/“Everything’s fine”: The Comfortable, the Afflicted, the Beakwetters, the Gaslit

“Everything’s fine”: The Comfortable, the Afflicted, the Beakwetters, the Gaslit

By Lambert Strether of Corrente

Gawd knows, I ought to be writing about the Democrat National Convention, whose opening night is tonight, but I can’t even. (Please direct any comments on that topic elsewhere, not here.) Rather, I’m going to hoist a long comment by Amfortas the hippie, for a few reasons. First, I want to make certain that Amfortas gets all the professional-quality advice that the NC commentariat can give him regardng one of those legal/financial/bureaucratic/ethical questions that so often come up, and not just in the lives of old codgers like me. Second, the refraction of class through family relations (and family relations generally) must surely be of interest to many readers. Third, I find two questions of vocabulary, one positive (the meaning of “gaslit”) and one negative (the absence of a word for the tactics of crapification) intriguing as well. I am not going to handle these topics in order; rather, I’m going to post Amfortas’s comment, and add footnotes to it. So things may seem a little circuitous and out of order!

Amfortas takes a link to The New Republic as his starting point: “The Real Pandemic Gap Is Between the Comfortable and the Afflicted.” Here for our purposes is what I think is the key paragraph:

But there’s a divide that’s been more difficult to talk about [than the divide between the billionaire class and the rest of us]: The one between Americans earning about the median income or less and Americans who earn two or three times that wage. Life is vastly different for people who earn $30,000 and people who earn $300,000—not on the same scale as the distance between the average American and Jeff Bezos but distinct nonetheless. Life is also significantly different between people who earn $30,000 and people who earn $130,000.

Needless to say, life is also vastly different for those who earn $30,000, and those who earn so little they don’t file taxes; that divide, at that level, is the context for Amfortas’s comment. But before hoisting it, just let me expand a bit on “the Comfortable and the Afflicted” near-cliché in TNR’s title. It comes from the pioneering American columnist Peter Finley Dunne, whose persona, Mr. Dooley, is often paraphrased as follows:

The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

However, that’s not what Dunne actually wrote. Rather, in Dunne’s rendering of Irish-American dialect, he has Dooley say:

“Th’ newspaper does ivrything f’r us. It runs th’ polis foorce an’ th’ banks, commands th’ milishy, controls th’ ligislachure, baptizes th’ young, marries th’ foolish, comforts th’ afflicted, afflicts th’ comfortable, buries th’ dead an’ roasts thim aftherward.”

Of course, newspapers don’t do all those things, although they do sometimes think they can or should. And likewise with bloggers! However, “comforts th’ afflicted, afflicts th’ comfortable” is something we can do, because words alone can do those things (especially in the Naked Capitalism comments section). With that, let me hoist Amfortas’s comment (to which I have added capitals and lightly repunctuated, apologies if need be, but I’d be driven crazy otherwise, and to which, as I said, I will add notes in square brackets, thus: [0]):

My stepmom has been calling me every 3-4 days since my dad died… mostly for comfort[1], which I provide as best I can (I am far from skilled at such social graces).

Today, she was apparently into politics… and sounded just like my mom, and just about any other person I know of that age cohort that isn’t dirt poor[2].

The launch pad was what this life insurance policy would do to me and mine.

I’ve determined that it will be counted as income for the month I get it, and assets thereafter[3]… Most certainly kicking wife off Medicaid[4], and causing us to spend 10k up front for regular insurance through the school.

Stepmom is a retired school admin person, and in the same teacher systems as wife, but apparently got in when things were good… because she denied that there could be any problem getting insurance through a school. Direct quote: “Everything’s fine”[5] (I actually bit my tongue).

For wife, school insurance would cost us a quarter of her income, at least…. What with premiums, copays, deductibles… and the threat of them not paying would always be there[6].

All of that info is from the school person who handles all that as well as the financial gal at the oncology clinic…. I did not get it from infowars, lol.

But this is denied as even a possibility[7]… We must be doing something wrong[8].

So I tell the brief version of my 6 1/2 year struggle to get a hip…. And again: “It doesn’t happen that way.”

But this is my dad’s widow, and I didn’t want to yell at her.

