. My mother also used to say that “life’s not fair” and I saw that she was absolutely right.
After finishing Ameri*Corps and going back to school I felt even more justified. I continued to volunteer, worked a full-time receptionist job, took night time classes, and didn’t qualify for financial aid. My friends who didn’t work earned 70% of my income through aid alone. My “expected family contribution” was over a third of my salary. I watched my hard-earned money being taxed and then squandered to pay for the education of a server who didn’t report her tips, of a girl who claimed to be “independent” when her parents gave her $4000 a month for allowance, for a boy who scraped by in his classes that he only took for the aid to support his drug addictions.
My evilness showed up in my daydreams. It haunted me that there were people earning the exact same amount of money for doing absolutely nothing, and that I could do the exact same things if I so desired. I could shop at Wal-Mart to get lower prices, and not worry about the harsh effect on America, or on 12-year-olds living in the Far East. I could lie on my taxes about the amounts I had donated, because who was going to find out? I could get knocked up, for fun, collecting child support and tax breaks, all while not giving a flying flip about my newborn, who I wouldn’t even need to see as a real person. I could be just like so many Americans that I hated for working the system, and admired because they had the balls to do it.
I didn’t do those things, and I won’t do those things. Because I am a Democrat. I am a good person. I am a bleeding heart liberal. I am a “look-at-me” martyr, and I have an image to uphold.
The image is upheld even when the immediate benefits are not easy to see. I advanced in my job and had my taxes withheld at a higher rate. Tuition costs increased. I bought a house because renting no longer made sense. I pay property taxes to pay for the schooling of children I don’t yet have. I pay federal taxes that fund welfare programs that help few and give an easy way out for many. I pay social security taxes that probably won’t do anything to help me in retirement. Major welfare reform and major tax reform are on my to-do list, but until we can figure out a way to give help to all those who deserve it, I am glad to pay these costs. I will not deny assistance to those who need it, and I will not deny help to those who seek it. Because I am a Democrat. Because I am a good person. Because I am a bleeding heart liberal. Or at least that’s what I want you to think.