Tuesday, July 15, 2008

HOMELESS CANARIES

Up in Boston the erstwhile ‘liberal’ paper, the ‘Boston Globe’, has an article in its July 11 edition, that serves, I think, as one of those warnings often attributed to ‘heroic’ (to use the word as it is so often misapplied these days) canaries who famously sacrifice themselves by keeling over when the atmosphere in a mine is getting lethally unhealthy.
(http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2208/07/11/killing_of_homeless_man_leaves_questions/)
There are probably more of Us now who might be thinking the uncomfortable thought that this country is becoming more and more like a ‘mine’, serpentine, dark, mysterious and capable of suddenly becoming lethal to anyone who happens to be in it. And who can blame some one for such thoughts nowadays? But that’s not where this Post is going just now.

The ‘Globe’, albeit with not so much instant, just-add-ink ‘outrage’ as has been its wont over the past few decades, reports – if we may say – that on July 4th (of all days) a homeless man was killed in broad daylight in the heart of famed Boston’s visitor’s mecca – the Fanueil Hall and Old State House area – by another homeless man. And that numerous passers-by saw the fracas, but kept on walking. This, the paper observes, “leaves questions”. Ya think? Ya frakkin’ think?
Many people – visitor and resident alike – simply looked the other way or – far worse – didn’t ‘notice’. As one interviewee said, it looked to be just another everyday fight among the raggedy formations of homeless who congregate for drinking, pan-handling and – what the hell? – for laffs just south of the (soberly profound) Holocaust memorial and just north of the actual Faneuil Hall marketplace, across the street on one side from the historic chowder house from whose upper windows the roomer who would become Louis Phillippe of France once looked down, and on the other side of the steet the weird, concrete fortress of ‘new’ City Hall – courtesy 40-plus years ago of an untested young architect very much favored by the Kennedy family – and, more specifically, the mayor’s office with its high, wide, though apparently shallow, view of the historic heart of the city.

It might seem odd that the homeless can make their way to these family-friendly, historic precincts; counterintuitive, even. The city’s historic facility for those formerly known as ‘bums’ was located a longish way to the south, at the Pine Street Inn, close to Dover Street, in a South End neighborhood that by the middle years of the last century had become well-established as Boston’s equivalent of Old New York’s Bowery. The Inn was well-placed to provide convenient haven for its ‘client population’ as it might be called today. Pan-handling, loitering, disturbing the peace and public drunkeness were all illegal, the ‘clients’ were uanable or unwilling to carry on a more-or-less ‘decent’ civil life: exercising the self-restraint yet courteous surface civility that enables large urban citizenries to get on with life and each other year in and year out.

But for reasons that probably had more to do with ‘appearances’ than with common sense, the late, working-man’s pol, Congressman Joe Moakley – who after years of public service in “the fleshpots of Washington City” (General Sherman’s phrase) had morphed into the portly, well-coiffed, expensively suited and shod Representative J. Joseph Moakley, undertook a little project. At some point a decade and more ago, he stretched forth his brawny if nicely cuff-linked arm and wrassled a former bank building for the use of ‘homeless’ folks. Said building, squat and solid, recalling a banking system that by then no longer existed, was in the heart of the Government Center, just the other side of that City Hall that overlooked the July 4th killing scene.

The reader might be tempted to exclaim the exclamation uttered in consternation by that Southern matron so vividly imprinted into American popular lore by that advanced institution of Art for the sake of Art, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer: “In Atlanta?!! How’d they evah git heah?!!” How indeed, and thereby hangs a tale that may be of more than notional use to Us in this Year of Grace the 2008th and of the independence of the United States the 232nd.

As the 1970s progressed, and that society of well-intentioned sorcerer’s apprentices entitled the Democratic Party was trying to let even more millions of flowers bloom in order to register the said flowers forthwith on the voting rolls, it was proposed by assorted medical and psychiatric experts and social workers, supported by myriads of well-intentioned and determined Identity-types who figured that any massive social and cultural change is a massive social and cultural liberation – and ruat coelum … it was proposed that the many folks residing voluntarily or otherwise in state mental institutions were actually not crazy, were even perhaps saner than most of the citizenry at large (chained to the gray-flannel suit drudgery of family responsibility, job responsibility, and generally to a certain repulsively unimaginative and uncreative and conformist adulthood), and could in any event be ‘managed’ by new-to-the-market wonder-pills dispensed by much less monstrous (and much less expensive, the pols quickly and shrewdly noted) ‘community mental health centers’.

