By Scott Johnson
As Christmas approached last year, I spent most of my time with the family. Ah, home. Frank L. Baum was right, that there's no place like home, but I'm more inclined to agree with James Baldwin, who said that "home is not a place. It is an irrevocable condition." The colorful lights were up, the artificial tree was well-draped, and for the most part, we were willing to set aside our differences for a family meal. That is, I agreed to keep my mouth shut for the holidays and submit to majority opinions. They are my family, after all.
It didn't stop me from finding Christmas annoying, however. I suppose that Christmas is my least favorite holiday because our hypocrisies are exposed in sharp, contrasting detail with the rest of our lives. Our capacity for giving on these two days far exceeds our willingness to give on the other 363 days of the year. Perhaps we feel that our generosity towards family members and loved ones on their birthdays and Christmas atones for our general stinginess towards all others the rest of our lives. What bothers me about Christmas is the way it obscures our hypocrisy. Over these few days, there is much talk of giving and charity and love, sans meaningful action.
Far too many people, including a few members of my own family, sit back in their relative comfort, castigating and chastising large masses of people they have no hope of understanding as individuals. They're able to do this as long as they keep the dark, obfuscating glasses through which they view the world on their faces, making all unfamiliar people at once the same and threatening.
When Willie Brown ousted Frank Jordan from mayorship of San Francisco in the last couple of weeks, I was quite surprised. When his victory was announced on television, my family and I were all lounging around before the TV. I turned from my writing to talk to my father, who sat on the couch, staring thoughtlessly at the glowing screen.
"Wow," I say to him. "Willie Brown actually won."
"Yep," says my father, laughing a brief, somewhat superior laugh. "Those people deserve everything they get."
"Wait a second," I said. "Willie Brown was elected. Most people want him in office."
"Yeah," he said, finally looking up from the screen to face me. "Like I said, those people deserve everything they get."
"Wow. I'm proud of you, Dad. You finally grasp the DEMOCRATIC PROCESS!"
I probably had a small voice in the blare of the television ads and the snowballing effect of thirty years of letting others think for you.
One thing that always gets me into an argument is showing my family that poor people are human beings. This becomes more difficult and sticky than it has to be, I'm afraid; every time someone reflexively insults a person on welfare or a homeless person (often giving them such charming labels as 'human oil slicks' or 'bums') I can't shut my mouth and instead reflexively remind them how close we (my family) actually were to being on the public dole ourselves, not too many years ago. For some reason, they don't like being closely identified with people they consider inferior.
My father's response to a news report the day after Brown took office was revealing, but only of the level of blindness people can acheive if they lead themselves in the proper direction.
The radio report ran pretty much as follows: 'Mayor Brown has announced an open door policy with the homeless, etc. He has also announced that he will be hiring more police officers and combatting crime, etc.'
In some way, my father sees this as a contradiction in policies. In his mind, homeless = degenerates, and degenerates = more crime, therefore homeless = more crime. In this light, how can one pursue an open door policy with the homeless while still combatting crime?
"Those poor people," he said again, digging through the refrigerator. "Those poor people." Again, he chuckled his indiscriminate superior chuckle, as though the people of San Francisco were just 'asking for it', or something. I decided this time not to respond, because I'd already made my position clear, several evenings before.
There was a report on local television describing how Mike Rotkin, the mayor of Santa Cruz, shuttled all the homeless from the River Street shelter to a more appropriate one for the rainy weather. To paraphrase the mayor, he "got them over at no charge, offering free services to those who can't afford them."
My dad looked back over the couch at my mother, ungluing his eyes and ears from the screen for a moment to throw in his two bits.
"It wasn't free," he smiled, implying that the residents of Santa Cruz, through taxes, paid for the bussing. It's a valid point, but it ignores or misses an equally valid rationale for helping the homeless. For that matter, it's the rationale for doing anything charitable >at all< for completely broke, optionless, and/or mentally deficient people.
"How would you like to be homeless?" I ask, unable to stop myself from asking the dreaded 'what if you were in their shoes' question.
A floating, everpresent insult against the homeless came immediately to his mind and lips; it is a criticism which I've heard often.
"No thanks," he says, full of arrogance. "I work for a living."
"Oh you do, do you. How long did you search for a job after you were fired? Six, seven, eight months? And you still didn't find one, after all that time? Imagine how hard it would be if you didn't have a mailing address, a telephone number, references -- except for your homeless buddies who also don't have telephone numbers or addresses -- clean clothes, or access to a shower so you can be presentable at the job interview? And what if you had mental problems, on top of it all?"
No response. He never even looked up from the TV.
I try to avoid suggesting that I know the answers to all of our social problems, because I feel that there is no one solution to any particular problem. All I'm trying to provoke is a little sympathy for people who are penniless and powerless. All I get in response from most opposition is something to the effect of "you're a marxist weenie"; annoying when all you're trying to do is show a little bit of the universality of human suffering. Perhaps it's too uncomfortable for people to bear. I know I can only live with myself by ignoring the pain of living ninety-five percent of the time, which probably isn't the surest road to an equitable and loving world, anyway. Here's to the spirit of giving.