Friday, March 20, 2009

All God's Children Need Shoes

Maslow's hierarchy of needs tells us what is basic to human existence, but it also makes us presume civilization as we know it is the foundational human condition, so anything that deviates from that condition is sub-optimal or even sub-human. Thus do we brand "the poor" both within society and outside our social realm. We imagine, for example, that those living without the benefits of "civilization" live in the state of nature described by Hobbes: red in tooth and claw, where life is nasty, brutish, and short. Our shorthand metaphor for this is "The Lord of the Flies." And we don't mean Satan, the Father of Lies, who originally bore that title; we mean the William Golding novel. But then what do we do with the natives who were living in America before the Europeans came? Who built societies as complex as that at Cahokia? Or invented games we play today (lacrosse)? Or lived in the cliffs of the American West? Or what about the Trahamura?

The Trahamura live in Copper Canyon, in Mexico. They are described as "one of the most healthy and most serene people on the planet and perhaps the greatest runners--able to cover hundreds of miles without rest." Of course, health is subject to measurement, but serenity? And is either an absolute state? No; nor does their example put the lie to the achievements and benefits of civilization, nor of modern industrial society. But we know of counter-examples to the generally accepted idea that civilization = "good," and uncivilized life = "bad." It helps, in what follows, to consider the contrasts between the two, and how unclear, in some ways, they are. We may still seek to fulfill Maslow's needs, but how we do it depends as much on what is required of us, as of what is expected.

Homelessness in some cultures might simply be unimaginable. It wasn't for the Anglo-Saxons who imagined the Wife's Lament, or The Wanderer's story. Perhaps the ptochoi of 1st century Palestine had homes; or perhaps part of being ptochoi was to be like Jesus' self description: birds have their nests, foxes their dens, but the Human One had no place to lay his head. No place, and every place. But homelessness: that is rock bottom poor; that is destitute with a capital "D"; that is poverty pure and simple.

So when a man shows up in a soup kitchen line with a cell phone, it's hard for some to imagine he is homeless. Surely someone without a home is also without a phone. Surely one of the concomitants of losing your home, is to lose everything else first. Maybe, of course, he wasn't even there to eat, but just to see the First Lady in person. But if he was, how dare he not have lost everything when he lost his home!

Loss is not like that, of course. You aren't stripped of what you own when you lose the single most important marker in industrialized society: a place to live. You lose big things, like the ability to pay rent or a mortgage, but you still have the items you purchased along the way, most of which are virtually worthless except as conveniences or, in a very few cases, necessities for you. Most of what we consider "necessities" are valueless without a home around them: towels; kitchen supplies; bedding; furniture. But those things don't go first: they linger. And there are the homeless who live in tent cities, and the homeless who live on the streets, and the homeless who are on and off the street, depending on their situation at the moment. So there's our root level problem with poverty: we don't understand it; we fear it; and we condemn it. Because poverty, at it's base, means the machine has failed; it means the machine is capable of failure. It means civilization as we know it is not the provider of all that is good and true and pleasurable. It means either that civilization is a capricious god, or that there, but for the grace of God, go I. And we don't much believe in God's grace anymore. We don't put much stock in what grace provides us. We believe in our own efforts. We believe in the treadmill and our ability to keep up with it, and we know secretly that if we don't keep up, the treadmill will be relentless, and will grind us up rather than pay attention to our plight. The poor remind us the machine doesn't care about us, either; that we could be them. So how dare they look too much like us? How dare they seem too close to us for comfort? How dare their poverty be, not a chasm, but a narrow crack we could as easily step across? How dare their condition be separated from ours only by the next paycheck? What has civilization wrought, if this is the only comfort it can give us?

This isn't a recent phenomenon, either, a result of the sudden stock crash or financial industries collapse. Poverty and homelessness are as American as our prosperity. Nor does it respect age. A new study reports 1 in 50 children are ptochoi in America. And the numbers are from 2005-06. How much worse is is now, and into the future? The study also points out what states do the poorest job of helping their poorest and most defenseless citizens. What is the virtue of civilization, if this is as much help as it can offer?

Μακάριοι οἱ πτωχοί, Jesus said. Congratulations to you poor! Perhaps today if Jesus said "Congratulations to you homeless!" we would better get the message. If you follow this link, and click on the third word (ptochoi), you get this explanation from the Greek Lexicon:

1) reduced to beggary, begging, asking alms 2) destitute of wealth, influence, position, honour 2a) lowly, afflicted, destitute of the Christian virtues and eternal riches 2b) helpless, powerless to accomplish an end 2c) poor, needy 3) lacking in anything 3a) as respects their spirit 3a1) destitute of wealth of learning and intellectual culture which the schools afford (men of this class most readily give themselves up to Christ's teaching and proved them selves fitted to lay hold of the heavenly treasure)
ὅτι ὑμετέρα ἐστὶν ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ. "Your possession is the kingdom of God."

Not everybody sees it that way, of course. Some can only see their possessions in terms of everyone else's possessions, or lack thereof:

Anyway, so yesterday Dwaine was at Obama's town hall meeting in Costa Mesa, as The Ticket and many others reported. And he was recognized by the president and read off his carefully-prepared index card about being laid off after 13 years of good work with Toyota but now was having trouble finding a new job to support his family because of a past felony conviction. And what could he do?

