The more things change, the more they stay the same. No mean thinker, Aristotle is not revered for nothing. His prescient insight has never been more needed than the current time, although it was written so long ago. And yet, in the ‘hallowed halls’ of political power, academia, ecclesial sanctuaries and most importantly in the board rooms of the corporate giants, this “wisdom” is so debased, denied, trashed and declared irrelevant as to be rendered an integral component of today’s mountain of non-recycled garbage.
I recall an incident, (probably referred to elsewhere in this space) in which a twenty-nine-year-old was suffering testicular cancer, and facing a large infusion of chemotherapy. As he was no doubt going to be rendered sterile by the chemicals he was about to ingest, he was offered and accepted the opportunity to deposit sperm for future reclamation. The first specimen was destroyed in the trip to the sperm bank; the second attempt was spilled; and I happened to be the chaplain intern advocating for a third attempt. When I approached the oncologist on the morning of the administration of the chemotherapy about delaying, for only a matter of hours, the response I heard has rattled through my head for the ensuing thirty years: “His I.Q. is the same size as his age; we are going ahead with chemotherapy right now!” The oncologist’s wrist dripped with gold bracelets; his compassion, and in my mind his ethics, somehow did not make it into the hospital corridor that morning. Needles to say, the chemo treatment began immediately, without the provision of recovered and stored sperm.
While that story is not significant from the perspective of national governmental policy (although it might have relevance for the medical fraternity!), it is nevertheless indicative of an attitude, especially an attitude of the “privileged,” the “better educated,” the “power elite,” “the wealthy,” and certainly of the “the establishment.”
We are part of a culture of ambition, competition, status-driven, wealth-driven, power-driven achievers. We judge people by their address, by the size of their house, their car and the chic of their wardrobe. We also judge people by the type and number of degrees behind their name. And, from sociological research, we “value” achievement and the status conferred by those achievements. In the supermarket, the men and women who stock shelves are not considered to be among the “leaders” in our culture. In fact, just this weekend, listening to a clip from Lisa Ling’s “This is Life” I heard one woman being interviewed for a documentary on prostitution comment on camera, “I would rather be doing ‘this’ than stocking shelves in Walmart!” Those who live in slums, in houses unfit for human habitation due to their lack of heat, and clean water, are the last people sought out for their views on how public policy might change for the improvement of their lives.
Prisoners, for example, both those accused and found guilty and those falsely accused and convicted, are among the lowest of the low, on the citizen-ladder of public approval, and even public acceptance. An the evidence on which too many of them have been convicted is often quite flimsy and suspect, as are the specific crimes for which they are serving time too often so specious and so vindictive and punitive, based largely on the motive of elevating the political status and longevity of those legislators who passed the laws that made their conviction possible. And then, to turn the prison system, (in the United States) into a “for profit” business, that pays taxes and provides “jobs” again to pander to the political class’ need for public approbation through taking the incarceration business “off the public purse” is another example of misguided and even unethical public policy.
Those living on the street, under the overpasses on our highways, on the East Side of cities like Vancouver, for example, or on Gerard East in Toronto, or in City Park in Kingston, are real people, whose lives have taken probably more than a single turn into the ditch filled with “nobodies,” literally people who literally do not matter to anyone, and clearly are considered a heavy burden on the public purse, that measuring stick of all things related to public policy.
Oh, of course, we claim to “value human life” until we don’t! And then, after we stop valuing an individual, especially an individual who is not a member of an interest group, political party, profession, or some other “political voice” that has to be listened to, we turn our backs, both literally and figuratively, on those real people. And we do it individually by walking past their upturned caps, or pots or guitar cases, open in the hope of some shekels for food, (of course many will argue that money solicited on the street is more likely to be spent on drugs or booze). We pity the indigent, a shame on us for our indifferences! We study the indigent, as if they were specimens in some scientific experiment, or examples in a documentary, or “talking heads” for a novel perspective on what it is like to live on the street, in an underpass, in an abandoned and decrepit building, in a dumpster, or in a cottage abandoned for the winter.
The indigent, too, are not only robbed of their respectability, their dignity and their “value” to society. They are paid the most indecent insult: they are numbered, as part of the equations of “unemployed” or the rising numbers of people depending on food banks, and if they are drunk, they are incarcerated, to “dry out” and then return to the street for more isolation. They are pawns in the equations of governments, social service agencies and workers, Crown Attorneys, police, ambulance workers, hospital emergency rooms. This is not to imply that each of those individual people working in those settings treats each indigent with contempt or indifference, (there are, after all, professional standards of conduct). However, as a group, they are mere numbers and in some cities they are literally given a bus ticket to a city far away, so that the local politicians, and their minions do not have to read about them in the local paper.
I recall, as a adolescent, meeting a homeless person on a street in our town, and then asking the local police officer whom I knew quite well what could be done to help the man. The officer’s answer, clearly remembered as if it were yesterday, “Mind your own business, John!”
