No, this is not a post about Solyndra. Nor is it a post about General Motors. It’s not even, in fact, a post about federal monetary policy.
It is a post about something rather deeper than that.
I’m still working on Noah’s Boy – in the time it would take me to finish, I failed to reckon with a prickly young male in pain, who would need to be not just helped when he won’t ask for help, but cajoled so he doesn’t get too depressed. Not complaining. It’s not onerous duty. It’s just taking time, which means I’m later than I expected. (To be honest, and not to blame the boy for everything, I also am not up to expected strength and after what should be a mild amount of work, fall in these death-sleeps. ) But I’m not sick anymore, and the kid is recovering, and writing is actually going well, even if the book has taken some very odd turns, which I refuse to talk about. You’ll see.
Anyway, as always when I’m deep in writing, I can’t stand to read anything new and therefore I read an awful lot of old stuff or stuff I’ve read a million times before. This is convenient, because I leave books scattered all over, and can pick one up and randomly read three pages, without having to read the whole book at a sitting. Right now, it’s Agatha Christie.
While cooking dinner yesterday, I was re-re-re-reading They Do It With Mirrors.
If you haven’t read the book, you should, because if you do read it, you’ll see why so many “liberals” hate Christie. They do it with mirrors, by its very premise and several, matter of fact, old-grandmotherly, but completely accurate insights, pokes a thumb in the eye of a lot of the left’s premises. It starts by telling us there are fashions in philanthropy and how, after World War II the whole fashion in philanthropy was the reforming of criminals, particularly young criminals.
Later on in the novel, Miss Marple delivers herself of a curious, open observation on the insanity of devoting vast resources to this endeavor.
Without giving away too much of the setup, the whole novel takes place in an old mansion which has been converted into a sort of institute to help young men who have had run ins with the law. The place is full of psychologists, psychiatrists and educators. It is also, in the way of the best Christie novels, full of an odd extended family, the result of the main female character’s (Miss Marple’s old friend Carrie Louise) four marriages.
One of the members of the family is a granddaughter, half Italian and temperamental (one of the delights of reading Christie is seeing how the British, mid-century, viewed several other people in the rest of Europe, and how different that is from the way I grew up viewing them as Portuguese. The way British view Italians is more like the way Portuguese view Brazilians: uncontrolled, sexy, fiery.) She has spent WWII in the states, and there married an American. Now she and her American husband are living in this crazy mansion-institute, where the family is devoted to rehabilitating criminal juveniles.
Someone – I don’t remember who – tells Miss Marple that the young American can’t understand what they’re doing, because Americans worship success and can-do attitude.
Miss Marple then delivers herself of a little peroration about “Whether we worship failure” and goes on to note that while rehabilitating young criminals is in fact – probably – a noble cause, shouldn’t some resources be given to the people who do in fact make good? She mentions men and women who come from bad backgrounds, overcome everything to live decent lives, and yet no one is rushing to give them an education or help them find work. Or even, young men and women of good families, who didn’t do anything wrong, and who would love a little help and never get it, because all the help is going to those who have failed and fallen.
I just know someone in comments is going to bring in the parable of the prodigal son, and the whole thing about there being more rejoicing in heaven for a lost sheep recovered than for a hundred righteous ones. We’ll get to that. For now, let’s simply contemplate the fact, that nowadays America resembles more the England Christie was letting Miss Marple unload on “we are in love with failure.”
Part of this, as Beth noted in the comments yesterday, is that all of us have, at some point, experienced being an underdog. But this is only a partial explanation. Most of us have also experience doing everything right and only needing a little – a very little help – to get to our goals… and not getting it. Because we were battling, we were on our own, and therefore it was believed we didn’t need help.
It is one thing when – in my opinion – resources are misallocated to make profoundly handicapped children SEEM to perform normally (don’t throw things at me, okay? Mainstreaming has its pros, as it has its cons, and it varies with the degree of the handicap. However, one of my best friends when the kids were in elementary school was the grandmother (and guardian) of a profoundly handicapped young man. The system was failing her kid as badly as it was failing mine – the difference being it was spending a fortune to fail him. They had two aids who went with him through the entire day and did the work for him. No, I know that’s not what is supposed to happen, but the young man had an IQ of 48. It might have been possible to teach him basic literacy – I really don’t know. I know a profoundly handicapped girl in my elementary left 4th grade literate and numerate – but not at the same pace as the other kids, not in the same classes, and not with the same materials. Since the school insisted on “mainstreaming” him, it took two aids: One to keep him quiet and one to do the actual work he was supposed to do. In third grade my friend got him transferred to a school where, instead, he had an “aid” or instructor, but she was TEACHING him, at his own pace.) while no resources are available for “above average” children because “they already have an advantage.”
There are several debatables in the case of children, giftedness and advantages, and we could argue all of them forever.
But it is something completely different when there is a degree of volition involved in the failure: when the people for whom resources are being diverted, for whom every door is being open, for whom every effort must be made are those who have, to use a Victorian phrase, blotted their copybook pretty badly. People who have chosen to do that which they knew to be wrong. People who have demonstrated, at the very least, an ability to squander resources and opportunities.
And yet, it is these people we are taught to help.
