Missing Poverty: Poverty Comedy to Clear the Air

“Best way to clear the air is to have it all out in the open.” - Atticus Finch  To Kill a Mockingbird

Thinking today of walking a mile in another man's shoes.   And soon I'll be walking where, according to the press, "hundreds of millions of tons" are dumped in "the most toxic place on earth".

Every summer in the Ozarks, I sat in the back seat on a regular drive back and forth between my dad's mother's house in Forsyth (Taney County seat) and my mothers parents home in Ridgedale (Arkansas line).  US Highway 65 was one lane each direction.

migrant family of Arkansas - wikipedia hillbilly
My Grandpa, when he drove, told me about how it was one lane, and unpaved, not too long ago.   By the time I was a teenager, a four lane highway had split his farm in two.

Back in the 1960s and 70s, as now, most of the signs were aimed at tourists.   Branson Missouri would go on to become a top USA tourist destination in the 1990s.

Many of the signs were about hillbillies.

It was the place to see American poverty... Poverty comedy is the place you land when Poverty Porn loses its shock value.

Hillbilly (for internetional readers, and those under 40) was a very popular term in the 1900s, to describe backwards, unwashed, ignorant, and happy Americans who lived in exotic places, like the Ozarks and Appalachia.  Snuffy Smith, Lil' Abner, and Pogo were popular Sunday morning comic strips.   The Beverly Hillbillies, Hee Haw, Petitcoat Junction, and Green Acres were popular comedies.   Soon the movies Deliverance and The Hills Have Eyes would appear to make it scary.   Silver Dollar City was the county's #1 draw, and hillbilly music shows would grow to line the strip between it and Branson.  It was about the same time that Sanford and Sons, and Good Times, Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby were making fun of urban African American poverty.

I started to ask why we never went to one of those shows.

My grandparents, aunts, uncles, and great cousins had the same answer.   There wasn't a single true "hillbilly" in one of them shows.   Nobody in the USA knew anything about the people who lived here.   The whole thing was a Hollywood exaggeration... exaggerated to such a grand proportion that it became an embarrassment.

"A tourist came up to me the other day and asked me where they could see a real hillbilly!  I said 'you're lookin' at one right now!"

I never heard a tourist ask anyone that, but I heard the claim from many friends and relatives over the years.  Usually it was about a tourist with a camera, who wanted to take a picture of a "real hillbilly".

Poverty Comedy isn't as funny when an outsider makes the joke.   It's a shade of poverty porn.
Before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself.” Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird

Best Bugs Ever (Hillbilly Hare)
Did objecting to outsiders portrayal our poverty mean that hillbillies were a myth?  No. I've already written about the one room cabin my mom's parents lived in when she was born.  Many of the characters in my family resembled the characters in To Kill a Mockingbird.  Like Scout, I grew up in an educated family. But many of the things said about the Ozarks are of course true... about white poverty, and racism as well.

Nor is e-waste poverty pollution a myth.   There were hillbillies, and there are dump sites in lesser developed countries.

But today American environmentalists like Allen Hershkowitz (formerly of Environmental Defense Council) have joined big shred companies like ERI of Fresno.   When I tried to engage Allen on the subject of the exaggerated story, he said he "had been there, had seen it with his own eyes".  Like the Chicago Tourist or Hollywood actor who visited Branson, his geographic touch offers credibility to those who know even less.

It always makes us seem somehow more important when we've seen it with our own eyes.  Kyle Wiens, another eminent expert, posted on a board this week that he had been to Agbogbloshie in person, was an eyewitness to the "largest e-waste dump on earth".

According to PBS Frontline, the Agbogbloshie neighborhood of Ghana became the west's dumping ground, where hundreds of millions of TONS of ewaste is dumped.  That would mean (hundreds in plural), at least 200 million tons per year.  If it operates 365 days per year, that's about 27 million personal computers, or 15 million televisions, per DAY.

This factoid isn't hidden away, it's on page 1.  It appeared in a reference on Wikipedia.
"Correspondent Peter Klein and a group of graduate journalism students from the University of British Columbia have come here as part of a global investigation -- to track a shadowy industry that's causing big problems here and around the world.  Their guide is a 13-year-old boy named Alex. He shows them his home, a small room in a mass of shanty dwellings, and offers to take them across a dead river to a notorious area called Agbogbloshie."

Well, that is such a huge amount that you cannot be an expert if you haven't been there, like Jim Puckett or Kyle Wiens or Allen Hershkowitz.

But are you still an expert if you've claimed to see something first hand, which isn't there?

I've been to the Ozarks.   I've seen hillbillies with my own eyes.   I grew up in a family of hillbillies.  My sister is a hillbilly, and my brother.   And I'm sorry to break it to you, Branson fans, the hillbilly show ended sometime after the Great Depression.    That's how fast poverty porn lasts.   It's fleeting.

And the same has happened with Ghana, Nigeria, Egypt, etc.  The Western photographers looking to pose with poverty porn subjects are finding it harder and harder to find their hillbillies.  So they went to a city of 4.5 million Africans, one of the most developed and successful cities in sub saharan Africa, with city buses, traffic jams, multiple TV per household, and internet, and found that city's dump and found cars, and appliances, and "e-waste" in it.

And then they photograph what, a dozen kids?  Two dozen?  I don't know, I guess I'll have to check it out myself.  But they must have strong arms to burn 27 million computers per day in wheelbarrows.

Yeah, friends.   I've been warned.  Don't blog about Jim Puckett, or Dr. Allen Hershkowitz, or Dr. Jack Caravanos.  These are three of the most respected experts on e-waste pollution in the country.  Don't mention David Higgins of Interpol. And don't fantasize about taking on big shred companies and waste haulers.

Not over a poor, illiterate, television repairman from Nigeria, Joe Benson.
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
If they say hundreds of millions of tons are dumped in Accra, it must at least be very, very bad.   If they say that 80% of the imports into Ghana are not reused, but quickly dumped, in a scheme to avoid proper environmental costs, it's quite believable.

Never mind that it costs $7000 trans atlantic shipping, carrying 800 TVs, and that the copper in the TVs is only worth $2 per TV.

Never mind the multiple reports showing 85-93% reuse.

Keep your head down, Robin.  You have a company here to think about.

Well, most of you readers know me by now.
“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

Is it easier for me to walk in Joe Benson's shoes because I saw, as a child, the marketing of poverty porn, the parasites of the poor in Branson?  Or is it easier because I've got kids, like Harper Lee's character Scout, who I want to learn what courage really is?

Blacksmith Institute, NRDC, EDF, BAN, Greenpeace, I come not to attack you but to save us.

"Never has BAN ever stated that 80% of US e-waste is exported"

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At Tenaya Jr. High School in Fresno, I was cast as Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island in 1776.  Speaking out on slavery, drunkenly, I said " It's a stinking business, Eddie, a stinking business!"

I lived in Cameroon, not Ghana, and Arkansas, not Georgia.  And I left Fresno decades before ERI came along.

But what else could you do, if you were me, but write this blog?  I've tried everything else.  I don't want to think that it's about money, but I know many Africans think that's exactly what "parasites of the poor" are after.


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