This… right here… is one of the most crazy-making features of our current situation… and has been for a long while now: this total denial that anything is wrong with the world… and that the Dems are decidedly not on the side of the poor and the disabled.

“You must have done something wrong” is the excuse I’ve heard for most of my adult life… From the insane crusade against me by the cops, back when (“That doesn’t happen, you must have been beaten by someone else” (!!!))… to the incredible Kafka hoops wife had to crawl through to get certified to teach Spanish in Texas[9]…. To my own difficulties getting a hip.

All of these require a not soundbite-friendly narrative, due to the esoteric nature[10] of each of those things.

If you’ve never tried to get certified for Spanish, you can’t know…. Similarly for poor people programs, and for being terrorized by cops.

Each of these narratives challenges so many sacred cows that it’s near impossible to educate anyone about it who isn’t there already… Ironically, especially Democrat voting PMC types.

“Everything’s fine.”

The impossibility of successfully navigating any of those systems from within them[11] is totally lost on so many folks…. Wife’s Spanish cert and my hip felt more like accidents than anything… As if whatever beakwetter[12] sitting in the works had got their fill and allowed us to pass.

Of course, stepmom hasn’t been poor since the 50’s… Certainly not since she met dad… and she lives in Clear Lake, and never sees a poor person unless they’re cleaning the pool or mowing the yard[13] …and those are all brown people with little English…and one doesn’t talk to them, merely points[14].

Sorry for the rant, but it has to go somewhere[15].


[1] Not affliction.

[2] Discussions of politics between family and friends can be extremely difficult, and I am not sure how to handle them, other than keeping silence (which is fine until I hear something I just can’t let go (and am not nearly enough of a Buddhist to practice non-attachment)). I didn’t speak freely to a friend for a good six months after election 2008, and nearly lost the friendship altogther. I’d be interested to hear from readers who have the social graces to handle this situation better than I did, especially considering that the 2008 zeitgeist, crazed as we then thought it, was mild compared to today’s.

[3] Alert reader griffen comments:

Something worth researching more is how that insurance policy is treated for tax purposes. This was many years back, but when Dad passed I don’t believe my Mom was required to pay or treat the proceeds as taxable income. That was North Carolina, & I strongly suspect dad paid for it with AT funds. Given the mid 80s work environment in small town USA and such.

Do we have any tax experts in the readership who can clarify? Both for Federal and State (Texas) taxes? Certainly this seeming good fortune afflicts Amfortas, so it would be a mitzvah to comfort him (see e.g. 2 Cor 1:4).

[4] Alert reader Noone from Nowheresville comments:

Yep, each state has their own asset and income limits for Medicaid plus clawbacks. Even some lovely lovely different rules for different ages too. Makes complexity even more complex.

Ask now for an estimate. It’s absolutely not taboo, given your family’s medical situation. You’ll absolutely need to plan for it and most likely spend it all in one month. Possibly pre-paying expenses like property taxes and other monthly bills. Extra food stock., etc. Perhaps set up an irrevocable funeral account trust. (know the rules on this one for your state)

Make sure you keep every receipt showing how it spent. Nothing which could be considered asset purchase under the state’s Medicaid asset rules. Nothing which increases the value of any current assets under the Medicaid asset rules like the funky trailerhouse.

Make sure any lawyer you use is well-versed in Medicaid rules, not just a great lawyer.

Here again comforting Amfortas in his affliction would surely bring good karma to the comforter.

[5] I don’t think either stepmom or Amfortas has this meme in mind:

But maybe they did!

[6] It’s important to liberal Democrats that the recipients of governmental largesse be worthy, and they employ themselves in setting up complex systems of eligibility requirements that to make that determination.

[7] This is the first vocabulary question. We need a word for the denial of Amfortas’s reality by a person who, by virtue of their class position, has never had to experience what Amfortas experiences. Alert reader Diptherio suggests a term for this denial:

I believe the term is “gaslighting.” Sorry you’ve got to deal with it. I don’t think I’d have the strength not to scream at her.

