So, yes. Anchower. It has been an exceptionally long time since I rapped at you. Today, on a Friday afternoon before a Saturday Halloween, on a day when about 99% of what didn't suck on the Internet ended up in a shitter in Bristol, CT, followed by the thinking woman's version of the Toast, well, it seemed like just the time to break a months-long blog silence and put on my slutty amateur cultural geographer costume and write about dogs I have, kids I don't, and candy. See previous. And enjoy. I am thinking that I might sometimes have ideas that are demonstrably unpublishable (see previous) and longer than 140 characters, and shorter than a book, so I might try to put them here. If you think you would read them, that would be helpful for me to know.
Three things you might well encounter in the fall of 2015:
1) A professional couple in their forties beaming at their infant child, who is of a different race.
2) A dog owner, who when asked what kind of dog she are walking, proudly tells you “not sure - she’s a rescue.”
3) A new homeowner, asking neighbors on social media how much Halloween candy to get, because he heard their new neighborhood “gets a lot of trick or treaters.”
It is possible that these three images could involve the same family. The family who adopts a child from China, or Russia, or Ethiopia, is the kind of family who would also go to the humane society for a dog, is the kind of family who would live in the kind of neighborhood that experiences a net influx of trick-or-treaters.
The first two phenomena have easily recognizable similarities. If you look on a world map, there are places where adopted babies originate, and other places where they wind up. One rarely hears of couples from Pyongyang visiting the United States, trying to make arrangements to adopt an infant from a lovely family in Evanston, IL. On a map of the US, the same is true for dogs. If you are looking to rescue a dog in Boston or New York, the chances are excellent that that dog was born in the southeastern US. This region remains a hotbed of rural poverty, and it costs money to spay and neuter a dog. It costs money to install a secure fence in the yard you may or may not have.
The baby part of the equation was not news, as a number of friends have struggled with the vagaries of the international adoption (one hates to use the word ‘market’). The dog part was more of a discovery. When my mother died in Vermont in 2009, we inherited Emma, the mutt she and my father had adopted from the Lucy McKenzie Humane Society in Windsor, VT in 1998. We brought her to South Carolina, where we work, and enjoyed some delightful sunset years together before she died in the spring of 2013. In the summer of 2014, while we were back up in Vermont, and ready to think about another dog, we visited Lucy McKenzie. Almost all of the dogs available for adoption there had just arrived from Tennessee, which we learned was typical. In the northeast US, the demand for rescue dogs outstrips the supply, so there is a brisk traffic in mutts from high kill shelters in the southeast to shelters in the northeast. This is a gross oversimplification, but does represent the flow of dogs from one part of the country to another. We figured the dogs in VT would be ok, so we decided to wait until we got back to South Carolina, where we found Dinah at the Greenville Humane Society.
It was great having a dog again. But the idea of a national traffic in rescue dogs as a national corollary to the global traffic in adoptable infants stayed with me. A few years ago, I got the chance to teach a class called “Global South/Dirty South,” under the auspices of Creative Inquiry, Clemson University’s undergraduate research program. The idea of the class was to rotate an analysis of Orientalist discourse from a West/East to a North/South axis, and to consider the ways in which places like South Carolina are conjured as part of a vague and mythical South in contemporary culture. This kind of language was a staple of animal rescue organizations: “we found this litter of Lab/terrier mixes by the side of the road down south, come visit us and make a forever friend!” Didn’t matter where in the South, or by what road, because, it seems, everything between DC and Miami is Dogpatch, basically. As a transplanted New Englander living and working in South Carolina, I was unhappy with the idea my friends and family would think of where I lived and worked as the kind of place where stray dogs just sort of roamed the streets. Unhappy because, I realized, the place where stray dogs roam the streets is the Third World, aka the Developing World, aka the Global South, and it’s much nicer to be able to think of one’s problems as first world problems, as the saying goes.
The approach of Halloween, and actual vehicular traffic, helped me see what the traffic in babies and the traffic in babies had in common. In the town where I live, there are a handful of neighborhoods (subdivisions, actually) that are mobbed with trick-or-treaters, to the degree that local police have to direct traffic in and out. Just as there are compressions and rarefactions for adoptions and rescues, there is the same thing for Snickers and Starbursts. For the residents of these neighborhoods, it is both a privilege and a burden, and if you have friends that live in these places, your social media will include real estate humblebrags about having to go get more candy in the middle of trick-or-treating hours, or real time counts of numbers of trick-or treaters up into the three digits.
If you drive around on Halloween, you can see where the trick-or-treaters are, and where they are not. It is easy to see why parents will tote their pirates and princesses where they do. The streets where children trick-or-treat are better lit and better paved than the streets where they live. There are even sidewalks. The people who live in these houses can afford an extra bag of good candy, so they can afford to put a pumpkin on the stoop and turn the porch light on. It is quite a spectacle to see a line of not so late model cars inching past McMansions in and out of a subdivision’s cul de sacs. It does, however, feel just a little bit feudal, as if this is the one day of the year the villagers are allowed on the grounds of the castle, where the King will give each of them a shiny coin.
It is a generous thing to adopt a child. It is a generous thing to rescue a dog. It is a generous thing to welcome trick-or-treaters from beyond your own neighborhood’s precincts. But those of us lucky enough to enjoy privilege often mistake that privilege for virtue. I have not adopted a child, and our neighborhood is probably about a push in terms of resident children vs. visiting trick-or-treaters. But I have rescued a dog, and I know that among other things, I can be smug about this. When Dinah meets another rescue pup at the dog park, there is that moment of mutual affirmation with the other dog’s owner. When we meet a dog bought from a breeder at the dog park, there is a slight moment of silent judgment. I imagine that the parents of adoptive children feel a similar frisson when they meet hard-won (and expensive) biological children. I have seen residents of popular trick-or-treat neighborhoods congratulating themselves on their Neighborhood’s largesse towards the Community.
I would like to suggest that the candy and the dogs and the babies are all part of an economy of smugness. It is an economy of smugness that operates at a global, national, and local level. There are worse things than being smug. For one thing, being poor is probably more of a burden than being smug. But most important thing these three common forms of smugness have in common is how they depend on economic inequality to produce the conditions that allow the actions that provoke smugness. Acts of charity almost always contain an element of self-indulgence or self-interest. Charity is kindness in a fiscal form. Locally, nationally, and globally, as the state retreats from a sense of responsibility for the welfare of its citizens, charity will like become a bigger and bigger part of the whatever solutions we can apply to problems in our town, our nation, and our world. Sustaining and extending these acts of fiscal kindness will be important for many. That said, it is a deeper kindness if the thought that attends an act of charity is reflection on what produces the need for this charity rather than more smugness.