Now we got bad blood: being poor in a rich world

I have this skill, so I am told, of really annoying or even enraging people who hold right-wing views, and in particular young Tories. I recently exercised this skill in my blogpost “In the playground of the rich, wealth flaunting is a sport.” I was told I was a “gutter journalist” by many upset readers and fans of the super affluent who flooded my Facebook to call me names and engage, often, in poverty shaming rhetoric.

All this, merely for daring to talk about “The Fulltimer Society,” a club started by some young men who sell an affluent party lifestyle during a time of great inequality in this country. I also upset and angered friends of Max Key for “checking his privilege” in my piece. Max Key is the son of our millionaire prime minister Mr. John Key.

Even political blogger Cathy “Chop Chop” Odgers (also known “Cactus Cate”) who was involved in smear campaigns against the Serious Freud office and was one of the stars of investigative journalist Nicky Hager’s book, Dirty Politics, stopped by my Facebook page to tell me what she thought of my piece:

cathy odgers

Cathy like so many others is woefully unaware of just how hard it is to “make it” as a writer or in any industry or creative endeavour which adds to and develops culture instead of obliterating it. Especially if like me, you write on or engage in issues around poverty, inequality, and speak about structural racism and sexism. Those topics are not easy sells to fat cat editors who might be able to pay you for your work; in America only 1% of all reporting is focused on poverty. Newsrooms and newspapers have been laying off reporters for a while now, as Barbara Ehrenreich recently wrote for The Guardian:

Once-generous magazines shrank or slashed their freelance budgets; certainly there were no more free lunches.”

I guess, for a  corporate lawyer such as Cathy who specializes in trusts and tax who earns staggering amounts of money for all up working a job that is useless and serves to protect the wealthy, which is why her job is useless? The idea that accessing upward mobility or a better job is often pitted with structural hurdles, is a foreign concept to her? Cathy may as well have said: “poor people should just stop being poor”.

What I found most unsettling and even disturbing was not the name calling or even the threats of violence I received, but how so many young people clawed, like Cathy did, to protect power while at the same time ignoring how power structures serve to continue oppression and the disenfranchisement of people and entire communities.

Max Key stands to inherit millions of dollars as well as beach houses and holiday homes. He also benefits from the structural privilege accorded to his gender, class, and race. But apparently according to those messages he is the victim and I was the bully. I was told I “attacked him.” He is the one suffering “hardship” as I was informed by two of his friends and members of the “Fulltimer Society:”

max key is such a victim

max key is just a nice guy

Actually, it does matter that Max Key is so “under exposed” and utterly removed “from the grind that less fortunate children are exposed to.” It matters when anyone may be able to bring change to serious inequality, poverty, racism, or other such issues of structural social disadvantage but opts instead to ignore them.  

While tens of thousands of people of conscience marched on the 15th of this month all over Aotearoa to speak out against the TPPA–an alliance between corporate interests and governments which would erode our civil liberties and destroy our sovereignty as a country–in the USA a Black Lives Matter protest was happening on the streets of St. Louis. It is important to note there are generally a few BLM protests happening at any given time in America. I followed on the ground updates via Twitter: Linda Tirado, author and anti-poverty activist, Tweeted this image of a BLM protester chalking the following words on the pavement:


When you stay silent on matters of racial injustice that include the targeted killing and what the journalist Kareem Abdul-Jabber calls the “assassination” of unarmed people of colour by police in America. Or the reality that Maori–our first nations people–represent 15% of the population but make up half of Aotearoa’s prison population, as Toby Manhire recently reported for The Guardian, you accept that situation and you consent to this structure. When you refuse to acknowledge there is a growing chasm between the super wealthy and people who are poor then you collude in the construction or the maintenance of that structure. And if the TPPA is passed this chasm will only get bigger.

By not actively speaking out or working against the TPPA, and against racial bias from the street to the legal system and elsewhere, and all such issues of structural inequality, you are saying: it doesn’t matter, and none of it matters. Or worse yet, you blame those who are facing structural equalities for their own circumstances – for example when you condemn and shame people living in poverty instead of the systems which create poverty, this only serves to excuse, reinforce and further entrench oppression and injustice.

