Safety First

In Bill Bryson’s memoir “The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid” he visits the idea of safety.  For a white kid growing up in Des Moines, Iowa in a nice neighborhood, it was a safe place.  It was so safe that a young boy could break all kinds of rules and suffer minor consequences.  He could walk from his home a couple miles to visit his mother and father in downtown Des Moines.   No safety helmets were needed for bike riding.  No child seats or air bags. No child safety caps or bottled water. Smoking was good for you and so was dirt. Oh yes, there was Polio, the Bomb, and Cicadas “the size of hummingbirds”, but people seemed happy and secure.

A shipping clerk in Ohio in the 1950s could earn $1.96 an hour and have a house and plenty of food to eat.  His kids had schools and parks to play in.  Soon they could buy a TV and once a week go to the movies.

But Bryson knows this was a particularly white experience.  That safety was not a thing that a black kid in the 1950s necessarily enjoyed outside his neighborhood or on a visit to relatives in the South.  Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi for supposedly whistling at a white woman.  Clyde Kennard tried to enroll at Mississippi Southern College and was turned away.  He tried again and so the school officials planted some liquor and chicken feed in his car and accused him of theft. He was sent to jail for 7 years and died there.

If people are more or less equal like in Bryson’s neighborhood, then it’s safe.  If he ventured down to the Bottoms where the bad Butter boys lived, he was in danger although mostly from being held down and having spit hanging down over your face from Buddy Butter.  He doesn’t explain exactly what the Butters did, but it sounded like they were migrant workers of some kind and a lot poorer than most people, black or white in Des Moines.

When Bryson went to high school he went to school with black kids.  Their dads had jobs like the white kids Dads did even though they may not make as much money.  He says that the black kids at his high school wore the same clothes, shopped at the same stores and went to the same movies.  So there wasn’t really any conflict.  The only difference that Bryson could see between them and his friends were that the black kids were mysteriously better at ever sport. And not just kinda better, but “better by another order of magnitude altogether”.

Safety is what helps gives us big peace of mind.  And safety shouldn’t be a privilege for a certain class or a certain ethnic group or even certain nations.  Inequality doesn’t help safety. So, as always, I end with “It’s the inequality, stupid” as the reason for most messes in the world.

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2 responses to “Safety First

  1. Inequality is just another synonym for hierarchy, isn’t it? The starting point for the empire series link at The Archdruid Report is here. The reason I mentioned the video There is No Tomorrow is because I see a link between peak oil in the oil fields in the United States and the deterioration in living standards, “necessitating” the entrance of women into the work force. Of course, that is not the only reason – we must take into account materialism and status hierarchy climbing, which seems to be a part of human nature.

    • I believe you are right about “inequality” being just another word for organizing by hierarchy. I stumbled on an essay at The Jacobin called “The Politics of Getting a Life” by Peter Frase. He writes about many writers with anti-work theories including 1883 “The Right to be Lazy” but zeros in on Kathi Weeks “The Problem with Work”. So I am continuing in a long line of writers who are looking trying to define alternatives to soul crushing existences. It’s why I loved the Occupy movement as they were redefining how to live. Getting a Life Didn’t know about any of this being a theater and film major, except for Oscar Wilde.

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