Apparently my inquiry was not welcome; in fact, it was spurned unceremoniously.
And in spite of all these perspectives, the indigent are real people, with real hearts and minds and spirits. Many of them are intellectually and creatively quite remarkable, even if their talents have been “under the proverbial bushel” for decades. Their lives, in most cases, have been reduced to the barest of essentials, and their truths are the most elemental variety. They neither tolerate nor deal with bull shit; they expect tomorrow to be much like today, with little or no help from anywhere or anyone. They know they don’t count at all to any former family members, former partners, former employers, former teachers, former coaches or former clergy. And yet….
Their perspective is one the society desperately needs, and needs especially just now. Whether the indigents are refugees, migrants escaping war or terror, alcoholics, drug addicts, intellectually or emotionally challenged, illiterate, physically challenged or merely those who have given up on trying to integrate into the “respectable” society, they are people just like the rest of us: scratch or more likely stab them and they bleed, offer them a coffee and they say thanks, toss a few coins into their open cap and they may offer a facsimile of a smile. In another life, I spent a very short time at a church on Gerard street in Toronto where some graduate nurses and volunteers offered and provided basic health care for indigents: a bandage on an open and festering wound, whose origin was never disclosed, a needle to forestall disease, tweezers and a skilled hand to remove lice, hot coffee, or maybe even a place to wash a face and hands, before heading back out into the cave of the city. One day, we found a man hiding in a small space behind a building column, having been hit by passing car and having dragged himself off the busy street into a safe place, so collapsed was his sense of self, his dignity and his courage to face even the nurses in the building. A couple of us helped him up and shepherded him in from the cold, where more committed and more professional help was offered.
On another day in another life, I had the opportunity to visit some homeless men and women in another day shelter. It was not open for overnight accommodation. Any of these people were unable to read, and at that time Frontier College volunteers were offering literacy teaching, by using the most available and most necessary words: street signs, store signs, bus signs, street car signs, street maps, food labels on cans. Literacy, just to find one’s way around a section of a city, was only beginning to be offered to these people. And they were extremely grateful.
There is an old axiom that says that if you need help, ask a poor person, and not a “wealthy” person; the poor is far more likely to help. And, since the indigent sees the world from the perspective of the basic needs of survival, and likely has the smarts and the resourcefulness to use whatever resources he or she finds, there area no more “qualified” people to design government programs to alleviate not only indigents but also the accompanying voices they give to most issues facing any town or city.
Powerlessness, by definition, is a great equalizer. It strips all the pretentions from the face, the mansion, the BMW, the corner office, the investment portfolio and the honoured church pew that has been in the family for a century or more. And when the indigents have real power then and only then is a democracy fulfilling its own definition.
What will it take to have the indigents in power in our democracies?
Well, for starters, it will take revolution in how we see ‘the other’ every time we walk down a city street on which homeless indigents are sitting begging.
It will also take a revolution in how we educate our children, from teaching them job skills so that they can secure one of the few remaining jobs (rather than start their own business, as entrepreneurs, the new sacred calling) to providing a liberal education for its own sake, without regard for whether or not it results directly or indirectly in the securing of a job.
It will take a revolution in how we see God and humans, especially in the reversal of the starting point of “evil” as the depiction of humans to “seeing that of God within” every person.
It will take a tidal wave of reflection among and of the part of those who consider themselves “the power elite” the “propertied” as the definition of “success” and thereby the holders of political power in what is now called a democracy.
It will take a revolution among land owners and landlords to reverse their self-image as the “controllers” of our real estate economy.
It will take a revolution away from the pre-eminence of the capitalist model of economics, based as it is on the pursuit of profit by whatever means available. For in its case, the end (the acquisition of wealth) justifies the means, and those means currently bulldoze over all those indigents who are considered “burdens” and “costs” and “trouble-makers” and “worthless” and for some “beneath contempt”.
It will take a revolution, like the Occupy Movement, to resist all law enforcement efforts to remove them, their tents and their megaphones from city squares and for this to happen, it will take the election of town and city councillors who understand the benefits, and overlook the short-term threats posed by such movements.
It will take an information system, including scribes, editors, publishers (both digital and lithograph) to have been trained to confront the power brokers, and to refuse to back down, (similar to Jorge Ramos from Florida, the Latino reporter who refused to be cowed by Trump and his thugs) as well as an entertainment system that is focused not on investor profits from ratings, but on generating the conditions necessary for a true democracy.
And it will take a reversal of consumer economics from private acquisition as the signs of success to creative rewards for activists who engage in promoting, educating and underlining the social goal of “public good” activities, laws, and their enforcement.
Please, do not lose sleep for this “dreamscape” to unfold in our lifetime, or in the lifetime of our grandchildren. Not only are we on the opposite course, we are increasing the speed at which we are pursuing its narcissistic, and self-destructive and myopic ends, the more we individually and collectively genuflect before the power and property idols.
Aristotle would be neither surprised, nor elated!