Not everyone is a “victim” of the system, no matter what Max Key’s friends believe. Many people from privileged backgrounds benefit–without even thinking about it because they do not have to-–and become the wilful enforcers of systems of oppression.

Eric Garner was a black man who was murdered by police in America for selling untaxed cigarettes. Over and over again he repeated clearly: “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.” These were the last words he would ever speak as police officers held him down while another placed him in an illegal choke-hold, squeezing the breath and life from his body. “I can’t breathe” now rings out during Black Lives Matter protests and uprisings and has, at times, become a trending hashtag on Twitter, opening conversations around race and racism in the USA. The white police officer who put Eric in a chokehold served no time, a grand jury decided not to return an indictment.

However, Daniel Pantaleo who filmed the brutal killing was not so lucky; the police tried to put him behind bars and as Molly Crabapple wrote for Vice, “In December, a grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo, but Orta, his supporters say, has been the target of a police campaign to destroy his life ever since.”  Those who expose injustice and cruelty will nearly always be punished for their bravery to serve as a warning to others.

This is business as usual in the USA. This, we are told, is just how the world works.

Max might be a “nice guy” as so many of his fans and BFFs told me while also indignantly exclaiming “You don’t even know him!” I may not know him personally but, what I do know is this: like so many who benefit from oppressive systems, Max says nothing about the hardships of others. Not a fucking whisper. The NZ Herald recently reported that over 300,000 kids are now living in relative poverty in this country; but sure, it is Max who is suffering the real “hardship” in all of this. Let’s talk about how hard done by he is, shall we, with his fancy swimming pool, beach houses, convertible cars, and blossoming model/DJ career.

So often journalists and those who messaged me and posted on my Facebook to let me know how “mean” I was and call me a bitch or whatever else they could come up with, in turn portray people who benefit the most from the misery and deprivation of others as the victims.

This is a key way in which the powerful maintain their dominance: they portray themselves or others with whom they identify as mere hapless victims who are unable to do anything about the gross inequality we are witnessing in this country and around the world.

What could they do instead? Share their ludicrous sums of money with communities that are in hardship and stop hoarding it. Perhaps they could even use their privileges to benefit others, rather than just themselves and a select few. This is just an idea, for any super rich-ass people who might be reading this. Perhaps they feel their hands are tied.  Anyway the reality is increasingly becoming clearer that you are either rich or you are poor. The myth or story we hear from above though continues to be that this stark economic and social binary is a result of the individual choices we make in our lives. “You get what you work for,” right?

This is just business as usual.  This, we are told, is just how the world works.

Between the petty names and the hypersexualised messages sent to my inbox, it became incredibly clear that many believe rich kids such as Max Key-–who is cultivating a celebrity presence via social media-–and young people who start societies such as “The Fulltimer Society,” are completely off limits. They have special exemption from critique or criticism. I even had one white dude message me in response to what I wrote to let me know he would like to “shove a fucking cactus down my throat,” rounding off by calling me a “cunt,” and in another post called me a “niggah.” My friend who is a writer living in America suggested that it was likely this guy used that word against me because to him black people are the lowest of the low. So, it was a big insult.

All of these reactions made it clear that many people believe the lives of the rich and affluent are “off limits.” Perhaps this even extends to those who worship wealth and play the dandy like some kind of Nick Carraway character from The Great Gatsby; after all, some of the guys who started the “Fulltimer Society” don’t necessarily come from wealthy backgrounds.

However, the lives of the working class and those who are poor are never “off limits.” We don’t get special exemption from name calling and shaming in relation to our “life-styles.” I come from the working class and I am routinely told that I am lazy, no matter how many minimum wage jobs I am working at any given time. If I am fired, for whatever insufficient reasons and from whatever precarious job I am working, and if I need welfare between jobs, I get called a “benefit scrounger” and I am made to feel worthless. Cathy Odgers pointed out that with my “literary talent” I should have managed to land a better job in a higher pay bracket. As if it is that easy!