At the time it seemed like it might be the thing to do: grown-ups had gotten the country into Vietnam and then lied about it, decent responsible citizens were lied to and betrayed by the very government in which they had reposed their trust and confidence, the adult citizenry thus played for fools in front of the kids who felt they had shown everybody in ’68 that their way of doing things was more effective and a hell of a lot more fun, and – after all – weren’t ‘decency’ and ‘responsibility’ empty words used by oppressors to oppress the oppressed and – even worse – the oppressors were, not to put too fine a point on it, ‘men’ ? … which was the crowning indictment of the day. All of which by the mid-1970s enjoyed the support of the Democratic Party, only a few of whose apprentice sorcerers had started to wonder if by that time the tail weren’t starting to wag the dog.

The professionals and ‘experts’ assured the never-robust minds and hearts of the pols that ‘this could work’, that they would be greeted as liberators, that vast hordes of presently debilitated folk (it was already considered declasse to refer to humans a ’souls’, let alone as generic ‘men’) could be released forthwith, into the broad sunlit uplands of sanity and freedom, required only to maintain voluntarily a careful regimen of medication acquired by getting oneself to the afore-dreamed community mental health centers. And the walls came tumbling down, as in any good fairy tale.

Of course, the hardly un-obvious thought that persons who for decades or for a lifetime had been unable to organize their interior life and sustain even a modicum of a societal life … that observation was raised, but it was a time of many flowers blooming, and – far more ominously – of the increasing inability of state governments to pay their bills. And the professions and paraprofessions were finding themselves increasingly called upon with urgent and official deference in this new and more sensitive America. What was not to like?

People behaving oddly started to be seen on city streets. Worse, it became quietly clear to many citizens that the police were no longer doing much about it. Public laws that most people took for granted were wiped away almost overnight; and had to be, if these unstable folk were not to be apprehended a dozen times a week.

And it also became clear that the papers were either ignoring this new development or – increasingly – were ‘hailing’ it as an excellent example of sensitivity and liberation in action. To look askance, to worry, to ask to kick the tires … that was to be considered a backlasher, a racist about something that had nothing to do with race (the advanced vocabulary of Advocacy and Sensitivity had not yet been developed, its dictionary – carrying the weight of semi-law – not yet compiled).

Somewhere in there, somehow, a fellow named Snyder hit upon the idea of surfing the wave of glitz-and-greed madness unleashed by the new Reagan Administration’s chirpy embrace of wealth and confident, robust selfishness. Snyder would do it, in a fine feat combining the best insights of advertising and deconstructionism, by focusing on the symptom rather than the cause of the problem: people weren’t crazy and incapable of keeping themselves on medication; they were just ‘homeless’.

And somehow, for God only knows what combination of reasons and ulterior motives, the alcoholics were brought into the tent. No, these folks weren’t addicted so deeply to a substance that most of them might indeed never be able to carry on even the most basic responsibilities of societal participation; these folks weren’t so deeply enmeshed in still-unknown complex inner physical and mental and characterological dynamics that it would be only in the very very best of ‘cases’ that an individual among them could be cured, rehabilitated, or what-have-you. No, these folks were simply ‘homeless’.

Now you might observe that the folks were homeless precisely because they were unable or even unwilling to keep a roof over their heads. And that there was no small probability that these folks might – if given a roof and its attendant responsiblities – reject the whole proposition and go back to the bottle. But naysayers don’t last long once a revolution has hit critical mass, once a ‘wave’ is going; not even John Wayne on his best day ever stood in front of a stampeding herd with a six-gun and figure that he could stop it with just some common sense, a little authority, and the punctuational effect of a six-shooter judiciously discharged.

