Forget about pizza, no one can deliver up a sh*t sandwich like those GOP debate crowds. Last Tuesday, millions of jobless Americans got served up a steaming plate of scorn: hands slapping together and a sea of smug grins as Herman Cain stood by his mantra: when faced with bad fortune and no job, blame yourself.
It's this kind of arrogance of the lucky that I go at assault-style in my new satire compilation, Suburgatory, inspired by experience in three affluent suburbs since leaving my job as a CNN head writer after having my son. Most of my delusional characters are the types you might find among those nodding heads last week in Las Vegas. But I also wanted to include characters shoved out of the comfortable bubble by unemployment - and the various ways people respond to that indignity.
In Guppies Represent "Everything That's Wrong With America", the dad uses the family aquarium with its sprawling community of guppies to give his daughter a teachable tirade on "welfare queens": "guppies who can't keep their legs together." When his wife returns from work, she asks, "did you put in for unemployment? Or just yell at the guppies again?" Dejected, he admits he didn't file. Only one thing energizes him: anger and hate directed at those worse off than he is.
Another far more likable dad, in Dad Pretends IKEA Is Child Cultural Enrichment just goes adrift. He feels emasculated by his high-powered wife who's "turned all man on him", now that he's at home with their son. When she does ask what dad and son do all day - which is rare - he says they visit a "small museum of Scandanavian culture and design". What he actually does is enjoy IKEA's free playzone, nearly free food, TV, and impossibly bored workers who virtually adopt the pair. (If this sounds unrealistic, know that I myself did this in less exaggerated form as a new, adrift mother.) His son outs him to his already suspicious ex-co-workers, jumping on the living room chair, yelling, "This is the Ektorp Jennylund!" But his friends give him the one thing I saw none of in that debate crowd last week: empathy.
And I'm especially intrigued by the unemployed-turned-activists. One character in Suburgatory finds himself seduced by Dr. Phil's message: "you can't change what you don't acknowledge!" and sees the true enemy of America as self-delusion. He makes the very bad decision to present his personal platform, "America The So-So", at a July 4th event handing out pamphlets like "Rotting Stump: The Sugaring of America's Life-Blood." That leads one very angry hoagie-eater to tell him to take his message "back to Kenya."
This self-styled activist is revealed to be as self-deluded as America itself, but no matter, he still finds dignity in action, just as many unemployed Tea Party activists have repeatedly expressed. In a New York Times article last year, reporter Kate Zernike quotes a woman welling up, saying "How can you get this frustration out, have your voices heard...I'm respected [in Tea Party activism.]"
And now we have the Occupy movement, which includes so many young activists with few job prospects, using some of the same kind of language of finding their voice, community, venting their frustration at a system that failed them.
I wish there had been some movement back in the early 90's during my own laughably minor experience with unemployment. I was in my early 20's, between jobs, and couldn't get myself out of a chair. I had trouble doing anything to find a job or even staying awake, as I would tell my boyfriend each night, shame-faced. Now I see that I was clinically depressed. Lucky for me my boyfriend never, ever give me any Herman Cain-sian bullsh*t, which might be why I'm still with him 20 years later.
I had no trouble bolting from my chair last Tuesday. I marvelled at that cheering crowd and their unshakable belief that your economic fate is something easily controlled, just a matter of good old-fashioned hard work. If only. As I've seen it - whether in college, work, or high-end suburbia - your fate seems dictated mostly by your access to affluence - either you're born with it, or luck into getting access to it.
When I think about the millions stuck outside that carefree bubble - jobless and hopeless - and then see that scorned heaped upon them by those still comfortably inside, I feel compelled to go all Herman Cain on that oblivious, thoughtless audience. Shame on you.
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