If you are born into wealth you are likely to get the contacts and thus the networks which come with it regardless of how talented you are. I don’t have that benefit, and most millennials growing up today don’t. Instead of contacts and networking opportunities we are handed austerity and pushed into situations where we are competing with each other for low-paid precarious jobs in a flooded and cut-throat job market: jobs we often do not even want but have to work in order to survive.

There is a reason why The Hunger Games series resonates with so many people. It portrays a futuristic dystopia where young people from the lower classes are selected to battle each other to the death in an annual ritual death match. These “games” are enforced by a heartless totalitarian leader: President Snow who lives in the affluent capital, disconnected from the day-to-day hardships and deprivation his people are forced to endure. The books and movies resonate with so many because young people who come from the real political underclasses often feel they are living in a dystopia ruled by heartless leaders; we live in a structure which is a parallel reality, where we have to battle each other for shit jobs, just to survive. The odds are never in our favour.

happy hunfer games

In Aotearoa we have one Mike Hosking, our most prominent media mongrel and our very own equivalent of Fox News’ Sean Hannity. Both are committed to protecting the super wealthy, especially those such as our millionaire PM John Key, or Donald Trump as if either actually needs defending. Both media mongrels say the most offensive shit about people who are poor, and both have prime time “current affairs” shows. The lives of the poor are rarely off limits, if ever. Mike recently weighed in on changes to child support, asking:

“The cost of a child is the cost of a child. If you can’t afford one, why did you have one? And if you did have one and can’t afford it why are you expecting the rest of us to pay the bill?”

I wonder how many tax deductible business lunches Mike has, had? I guess it is okay if we, as taxpayers foot the bill to subsidise some of his food bill? But parents living in poverty gostruggling to feed their kids well, they shouldn’t have had kids in the first place? Where is the moral distinction between Mike, getting a tax deductible business lunch and a person who is struggling to survive getting a WINZ food grant in New Zealand or food stamps in places like America? Can someone please, tell me?

Should we just give the super affluent a “get out of jail free card”? Must we just allow power to go unchecked and unfettered? After all, this is exactly what some of our most prevalent political pundits do, including Mike Hosking, who himself is a millionaire – he protects his own. He acts as a mere messenger for the right-wing and endlessly defends John Key’s behaviour even when it is outright fucking creepy.

For just one famous example, when Key was found out to have yanked on a waitress’s ponytail repeatedly over several months, even after she had expressed over and over again it was completely unwelcome and was causing her distress, Mike ran to his defence like he always does:

Let’s just face it: We can tell it was sexual harassment in the workplace because if it was a dude with a ponytail John would not have yanked on it. Similarly, from this singular incident we can tell Mike Hoskings serves the powerful and not the disempowered. He is committed to obscuring power, not exposing it. As veteran journalist, John Pilger has stressed for most of his career:

“The media is the invisible government.”

From his endlessly repeated rhetoric we see that Hosking believes power and the elite few who hold it must be vigorously protected at all costs, even if it is at the cost of the vast majority of people living in Aotearoa.

Already we are seeing the rise of third world diseases in this country, attributed to the growing rates of heart-numbing poverty in low socioeconomic communities. More often than not the vulnerable and downtrodden are not protected by our governments, neither those from the right, nor the relatively nominally left of the Labour party. (Seriously, does anyone even know what Labour stands for in this country anymore, other than pandering to the centre-right?) New Zealand gangs are doing more to feed kids in poverty than the National government, who actually voted against the recent “Feed the Kids” bill.

Just typing those words is heart-wrenching and jarring. Our most vulnerable people are not being protected by their own government, nor even having their voices elevated by the vast majority of media tycoons such as Mike or journalists, who are meant to be truth speakers in times of universal deceit.

This then, is business as usual. This, we are told, is just how the world works.

