Vijay wasn't a drinking buddy in the colloquial sense. He was a conversation buddy, but the conversations usually took place at the dive bar - the same dive bar you've been patronizing for more years than you care to remember. You liked his company because he was insightful and brutally - often viciously - honest. So even in the backdrop of dirty tables and aging waitresses, you savored these nights.
"Fekkin Irish Whiskey is the devil," Vijay declared. "I lose all self control. After a bottle of that, I think I'd pull a Michael Irvin if the opportunity arose."
The reference to hookers and cocaine made you chuckle, but the acknowledgment that he was as human as any other young male brought you comfort. Vijay embodied self confidence. Authentic self confidence, not the kind that derives from the typical markers of success. Yes, he was above average in most things - intelligence, career success, wealth, charisma - but in no aspect of life did he soar above the crowd, and he certainly had no interest in popularity. Yet he was completely sure of himself, or so it appeared. Secretly you hoped that he was occasionally racked with doubt. Not too often, though. He was your friend, after all.
As Vijay tipped back a tumbler of top shelf whiskey on the rocks, the indulgent fantasy passed. You decided he is always in charge.
The conversation and laughs followed quickly with little effort. Three drinks in, and sufficiently lubricated, you steered the discourse to politics - last night's debate. You didn't watch it of course, but you caught the recap on a Google news link. They said Romney is the clear favorite, you report. Vijay shrugged. He wasn't biting.
"I hear he doesn't care about poor people." You deliver the line with confidence, indicating your agreement.
"There's no such thing as poor people," Vijay replied without a hint of emotion or doubt. He is sure of this. You are incredulous and indignant. And you protest,
"This is exactly why no one buys your libertarian crap. It's a religion for you people. It has to be, to believe that nonsense."
"I only believe what I know to be true," Vijay answered. He sighed as he viewed your reaction. It was clear you didn't get it.
"Look, 'poor people' is an arbitrary statistical construct with no relationship to political reality," it seemed to pain him to explain. "You can't care about poor people. It's not possible. You can only care about people that you know, see, touch, and hear. You can hear their stories and have compassion. You can see your neighbor's struggles and offer to help. But you can't care about a faceless group arbitrarily selected by faceless bureaucrats in a windowless office in DC."
Vijay was mentally rolling up his sleeves. This train was going somewhere. And you wanted to get off it fast. Insecure as always, you resorted to snark,
"Say that to the single mom in the ghetto. I hope you get your ass kicked," you added for effect.
Calmly, evenly, precisely, Vijay replied, "I would be happy to explain it to anyone willing to listen." It was the response you least wanted to hear. It had been delivered in ice. A mental forearm shiver. If this had been a fistfight, the ground would be rapidly approaching your face.
"So let all the poor rot, huh? Sucks to be them, right?" It was weak. You knew it. Unlike Vijay, desperation often overwhelmed your reason. From across the table, an eruption of laughter followed. This is what victory looks like, you supposed.
Settling himself with a sip of whiskey, Vijay put his hands forward, palms up - a gesture of openness to balance the atmosphere, "I know it seems that way, but it's not. If all it took to fix the world's poverty problems was shoveling money to a statistically selected group, poverty would have been licked decades ago. Step back and think about the big picture, just for a moment. First off, "poor people" is a snapshot in time. There is no permanent set of individuals that make up that group. In other words, it doesn't help to treat them all the same. They have different circumstances and different problems. And those that will be poor tomorrow, might be pretty well off today. How do you plan on keeping them from slipping below the magical line? Others, if left alone, will one day rise to great heights. Why drag them down with the chains of forced charity?
"Second, take 1,000 of the smartest, most analytical people in the country. Go out and try to discover the conditions and circumstance of every poor person identified by bureaucrats as needing assistance. Find the right way to help them. Make plans for them, tailored to each one. What do you think you would find out?"
Without giving you a chance to interject, Vijay steamrolled on, "You'd find out that every situation is unique. Every person is unique! You'd find out that lumping in them into one statistical group with a one-size-fits-all approach doesn't do a darn lick of good. Yet, that's the only approach that a politician can have. It's the only approach a bureaucrat can have.
"So it's all meaningless drivel and a waste of time. A politician can't possibly care about poor people - not in the way the media and the intellectuals expect them to. It's not possible. Poor people, in the context of political debate, is not a real concept. It's a dog and pony show intended to sidetrack you from the real issues. No politician who waxes poetic on poverty actually gives a rat's ass about the poor and no lemming that drones on about the plight of the poor has any idea what they're talking about."
Vijay took a breath. He had begun to lean forward, ever so slightly, as he ascended his pulpit. Now he slouched back more pronounced than necessary, signaling that church was dismissed.
Carefully, you tried to take the next step,
"What real issues?"
Tried and failed. Vijay was done for the night. Sports, work, and skanks were topics still untouched and Vijay wanted to move on. You returned to the familiarity of friendly chatter and laughter, and then it was Last Call and the return to your normal life.
The next day it wasn't the jokes or the drinks you remembered. It was Vijay's sermon. He had a point and for whatever reason, it bugged you. If he was right about that, what other ways have politicians and the media wasted your time over the years? And what were those real issues he alluded to?
You needed answers. More importantly, you needed to know he was wrong.
To Be Continued
David in Liberty
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