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Tuesday, April 3, 2007

There, But For The Grace Of God...

Via Mike's Blog Roundup,Tom Engelhardt has a post over at TomDispatch that features an article by Chip Ward, former assistant director of the Salt Lake City Public Library System. It poignantly discusses the sad options we, as a society, offer the dispossessed among us. Specifically, he highlights the sad reality that our public libraries have become unintentional proxies for social welfare.

Before I talk about that, I would like to mention the homily to which the title of this post refers:

"There, but for the grace of God, go I."

This phrase is mostly used as a sort of statement of compassion, of identification with the less fortunate. Here it is again, deconstructed:

"I am not like the Other due to an external circumstance which defines our difference. I am not responsible for this difference, so it is therefore a foregone conclusion, which will not change unless that external circumstance deems it thus."

No truly compassionate person would, of course, sign off on the latter, deconstructed, version - yet they will say the former. What they mean by that, they would say, is more along the lines of:

"My fortune could change at the whim of Fate, and for that reason I emphathize with the unfortunate and feel a responsibilty to help them when I can."

Yes, but I would counter that the distinction - that between "I" and the "Other" - remains. That "whim of Fate," "external circumstance" or "grace of God" is a psychological trick meant to dodge the real truth of the matter, which would be better served with:

"There, go I."

That is not deconstructable, and is therefore a statement of truth. It is not deconstructable because it is a statement of completeness, consisting of only one element. It may seem to consist of two elements ("the Other," and "I"), but that is merely thought dividing itself so that it may appear, which it invariably must do. Being able to intelligently observe contradiction-revealing-truth, to bask in it, is the essence of the aporetic oscillation. (The truth being revealed here that we are all one, and the contradiction is that we are not in the same skin.)

If one were wont to do a thought experiment (and I implore the reader to do so, right now), then an honest turning about of the two different phrases in the mind bring about two distinct psychologies. The unity of the latter phrase is shattered by the intrusion of a mythical external circumstance, and eases one into the inevitable descent into classicism, elitism and other meritorious philosophies. For, regardless of how compassionate one fancies oneself to be, one is limited to "helping" the Other with this division. There is none of the sheer urgency which arises in the mind when there is complete identity with the fate of the Other - it becomes an emergency in which there is no hesitancy in action. There is no need for "setting policies" or debating social expenditure in the "most efficient and compassionate" ways possible.

That said, I would like to turn now to Mr. Ward's gutcheck of an article (please read the whole thing, it is essential):
...Welcome to the Salt Lake City Public Library. Like every urban library in the nation, the City Library, as it is called, is a de facto daytime shelter for the city's "homeless."


"Homeless" is a misleading term. We have homeless people in America today, in part, because we have no living wage, no universal healthcare, disintegrating communities, and a large population of working poor who can end up on the street if they lose one of their part-time jobs, experience an illness or an accident, or have a domestic crisis.

I would add that underpinning all of this is our reverence for the idea of a meritocracy. Those who fail in our society fail for a "reason." Our only mutual responsibility is to provide opportunity for success, and the best we, in our compassion, can do is "help" those have come up short. Meanwhile, it is perfectly OK to go on about our main concern - to be "successful."

Chip goes on to describe in great detail many of the special problems and challenges that not only plague the homeless, but also those that plague society - us - by the presence of these unfortunates - just as if it were the other side of a divinely-minted coin.

Let's jump right to "our" inconveniences:
Paramedics are caught in the middle of this dark carnival of confusion and neglect. In the winter, when the transient population of the library increases dramatically, we call them almost every day. Once, when I apologized to a paramedic for calling twice, he responded, "Hey, no need to explain or apologize." He swept his arm towards the other paramedics, surrounding a portable gurney on which they would soon carry a disoriented old man complaining of dizziness to the emergency room. "Look at us," he said, "we're the mobile homeless clinic. This is what we do. All day long, day after day, and mostly for the same people over and over."

Sanitizing Gels and Latex Gloves: Plying the Librarian's Trade

The cost of this mad system is staggering. Cities that have tracked chronically homeless people for the police, jail, clinic, paramedic, emergency room, and other hospital services they require, estimate that a typical transient can cost taxpayers between $20,000 and $150,000 a year. You could not design a more expensive, wasteful, or ineffective way to provide healthcare to individuals who live on the street than by having librarians like me dispense it through paramedics and emergency rooms. For one thing, fragmented, episodic care consistently fails, no matter how many times delivered. It is not only immoral to ignore people who are suffering illness in our midst, it's downright stupid public policy. We do not spend too little on the problems of the mentally disabled homeless, as is often assumed, instead we spend extravagantly but foolishly.

It is almost universally accepted that if we did more in the way of preventive work - be it in health care or safety nets for that percentage of us who will always fail to measure up to universal standards of "success" - it would cost the public less money than is currently being spent. If we did not slavishly embrace the idea that a meritocracy is the best of all possible worlds, then, for those who oppose "entitlements" as "disincentives," there would be no intellectual platform on which to stand. "Incentive" and "disincentive" are the language of "success" and "failure," and a repudiation of the fundamental responsibility we all have for each other.

I say this because, while I agree that we need to develop these preventive policies and safety nets, they will always be inadequate as long as each and every one of us continue to measure ourselves against each other. As long as our social narrative is all about bettering our "standard of living," we continue to demonize those who are not "contributing." If we were all able to discover contented living without a craven addiction to ultimately unsatisfying pursuits of wealth and security, then there would be a lot of space for us to attend to our real needs. Concerns about whether a person is being disincentivized from "pulling his load" by taking "entitlements" would simply vanish.

There will always be a percentage of people who can not or will not take care of themselves. The totality of us can absorb them without patronizing admonishment or vilification. As for those who will not (as opposed to can not), I say that they, too, have lessons for all of us.
And the police aren't happy about their role either. Cities are responding to such problems with mental health courts and the like for sorting out the mentally disturbed from other prisoners. Salt Lake City now has a model program, but nationally there is a long way to go.

According to the Department of Justice, there are about four times as many people with mental illnesses incarcerated in America today as under treatment in state mental hospitals. Some jails devote entire wings to the mentally ill.

There you have our society's final solution to everything - incarceration. This may be expensive and stupid, but the way we have conceived society, thus far, ends up putting anyone who is not "making it" in jail. After all, they deserve it for not sucking up and playing along.

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