He Is Us!

Back in the late 1940’s, when I was in my formative years, a savvy and prescient social observer said, “We have met the enemy and he is us!”

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The speaker was Pogo Possum, an unprepossessing denizen of the Okefenokee Swamp, which straddles the border separating Florida from Georgia.  During the next fifty years, Pogo would go on to become an American icon, famous the world over for his gentle, yet scathing, commentary on the world around us.

Strangely, many people today have never heard of him, but from the time I first took an interest in comic strips, Pogo was one of my favourites.  And he remains that to this day—all the more so, considering where we presently find ourselves.

Pogo was the creation of Walt Kelly, a cartoonist extraordinaire who lived from 1913-1973, and it is Kelly’s inspiration that put words into the mouths of Pogo and his many friends and acquaintances in the swamp.

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Among them were:  Porky Pine, a gloomy, misanthropic soul, perhaps Pogo’s closest pal, an Okefenokee version of A.A. Milne’s Eeyore; Albert Alligator, extroverted and garrulous, often the comic foil for Pogo; Howland Owl, a self-proclaimed perfesser and fount of all knowledge; Churchy LaFemme, a hapless, superstitious mud turtle; Miz Mam’selle Hepzibah, a beautiful French skunk who often pined for Pogo; Beauregard Bugleboy, a hound dog who, as his grand name might suggest, fancied himself a dashing figure, often recounting tales of his own heroics in the third-person; and Miz Beaver, a corncob pipe-smoking washerwoman with scant regard for menfolk.

Pogo himself was a mild-mannered soul, described by Kelly as “the reasonable, patient, soft-hearted, naive, friendly person we all think we are.”  Almost always portrayed hanging with friends, picnicking or fishing, he seemed the wisest, most laid-back, most down-to-earth swamp denizen, doggedly determined to avoid trouble.  Alas, to his chagrin, he was often taken advantage of by those same friends.

The issues they faced in their wilderness home so many years ago presage many of those we face today—pollution, overcrowding, segregation and racism, and corrupt, self-interest politics.  Listening to the utterances of the various characters on the concerns of their day resonates as much today as when they first spoke.  Take, for example, the challenges facing governments as they tackle the Covid-19 scourge:

Y’see, when you start to lick a national problem you have to go after the fundamentables.
We are confronted with insurmountable opportunities.
Having lost sight of our objectives, we redoubled our efforts.

Or, think of the swelling cries from so many, bemoaning the encroachment of government on civil liberties during these trying times, refusing to comply with measures to ensure public safety:

I ain’t said much but I is been pushed around ee-nuf!  I is gone stand up for my rights!  And I got rights I ain’t hardly used yet!
The minority got us outnumbered.

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The lovable swamp critters sometimes proposed radical solutions, just as many do today:

You want to cut down air pollution? Cut down the original source…breathin’!
Don’t take life so serious. It ain’t nohow permanent.

Occasionally, a familiar note of resignation crept into their musings:

Now is the time for all good men to come to.
If you can’t win, don’t join them; learn how to lose.

And, of course, there were commentaries on the political leaders of the day—some of which, I believe, apply to certain (unnamed) charlatans in power today:

Y’know, ol’ Albert [or a name of your choice] leads a life of noisy desperation.
In like a dimwit, out like a light.

Of all the Okefenokee witticisms, though, the one I like best, and which seems truest of all today, is Pogo’s observation that the enemy is us.  When I survey the planetary problems presently facing us—the most urgent of which right now is Covid-19—how many have we brought upon ourselves through our callous disregard for our global village and its residents?

To name a few of these enemies:  world hunger, increasing poverty, global warming, pandemic outbreaks, nuclear proliferation, mass migration, and pollution of land, sea, and air.

To pose the question in a more positive way, how many of these same enemies could we actively and successfully confront through a united effort spread across all humankind?

Most, if not all, is the answer, I believe.

Sadly, however, I fear it may never be.  For, as Pogo so eloquently told us in those bygone times, we have already met our greatest enemy.

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And indeed, he is us!

 

I’m Hungry!

“I’m hungry!”

That should be such an innocuous phrase, here in our land of plenty.  For me, it heralds a trip to the refrigerator, perhaps the snack cupboard, to address the niggling pangs between meals.

Mind you, a moment or two on the weigh scale would indicate I am certainly not going to perish imminently if I don’t satisfy the urge.  But I still complain, and I still nibble away.

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Sometimes, though, I wonder what it would be like if I lived in a currently-emerging country, maybe in sub-Saharan Africa.  What would the phrase mean to me in that case?  Could I blithely traipse to a snack cupboard, to a well-stocked fridge, to stanch the cravings?

Obviously not.  Were I there, I might not even have access to safe drinking water.  But unlike those poor unfortunates, I am blessed to live in a providential country, overflowing with nature’s bounty, where no one ever has to go hungry.

Except…except, that’s not really true.  People do go hungry, even here.

The United States is one of the wealthiest nations on the planet by almost any measure.  Among the thirty-four members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, it ranks first in average household income, and leads the world in household spending.  The standard of living sits solidly in the top twenty countries.

However, the gap in household wealth from highest to lowest is larger today than it has ever been.  In 2018, American households held over $113 trillion in assets. If that amount were divided evenly across the population of 329 million, each person would have over $343,000.  But we don’t live in a co-op, and that is not going to happen.

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More than thirty-eight million Americans live in poverty, earning less than twenty-six thousand dollars a year.  The median annual income in America in 2018 was more than sixty-three thousand dollars, so there is a significant gap.  And of course, that number is a minimum.  Many families making much more are still considered low-income by most experts, and many have difficulty making ends meet.

Of the number living in poverty, thirty-seven million struggle with hunger daily, including thirteen million children.  When they say, “I’m hungry!”, it has real import.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, this struggle means they have limited or uncertain access to enough food to support a healthy life.  Their families make choices between food and housing, between food and medical care, between food and utilities, between food and transportation.

Breakfast programs in numerous school districts provide relief to hundreds of thousands of children, except during holiday periods, of course.  And both government and community organizations also provide assistance, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Access Program and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children.

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Still, the number of children crying, “I’m hungry!” hovers around thirteen million.

One of the reasons is the slow recovery for the poorer segment of the population from the economic crash of 2008.  This group was demonstrably the last one for which life improved after the economy began to rise.  Even when the wage-earners in the group found jobs, they were often paid only minimum-wage or slightly higher.

The Economic Policy Institute, an independent, non-profit group studying the impact of economic trends and policies on working people in the United States, found that between 2000 and 2015, wages for the bottom earners were flat or declined, and that the preponderance of gains occurred among the highest earners.

This is the time of year when I—comfortably ensconced in front of my television, nibbling on the snacks I fetched when I realized I was hungry—see heartwarming ads portraying people coming home for the holidays.  The snow is gently falling as they mount the porch steps to a house adorned with twinkling Christmas lights.  When the door is thrown open, they are engulfed in hugs and kisses from those already there, laughing and talking in front of an open, festive fire.  They are not among the lowest wage-earners.

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Indeed, it is a scene right out of Norman Rockwell.

I never see ads out of Charles Dickens, however.  I never see anyone like the Cratchit family, huddled around a miserable hearth, trying like Tiny Tim to find cheer and joy in the season.  But they’re out there.

For me, and perhaps for you, “I’m hungry!” is such an innocuous phrase.  For others, it’s a desperate cry for help.

I wonder what else we can do.