We have turned the Victorian morality on its head. Now the “deserving poor” are those who have been brought to their straits by addiction, by uncontrolled sexual behavior, by their own choice – in the end. Yes, I know that a lot of the homeless on our streets are untreated mental patients, and that is our shame and our failure as a culture. Yes, it is true a lot of those treat their problems with addictive substances. But in the end, if you suggest giving them help conditional to their being treated, the same people who say we must help them will howl and say that no, help should be unconditional and only in the form of handouts – so that you are subsidizing both the addictions and the mental illness.
I think the mechanism that has brought us here is double. Part of it is a genuine reluctance to “judge” – which can be in some ways admirable. Most of us who have any empathy at all know that “there for the grace of G-d” and to an extent that’s a good thing. We can see the factors that led someone astray: untreated mental illness, addition, horrible family background. We can see, as it were, the whole person through the broken one.
This is admirable… to an extent. And I’m not saying no efforts should be made to save the ones who fall and who genuinely want to be helped up again.
But the other mechanism is people’s wish to feel good. If you’re doing good to feel good about yourself, then the more undeserving the subject, the better you feel about yourself. Look, how little they did to deserve this. Why, hot d*mn anyone else would demand at least a gesture on the part of the recipient of charity, some show that he’s ready to turn his life around, but not you. Oh, no. You’re so good that you will give all to the least deserving. Now, that’s some treasure in heaven you’re accumulating, right?
Look, I’ll be entirely blunt. If you are a celebrity with more money than brains and you want to squander your money that way, it’s your business. It’s stupid, but it gets you what you feel you need: more reasons to admire yourself. This type of charity might, in the end, be just another way to reinforce your narcissism. And that’s fine.
In my charity I am almost painfully careful to make sure I “first do no harm” – but that’s something else, it’s my choice and besides, I don’t have millions to squander, so it makes no difference.
BUT – and this is a very important but – when it becomes a matter of public policy, THEN as a taxpayer I’m being forced to support failure over success; I’m being forced to reward dysfunction over trying. I’m being forced in fact to subsidize people doing wrong on purpose, in order to be “deserving poor” under the new rules.
And when an entire culture becomes this way, to the point I’ve had to explain to more than one beginning writer that no, just having a character abused doesn’t make that character VIRTUOUS, on the contrary, most people who are abused for no reason get pretty upset and can act out; when I have to explain that if they want to show the character is great and worth it, they have to show more than his being pummeled by fate (even Harry Potter has his magic. And talks to snakes) we are on very dangerous and shaky ground.
The prodigal son repented and came back – and didn’t expect anything, but to be allowed to be a workman on his father’s farm (and did not get another share of the inheritance he’d squandered) and there might be rejoicing in heaven for a sinner who repents, but there is no rejoicing in heaven for a shepherd who spends his time feeding the one sheep who keeps running away, even while the other sheep get eaten by wolves.
And besides, those are sacred matters. The parables are about one’s relationship with G-d, who – presumably – can see into human hearts.
We humans, on the other hand, can only look into records.
And while the theory that failures always happen because someone had factors leading to it; and the theory that criminals are more sinned against than sinning, are very reassuring – they lead us to believe our own failures are excusable – reality tends not to be as pliable.
All of us if we think for ten minutes can name friends who had EVERYTHING against them and yet made good. All of us, if we think for ten minutes, can name friends who had every advantage and yet made nothing of them.
To say that poverty leads to crime is to insult every poor person in the world. Our prisons are full of people who grew up with every material comfort, even if they might have been theoretically “underprivileged” (And how is that for a mealy mouthed term? Is there a “right” amount of privileged? And who decides? Doesn’t it assume that wealth is privilege, handed to people by some authority and responding to some measurement, rather than something they earn themselves?)
So, where does this nonsense come from? Other than bureaucrats wanting to feel really virtuous with taxpayers’ money? And us having evolved a centralized system that gives them a lot of money to feel powerful with?
Well, it comes from bureaucrats wanting to feel really virtuous with taxpayers’ money. Also from the fact that the … shall we say less deserving sectors of society know very well how to work that need for bureaucrats to feel powerful. They’re much better at this than the poor but honest (or the rich but honest. Or the middle class but honest.) After all, pretending to be something or other is better than working.
Then there is the fact that if you give money to deserving poor, if you give them chances and a legup, they will make something of themselves, and they will no longer need the great and generous bureaucrat.
It comes from charity from a centralized source and not at the local level, where people are known and where it is known whether the money handed on is going to be squandered on drink or worse, instead of on baby formula.
How did we get here – to where it is considered a legitimate function of the federal government, or even the state government to determine who should get help? And how much help they should get?
No human society that has any resources at all has ever chosen to let their weak drop through the cracks completely (no, look, even hominid bands were shown to care for the sick and weak.) It is true that families, villages, even states, can decide someone isn’t worthy of help for stupid reasons. We’re all humans. We all have blind spots.
But moving it one level above doesn’t get rid of the biases, or the blind spots. All it does is make it bigger and less controllable. In the end, faceless charity dispensed by people who don’t know the object of their kindness always turns into the same sort of charity performed by celebrities on the faceless “undeserving.”
The more underserving they are, the greater and more glorious the donor can feel. And the state worker can think he’s overcoming local prejudice, and federal do-gooders assume only they can see impartially, like G-d. They will help these supposed “undeserving” and show the greatness of their mercy.
But they are not G-d. They are fallible humans, using all the resources of society to purchase failure in order to make themselves feel better. Of course what you purchase, you get more of.
That which you ignore and punish — striving, behaving well, trying to be good — you get less of.
It’s a suicidal hobby for a civilization.