I disagree. Gaslighting comes from the movie Gaslight (starring Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, and Joseph Cotton, directed by the great George Cukor, and Angela Lansbury’s screen debut). Gaslight is a psychological thriller, and gaslighting is the mechanism used by the villain:

The term originates in the systematic psychological manipulation of a victim by her husband in Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 stage play Gas Light,[4] and the film adaptations released in 1940 and 1944.[5] In the story, the husband attempts to convince his wife and others that she is insane by manipulating small elements of their environment and insisting that she is mistaken, remembering things incorrectly, or delusional when she points out these changes. The play’s title alludes to how the abusive husband slowly dims the gas lights in their home, while pretending nothing has changed, in an effort to make his wife doubt her own perceptions…. The wife repeatedly asks her husband to confirm her perceptions about the dimming lights, noises and voices, but in defiance of reality, he keeps insisting that the lights are the same and instead it is she who is going insane. The term “gaslighting” has been used colloquially since the 1960s to describe efforts to manipulate someone’s perception of reality.

I first encountered the term “gaslighting” back in the days of Bush the Younger, who used the color-coded “threat level” terror alerts to gaslight the American voters in the run-up to election 2004. However, I don’t think that Amfortas’s stepmom — unlike George W. Bush — is a murderous sociopath. She is not, I think, denying Amfortas’s reality in order to manipulate him; she is simply impervious to any reality other than the reality that exists within her own class bubble. There’s a lot of that going about just now, but I can’t think of a word for this embubbling process. Readers, especially including Amfortas, can you? Ideally the word should not sound like it was cooked up in a post-Modernist lab, and should be one or two syllables (unless there’s a precise word in a foreign language, in which case, and especially if its German, take as many syllables as you like). If you can come up with a candidate, please use it in a sentence.

[8] This is my second vocabulary question. The feeling that “We must be doing something wrong” is pervasive in a system that Kafka-eque depends on complex eligibility requirements (which often overlap, as in Amfortas’s case.) The complexity is a form of crapification at the tactical level — other countries, for example, avoid the complexity of “premiums, copays, deductibles” by making health care free at the point of delivery, even for the unworthy — and the feeling of wrongness is a mental signal of some kind, the feeling that one is about to be caught in a trap. (And surely it is a trap that if you accept a one-time payment of $10K, you lose your health insurance forevermore, and pay taxes on it into the bargain.) And our political economy is full of such traps (indeed, one might urge that “predatory precarity” is the sad and existential position of so many PMCs, because they make their living setting and building traps — take the health insurance industry. Please! — instead of doing productive work. But I don’t have a word for the tactics of crapification. Booby traps? Banana peels? Pitfalls? Dark patterns? Hooks? Snags? Gaffes? Land mines? Same rules of engagement as above.

[9] More [crapification tactics] (insert real word here).

[10]. They are only esoteric to the embubbled (?) who have not experienced them.

[11] More [crapification tactics] (insert real word here).

[12] “Beakwetter.” From Godfather II:

Don Fanucci : Young man, I hear you and your friends are stealing goods. But you don’t even send a dress to my house. No respect! You know I’ve got three daughters. This is my neighborhood. You and your friends should show me some respect. You should let me wet my beak a little. I hear you and your friends cleared $600 each. Give me $200 each, for your own protection. And I’ll forget the insult. You young punks have to learn to respect a man like me! Otherwise the cops will come to your house. And your family will be ruined. Of course, if I’m wrong about how much you stole, I’ll take a little less. And by less, I only mean – a hundred bucks less. Now don’t refuse me. Understand, paisan? Understand, paisan?… Tell your friends I don’t want a lot. Just enough to wet my beak. Don’t be afraid to tell them!

“Beakwetter” is a lot better than “gatekeeper,” because it makes the economic relation central.

[13] That’s hardly fair. Somebody’s got to clean the granite countertops!

[14] A mini-field report on class relations, right there.

[15] I don’t feel that Amfortas needs to be sorry. This was a terrific rant, and hopefully productive and fun for readers.

* * *

In a normal post, I’d put the Conclusion before the notes, but here we are. I hope there are some subject matter experts out there who can provide comfort for Amfortas (see text and footnotes at [3] and [4]). I also hope that there are some readers who are more clever than I am right now, who can solve the vocabulary puzzles in [7] and [8]. Then we can go out and afflict the comfortable with them.

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