Homelessness and Civilization

I have a large set of connections I want to set down, but I’ll try to keep it simple as possible.  The seed around which my thinking formed consists of the recent discussions that I’ve been involved with on the Press Citizen.  These discussions have been about the deaths of two “homeless” people (although it’s unclear whether one of them was actually homeless): John Bior Deng was shot by a deputy, and Amil Lowell Baines fell from a construction site.  In the comments section, it became clear how much misinformation and prejudice many people have about the homeless. 

For example, many equate being homeless with being transient which is sometimes true, but often not.  One of the deceased was a life-long resident of Iowa City and I know of other homeless around here who grew up in this town.  I’d guess that homeless people are less likely to move and travel around than the typical American.  To be more accurate, the largest transient population in Iowa City includes the students and employees of the University.  In particular during semesters, this town consists of mostly transients and those who’ve lived here their whole lives are probably a fairly small minority.

When you get down to it, our whole society is based on transience.  Afterall, our country was founded by transients, more often called immigrants.  Many of the immigrants across the centuries were refugees of political persecution… which significantly so was the homeless guy who was shot (he was a refugee from the violence in Sudan and he comes here only to get shot).  The first people who came to America often were very desperate people.  They were members of what today we’d call religious cults who were escaping religious persecution or they were criminals evading the law or they were various other types of rootless people.  These people left their homelands, their land and and houses, their families, friends and neighbors, and sometimes they left their entire culture behind.  Some of them even did this by free choice which is a bit strange.  The fabric of society was already disintegrated when these earliest immigrants got here.  Of course, when they got here they in turn destroyed every culture they came in contact with.   So, this ungroundedness is at the root of our culture.  In a sense, cultural destruction and amnesia is our culture.  The Industrial Age only magnified this already present cultural force.

Many have tried to re-create our lost sense of community, but it’s hard with so many different cultural backgrounds.  We didn’t even share a common religious background and so essentially patriotism became our collective religion and a vision of democracy became our utopia.  On the level of personal relationships, the traditional model of social order has never been regained in America’s entire history.  We are a very unstable society which creates the space for social innovation, but nonetheless people have the same needs that Paleolithic man had.  

Extrapolating from the theory of Paul Shepard, America represents an exacerbation of a problem that has existed since the beginning of civilization.  Our human psychology is built on evolutionary needs.  We aren’t essentially any different than our Paleolithic ancestors, but our human nature has led to our present situation which isn’t conducive to the healthy functioning of that very same human nature.  It’s quite a conundrum.  We simply weren’t designed for civilization.  What we were designed for is small hunter-gatherer tribes.  Interestingly, these early people were transients, but they were transients within a defined area that they knew intimately.  Modern people who live in the same place their whole lives have a less strong sense of place than primitive humans who travelled on a regular basis.

Another insightful author is Derrick Jensen.  He wrote about our culture of violence.  Western Expansionism has always destroyed cultures and left refugees in its wake.  And those refugees who try to escape the destruction end up spreading it by further expansionism.  I won’t try to detail Jensen’s extensive argument, but basically he points out how this is so fundamental to Western culture that it involves all aspects of our lives.  The psychology of the victimizer/victimization relationship is the most fascinating part.  Not only do victims tend to keep silent which encourages the victimizers, but more importantly the vast majority of victimizers were once themselves victimized.

This also relates to religion as well.  Christianity in particular was always a rootless religion.  It formed in the urban areas of Rome that included many displaced people.  The imperialistic expansionism of Rome has always been at the heart of Western religion and culture.  The Axial Age religions in general promoted a transient class of monks and preachers.  Many of these religions taught we weren’t at home on earth, but that our true home was elsewhere.  This was a major shift for humanity and it set the stage for all of modern civilization.

In America, transience became the model not only of religion but also of close relationships.  People moved where ever the opportunities took them, and often the whole family went along.  People no longer could depend on community as their social identity and so the immediate family carried a significance it had never had before.  Your parents and your children were required to satisfy the psychological needs that a whole community once served.  People became in a sense isolated within their own families. 

This tendency manifested in an extreme form with the return of WWII soldiers.  The Civil War had ripped our young society apart, but the two World Wars utterly traumatized the entire human race.  Mankind has yet to recover.  Furthermore, in America, soldiers didn’t even have a traditional culture to return to.  Like many war traumatized people, they were rootless and yet looking for a way to set down roots.  Suburbia was born and the ideal of the atomic family became a national aspiration.  We were going to rebuild our nation, and there was a boom in both babies and technology.  The problem was that suburbia only gave a superficial sense of community.  Despite conservatives’ idealizing the supposedly “traditional” family values, Americans had lost the sense of traditional anything for so long that our dreams of it were ungrounded from reality.

One of the issues that came up in the discussion about the homeless is that most people end up living on the streets for a reason.  Few people willingly choose a life of homelessness.  There are so many people who need help, but our society is either unable or unwilling to help them to any great extent.  Even more problematically, there is very little social safety net for those who encounter problems and it’s hard to pull oneself back up again.  We just cynically and apathetically accept that some people suffer and it’s just not our problem, but many homeless people probably thought the same way before they became homeless.  The basic factor is that theoretically we could solve the homeless problem along with many other problems if there was a collective will to do so, but for whatever reason there isn’t. 

It’s not a lack of money or talent.  It’s simply a matter of how we choose to spend our resources.  Apparently, the suffering of others isn’t a priority of our society.  The odd thing is that we spend more money on causing suffering than we do in looking for solutions.  The US has been involved in various wars it helped to start every year of its existence.  Just stop a moment and deeply consider the implications of that.  I mean, talk about a culture of violence.  And now with the wars on drugs and terror we have the conditions for an endless war and the whole military-industrial complex that goes with it.

Most countries spend massive amounts of money on the police, military and investigation agencies.  But the US spends on military so far beyond all other countries combined that it’s bewildering to contemplate.  Plus, tons of money disappears into the black budget which nobody knows what it is funding.  On the other hand, charities, schools and research into improved healthchare are constantly challenged with a lack of funding.

In conclusion, I think humanity has come to a situation of major crises.  We’re at the point of no return.  We certainly can’t return to a Paleolithic hunter-gatherer lifestyle without the utter annihilation of civilization, and we can’t even return to the idealized agrarian lifestyle that paleo-conservatives like to fantasize about.  Our only trajectory is the future where ever it may lead, but it doesn’t look promising.  In order for the human species to survive the next century, we’ll have to have a complete revolution of society on a global scale.  Whatever may come of it, it’s literally impossible for us to imagine in the present.  Humans have proven themselves incapable of change except when crises forces them into action and this is particular true in a less stable and more reactionary society like the US. 

At some point in the relatively near future (whether or not in our lifetimes), there will be a looming societal breakdown.  Either the human species will meet the challenge at the last moment or we’ll go down in apocalypse.  It should be a good show.  Meanwhile, those living in relative wealth and comfort will continue as they always do and the less fortunate will continue to suffer.