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One example of someone who “made it” against “all odds” is not proof that inequality does not exist

I don’t know how many more movies, articles, columns and blogs I can handle that pitch some comfortably middle-class white person, doing well in hard economic times, as some kind of “underdog” story. You know how it goes: someone who, against all odds manages to secure a good job and a decent, steady paycheck, while the rest of us wonder “How the hell did they do it?”  Some of the most obnoxious examples in this “feel good,” “underdog” genre seem to be about people of colour. Oprah, Dev Patel’s character in Slumdog Millionaire or Will Smith’s character in the film The Pursuit of Happiness, for example. Their stories give the impression anyone can make it by themselves, and we should totally forget class, gender, or racial inequalities.

Huffington Post blogger Staci Huckeba holds herself up as one of these “underdogs” who attributes her success story™ to good old fashion ”hard-work” and “getting off her ass” and doing something about her situation. Staci managed, in just 36 months, to lose a whole pile of weight and transform her life for the better. Staci wrote a “rags to riches” response to my last blog post, Positive Attitude Bullshit: On the dangers of “radical self-love.” She didn’t much like it. Staci, for the most part, disagreed with my belief that “positive thinking” was unlikely to transform your life in profound and magical ways (as so many western self-help gurus promise) despite facing the numerous challenges presented to the rest of us: generational poverty, racial and gender inequality and other barriers to “success” in life. Staci asserts,

Opportunities present themselves to us every day but you have to be able to see them. As long as you think the whole game is rigged against you, you can’t, you just won’t have the mindset to recognize it. And you certainly won’t have the capacity to put yourself through that kind of work if you are convinced that the world is just unfair, you are never going to catch a break, nothing’s your fault, and nothing is ever going to change.

But, what if the system is rigged against you from the start? What if it is not just some collective paranoid delusion of the poor and working class that they are being royally fucking screwed for every penny they don’t have? What if class warfare is actually a “thing,” and not just some excuse used by the political underclass to justify being unable to access upward mobility and snag the “sweet life”?

You have to ignore an awful amount of racial and social history, empirical, and even anecdotal evidence in relation to why the poor remain trapped in the poverty cycle and why so many are struggling to to stay afloat, in order to still believe the soothing myth that everyone has a “fair shot in life.”

Inequality is reaching grotesque and devastating crisis points in countries like the USA, and in Aotearoa New Zealand, as a recent landmark OECD report shows, the divide between rich and poor is becoming more like a gaping chasm – my fair country has never been so unequal when it comes to wealth distribution. We have kids dying from poverty related illnesses, and my government, who is made up of millionaires, refuses to do anything about it. “When inequality reaches extreme and destructive levels, most governments seek not to confront it but to accommodate it,” writes journalist George Monbiot.

Poverty is not inevitable, it is structural – it is by design.

Staci’s advice is even more unhelpful if you are a person of colour in a country where the system is built for white people. In reponse to the Charleston terrorist massacre John Metta, who is a writer, gave a powerful speech called “I, Racist”, on how it feels to be black in a white world, he said:

New York State is one of the most segregated states in the country. Buffalo, New York where my aunt lives, is one of the 10 most segregated school systems in the country. The racial inequality of the area she inhabits is so bad that it has been the subject of reports by the Civil Rights Action Network and the NAACP.

Those, however, are facts that my aunt does not need to know. She does not need to live with the racial segregation and oppression of her home. As a white person with upward mobility, she has continued to improve her situation. She moved out of the area I grew up in- she moved to an area with better schools. She doesn’t have to experience racism, and so it is not real to her.

Structural marginalisation and segregation by race in Aotearoa New Zealand, is clearly visible, especially within our schooling systems. We call it “white flight” in this country, wherein middle-class white families in great numbers avoid local schools that have high rates of our indigenous people, Fijian Indians, and Pacific Islanders in attendance. If they can afford it, wealthier families of European ancestry will send their kids to schools in suburbs  in afulent [white] areas. As John points out: “better schools” exclusively means “whiter schools.” There are many barriers to success and equality  among peoples of differing cultures and one of the biggest is universal access to quality education.

Regardless, Staci believes opportunities are still abound for anyone looking for them. Staci claims she is living proof of this.

