My father has one of those “small town boy” success stories.
Thanks to hard work, good coaching, and the power of basketball, he was able to leave rural Mississippi for Texas Southern University in Houston, Texas. He was the first in his family to go to college, so there was likely a great deal riding on him, with little in the way of maps through the uncharted territory he would face after leaving home.
There is one particular story he told me years ago that I wrote off as a joke after he finished it. It sounded so absurd at the time that it took another 20 years and a retelling for me to realize it wasn’t a joke at all. I come from a family of preachers and raconteurs, which is pretty much two of the same thing, so it’s almost too easy to write off what you hear as southern fried exaggeration and hilarious lies.
One summer, he returned to his hometown from college. He already had future greatness on his mind. While in school two states away, he had started to recognize the big things a college degree could mean back home in Mississippi as a few years of HBCU knowledge had now gifted him with deeper insight. He could see even more of what ailed his hometown.
He now familiar with the political causes of welfare and unemployment. He could now see beyond the veil obscuring the background interplay of redlining and gerrymandering that caused the trash in the streets, hollowed out buildings, and the desperate need for new infrastructure. Not only that, Reganomics brought forth a newer type of drug use that had already begun to claim the lives of people he’d grown up with.
While walking through downtown with a buddy, what he now saw ruptured whatever idyllic image he’d maintained about “home” over the years. It really wasn’t all that different than when he grew up, but having a better educated mind sure made it feel different. His future college degree started speaking to him as he walked, “Was this really the best this town had to offer? Could it be a better place with the right leadership? Could he possibly be that leader?” A few m ore steps and then the future College Degree started speaking through him to his old pal, “Man I bet we could clean up around here. Get rid of this trash on the streets and fix this place up. After I finish school, I going to come back and run for office. Make this town more respectable.“ You could hear the newfound purpose filling his voice as he spoke. This was the moment that would shape and define the rest of his life… because the UNEMPLOYED GENTLEMAN hanging out front of the grocery store could hear it too.
UNEMPLOYED GENTLEMAN: Hey jack, what it is? What you talking about trying to do?
POP: Oh… We were just talking about how we could fix things up around here.
UNEMPLOYED GENTLEMAN: Fix things up?! Man, like what?
POP: Like all this trash and soda cans in the street. The pushers selling dope. The unemployment keeping you out here all day instead of working at a good job.
UNEMPLOYED GENTLEMAN: Ha! Good job? Cleavis! You hear this boy talking about good jobs!?
The Unemployed Gentleman and his friend, Cleavis laugh at the two boys haughtily, with an aristocratic air.
UNEMPLOYED GENTLEMAN: Youngblood… Maybe I like this trash cause I can take them cans and get money for’em. Maybe I like not having to work all day so some somebody else can get rich. And I sho’nuff like being able to hang out outside and drink whatever I want, whenever I please… All day if I want!
POP: Yeah but I’m just saying…
UNEMPLOYED GENTLEMAN: …Aww, you ain’t saying shit! You ever stop to think maybe we like it like this?
Maybe we like it like this?
That was one thing that my father had never really considered. There wasn’t any mayoral policy he could conceive of that would let this guy drink outside of a grocery store all day. Mayors and city council types talked about jobs all the time. It was practically all the talked about. For all his thoughts about change and improving the material aspects of people’s lives, it had never occurred to him that people may not actually want to change. His idea of “more” may be completely off the mark. The cost of “better” may be too high.
From there, my old man’s dreams of hometown politics faded into the background. He returned to Houston to the winding road of finishing school, and as far as I know, he never gave more thought to going to Mississippi to launch any political campaigns. That’s why when he brought this story up in 2021, it resonated much more strongly than it did before.
…He was not joking
As I get a little older and think more about legacy and service, I’ve begun to question the desire to “make things better” as far as “others” are concerned. Is it really possible to drag people kicking and screaming to a “better” tomorrow without their consent? Isn’t that the same type of behavior that makes us hate billionaires and tyrants, which is pretty much two of the same thing.
We know all billionaires want to use their money and power to get more money and power. It is certainly sweet when they break us off a chunk, yet it can end up moot when they don’t bother asking anyone dealing with the problem about what they plan to do and the solution only causes more strife. I often ask people why anyone would expect the wealthy or any rich celebrities to try to change anything. Even if the system is toxic, their gils evolved to filter poison in addition to breathing water. With so much to lose, of course they like it like this, but maybe those of us closer to the bottom like it like this too.
That’s why so many of us care so about Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and all of the other white billionaires, that Forbes ranks like baseball players every year. We enjoy American hegemony to the point we believe it’s better to reign in hell than serve in heaven. As Anand Giridharadas talks about it in his book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. we let billionaires profit from public funds, do philanthropy for communities they don’t communicate with, and change the world in ways they profit from so much that they make new billionaires every time they get a divorce. It’s like mind crushing wealth is some sort of insane sort of communicable zombie virus. Maybe we like it like this.
It’s why so many of us continue to live under a representative republic that routinely attempts to disenfranchise various sections of its citizenry. It may have sounded strange hearing about how Palestinians are forced to live under an oppressive regime, but it’s not that different for many right here in the US. It’s just so big, we forget about the bad water, constant assaults on voting and civil liberties across states, and the complete what the hysterec-tical (see what I did there) dissolution of human rights for asylum seekers really means about us. Most of us prefer complaining about shitty leaders more than all the work of trying to be one of them. Working out better ways to let everyone vote is a hassle. Coming up with new ways to govern ourselves seems impossible. Better to let our political enemies push policies that actively hurt people than inconvenience ourselves too much. Capitalism might suck, but at least we’re comfortable. Maybe we like it like this.
It’s why we don’t tax the rich nearly enough, oppress citizens where we live with never-ending fines from municipal violations, and criminalize drug use we don’t do or have our wealthy masters buy stock in. If you’re following the rules, who cares what a bunch of criminals think. They’re weak and not strong like us, right? Maybe we like it like this.
Why change anything if you already have everything? Of course they like it like this. What don’t Unemployed Gentleman and Cleavis have already? A stream of easy money, all the substances they need, no rent, no taxes, good weather for sleeping outside most of the year, and the ability to go somewhere new any time they want. Moreover, they have the ability to ignore what 99% of people might say to them whether it’s a kid home from college or the Governor of Mississippi himself.
Maybe they like it like this, because it beats the alternative. Deep down we all know… anybody that wants to make those guys change had better bring a bible, a nightstick, or a gun, because they aren’t going to change for any other reason. If you really like it like this… would you?