Truth and common sense don’t fare well in revolutions or in wars. And maybe that’s why now both the Democrats – ‘Liberals’ – and the Republicans – ‘Conservatives’ – don’t really care for the stuff; and why ‘wars’ in the service of revolutions (no matter how well-intentioned) or in the service of national security (ditto) both lead to the same abyssal twilight world. The road to Total Sensitivity and to Total Security is paved with good intentions.

And with the necessary repeal of whatever shreds of public-behavior laws were still left on the books, hordes of drink-addled ‘homeless’ now took to the streets along with the mentally-addled, and in not a small number of cases, the individuals were dually-addled.

Not that all this was presented to Us as such. While the streets became the stage for dozens and then hundreds of incidents that a few years before would never have been allowed to happen or to develop, the citizenry were expected to focus only on the chosen pretext for the changes: that there were, it was ‘reported’, countless families who where ‘homeless’ .. because of Reagan’s cheap and stingy economics.

There may indeed have been some (and now that his ‘heirs’ have had the keys to the cashbox for so long, there may indeed be a whole lot more). But back then you never saw a ‘homeless’ family walking down the street, staggering, shouting, looking for change. Wherever those families were, they were keeping themselves invisible, and doing a far better job of it than the accumulated generations of legions of Soviet spies reputedly patrolling the Main Streets of America.

This new-model bunch, the ‘homeless’, weren’t the Depression-era ‘bums’: the people who had sustained a responsible and modestly successful work and family life, until suddenly undercut and indeed betrayed by the venality of the Wall Street biggies and the pols who loved them. What was now loose was a large population of folks who had never been able to achieve social or often even personal maturity and efficacy. What had changed was that now they were ‘liberated’, free to carry on in the streets, just another aspect of the ‘rich’ (that monstrously duplicitious code-word) diversity (ditto) of modern American life in all its cutting-edge, sensitive success. They didn’t really ‘produce’ anything, but – though the point was not clear at the time – neither was America, any longer. Reagan’s gooey frosting was only that – there was nothing under it. Not that most people would get to enjoy it, anyway … only the ones who got to the groaning but gated table of Ronnie’s ongoing birthday party.

What could the average citizen do? Confronted increasingly by unpleasant when not actually dangerous behavior on the streets, unable to summon the police, unable to risk mentioning it for fear of being labelled as ‘insensitive’ or ‘hateful’ or half a dozen other epithets from the armamentarium of Political Correctness, people – in the manner of Soviet citizens – simply learned not to see. As was increasingly becoming the case with your own home phone, which was no longer automatically answered after the one-too-many times that the party at the other end was a telemarketer who damned well knew you were trying to eat dinner; you no longer ‘listened’ – as citizens of functional societies listen – as you walked down the street, no longer ‘paid quiet attention’ for a voice that might be in need and that had a right to your attention and concern in this particular rare emergency that had intruded upon an otherwise relatively functional life.

Too many times you had walked down a public street and looked up in response to a ‘good morning’ or a ruder ‘hey’, only to find some ‘homeless’ character, looking for cash. The ‘emergencies’ of the homeless were not the occasional ones of people who are able to more or less manage the tasks of living, but rather the ongoing emergency of someone who creates one emergency to solve a prior one, and who now – after decades of sensitivity and richness – expects that citizens will – have to, even – do what the pols no longer wish to do.

Nor are we talking about a few individuals and their emergencies, however ongoing. We are talking hundreds, even thousands, in any city of size. Like the bunch that hung out at the far end of every schoolyard, smokin’ and laughin’ at the dopes that went and did their homework last night; school days, school days … so old-fashioned.

And the tendency of these individuals to congregate in areas that promise an audience and a target-rich concentration of potential cash sources means that some of the most heavily traveled and most societally significant public spaces are now shadowed by packs of these folk, and only traversed by citizens who have taught themselves not to ‘see’. Not to see anything. Or hear anything. Not to respond. Just to get where they have to go. Like modest but determined quarterbacks whose plan is precisely not to have any encounters on the field enroute to the goalposts.

