One: How Poore Richard Came To Make An Almanack
Once upon a time, there was this guy – he was over-sensitive, over-educated,
over-worked, maybe overly paranoid, but certainly not overly thrilled with
the direction his country had taken: a hard right on the road to Fascist
He wasn’t overly enamored with the way his hometown and home state were
trying to outdo the rest of the nation in crossing the finish line. He
wasn’t happy the poor not only grew poorer, but that over the first six
years of the 21st century many more people steadily fell into poverty than
before, in significant numbers, while the rich became, not only more
wealthy, but super-wealthy.
One in five children lived in poverty. Millions went without healthcare
coverage, and of those who had it, many more couldn’t really afford the
deductibles and co-pays, especially those with chronic illnesses. Let’s not
forget the cost of medications, either.
Most people, it seemed to this man, could have cared less. It wasn’t their
problem, or else they believed they deserved to live in such misery because
“the market” demanded it – their misery was “good for the economy.”
Now, the economy was doing fine, it was quite healthy even if the people who
worked to sustain it weren’t. Unemployment was around 4%, as low as it gets.
People were working, but still poor or on the verge of becoming so, and the
middle class was shrinking. According to economists, if you drew a picture
of the society, it increasingly would look like an hour glass as those at
the upper end of the middle class ascended into the ranks of the wealthy,
the lower middle class descended into poverty, and the average American, the
ranks of the middle-middle class, shrank and became strangely uncommon.
Oil companies raked in obscene profits, using every excuse from terrorism to
uncertainty in the Middle East to hurricane damage to con people into
believing their hikes in fuel prices were justified. Despite a disaster like
Katrina, the oil companies showed greater profits than ever, yet claimed
they were so affected by the hurricane they needed the extra money to repair
the derricks. And then, after they repaired everything, they still made
historically huge profits. The people didn’t blink. They swallowed it. It
was “good for the economy.”
Then, just before the major Congressional elections of ’06, gas prices
mysteriously began to fall, by as much as a dollar a gallon. Was this done
in hopes of keeping Big Oil’s bought and paid for Republicans in office?
Certainly, immediately after the election the prices began to creep up by 10
to 25 cents inside a month – at least, in the town where I work, that was
the rise. What did this mean?
(Of course, as of this writing, the price dropped again – but not for
long. Travel season will be here soon or some disaster will be a good excuse
to jack it back up; not to mention, we’re so conditioned to high gas prices,
we’re now overjoyed to see it hover around $2.00 a gallon . . ..)
You might call the guy I’m talking about “cynical” as he believed that Big
Oil was just trying to protect its interests, which apparently are different
than the average citizen’s.
He was cynical about other things besides. He believed the Bush White House
& their Far Right cronies in Congress and on the Bench had used a “War On
Terror” as an excuse to make the Executive Branch practically Imperial, to
reach heights only hoped for in the reign of Nixon.
The subject of our scrutiny certainly was cynical; he believed that certain
things had been the Administration’s heart’s desire from day one: a
roll-back in Civil Liberties; empowerment of the Religious Right;
implementation of dogmatic laissez-faire economic policies at the
expense of Economic Justice; and an attack on Social Progress and Tolerance.
But the events of 9/11 and the ensuing terror that addled the brains of the
populace were simply the fortuitous events that allowed the Radical Right to
ram through, in one fell swoop, what they had probably assumed at the start
would require legislative maneuvering and years of piecemeal policy
Passion weakens minds not trained to remain utterly rational and fear is
perhaps the strongest passion. America, after 2001, was marinating in
horror, and that horror flavored every decision from the highest to the
lowest level. People gladly surrendered their individual freedoms and rights
to the Bush Administration, and all Mr. Bush had to do was claim he needed
to “borrow” those rights awhile in order to make “The Homeland” (whatever
that is) “SAFE.”
As one Republican Congressman used to say every time he got near a
microphone, “I’d rather have Big Brother than dead brother.”
The person we’re writing about here had a problem, though: He’d rather
have dead brother than Big Brother and thought that was the entire point of
America. He’d made the mistake of reading all those historical documents
and listening in Civics Classes and History Classes and Political Science
Classes – and taking the ideas seriously, taking the Founders at their word.
By and large, however, the people seemed quite happy with the notion that
Big Brother is better than dead brother. They probably always had, really.
Our subject found himself in a lonely spot in one of the most conservative
areas of one of the most reactionary states in the union.
