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Commentary: Why I sometimes like Evil Claire

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 11, 2013 - I tend to confuse ideological people. Conservatives consider me a liberal; liberals — or progressives, as they now self-identify — accuse me of being a reactionary. I feel like the last kid chosen for a ball game at recess: neither team wants me.

I am, for instance, a gun owner who believes in gun control. Likewise, I’m a car owner who believes in traffic control. I also admire self control, bowel control and pitchers who can control their fastball. It strikes me that a degree of control is a generally desirable trait because the alternative is chaos.

That said, you can overdo anything. I think it is not the government’s duty to regulate what size soft drink I can buy, whether I choose to smoke or what consenting adults do in private. All of these personal choices can have public consequences, but enough is enough. Liberty demands prerogative; and a free people must jealously guard the option to screw up their lives as they see fit.

Were I forced to define my ideology, I’d say I’m whatever Harry Truman was. In his day, conservative critics considered Mr. Truman to be something of a liberal firebrand. By present standards, he seems to have made a posthumous shift to the right because members of the GOP frequently invoke his memory. In truth, he was an intelligent, patriotic soul with a high regard for the virtue of common sense.

On this Fourth of July, the Post-Dispatch published an op-ed entitled, “McCaskill looks to cut Lifeline for Missouri residents.” That sounded rather drastic, so I began my Independence Day observation by reading about the current exploits of Evil Claire, the senior U.S. senator from the great state of Missouri.

The piece was authored by Chancellar Williams. He was identified as “…the associate policy director for Free Press, a nonpartisan organization building a nationwide movement for media that serve the public interest.” Hmm…

Williams is concerned because the senator wants the government to stop giving cell phones to the cell-phoneless masses. He concludes, “We need universal access to communications, not communications for just a privileged few. Poor people in Missouri — and all over the United States — are looking for a way out of poverty. In almost every case a phone is essential to that process.”

I don’t know Williams but I’m sure he’s both well intentioned and sincere. I’m not sure, however, that we live on the same planet. Cellular communication is the province of “a privileged few”? Has he ever walked down a city street in 21st century America? In a nation where people won’t stop texting long enough to drive, it’s difficult to argue that cell phones are a scare commodity.

Of course, one reason the things are ubiquitous may be that the government gives them away. Williams correctly notes this program dates back to the Reagan administration where it began as a way to give poverty-level seniors the means to contact 911. A small tax on your phone bill would provide land lines to the elderly in need. Ironically, it was Reagan who also commented to the effect that the closest approximation of immortality we would realize in this world was a government program.

Sure enough, Bush II expanded “Lifeline” to include cell phones in the wake of the Katrina disaster. This natural progression led to the present state of affairs in which so-called “Obamaphones” are distributed on street corners to the un-phoned regardless of age.

I happened across just such a gathering a month or so ago. It was a pleasant spring day and a small, racially mixed crowd had gathered in the parking lot of a closed fried chicken restaurant on the near south side. They met under a banner that encouraged passersby to sign up for free phones. 

An almost carnival atmosphere prevailed, befitting an occasion where people are getting something for nothing. Most participants appeared to be in their late teens or early 20s; none was elderly or obviously infirmed. That demographic was predictable, however, because the current rationale for the program is that people will use them to find work.

If this group was looking for employment, they did a good job of hiding their intentions. I saw a lot of tattoos and dreadlocks but apparently nobody had thought to bring a briefcase or resume.

I freely acknowledge that welfare benefits every strata of society. The needy receive subsistence, which allows the affluent to enjoy social stability. Nobody profits from people starving in the streets. But the welfare provider can never lose sight of Newton’s First Law of Motion — a body at rest tends to stay at rest unless acted upon by an external force.

I got my first job precisely because I found penury to be uncomfortable. It was 1962 and the Levi Strauss Co. had just introduced “white Levis.” (They were actually wheat-colored but because all previous jeans had been blue, the new ones appeared white by comparison.)

At any rate, all the cool guys in the eighth grade were getting them but, alas, my practical mother insisted that my old jeans were perfectly serviceable. Caught between the dictates of home economics and the demands of fashion, I got a paper route and bought my own damned pants. I soon grew to like the feel of cash in my pocket and have been working ever since.

The article in the Post failed to mention that Sen. McCaskill decided to rein in the free cell phone program after she received a solicitation to apply for one. She reportedly felt a senator ought to be able to pay for her own cell phone and wondered if things had not gotten out of hand. She seems to have concluded that cell phones — like white Levis — are not necessary to sustain life.

On her better days, Claire reminds me of Harry. I like that about her.

M.W. Guzy is a regular contributor to the Beacon.

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