And the president was very sympathetic and said he was surprised and would have expected the layoff from an American car company because Toyota had done so well.

Well, it turns out the burly, 45-year-old Norwalk resident wasn't exactly laid off. He and Toyota agreed today that he took a voluntary buyout. His choice. He's still looking, if you're hiring. But how he got where he is turns out to be a little different than he first described on national TV.
Mr. Malcolm has already proven he is not comfortable with poor people who don't fit his pre-concieved categories of poverty and need. The irony of this latest observation is profound. Time Magazine recently informed us our job is our asset now (not your possessions). Seems people thought of their job as a way of acquiring more assets, not as an asset in itself, and that led to the enormous debt overload we are now experiencing as a financial crisis. (Have I mentioned lately that personal debt in 2008 was 100% of GDP, and the last time it was that high was 1929?). Mr. Webber may have been "bought out," but that just means he has a diminishing supply of money to live on until he can find another job that pays as well as the Toyota job he had. If, of course, he can. Mr. Malcolm, the man who brought us the "homeless guy cell phone" tempest in a teapot, doesn't have a blessing for Mr. Webber. His response seems to be: "Nuts to you!"*

What is expected, then? Mr. Malcolm makes it clear that no man is an island, least of all the poor among us, and the unemployed; and their fate is so directly connected to Mr. Malcolm that they annoy him mightily. Take this, from another blogger, as an example:

Today's "poor" are the rich Jesus warned you about: fat, slovenly, wasteful of their money and other people's...

He spends all his (our) money on cellphones and, most likely, tattoos and drugs and booze and other crap, and has no money left for a home and food. And why should he bother? We pay for his shelter and food anyhow...

What's really funny in that news story by the way is what they're serving at the soup kitchen: risotto with brocolli. Obviously some rich white liberal did the cooking that day, feeling all proud of herself, and what thanks did she get? Some lowclass loser going, "You expect me to eat this weird crap?!"
There's alot being imagined here, including, as Alex Koppelman points out, the "fact" that the man with the cell phone is "homeless." Notice how much power this poor person has. He has taken "all our money" and spent it on frivolities, much like the woman with multiple children driving her Cadillac to the government office to pick up her welfare check Ronald Reagan used to warn us about. Media Matters points out the soup kitchen where the famous photo was shot is a private affair, so the outrage at who they serve is misplaced. It isn't, though, because the outrage turns on what is "ours." And if "our" culture, our "machine," can result in these kinds of failures, failures for people who can afford cell phones (like me!) or can get bought out of their job and not retire in comfort (that could be me!), then we're back to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, and the foundations of that hierarchy seem mighty shaky indeed. If there but for the grace of God go I, what keeps that person from being...well, I? And if the machine is no kinder, no more gracious, no better at providing to him, then it could prove to be no help to me.

And what then?

The issue turns on more than imagined cheats, however. It turns on the issue Frank Rich identified: how much of what is ours, is actually ours?

The true American faith endures in “Our Town.” The key word in its title is the collective “our,” just as “united” is the resonant note hit by the new president when saying the full name of the country. The notion that Americans must all rise and fall together is the ideal we still yearn to reclaim, and that a majority voted for in November. But how we get there from this economic graveyard is a challenge rapidly rivaling the one that faced Wilder’s audience in that dark late winter of 1938.
We rise and fall together; but how easily we forget that. Kings forgot it at their peril (just ask Louis XVI). Democracies are no different. As Rich points out, income disparity was at its greatest in America just before 1929. It was so again between 1970 and 2008. Consumer debt was also 100% of GDP by 1929. It is again, today.

Those who do not learn from history....

The Four Freedoms Norman Rockwell illustrated arose out of the experience of the Great Depression and World War II. That much is obvious from the inclusion of "Freedom from Want" in the pantheon, along with "Freedom from Fear." We are, or should be, back to considering them. We are back to considering what our possessions are, and what they are worth, and what possessions are truly worth having. Μακάριοι οἱ πτωχοί, ὅτι ὑμετέρα ἐστὶν ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ. But is that a possession worth having? And if we have it, what do we do with it?

*I have to note that this, like the scourging of Timothy Geithner, seems to be an entirely blogosphere phenomenon. Keith Olbermann practically runs a video-blog five nights a week, and he never mentioned this story. Rachel Maddow didn't pick up on it, either. Maybe Joe Scarbrough mentioned it, but it never really got beyond a blog story. The failings of Tim Geithner are suffering the same fate. Paul Krugman excoriates Mr. Geithner in his blog; most of left blogistan seems to despise Mr. Geithner. No one, of course, comments on the complexity of the problems he faces; except Pres. Obama, and most of the mainstream media, which may pick up the story du jour out of Washington, but are hardly keeping up the drumbeat of "FAIL FAIL FAIL!!!" that's resonating in the blogs. Once more, blogs are like poetry; they make nothing happen, but survive in the valley of their own making, a way of happening, a mouth.

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