Other day, up at Ken’s college, waiting for him to finish class, I was sitting in the student center taking advantage of the Wifi and a comfortable chair to do some work online, because you can do this if you aren’t failing at life working a minimum wage job at a fast food restaurant, when an advisor from the financial aid office sat down around the corner with a student who was failing at life working a minimum wage job at a fast food restaurant and began to quiz her about all the ways she was failing at life.
The references to fast food jobs, the one I don’t have and the one the student does, aren’t gratuitous or mean-spirited---at least, the mean-spiritedness isn’t mine; I’m channeling---and my use of the phrase failing at life is ironic, as I’ll explain in a bit.
I couldn’t see them but they were close by and I couldn’t help overhearing their conversation. The student’s a soon-to-be single mother---the divorce is in the final stages, just a matter of signatures now---working at Burger King and trying to figure out how to pay for school and child care while putting aside money for a car she has her eye on. The current owner’s willing to sell it to her for 800 bucks in four installments. The on his way out the door father of her little girl has no money to kick in for the car or child support.
This was one of those moments when you wish you were an eccentric millionaire and could just walk around the corner and write a check. All I could do, of course, was sit there and let my liberal heart bleed for that student, think There but for the grace of God, and shake my head in both pity and admiration. The fact was this student wasn’t failing at life. She was struggling mightily not to fail, working her minimum wage fast food job, putting herself through school, and raising her child. If there’s a failure here, it’s that of a society that leaves people to struggle like this on their own and then sneers at them when the struggle overwhelms them.
Right Wing hack pundit Erick Erickson has been doing some of the sneering.
Filling in has host for Rush Limbaugh's radio show on Thursday, the RedState editor wasn't exactly sympathetic to the fast-food workers who have gone on strike to demand a $15 hourly wage.
“The minimum wage is mostly people who failed at life and high school kids,” Erickson said.
“Seriously, look. I don’t mean to be ugly with you people. What? So my producer from my show is in here and he's just staring at me, can't believe I said this. If you’re a 30-something-year-old person and you’re making minimum wage you've probably failed at life.”
It’s always hard to gauge how much of their own bullshit nihilistic cynics like Erickson buy into. Surely he can’t mean all middle-aged minimum wage workers have failed at life. That nice waitress at his favorite diner, the one who looks like his Aunt Ruth, calls him “Honey,” and knows exactly how he takes his coffee, she’s failed at life? The retiree who mixed paint for him at Home Depot, he’s failed? The fortysomething housewife earning a little extra to pay for her kid’s braces he flirted with over the jewelry counter at Macy’s, she’s failed?
So I’d guess it’s only thirty year old minimum wage workers at fast-food restaurants he’s sneering at? Why them?
Well, possibly because he doesn’t see them as people.
But more probably because they have the nerve!
They’re demanding a raise? How dare they? Don’t they know their place? They’ve failed at life! They should shut up and accept it. They should be glad somebody’s willing to pay them anything, let alone an exorbitant (gross, before taxes, after working full-time taking no days off) $31,200 a year! Thirty-one grand? Why, that’s not the income of failures! It’s a whole eight-thousand more than the federal poverty level for a family of four! It’s only nineteen thousand short of the lower end of the middle class!
Of course, the question is, who does Erickson think he is that he gets to decide other people have failed at life?
Leaving aside the fact that the strikers aren’t asking for their employers to make up for their failing at life, they’re asking for a living wage that will give them a chance in their ongoing struggles not to fail, and leaving aside that part of what’s at work behind what I’ll too generously call Erickson’s “thinking” is the usual Glibertarian Republican habit of judging all of life as a matter of making money and their soulless belief that the only success in life that counts is economic, this is Rush’s audience he’s talking to. How successful at life does he think they are?
People who are busy being successful at life don’t have time to waste during their work days to listen to Rush and his friends. A large of cohort of that audience is retirees and I’m sure many of them had been successes at life at a level Erickson approves of, but now? They’re failing at life by failing to remain young and healthy. The rest, well, maybe they’re not working minimum wage jobs at fast food restaurants, maybe they have good, solid, well-paying jobs they can be proud of in Erickson’s company, they’re still human beings and that means among them are a great many failures of different kinds. Failed fathers, failed sons, failed husbands, failed friends, failed neighbors, failed citizens, failed co-workers, failed employees.
Holding a job and holding onto it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re successful at it.
The working world is crowded with incompetents who keep their well-paying jobs despite their constant failures because someone feels sorry for them, someone is covering for them, someone is afraid to fire them, or someone is profiting from their incompetence in some way. I’d list mendacious, cynical, intellectually and spiritually bankrupt Right Wing pundits as beneficiaries of that last set of someones.
We all fail at life, in large and small ways, daily, constantly, continually. We’re human. We mess up. We’re fallible, we’re flawed, we’re weak, we’re stupid or at least we don’t often use our heads.
We did this, we didn’t do that. We should have done this, we shouldn’t have done that. We weren’t ready. We didn’t prepare. We didn’t know. We weren’t thinking. We forgot.
We were too quick to judge. We were too slow to decide. We couldn’t make up our minds either way.
We guessed wrong.
We arrived too early. We left too late. We were in a hurry. We waited too long.
We misheard. We misspoke.
We missed. We let go too soon. We held on too tight. We weren’t strong enough. We weren’t soft enough.
We got tired. We got busy.
We lost our temper, lost our head, lost our nerve.
We doubted what we should have believed. We trusted what we should have doubted. We put our faith in the wrong person. We promised what we couldn’t deliver. We gave what we should have withheld. We said no. We said yes.
We fail to do what we need to do and fail not to do what we should know better than to do all the time!
Sometimes the largest of our failures have only minor and temporary consequences. Sometimes the smallest can ruin our day, our week, a year, our lives.
Sometimes the failure is our own fault. Sometimes it’s somebody else’s. Most often it’s just life.
Life is failure. And trouble, and sorrow, and struggle, and pain.
This is why people with souls don’t sneer at others’ failures. This is why people who have hearts don’t blame others for their failures. Instead, they try to help in whatever way they can, which can be keeping their mouth shut, not pointing fingers, minding their own business, and keeping in mind that they could easily be next, that they very likely will be next.
Life isn’t an Olympic try-out. There’s no point at which we get to tell people who are struggling, Sorry, you didn’t qualify. Now, please go away, and leave us alone to have fun reveling in our (almost certainly temporary) success and sneering at you for not having made the team.
That student’s fortunate in that she’s attending a community college in New York State and the tuition’s still relatively low. She’ll probably qualify for a Pell Grant. Some of the money from her federally subsidized student loans can be used to buy that car. But at the end of two years, if it takes her only two years, she’ll still leave school carrying a heavy load of debt that, presuming her associate degree lands her a job that isn’t at Burger King and she doesn’t need to go on to get a bachelor’s (and acquire more debt), will be a struggle for her to repay while making ends meet for her and her daughter for years to come. A decent society wouldn’t burden someone like her like this. A decent society would provide her with good child care. Her employer would have to give her paid sick days and family leave. She’d earn enough an hour that she could buy an 800 dollar car without worrying that next month she’ll have to choose between paying the installment, buying groceries, and paying the rent.
A decent society wouldn’t let a sneering mediocrity make in a week what she makes in a year off his sneering at her “failures”, troubles, struggles, and pain.