29 Sep 2006

From My College Class List, 3

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(In reply to the usual liberal complaints about my lack of sympathy for the poor in America:)

The poverty in America which liberals are always going on about is some kind of legendary myth, like the Loch Ness Monster. It has nothing to do with reality. Poverty in America exists occasionally as a temporary accident. (Or as a feature of merely being young and being a student. Students are always poor.) Those kinds of poverty can always be overcome with effort and persistence. There is plenty of opportunity in this country for those who will take it.

The other poverty, which does not go away, is really an epiphenomenon of a much more serious affliction. The real problem is a moral problem. Persistent poverty exists in America, not because of some unfairness in the system, or because of discrimination, or because of a lack of alternatives. It exists because some people will ruin their lives. Some people will not help themselves.

When I managed a real estate company in New York, I often walked through the East Village. I can recall passing the corner of 14th and 3rd Avenue, back in the 1980s one evening. As I looked around, I saw misery and squalor and degradation. There were prostitutes soliciting along the street. There were junkies and dealers trafficking. The buildings were filthy and decayed, and no one was lifting a finger to improve anything. I looked at it all, and thought what a hell on earth that corner was. And as I was feeling sorry for all the people there, along came a sixteen year old blond girl with a Midwestern accent to offer me a date. I could tell she had recently arrived from Minnesota.

And then the light bulb went off over my head, I realized that every single one of these people had come there from somewhere else. They had all chosen to be there. Nobody ever held a gun to their heads, and said, “You are condemned to be a junkie (or a whore) on 3rd Avenue at 14th Street.” There were no walls. There was no barbed wire. Everyone there could walk away, just as I was doing myself. And I stopped feeling sorry for them.

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Dominique R. Poirier

I think your account and your way of thinking both constitute a short, explicit, demonstrative, and purposeful answer to the liberal complaints you faced.
I send this comment in an attempt to add something that might rationally explain you way of thinking; inasmuch as I correctly translated it.

We usually understand “poor” in the materialistic and pejorative sense of the term; meaning that the poors are, at the same time, the “have not” and the poorly spirited. From this on we are seldom surprised to see the poor behaving badly, being careless, being dirty on themselves, being ill mannered, being dishonest or mischievous, etc. Actually, we truly expect it. And the fact remains that areas inhabited by the poors are often dirty, insecure and leave to many the souvenir of a bad feeling.
I think we have to differentiate being materially poor (i.e. being penniless and jobless) on the one hand; and being spiritually poor, on the other hand.
Being spiritually poor would be a state of self depreciation (inherited, often), of loss of self esteem, and a renouncement to go by the moral rules of the society in virtue of a principle discovered by the criminologist Howard Becker who says that those who are, or feel, excluded from the society loose the advantages of being included in it; and so they would have no vested interest in respecting these rules since the society doesn’t provide them any incentive or compensation in exchange for it.
Thus those who engage on the way of not respecting the rules of our society because they think they would have no incentive or reward in respecting it become poor in the “spiritual” sense of the term. They are immature people.
But, I think that those who choose to continue respecting the rules of the society while being penniless are not poor in the pejorative sense of the term; and even doesn’t deserve in any way to be described as “poors”. Quite on the contrary, those other poors become respectable persons because they are mature, and because keeping strong in unsettling circumstances is not a so common quality.
What make this difference are moral values, intelligence, education; and, in the case of poor Americans, of being Americans. Americans have something other poors have not elsewhere. They naturally benefit of an environment and of a culture that give them reasonable ground for hope. Caroll Quigley, the historian, said “America was the greatest Nation in history because our people had always believed in two things—that tomorrow can be better than today and that every one of us has a personal moral responsibility to make it so.”
That’s it, and that’s what they all should be taught because there are countless examples that say it’s true.
The penniless American has always the resource of being clean, keeping his home clean, be polite, and respectful toward others. If this poor succeeds in behaving that way he will win self esteem in exchange of it and so, I think, he will have better chances to change for much better the immediate environment (or personal, or family “sphere”) in which he lives. Thus he will greatly improve his chances to get out of his status of poverty in the pejorative sense of the term.

Unfortunately, few poors are likely to have the required strength and will to fight their poverty status.

The sixteen year old blond girl who recently arrived from Minnesota to settle in a so degraded area didn’t have these strength and will; and perhaps the family middle in which she was raised was responsible-to a sizeable extent may we reasonably assume-of her misbehaving (i.e. her spontaneous date’s offer). Probably, she just felt she adapted to her newly elected middle, as Howard Becker would have explained us in such circumstance. Actually, as you rightly deduced I think, she became poor in the spiritual sense of the term and we may hazard the guess that there is a great deal of chances for that she will continue behaving that way for long; and so I think you were right to stop feeling sad for her and for all of those other poor people who live in the same area. All those who behave the same way are not only materially poors, but they have chosen to be spiritually poors as well. Thus they are poor in the pejorative sense of the term; meaning they do not really deserve compassion that much.


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