When privilege fits in a bottle of Coca Cola

 A couple of things occupy my mind today. Last night I joked snarked about the proposal to prevent people on foodstamps from buying soda/ fizzy drinks in New York (for the culturally different among us, soda means “bubble water”, like Perrier or Evian around these parts). One idea in that debacle kept coming back at me (even after I slept and woke up this morning) and it is the perception of luxury and/ or “treats” and the role such perception plays in the debate. For the well off, the very privileged, to use an accepted term, a luxury, the concept of luxury is very, very different from that of a poor person. A middle class or upper middle class person will contemplate a designer handbag, a pair of expensive shoes, a suit and ponder if she can afford the luxury of buying it. Usually, words like “I deserve it”, “I earned it” pass the subject’s mind. She will probably have this internal dialogue to justify the purchase and if she finally buys the product, she will use words like “pampering”, “pleasure”, “indulge” to describe the feelings. Luxury, for many is a few hundreds/ thousands Euros/ Dollars/ Pesos worth. For others, though, luxury, indulgence, pleasure is just an extra euro spent on a bottle of Coca Cola. The one treat for the kids, for family or for the person who sits down for a minute after a long day of work. Luxury, for a great number of people, is far far removed from consumer goods.

However, in the debate, I am shocked (yes, genuinely shocked) that the well off defending this proposal seem to be totally incapable of making that leap, that one act of empathy or compassion to realize that preventing people from buying soda/ fizzy drinks with food stamps goes much further than  “concern trolling” for their health and well being. It is about denying pleasure. It is about preventing the poor from the joy of “luxuries” and “treats” and effectively “putting them in their place”. And here is where I make yet another leap myself: the poor are denied free contraceptive services, thus denying them the pleasure of safe sex as well. For the poor, sex should be scary, carry the fear of unwanted pregnancies and STDs. For poor people, sex should be the least pleasurable possible. Then, after the poor have been left with a sexual life rooted in lack of education, contraception and safe practices, legislation is proposed to go after the next indulgence: their food. Because being poor is not just about lack of access to opportunities, goods and services. In today’s puritanical politics, being poor is about having no access to pleasure. Poverty defined not only in economic but also in moral terms.

Common wisdom and the well intentioned who repeat it are fond of blanket statements like “The best pleasures in life are free”. Usually such statements are left unexamined and uttered in a saccharine tone to illustrate someone’s epiphany and the realization that they had a great moment without spending extra money. Great sex, good food, a good book (maybe even from a library!), the contemplation of a beautiful landscape: all of these are labeled as “free pleasures”.  The reality is that none of them are free. All of them are the by product of access, privilege, education, free time. That someone feels entitled to police the access of the poor to gratification and what can be constructed as luxury (sex and food), is testament that it does come with a price. Only that the poor will be policed out of it.

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