Monday, October 03, 2005

begging: the question

I remember the time before Thatcherism kicked in. There really weren't that many beggars and street-homeless people. It's a simple fact, but one that should be said plainly.

There was the occasional beardy old guy who talked to himself and drank sherry, but the sight we're now so used to that we don't even register it - the young beggar - was almost unknown.

Of course, there may be other reasons apart from Thatcher's sledgehammer blows to the welfare state. The proliferation of heroin for one. But still, the relative newness of the situation implies that if we recently had ways to ensure people are housed and given the help they need to keep them off the streets, then we could be doing it still. It means that the suffering of the street-homeless is unnecessary.

The question that I find myself chewing over whenever I think about beggars is this; Why do they attract far more blaming of the victim than other people who've suffered severe misfortune?

In a recent post mentioning Londoners finding homeless people to be invisible, Jim Bliss quotes Lester Bangs' review of Van Morrison's Astral Weeks:

If you accept for even a moment the idea that each human life is as precious and delicate as a snowflake and then you look at a wino in a doorway, you've got to hurt until you feel like a sponge for all those other assholes' problems, until you feel like an asshole yourself, so you draw all the appropriate lines. You stop feeling. But you know that then you begin to die. So you tussle with yourself. how much of this horror can I actually allow myself to think about? Perhaps the numbest mannekin is wiser than somebody who only allows their sensitivity to drive them to destroy everything they touch - but then again, to tilt Madame George's hat a hair, just to recognize that that person exists, just to touch his cheek and then probably expire because the realization that you must share the world with him is ultimately unbearable is to only go the first mile. The realization of living is just about that low and that exalted and that unbearable and that sought-after. Please come back and leave me alone. But when we're along together we can talk all we want about the universality of this abyss: it doesn't make any difference, the highest only meets the lowest for some lying succor, UNICEF to relatives, so you scratch and spit and curse in violent resignation at the strict fact that there is absolutely nothing you can do but finally reject anyone in greater pain than you.

There are several other possibilities too. In the anti-work essay Working Or A Living I said:

No wonder these workers, like the starving with their faces pressed against the window of a building in which a great feast is being prepared, resent the freedom of those outside the tyranny of the clock — the unemployed, travellers, beggars, artists. They know they should feel sorry for beggars, but their resentment of their own lives under the meaningless will of others and the clock's reign of terror means they resent those who are free from it, no matter how wretched. They tell each other 'they're all rich really' stories to remove the guilt of passing a helpless homeless hungry person.

They have this discomfort, but can't admit it is envy. Deep inside those who live by routine know it's crap, but don't see a way out. Those who are outside have achieved the workers big ambition, so they must be thought of as having a good time (or perhaps just irresponsible). Either way, they are jealous or resentful, hence the tabloid stories of beggars with BMWs.

In Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell wrote:

Why are beggars despised? - for they are despised, universally. I believe it is for the simple reason that they fail to earn a decent living. In practice nobody cares whether work is useful or useless, productive or parasitic; the sole thing demanded is that it shall be profitable. In all the modern talk about energy, efficiency, social service and the rest of it, what meaning is there except 'Get money, get it legally, and get a lot of it'? Money has become the grand test of virtue. By this test beggars fail, and for this they are despised. If one could earn even ten pounds a week at begging [this was written in 1933 when that was a decent wage], it would become a respectable profession immediately. A beggar, looked at realistically, is simply a businessman, getting his living, like other businessmen, in the way that comes to hand. He has not, more than most modern people, sold his honour; he has merely made the mistake of choosing a trade at which it is impossible to grow rich.

There is yet another factor here too.

The proliferation of beggars means that you cannot afford to give to all of them. Thus, you must deny or ignore the overwhelming majority. Their very existence has turned you into somebody who walks past beggars.

Hard to not resent them for that.

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