Staci states that she created (read: manifested) opportunities for herself and because of this she got to meet lots of famous people. She even managed to hang out with Dolly Parton and her relatives because one time she shot some band photos for free, and Dolly’s cousin just so happened to be there. Staci ended up spending a year with the Parton family, getting paid really well to make a doco about them. Staci writes,

“Not one successful person I know ever just had someone show up and knock on the door one day and hand it to them while they were watching Oprah or bitching about world injustice from the sofa or on the internet.”

Actually, plenty of people just had “success” thrown at them, for example every last one of the Kardashians who were all born into a bed of money, and global superstars such as Taylor Swift, whose success was guaranteed by her father. Just as money makes money, success breeds more success. Taylor didn’t make it to where she is purely out of sheer hard work and talent, but this hasn’t stopped reporters pitching the tale of her life as some “underdog” story. In the New York Times review of her “1989”  tour the word “underdog” was used twice to describe Taylor.

TOKYO, JAPAN - MAY 05: Taylor Swift performs during The 1989 World Tour at Tokyo Dome on May 5, 2015 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Jun Sato/Getty Images for TS)

TOKYO, JAPAN – MAY 05: Taylor Swift performs during The 1989 World Tour at Tokyo Dome on May 5, 2015

Taylor isn’t necessarily more motivated or more talented than millions of others, she simply won the genetic lottery, was born into the elite one percent, had really supportive parents who had a nice warm and dry house that wasn’t overcrowded; they ensured Taylor had plenty of time to focus on her music so she could develop her talent. I am not saying Taylor should feel guilty about her success, but we should collectively recognise she got a pretty big “leg-up” in life to get where she is, today. Stephen Jay Gould, a science historian, famously wrote:

“I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.”

Fame and fortune is often more a genetic accident and a series of lucky breaks than hard worked-for success and triumph; wealth creates opportunity that some of us can only dream of.

Staci believes the power of positive thinking can, in part, help people with serious disabilities and if it doesn’t they have done something wrong. She says of people with a disability: “No matter what your plight, you have to accept the life you’ve been dealt and figure out how to do something remarkable with it.” These were easy words to write for a fully physically able white woman.

Words hurt

Many of my friends who have kids with a disability, or have one themselves, read what Staci said. Ultimately her argument amounts to coded victim blaming, and assumes the issue with people who have a disability is not a lack of state support or a society that continuously marginalises and ignores the needs of those who have a disability, but a lack of inner “resilience.” Once again, by Staci’s logic, we are individually and completely responsible for our success and failure in life. Lisa Davidson said to me in response to Staci’s blog,

I have a disability of my own (not as extreme as the cases used in Staci’s piece) which has left me unable to work since 2012. This is not a situation I like and the very few times a job comes up that has the minimal hours and flexibility that may work for me I do apply and try my hardest to get said job, even though I am not sure I will actually be able to pull it off. So, to read someone who, as far as I can tell has no disability to deal with, telling me to basically “suck it up” and get on with life is pretty damn demeaning and to be honest hurtful.

People’s situations are complicated and difficult and often hearbreaking; you cannot reduce these people’s lives to some pithy bullshit slogan such as, “If they try and work hard enough something remarkable will happen.” There are no easy solutions for the serious economic hardships and ongoing daily struggles people are facing all over the world. There are no quick fixes or positive “one liners” that can eliminate entrenched poverty and alleviate the hardships which are being inflicted on people who, through no fault of their own, are being pushed to within an inch of their lives because greedy neoliberal politicians care more about keeping the rich rich, than pulling people out of poverty.

“What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives,” wrote the historian Howard Zinn.

One thing we can do right now, today, is to listen to the stories of people who are in struggle. Listen to those who are being segregated based on race, penalised because they have a disability, and/or disadvantaged because they weren’t born into wealth, instead of talking over them, and instead of dismissing their legitimate grievances as “whinging” and “whining.” It isn’t. It never has been.

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This piece was subedited by both Cam Walker, an indigenious rights activist who is studying law at Auckland University, and Julian Wormington, who is a teacher and writer, you can read his blog here