“Helping and Hating the Homeless”
Helping and Hating the Homeless: The Struggle at the Margins of America. Almost none of what was said had anything to do with the homeless people I know-not the ones I once traveled with, not the ones in town. In many American cities, vets make up close to 50 percent of all homeless males. You can learn that the world of the homeless has its roots in various policies, events, and ways of life for which some of us are responsible and from which some of us actually prosper. We decide, as a people, to go to war, we ask our children to kill and to die, and the result, years later, is grown men homeless on the street.
Here, for example, is the story of Alice, a homeless middle-aged woman in Los Angeles, where there are, perhaps, 50,000 homeless people. The homeless in our cities mark out for themselves particular neighborhoods, blocks, buildings, doorways. The point is this: our response to the homeless is fed by a complex set of cultural attitudes, habits of thought, and fantasies and fears so familiar to us, so common, that they have become second nature and might as well be instinctive, for all the control we have over them. What does seem clear is that the homeless embody all that bourgeois culture has for centuries tried to eradicate and destroy. Every government program, almost every private project, is geared as much to the needs of those giving help as it is to the needs of the homeless.
Whatever the case, the fact remains that almost every one of our strategies for helping the homeless is simply an attempt to rearrange the world cosmetically, in terms of how it looks and smells to us. How we mediate by default or design between those contrary forces will determine not only the destinies of the homeless but also something crucial about the nation, and perhaps – let me say it – about our own souls.
The language of humanitarianism has played a central role in recent political and media debates about undocumented migrants crossing into Europe and North America. There is already a host of humanitarian nongovernmental organizations – ranging from the big, famous ones such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and Doctors without Borders to many other local incarnations – working at various entry points into Europe, such as the Spanish islands of Ceuta and Melilla as well as Italian Lampedusa. The quintessential humanitarian victims bear no responsibility for their suffering. Their innocence is what qualifies them for humanitarian compassion. Yet the migrant children who were at the heart of the crisis in the United States were not afforded the status of victims, worthy of humanitarian aid.
If humanitarianism is the primary language used to counter closed-border and anti-immigrant policies, the majority of migrants – children included – will be sent to detention centers or deported without due process. Talking about any situation as a humanitarian emergency makes it seem as if it is an exception to an otherwise peaceful order. At best, it is naïve to suggest that the crossings will be stopped by fences, or the drownings by humanitarians. Third, humanitarianism is about feelings rather than rights; it is about compassion, not entitlement. Humanitarian exceptions are precisely that – exceptions to regular laws.
When migrants are spoken of as humanitarian victims, we take them out of the range of the law, where they have the right to be free from violence. To argue against humanitarian borders is not to argue against a place for emotion in the face of the many dead; it is to make way for feelings that fit with different projects for equality, with different political visions.
The Political Compass
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As political establishments adopt either enthusiastically or reluctantly the prevailing economic orthodoxy – the neo-liberal strain of capitalism – the Left-Right division between mainstream parties becomes increasingly blurred. Instead, party differences tend to be more about identity issues. In the narrowing debate, our social scale is more crucial than ever. We’re indebted to people like Wilhelm Reich, Hans Eysenck and Theodor Adorno for their ground-breaking work in this field. We believe that, in an age of diminishing ideology, The Political Compass helps a new generation in particular to get a better idea of where they stand politically – and the sort of political company they keep.
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