This state of affairs is no way to conduct a society. I often wonder how parents can shepherd their kids or school-teachers shepherd their class-outing platoons through these congregated packs, but perhaps the kids too now have learned not to see and not to hear.

Can it be any coincidence, I wonder, that citizens who cannot see and cannot hear and will not allow themselves to get ‘involved’ in the dubious and seedy soap-operas of a half-dozen ‘homeless’ in the space of each city block … that these citizens didn’t ‘see’ and didn’t ‘hear’ anything as their government led them into an aggressive foreign war, on the most dubious and fraudulent of pretexts. And as their government – still seeking to keep Ronnie’s party going – regressed the very foundations of the country’s economy – against the hard-won wisdom of the Depression era generations – to benefit the few rich upon whom the pandering pols can reliably count for cash and dinner invites and junkets and post-retirement sinecures.

If as individuals – and not without reason – so very many of us have trained ourselves to go into a certain type of ‘interior exile’ (that’s what the Germans called it, when you were faced with a public affairs that was going to hell and you couldn’t stop it) then what is the danger that such an ‘exile’ will – so to speak – spread to Us as members of The People? That the ‘self’ adopted to wade unreceptively through shoals of hopelessly ‘homeless’ will contaminate the self that is expected to discharge the duties of a People? And that this will be passed on to Our kids – the upcoming generations of The People – through example and the subtle but implacable osmosis of children watching their elders for clues as to how to live, hearing what we so often don’t say, seeing what we so often don’t want them to see – in us.

So, as so often, I am driving at this: this type of ‘Identity’ problem poses a dual challenge: it must be addressed as a matter of public policy, and not simply through the revolutionary and anti-democratic agitprop manipulations of a now hyper-developed ‘Advocacy’. But it also must be considered as one more corrosive development eating away at Our very capacity to exercise the demands of ‘strenuous Liberty’ and to discharge faithfully and competently the awesome responsibilities of a People, of The People in the American Constitutional vision.

Do folks think that at this particular point in the electoral cycle it’s too touchy a subject, even if it’s not downright ‘insensitive’ to mention the problem? Well, it’s gone on too long to put it off. And worse, it seems clear that since both Parties are now besotted – to put it charitably – then no matter who wins in November and no matter which Party is in the White House and/or controls Congress, this whole Miasm will continue to blind and choke Us. Jack Balkin, an attorney who blogs rather astutely, says on his site that the National Security State has been replaced now with a National Surveillance State. And that both Parties are committed to enhancing that and to increasing government’s control over our lives and Our life.

Myself, I think that the National Surveillance State is just a beefed-up version of the National Security State. But the National Nanny State, begun by the Democrats though costumed as ‘sensitivity’ and ‘liberation’, is as willfully and necessarily inimical to civil liberties and the fundamental role of The People as any more clearly totalitarian scheme. The government came after the ‘men’ and the ‘sex offenders’ in a stupendously brazen violation of scientific accuracy, judicial impartiality, and plain truth. Whom will it come after next? Will the Democrats repeal the bad laws, do you think? Or – ‘for the children’ or as ‘just the next logical step’ – read emails to find out who is thinking bad thoughts, whatever the current definition of ‘bad’ happens to be? And if those ‘bad thoughts’ include disagreement with the government’s agenda … then the Nanny State and the Security State will have formed the beast with two backs; something that not even Hitler or Stalin imagined in their most lurid professional dampdreams. And as those two forest fires come together, there will be a firestorm so hellishly hot that nothing short of a very very hard rain will be able to put out.