The man spent some time marveling at the spectacle of an ostensibly free
people simply throwing up their hands and giving away their birthright, not
only as citizens of our country, but as citizens of the world. He was
appalled by these people whose Declaration of Independence and Constitution
were bought with the blood of their ancestors, ancestors who opposed every
form of tyranny: they seemed willing to turn their backs on this inheritance
and their responsibility to preserve and transmit it to the next generation,
all for some ridiculous, non-existent, undefined thing called “safety.”
For the first time in his life, the man could see how great historical
disasters such as Nazi Germany must have begun, with common people willing
to do anything in the name of an imaginary “Absolute Safety.”
“Yes, we are doing harsh things, nearly incomprehensibly cruel things today,
but in the long run, in the Eyes of History, all of this apparently terrible
work will be shown to have been in your best interest.”
“In the long run...” “In the Eyes of History...” “It may look wrong,
questionable, even evil now, but what we’re doing will produce more good
than harm – one day.”
When? The answer with these things is always, “One day.”
The Soviet Union promised a Worker’s Paradise would emerge from its
dictatorship – one day. Those people waited over 70 years for “one day” to
arrive, but it never came. The only thing that came were 70 years of a
brutal dictatorship and millions dead or imprisoned in gulags and insane
asylums, 70 years, not of “one days,” but of “todays” that looked an awful
lot like “yesterdays.”
So, this man developed a gnawing doubt that, ethically, if something is
questionable, wrong, evil today, no amount of time will transmute it into
goodness. He kept hearing St. Paul’s admonition: “Do not do evil that good
may come of it.”
If we do evil, overly clever things today, “in the long run” the best thing
that will happen is some of us may survive and engage in a bit of denial
about how bad our actions actually were, or we will rationalize them away,
or even lie about what happened. That’s what the man grew to believe – he
was, after all, a cynic.
When the Defense Department Memos on Torture were leaked, the man’s guts
turned – White House lawyers were redefining torture so it would be “legal.”
We were reassured nothing of the sort was being done – and then the photos
from Abu Ghraib leaked. And stories of CIA kidnappings of “detainees”
subsequently smuggled to concentration camps in other countries where the
governments are known to torture prisoners; and, finally, stories about
Guantanamo Bay, the Administration’s attempt to hold people indefinitely
without charge, without honoring the basic human rights enshrined in the
Geneva Conventions, and on and on. The man was beyond appalled at this point
– he was unwilling to have it known that he sat by while these evils were
being carried out in his name as a citizen of the United States, even though
he had no power, little influence, and was, for all intents and purposes, no
one in particular.
He had a freelance newspaper column in the local paper, The Dahlonega
Nugget, he’d written for a few years, and as his thoughts and feelings
about the Far Right’s engineering of a completely un-American direction
became stronger and clearer, so did the tone of his columns. He’d never been
fearful of taking a stand in the columns – he had done so from day one,
facing everything from white supremacy to creationism, never writing fluff.
He always said what he needed to say, as strongly, appropriately, and
accurately as possible, as well as he could.
Though he was “no one in particular,” it became apparent in the last year
and a half that his words meant something to many people – people either
liked what he had to say because it urged deeper consideration of issues, or
they hated what he had to say because it was clearly an attack on their
dogmatic brand of anti-intellectual politics and immorality masquerading as
morality. Opponents “answered” him in the editorial pages of the paper, not
by facing his ideas and arguments, but by assassinating his character,
slandering his extended family, trying to change the subject away from the
issues towards something wholly pointless.
He did not defend his character or that of his family – that would have
satisfied his opponents by wasting precious column inches talking about
matters of no importance. The paper had enough of that as it was. Instead,
he spent his time in a sustained attack on the economic and social
injustices of the Radical Right and the torture policies of the Republican
White House. He made rational, philosophical arguments, and he used humor,
satire, sarcasm, and irony all in hopes of exposing the true nature of the
ideas he opposed. He did this because he knew, sooner or later, that his
column was likely to get pulled, such was the hateful atmosphere of a
certain vocal element within the town of Dahlonega.
And so it came to pass. The editor had a “poll” about the contents of the
paper – without much warning or advertisement. One of the results was this:
Our friend, the writer, picked up the paper one day to find he’d been thrown
out after only the initial week’s worth of voting out of an eventual four or
five weeks, total. In the end, this “overwhelming lack of support” for his
column turned out to be something like three or four whiney complaints – at
least, this was all that was published. He received no e-mail or mail from
the editor telling him of her decision to sever ties, no explanation. He
found out just as everyone else who read the small print in the paper did.
