Thursday, July 05, 2007

Street Cents and Uncommon Sense

A wiry light-skinned African American man wearing tan pants, what looked like a pressed, clean shirt and a natty cap came up to me to sell me a newspaper, Street Sense. It's a newspaper written by and sold by homeless people in Washington, D.C.

The man explained the paper to me -- I had heard of it; in fact, someone I know had been a volunteer copy-editor of the paper for a while -- and I saw he had a picture ID badge hanging from his belt, just like every preppy congressional intern in town. The price is a dollar, "but anything else you can give, or even nothing at all, is appreciated." I gave him five bucks.

Then I kicked myself.

After decades of railing against the Protestant work ethic for the way it breeds anxiety, invidiousness and antipathy among peers, self-righteousness and unbridled materialism, I'd been easily won over by the image of someone presenting himself as performing the quintessential American sacrament: pulling himself up by his bootstraps. "A hand up, not a hand out."

It's the very idea I normally find detestable. How did I get suckered in?

I know full well that the sour fruits of the work ethic are the legacy of the Reformation. Pace Protestants: this is not a religious argument, but merely a restatement of historical context.

In the "dark" and benighted Middle Ages of Europe, as in antiquity, everyone pretty much worked as little as they could. In pre-Reformation Europe, the richest were not the most hard-working (not that they are today, either). Work, people believed, was an unavoidable consequence of the loss of Eden: "With labour and toil shalt thou eat thereof all the days of thy life" (Gen. 3:17).

Work did not bestow status in the medieval social structure. Everyone worked as befitted their station in life and work rarely yielded social mobility. (Before we get too high and mighty about those backward medievals, ask the American working poor whether this doesn't happen here and now.)

Work was merely part of the curse of being a limited human with a life that was, as Hobbes put it, nasty, brutish and short.

Yet even Marx and Engels recognized that there existed a two-sided social compact prior to the industrial revolution (see vol. III of Das Kapital): the peasant worked, the monk prayed and copied books, the lord of the castle protected the community. Sure, it was better in some respects to be the lord, as always; but the lord had obligations and when he egregiously neglected them, the peasantry revolted.

With capitalism and industry and its Calvinist religious ideology (see Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism), however, came the social notion that effort begot success, which in itself was a sign of divine favor. Those who were wage-slaves rather than investors had only themselves to blame, the conventional wisdom concluded; and all the more so those who didn't even have jobs.

This is precisely the view into which I was gently suckered by the Street Sense hawker.

More accurately, he and I have been subject to such a steady stream of social propaganda that we have given in. He and his associates have taken on the trappings of entrepreneurship -- the clothes, the badge, the pretense of selling a product. For my part, I could see myself in an imaginary Dickensian role: I'd toss him a copper smiling benignly, then utter in a kindly but smug tone, "Here you are, my good man."

After all, he looked so clean and honorable and hardworking.

What if he hadn't? What if he had smelled? What if he had been leprous? Would he be less worthy of a smile or a contribution or a moment of attention? (I've been told by people with some experience in this matter that most begging is an attempt to make human contact.)

Do we live to work or work to live? Do we work hard, because the work fulfills us or to have things that will make us feel more important, good, good-looking, better than others? Does all this striving give us joy? In the end, we have only one life (as far as I can tell, I won't get into a reincarnation argument). The life we know has limits. Is it to spend most of it acquiring things?

If we were, for an instant, to assume that poor or homeless people choose their lifestyles, romping happily through their slums and sleeping on grates in the enjoyment of bacchanalian freedom ... what would be so wrong about choosing not to work, not to live with a roof over one's head, not to follow social etiquette or fashion, not to bathe or live a middle class life?

I will provide grist for an answer with a story told to me by an old Italian.

One day there was a young man fishing by the pier. An old man sat next to him with his rod and his bait and shook his head.

"Ragazzo," the old man asked, "what are you doing here whittling your hours away?"

"What should I be doing instead, old man?"

The old man stroked his beard and replied, "Why, you should be in school."

"Whatever for?"

"So you could learn your lessons, graduate and get a job."

"Why would I want to do that?"

"So you could then get the hand of a beautiful young maiden, marry her and have many children."

The young man looked alarmed. "But why would I want that?"

"Well, then you could be sure that you would be cared for in old age."

"What for?"

"Ah, that's easy. So you could eventually be like me, retired and out fishing all day."

Then the young man smiled. "But, sir, that's what I have been doing all morning."
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