Though it was muted, you could clearly tell that the news was playing on the telly, which sat atop the counter. It had that typical news format, a scrolling headlines’ bar, the time ticking in the corner, and two people talking whilst staring unblinkingly and directly into the cameras. It’s a generic format, but it works. We still believe what they say, because that is all they say, and because that demeanour is the marker of the bastion of Truth. Truth, untainted by emotion, unblinking…unblinkered. In all our years of cultural and intellectual evolution, we have learned to separate the truth out from people. And the recording of the Truth is a recording of history. A peoples’ history cowers in the face of pure, truthful, unadulterated, unblinking. History. ”
Meanwhile, zooming into the kitchen and squealing excitedly, Tommy says, “look mummy, I’m a race-car driver.” He emits a high-pitched screeching sound, indicating the brakes were on, and that he has decided to stop.
“And what a handsome one you are, sweetheart,” Helen replies, gently stroking his sandy locks. “It’s time for your tea. You must be really hungry. What would you like?”
“Stringed-cheese, mummy, and some squash please,” he says cheekily, knowing full-well that that wasn’t a suitable teatime snack. The grin on his face was unmistakable – he knew he was playing to her emotions. On this day, however, mummy couldn’t resist. Perhaps she was a bit distracted by the glaring television, but you could also see the love radiating from her warm-grey eyes.
She reaches into the vegetable crisper where the stringed-cheese was hidden, and grabs the bottle of pre-prepared squash. Excitedly, and knowing that he’s about to have a treat, Tommy starts to spin about on the spot, whilst his mother lays out the paper plates and cups.
The phone rings abruptly. In a rush to answer it, she leaves Tommy alone in the kitchen, still spinning and squealing. Suddenly, something flickering catches his eye. He stares at it intently. A minute passes. He stands immensely still.
Upon returning to the kitchen, Helen knows that something is off. A mother has this intuition, you know. She calls out his name, but he doesn’t answer; his eyes are fixed to the screen.
She turns her face towards it, and immediately forms a look of horror. How could she have let her son watch such horrors? No six-year-old needs to be exposed to that. She turns of the telly, and then turns to her son, whose ordinarily grinning disposition is now masked by utter bewilderment, and sadness too.
“Tommy…your tea is ready. How about some squash?” she asks, hoping that the moment passes.
“Mummy…” he starts, still looking at the blank telly. He fidgets a bit, and continues, “why were those children crying?”
Not knowing as to whether to tell him the truth or not, or whether to ignore him completely and distract him with the cheese, she hesitatingly opens her mouth…”Sweetheart, those are children in Africa…it’s a place far away…”
“But why were they crying mummy? Where are their clothes?” he continues. Knowing that she can’t avoid the subject now, but still unsure of how to convey the truth to him, she says. “My love, they are very poor, and are very sad ‘cos they haven’t got any food.”
“But where are their mummies and daddies?”
“ Idon’t think they have any mummies or daddies.” He frowns; the creases on his face mark both sadness and horror; a silver tear slowly emerges in the corner of his eye, rolls down and bounces off his rosy left cheek.
“But mummy…” he continues, “who gives them their tea then?”
“No one, my darling.”
“Mummy…” he starts again. “Will you go away like those kids’ mummies? I promise I’ll be good. I won’t ask for string-cheese ever, ever again…I’ll…I’ll share my toys with the new baby…I’ll give you lots cuddles…I’ll…I’ll…”
Not being able to bear this, nor contain her emotions, she embraces her son, and says “My love, I will never leave you. Nothing you can do will make me go away.”
“But their mummies and daddies went away…how come? Were they bad?”
Knowing she’ll have to tell him the truth, yet so despairing at the amount of grief caused by this exposure, she whispers, “Those children are orphans. They are poor, my darling. Lots of people in the world don’t have parents, or food, or clothes, or money like we do.”
Thinking for a second…fidgeting with his hair again…Tommy turns to his mother and suggests, “can we help them, mummy? Can we give them some cheese and squash so they can have their tea? We could give them clothes too…maybe daddy would send them money. He has lots and lots and lots.”
Welling up with pride, and pure unadulterated joy at her son’s altruism, she whispers again, “No my love. They can’t be helped.”
“…But why not?”
“Because if we gave them money, they’d just steal it from each other. They wouldn’t buy food.”
“But what if we gave them food?”
Again, trying to explain the fundamentals to her son, she says, “my love, if they had food to eat they wouldn’t share it with each other like we do. If we helped them, then they’d become lazy. If you help these people they would go out and steal things. That’s how poor people are, my love. They’re not like us.”
Firstly, before I go into anything else; children are indeed starving in the Horn of Africa; the present crisis may leave more than 750,000 people dead – we must help them.
Now that aside, I’m trying to make a point here.. Just some weeks ago hundreds of thousands of us were willing to deny some probably very-poor people their benefits, after the riots. Terms like “benefit-scum” were banded about. Why, because we have come to see people getting help from the state as the ‘other’. As less than human. As scum.
It’s all fair and well that one could be horrified at Helen for not permitting her son to make a donation to African orphans – because they are the true needy. But as is so easily done, we have forgotten the less-well-off in our own backyard (excuse the Americanism).
But when people commit crimes in our own cities, we immediately assume they did so because they were poor, and because the state helps them. This discourse horrifies me. We have come to equate those who need genuine help as undeserving of it, if they were to break the law. It isn’t as if rich people could ever commit crimes; no, they take the moral high ground because they’re not on benefits. It’s the benefit-scum whose parents are bad, it appears. And as a result of their bad parenting and because they are apparently poor, we think it is right to deny them their source of income. Growing up in relative affluence, we have somehow equated being poor as having a disease. It is this disease of poverty – symptoms of which include bad parenting (as witnessed by the Government’s policy on improving families), ‘gangsta’ culture, and having to take state help- which lead people to commit such crimes.
Where does moral responsibility start? Where does it end? Who decides which particular class of person deserves to suffer the consequences of his irresponsibility? Where do we draw the line between the person and the institution? What do we do to the oil companies who contribute so much to the damage to the environment, those who truly lay waste to our global home? We complain a bit, restructure their boards of directors perhaps, make them pay a small fine, and then we let them get on with business as usual. Should we perhaps forcefully take the stock-options from the shareholders. What about governments who participate in the destruction of whole countries elsewhere through unjust wars? Should we perhaps take away the benefits of the returning soldiers? Or perhaps deny their widows their pension? There are many such examples we could cite.
Perhaps the crux of it is – where did loving, caring and productive individuals in society decide that it was morally justifiable to deprive a person, and by extention, his family possibly, of their means of income? What logical sense does it make to potentially condemn someone to the diesease of poverty which wrought such havoc on society further? That was, of course, rheetorical.
Recently theBritish Government thought ofdepriving parents of truanting children ther ‘benefits’. Isn’t the irony obvoius that by monetarily incentivising a parent to ensure their child goes to school, that child becomes a mere commodity for the parents’ livelihood (even if thebest of intentions were meant for the child in the first place).
The list goes on. Next week Parliament will again debate the issue of the rioters and their benefits. Like others, I will be waiting eagerly to see the outcome on the Truth channel…I mean the news.