All things are a flowing,
Sage Heraclitus says;
But a tawdry cheapness
Shall outlast our days…
Once upon a time, in a Floridian Camelot shortly after the brief reign of King John of Kennedy, there existed a federal program that didn’t cost much, and did a lot of good. It was called Upward Bound, and targeted talented but under-performing high school students from St. Pete’s lowest economic ranks. Each one nominated by a teacher, they were mostly, but by no means all, minority kids; one of my most promising writers was a red-headed Irish girl named Popsicle whose skin was so pale that I asked if she were all right. “I’m OK,” she said, “I just look terrified.”
America has become one of the least fluid societies, economically and socially, in the civilized world. More and more, being born poor in the USA means staying poor. The myth that animates Paul Ryan’s budget (and head) is the one he picked up from his early embrace of Ayn Rand’s books: Americans succeed by dynamic individualism, and become rich and powerful without the help of government. This story isn’t true of either Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan, both of whom have risen with heavy lifting from the government. Of course, 47 percent of Americans really don’t want to “take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
After the Great Generation won the war against tyranny, it went to school on the G.I. Bill. But for the last 40 years, Americans have grown more and more averse to paying taxes. During this time, the rich have piled up money like Midas, offshore islands sinking with untraceable accounts as their coconuts turn to gold, while our military annual cost has bulged beyond the combined expenditures of our friends and enemies. So what to do about our swelling debt? The answer’s obvious: sock it to the undeserving bloodsucking poor.
Almost all of our Upward Bound students — we at Florida Presbyterian (now Eckerd) College had them for two summers — graduated from high school and went on to college. Not only did they learn to write and to put out a magazine, but they came to our house and Jeanne taught them about healthy food (and gave some of them sewing lessons).
Toward the end of our final session, we gathered our group of 15 kids for a final party. Each one agreed to read a new poem for the event. As they progressed in the reading, Jeanne and I and two other teachers smiled and shook our heads at how much they had progressed. The next-to-last reader, a young man drunk on words, the only one to dress in a jacket and tie, stood up without notes and proclaimed, “My name is Randolph Weddington the Third, and I am going to read you a pure Shakespearean sonnet.” He proceeded to read a perfectly formed, though indecipherable, sonnet. The group, as it tended to do with Randolph, gave him admiring, if puzzled, applause.
The last reader was Faye Dowdell, a tough clear-eyed black girl who was a mother by the time she was 16, and who had responded to Upward Bound like a drowning swimmer reaching the shore.
She stood up with a small piece of paper in her hands. “My name is Faye Dowdell, the First,” she said, looking hard at Randolph, “and I’m going to read you a few lines of truth. She took a deep breath. She studied her paper.
“Truth truth truth,” she declaimed. “Truthtruthtruthtruthtruth / Truth truth truth.” Then she sat down and we stood up, laughing and applauding, recognizing we needed a little more of that. I don’t think Faye had ever heard of Dame Edith Sitwell (1887-1964), and Sitwell’s controversial dadaistic readings — but they were sisters under the skin. (Faye grew up to be a successful police chief in Miami.)
Ryan and Romney don’t approve of Upward Bound. Their budget guts any program remotely like it, while increasing spending for defense. In their speeches, they preach compassion, but truth is the first casualty of politics, as well as war — not to mention debates.
There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization…
—Both quotes from “Hugh Selwyn Mauberly” by Ezra Pound (1885-1972)
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