Thursday, August 25, 2016

When the time comes

Homelessness. The phenomenon is growing. It wasn’t out in the open at first, although of course it was, we just didn’t notice it, because we don’t usually look under bridges or in the deep bush of unoccupied wastelands. What we did notice at first, and for many years now in the big cities, was this other phenomenon: on the side of every road where drivers must stop, for a stop sign or traffic light, a man would be standing holding up a piece of cardboard on which was scrawled ‘Anything helps. God bless!’ or something to that effect.

Half a century ago, when I was a child, beggars were scarce, even in a big city like Chicago. In fact, I don’t remember seeing any. In my young adulthood, I emigrated to Canada, to Edmonton, a big city in Alberta. There I saw my first beggars, Native Americans (Indians) panhandling for small change on downtown streets. Most of them looked terrible, most were alcoholics and unemployed, refugees in reverse from where they came from on the reserves, and they often slept on out-of-the-way sidewalks and in neglected doorways.

I can’t remember giving these beggars anything, but then, in those days, I barely had anything to give. Instead, I had always followed a pattern that I had seen in my own family: help your neighbor in need, when you can, with whatever you have, but don’t drop money into a beggar’s hat just because he looks poor. It was a pattern that I later realized was part of God’s plan: He sends people to you, and you know it, because what they need is exactly what you know you can give. No need to go out of one’s way to look for beggars to help.

Sometimes these people were homeless. My mother took in some boy prostitutes during a severe cold spell one winter in Joliet, Illinois, where she was living. I think it was my younger brother who discovered them. They were street kids, homeless, trying to keep warm and sleeping in railroad box cars. They supported themselves by servicing affluent homosexual men who would drive down from Chicago for ‘safe sex’ with boys. My mother knew what they did and didn’t judge them. For a few days, they could live as kids again, warm and well-fed.

But the beggars of today, those street corner bandits. Yes, some of them behave as bandits, though most just stoically stand there looking somewhat pathetic. I don’t doubt that they need help, but it isn’t the kind of help they’re asking for. The guilty public, those who silence their consciences for other sins they are committing, roll their car windows down and throw a handful of inconvenient small change, a dollar bill or two, into their hand, and then quickly speed off, barely hearing the ‘Thanks and God bless!’ croaked out as their receipt.

This phenomenon has reached epidemic proportions, but as long as it was just bodies guarding street corners, people have put up with it. The other phenomenon, the homelessness though, is one that cannot be as easily ignored. Why? Because the homeless, whether by choice or circumstances, aren’t camping out in remote, abandoned locations anymore. They are camping out where we can see them, where we work, go shopping, even where we live. The number of new camps is visually staggering, and the authorities’ response is scant.

Yes, local civil authorities are taking measures to respond to this phenomenon, but because we are no longer a society but just aggregates of individuals who depend on others to take responsibility and solve our problems, the response is ineffectual. Homeless shelters often in unused public buildings, legal campgrounds where there shouldn’t be any, dropouts from society being moved about like gaming pieces, all because there is in reality no society. What’s the proof of that? Societies have both the will and the power to defend themselves.

Defend themselves from what? From anything that breaks them down, anything that creates disorder on the scale that we now see it all around us. An aggregate of individuals, each putting themselves first, is not a society. It is a human population which has reverted to the state of nature, to what used to be called ‘the noble savage.’ Savages we are, but noble? Far from it. ‘Every man for himself’ is the recipe for the social ills we now find ourselves in, unemployment, poverty, and now, epidemic homelessness. Before we can solve these problems, we must become a society.

Gemeinnutz vor Eigennutz, ‘the common good before one’s own good,’ a German expression capitalized by the National Socialists and which became Hitler’s basic stance on the subordination of the economy to the national interest, is both a rational and a Christian concept essential to the maintenance of human society. We have to stop thinking emotionally. We have to step out and act. We have to ask, ‘What does good?’ instead of ‘What feels good?’ We have to look at our stock pile of ideas, and put the ones that produce what we want to work.

This is where, it appears to me, society is heading. What? Didn’t I just claim that we are not a society but an aggregate of egoists? Well, yes, I did, but now I have to speak less precisely. Society is starting to wake up to the fact that we have handed over our authority to political elites, to oligarchies. Next, we must realize that this happened because we abandoned our commitment to social responsibility, because we preferred being baby-sat instead of being grown-up. As long as our needs were being met, automatically, we needn’t do anything more.

This is, of course, nonsense, again, as we are finding out. We are just around the corner from some massive changes. Homelessness is a squalor we have discovered we can no longer afford, beggary a blight that we can no longer support. There are better ways to live, not just for the homeless and those found begging at intersections, but for ourselves as well. The ills that plague society, such as it is, have actually killed society, and we just didn’t notice. Now, there’s nothing we can do but bring it back alive. Let’s be ready to move when the time comes.

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