|Jan/Feb 2019 Reviews & Interviews|
Give People Money
Crown. 2018. 272 pp.
I sometimes doubt the importance of things about which I care very deeply. One of those things is language. I often don't enjoy talking to people who think like me. It's not a matter of principle or desire for diverse perspectives, but rather because they don't have words for what they believe—what I believe—is important. I can only hear such verbal false limbs as "self-perpetuating," "systematic," "interlocking structures," and "systemic privilege" so many times before pressing my face into a page of "Politics and the English Language," eyes closed, hoping I'm elsewhere when they open.
George Orwell argued that words don't just elucidate. He noted in his political writing that words just as often obscure an idea. Even when using language in good faith, we tend toward wearily taupe phrases in place of ideas we've not yet thought fully through. We allow words to fill blank spaces, summon them to avoid colorful or vivid thought.
There's no moral comparison. Words often obscure ideas that are too sour to sit comfortably in the stomach. Words like "culture," "western," and "heritage" rocket around right-of-center in reference to forced homogeneity, a hierarchy that compassionate people wouldn't tolerate if they encountered it head on. Those words serve as a crack under the bathroom window. If I stepped out into the cold, it'd be intolerable, but when the temperature sinks a little at a time, I don't notice until I see my breath freeze at the kitchen table. Left-of-center, language is equally frustrating for a different reason. Rather than making the abhorrent slowly tolerable, language of the left makes compassion cool and abstract, academic and distant.
I often wonder why I care so much about words. They're window dressing—the idea that compassion is a political position is disturbing enough. But every now and then a writer wields her words for something good and reminds me of their importance in the first place.
Annie Lowrey's book, Give People Money, is ostensibly about universal basic income. She approaches it as a journalist, investigating the merits of the policy and traveling as far as South Korea and Kenya to see it in action or speak with its proponents. About the idea itself she remains largely objective—perhaps skeptically supportive—but the book is only superficially about a policy proposal.
Lowrey really writes about poverty: universal basic income serves mostly as a vehicle. Cutting every person in the country a monthly check is efficient; it's even picked up support in conservative and libertarian circles as an alternative to "wasteful" social spending. Lowrey feels differently:
But in circumstances where children go hungry, where adults die young, where there is not enough food, where disease is omnipresent, where kids drop out of school because of too-high fees, that question of efficiency takes on a profoundly moral quality.
To say simply that, in circumstances of "economic deprevation," efficiency becomes moral would've been much neater. She writes that "economic statistics only measure what they measure, and fail to capture the fullness of human life." Cold language has the same effect. Her issue isn't neat. She doesn't want to lay over her reader's eye a warm blanket of suffixes and hyphenated jargon words. Instead she describes what being poor actually means, imagines hunger and dearth of opportunity.
Her words are indispensable. Compassion can't rest on distance or abstraction. To Lowrey, streamlining the social safety net (giving people money) is not an end but a means by which those in poverty climb out. And therein lies the root of her interest in the topic:
But providing the poor with those steps might mean seeing them as deserving for no other reason than their poverty—something that is not and has never been part of this country's social contract.
I often think I spend too much time splitting grammatical hairs, worrying over language, rolling my eyes at jargon words, and brushing aside my ideological allies when they speak obtusely. Then I read something like Give People Money and remember why George Orwell wrote about "masses of latin words" that "fall upon the facts like snow" before he ever put Big Brother on paper. Annie Lowrey is able to turn a book about a newly fashionable bit of social policy into a radical case for national compassion. She's only able to do so because she looks poverty in the eye and describes what she sees clearly. I have no doubt that the end product is important.