Getting back to Boston, the shrewdly chosen cover selected for the Government Center placement of numerous ‘homeless’ was that it was a shelter for ‘veterans’. It looked great, and to a nation unfamiliar any longer with military life, then it seemed a good thing. But as any noncom will tell you, there are your good enough soldiers – even if they aren’t really good shots, and then there are your ‘shitbirds’. These latter are the ones who came in unripe and were unable or unwilling to accept whatever structure that military life and mission can offer. Out they go – often with the clear relief of the military – and can later lay claim to being ‘veterans’. So there are ‘veterans’ and there are ‘veterans’. The man killed in broad daylight was a ‘veteran’, although with a no-doubt ‘troubled’ past. It may well be that his killer is also such a ‘veteran’. Another such ‘veteran’ was just arrested south of Boston on Cape Cod for reporting a great white shark sighting, on Cape Cod, in the beach season; he claimed an address at a shelter and employment on a non-existent fishing boat operated by one “John Kennedy”. (Come to think of it, another ‘veteran’ played a decisive role in the life of a certain ‘John Kennedy’, once upon a time.) We canot allow Ourselves to dwell on the level of appearances, as the ‘sensitive’ heart would demand.

But I’ll share something. On the 4th of July this year, on the same day as the killing downtown, I was on a project that had me in the Boston Metro area. Trundling along on mass transit – almost empty on this holiday morning – I looked up to see a young man in his early 20s take a seat. He was wearing a baseball cap, bill to the side; he was wearing camouflage pants, in the Air Force coloring of grays and blues; he was on crutches. His backpack was military-looking, and sported a sewed-on black strip with “U.S. Army” in gold letters. His back was to me as he engaged in animated and intense but not unfriendly conversation with a young woman sitting just up from him.

At my stop he too was getting off. He was certainly injured somehow. I stopped to let him off first; ‘You first’ he indicated with a glittering smile. I got off, and within a step or two he was alongside me, and without further ado said to me: Didja see me talkin’ up that babe? Typical stuff; I looked at him: not bad-looking, bright-eyed, and with a particularly fresh-looking welt under one eye. It could as easily have come from a bar fight or a drunken motor-vehicle accident.

Is he a vet, I wondered? Not one of the I-was-with-Custer stories you hear on the bricks of the Government Center, but a returnee from this monstrous conflagration that We have allowed so many of his generation to wade into. The welt under his eye was too fresh to be from Iraq; it would have taken too long for him to be sent back here; the leg injury – if there was one under the crutches – didn’t seem to be the type of thing that would free a soldier from the Eastern Front’s unslakable thirst for ‘boots on the ground’.

Am I going to just let what may be a real ‘life’ fresh from the cauldron of this war go on its way, with no offer of help, or even of just some conversation? He looked like he could talk a while, and tell quite a story. But who could tell? The uniform bits could have been purchased; the crutches, even.

I smiled and told him I had heard him talking-up. And then I increased speed with a gentle nod and moved on. His path took him up a different street.

Was he a vet? Was he in need? I don’t know. And I’ve seen too many ‘veterans’ in the Government Center to simply figure a vet is a vet.

But many of his generation are coming back (and if stop-loss could be revoked there would be even more). What can We offer them? The problem of ‘identity’ – ironically – raises up its head here. The military’s treatment of unmistakably authentic veterans is such as to give any citizen cause for abiding anger. The question of how to deal with not-quite-so-authentic veterans is a distinct question, although also a very real one.

All the while, We face a culture ‘war’ on many fronts, domestic as well as foreign. The culture under sustained attack here is a culture of maturity and decency, shaped by ideals America has held dear (however much it has failed to fulfill them in practice), governed ultimately by a People ready, able, and willing to exercise the powerful if weighty responsibilities prescribed by the Founders.

This is the fundamental American identity. In the erosion and clouding of it over the past decades lies the central cause of all the other problems that now beset Us in Our increasingly erratic and eccentric gyrations in national affairs domestic and – equally ominously – foreign.
Lincoln was profoundly right to exhort Us “to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and for his orphan”. But We can never forget that Lincoln addressed those words to a People, to that People upon whose shoulders – by right of citizenship – rested the awesome responsibilities the exercise of which was indispensable in order to ground and guide a democracy and a Republic and its Legislative and its Executive and its Judicial.

To care for the veteran We must, and gratefully so; to prevent the soldier from being needlessly deployed in dubious adventures incompetently entered upon is also Our responsibility.To govern Ourselves so that We can decently interact with others is a prerequisite in any case. Otherwise there shall never be a just and a lasting peace, among ourselves or with any other nation.

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