Mark Twain’s “The War Prayer” starts off with a preacher before a battle asking that “an ever-merciful and benignant Father of us all would watch over our noble young soldiers, and aid, comfort, and encourage them in their patriotic work; bless them, shield them in the day of battle and the hour of peril, bear them in His mighty hand, help them to crush the foe, grant to them and to their flag and country imperishable honor and glory --”
Then a spoilsport stranger comes in and rephrases the plea. “Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded,; help us to lay waste their humble homes; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst.”
I’m reminded of that when I read about a school child being given bread and milk because the cafeteria account wasn’t up to date, or a home in Tennessee burning down because the fire department tariff wasn’t paid. It’s the answer to the prayers of a particular group of people. They’ve prayed for a government that teaches individual responsibility, and doesn’t tax its citizens, and protects taxpayers from lowlife chiselers. In the county that’s by any measure one of the most conservative in the state, a kid was pushed out of the food line because he or she hadn’t paid. The local outrage is not surprising. Many rural conservatives will give you the shirt off their backs but won’t support a subsidized thrift store. Because they want to choose who they help. When they vote against high taxes, and against food stamp fraud, and against welfare, they think they’re taking something away from black kids in Philadelphia or brown kids in Houston, if they think about it at all, but they’re surprised when it happens in Rockingham, and they want to take up a collection to help this one specific family.
So do I. The collection is called taxes. The help is called social services. It’s how you help your neighbors. And you don’t slam the door when it’s time to help your neighbor.
I’m reminded of a morning when I was in high school and my sister stuck her head in to tell me that there was a huge black man in the bathroom bleeding and talking crazy. And I was famously hard to wake up in the morning, so I thought it was some sort of ploy. But I got up anyway, and Jeremiah Curley was just as big as anybody could be in that nine-foot square room, with blood spurting everywhere and people we didn’t know coming in and out of the room where we showered and put our underwear in a clothes basket. He had missed a curve near the house, and flipped his pickup, and banged his head. And head wounds will bleed. Oh boy will they ever bleed.
A local insurance guy who was driving by about the time my mother was taking Mr. Curley into the house to try and stop the bleeding. He asked Mr. Curley his name, and of course his name was Jeremiah because someone who shows up at seven o’clock in the morning bleeding in your house is just not going to be named Dave. I don’t know why. Stories make themselves. And the insurance guy asked him what day it was, which was supposed to tell us something while we waited for the rescue squad, and somebody called Mrs. Curley, and somebody kept Jeremiah up to date. And it seemed like the blood flow got worse every time he raised his head and demanded to know, “Is this Tuesday? Did I call my wife?” Repeatedly. For years it was family code when somebody was obviously confused. If you said, “Is this Tuesday? Did I call my wife?” everybody knew it didn’t have a thing to do with matrimony or the day of the week. My baby brother would have used those lines if he had ever, as I suggested, written a song called, “The Ballad of Jeremiah Curley,” but he never did.
Everybody showed up at once, and the room filled up, and Mr. Curley eventually got a ticket and some stitches. I went to the general store for new toothbrushes. But first I saw Mrs. Curley in our bathroom. She picked up a tissue and wiped a part of the sink. I can still picture her face when she looked around at the blood on the sink, the bathtub, the toilet, the floor, and the towels, and realized she couldn’t clean up that ocean with a teaspoon. I’ll never forget the look of helplessness, and because she looked like a decent woman, I’ll assume that she eventually dealt with it by doing something good for somebody else.
I can also picture, without too much effort, the look on my mother’s face if someone had ever told her to deny food to a child for any reason imaginable. The same look she would have given anybody who suggested she should have left the huge incoherent bleeding black man on the porch while she called somebody. The possibility of ever facing that look will keep me from ever whining about the amount of taxes I might pay to put out fires or feed deadbeat kindergarteners.
The Tea Party is often lionized as a citizen protest against an unfair government. But most taxes went down in 2009, and a group of people who apparently can’t count declared that their taxes were going up too much. And if the circle of those who were bad at math intersected with those who thought Hawaii was in Kenya, or Trinity was a Muslim church, then that’s just the cost of doing business, so to speak, for the nodding, winking politicians who’ve ridden the wave. There is a fundamental untruth at the basis of the anti-tax politics. The victimhood of people who are paying a token amount is appalling. And so is their conviction that they’re being hoodwinked by lazy, poor people. Anybody can find an example of someone abusing welfare, or of freeloaders on the system. But that’s the chance you take. There are going to be people who take advantage of any good works. But if a hundred parents in a county of eighty thousand people are taking advantage of a system that gives away a thousand free meals, I like those odds.
Because when you crack down on those freeloaders the wrong way, you crack down on the innocent. If you’re going to make policy based on single incidents, you have consider the individual incidents on the other side as well. A Tennessee fire department lets a home burn down because the owner hasn’t paid a fee. A Rockingham County cafeteria puts a kid on rations because an account is in arrears. Those are the real and tangible outcomes when people claim government should be run like a business. Pay for services. Pay to play. Just like Rod Blagojevich outlined it. Chicago politics in the lunch line. The kid didn’t pay. Jeremiah Curley can go bleed somewhere else.
And maybe the fire department isn’t in the business of putting out fires. Maybe they’re just serving their customers. Maybe the cafeteria isn’t in the business of feeding children. Maybe they’re just serving their constituency. But that family who’ve seen their family photos, their parents’ furniture, their groceries, the beds they sleep on, their toothbrushes, go up in smoke because it’s policy – they’re not going to be participants in a civilized society. They have no reason to believe one exists. And that kid who’s been humiliated in the lunch line because a bill wasn’t paid may grow up to understand that you have to delay the gratification of a slice of toast until you can afford it - or he might join a gang that promises him respect and dignity. It’s a tossup, and it’s the price you pay when you decide to apply business principles to helping people.
When you do that, you’re not helping them. You’re charging them. Which I suppose is OK if that’s what you’re praying for and voting for and you know it.
And that’s why the congregants in Twain’s War Prayer reached the conclusion that they did. “It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.”