Many people wrote in on his behalf and by the time the newspaper poll was
done, he amassed a great number of e-mails, poll sheets, and so on in his
behalf, more than was presented in the paper, for whatever reason. He
personally received letters and cards from people who were incredulous and
disappointed; people stopped him and talked to him in the street. Why would
his column be taken out of the paper? It was read and appreciated by many
people from all sorts of backgrounds, even conservatives – it was the only
thing in the paper that even vaguely represented an alternative point of
view to the dominant ones, and it was not wishy-washy about what it meant.
Besides, it only appeared bi-monthly, at most.
In the end, it was promised that if there was an “overwhelming” call for its
return, the column would be allowed to return, but exactly how much response
qualified as “overwhelming” wasn’t defined. He eventually wrote a brief
farewell letter that was published without comment and that was that.
And so, he was without a place to publish his essays and continue to stand
up as one voice civilly speaking his piece as an American citizen whether
heard or not, liked or not, effective or not. Freedom of the press, as the
cliché goes, only applies to those who own a press. Anyone else can be
silenced and any number of “reasons” can be trumped up to excuse it. There
are always reasons to shut someone up and many involve dollar signs.
Of course, this person of whom we speak is just me, Richard Van Ingram. It
could have been anyone – including you. For some people in Dahlonega,
Georgia it may as well have been themselves personally told to shut up and
go away: My columns said things they wished they could say, wanted to say,
but they either did not have time or the words to say it with. That, or they
feared the retaliation speaking out in a relatively small community can
bring on. I only say this because I was repeatedly told it. Obviously, look
at the impression left by my dismissal and the manner of it all: “He spoke
his mind, now where is he?”
The editor does not practice censorship, but ask yourself: Doesn’t this type
of example tend to stifle free speech? Even if unintended, isn’t this the
effect, especially in a small town? America is, significantly, still just a
collection of small towns made up of people who are no one in particular,
just like me – and we depend on people who are “someone,” like a newspaper
editor, to broadcast our thoughts, should we have any, and participate fully
I am not an extraordinarily brave person, but I am tenacious; I didn’t stop
writing in the paper for four and a half years even though, socially, it
cost me in ways I don’t really wish to discuss beyond saying I paid my dues
and someone else’s for the privilege of my “free speech.” Being publicly
thrown out of the town’s only organ of news, opinion, and information like a
panhandling wino at The Ritz was the least of the damage I have suffered.
Most people are not as stubborn as I am. Most have better things to do with
their time. Even in a democracy, the everyday price of free speech can be
made so high most won’t even consider paying it or openly support those who
As I said, my literary demise was only a matter of time and I knew it. Like
most small towns in the south, Dahlonega isn’t exactly the most tolerant of
places in the best of times, and a writer who faces down a majority
paradoxically has to depend on that same majority tolerating his abuse. It’s
one of the cornerstones of a democracy, this willingness to allow a minority
to speak and think differently than the rest, even to criticize and upbraid
the majority for its beliefs.
But these are not times congenial to democratic ideas or traditions;
certainly not in the small southern town where I grew up, the one that never
had much use for its outsiders, even when they were insiders.
So, I had two choices: stay down and remain silent or get back up and find a
way to independently raise Hell. Hence, Poore Richard’s Really Poore
Almanack, or The Almanack for short. For those who can’t put
their finger on it, I’m conjuring the aid of a powerful ghost, the original
Poor Richard himself, Ben Franklin (a Hell raiser if there ever was one),
and his own Poor Richard’s Almanack. Ben had this free press thing
figured out and he certainly wasn’t one to mince his words – he didn’t have
an aversion to satire and humor when useful, either.
In the same spirit as Benjamin Franklin, this Almanack is my own
virtual free press here on the internet; doubtless, I won’t have the
audience I once enjoyed in the print world, but at least I’ll have the
freedom to publicly speak again, and in a wider variety of ways including
the use of political cartoons, art, fiction, and so on. And maybe what I
miss in readership numbers, I will make up in diversity within the audience.
Whether The Almanack is worth visiting and re-visiting for its
regular updates and features is up to me, my willingness to work and the
level my abilities, such as they are. Whether its readership grows, though,
is largely up to you and whether you spread news of this site and its
address by “word of mouth.” This is an underground operation. I am “a man of
means by no means,” as the song goes.
One of the ways I was so easily overtaken at the local paper was that my
supporters only wrote and spoke to me – not others, not the editor of the
paper, not the paper’s owners, and so on. Over the coming weeks, I hope I
can win your attention and support as I did the readers of the paper simply
by saying what I think needs to be said. In return, I only ask that you
spread the word, link to this page, reprint or quote from essays, giving me
full credit and links, and so on (see below).