A reader who lives in a poor neighborhood writes:
“This past weekend, at the festival in Oklahoma, I talked to a Christian from the Midwest who said that many of his fellow middle-class Evangelicals have no idea what’s really going on in America.”
This is going on for most people who don’t live in the low rent apartments, or the messiness of multiethnic working class neighborhoods. I think things often get overstated in terms of malevolence versus neglect, but just how bad many peoples bad situations are isn’t even remotely grasped to many doing well. Lower middle class liberals with no kids who don’t have to really deal with the consequences of their feel good ideologies fuels the problem too.
At my house, what started as babysitting one kid after school, has now turned to a bunch of misfit 12 year olds congregating at my house every afternoon. They say they like it that they feel safe and that we don’t tolerate disrespectful behavior. The stories I hear of rape, molestation, drug abuse, family incarceration, lack of anyone who cares or disciplines them, and being loaded up on prescription drugs either by parents who think that’s the normal way of dealing with kids, or of their own volition when they inevitably cry out for attention, is heart breaking.
No amount of money is going to fix these problems, and you can’t just throw God at these people either. It’s a process. It’s like trying to teach feral cats to first trust you and then trying to train them to successfully live indoors. You can tell they “get it” that your house is different, but they don’t really get it. There’s a stability they want, but they don’t know how to internalize the conditions that lead to it, since they’ve never had it. Those who haven’t been in that chaos think these people are a lot closer to being good than they really are, and those who need the help deep down don’t really believe they’re worth it or have any hope so they sabotage themselves.
It’s going to take sustained effort, and looking at your own personal home life as a sort of mini Ben Op island for lack of a better term.
A different reader wrote:
Without giving too much away, I work every single day with dirt poor white and minority Americans living in the heartland. These are people “living off the government dole” so to speak. I know more about abject poverty, government dependence, drug abuse, drug overdoses and disintegrated family systems, and what these things do to people, than your average middle-class or upper-class American by far (I would call myself upper-middle-class). This is an extraordinarily difficult population to work with. You try to look past their unfortunate circumstances and their poor choices to retain some sense of their basic humanity. When you try to help them see the sense in making better choices in the hopes of improving their miserable lot in life even a little bit, a great many of them resist you at almost every turn. It’s like they’re stuck in a negative feedback loop. The more you try to help them avoid making more poor choices which will only dig them into a deeper hole, the more they think you’re looking down your nose at them and acting all uppity and superior–so they tell you to piss off. The more you try to help, the more they resent you for being a “privileged” person who’s in a position to help in the first place.
A genuine spirit of charity is now a thing to be scorned and spit on instead of welcomed. It’s a bit like cursing God for sending you a Savior instead of appointing you as one. It’s the most insane thing you can imagine. It defies the simplest definition of reason.
They accuse you of “not getting it” because you’re not offering the kind of “help” they expect, because you know what that kind of “help” has done to them. The more they push back and resist, the more frustrated and angry you become. You try to remind yourself that it’s not really their fault, because many of them have never known any other way of living since before they could crawl, but there comes a point at which you inevitably start to wonder if you’re wasting your time. You hate yourself for thinking that way, but you don’t want to burn yourself up trying to fix what you don’t have the power to fix. So you desperately start searching for little reminders of why you wanted to reach out to help these folks in the first place, and little clues that maybe–just maybe–you might be making a small difference in some way that’s hard for you to see. That’s all you can do because there are no big, miraculous success stories to feel happy about.
I’ve done what I do for something close to fifteen years. I don’t know if I have fifteen more in me.
Not too long ago, I was having a conversation with a wealthy, Blue State liberal friend, who said that it’s obvious to him that the only way to solve the problems of the poor is for the government to commit massive amounts of money, and flood the zone with experts to show the dysfunctional poor how to live. The dream never dies.
I never tire of citing this point made in a 1994 reported essay by Robert Kaplan:
Slum quarters in Abidjan terrify and repel the outsider. In Turkey it is the opposite. The closer I got to Golden Mountain [a huge slum in Ankara] the better it looked, and the safer I felt. I had $1,500 worth of Turkish lira in one pocket and $1,000 in traveler’s checks in the other, yet I felt no fear. Golden Mountain was a real neighborhood. The inside of one house told the story: The architectural bedlam of cinder block and sheet metal and cardboard walls was deceiving. Inside was a home—order, that is, bespeaking dignity. I saw a working refrigerator, a television, a wall cabinet with a few books and lots of family pictures, a few plants by a window, and a stove. Though the streets become rivers of mud when it rains, the floors inside this house were spotless.
Other houses were like this too. Schoolchildren ran along with briefcases strapped to their backs, trucks delivered cooking gas, a few men sat inside a cafe sipping tea. One man sipped beer. Alcohol is easy to obtain in Turkey, a secular state where 99 percent of the population is Muslim. Yet there is little problem of alcoholism. Crime against persons is infinitesimal. Poverty and illiteracy are watered-down versions of what obtains in Algeria and Egypt (to say nothing of West Africa), making it that much harder for religious extremists to gain a foothold.
My point in bringing up a rather wholesome, crime-free slum is this: its existence demonstrates how formidable is the fabric of which Turkish Muslim culture is made. A culture this strong has the potential to dominate the Middle East once again. Slums are litmus tests for innate cultural strengths and weaknesses. Those peoples whose cultures can harbor extensive slum life without decomposing will be, relatively speaking, the future’s winners. Those whose cultures cannot will be the future’s victims. Slums—in the sociological sense—do not exist in Turkish cities. The mortar between people and family groups is stronger here than in Africa. Resurgent Islam and Turkic cultural identity have produced a civilization with natural muscle tone. Turks, history’s perennial nomads, take disruption in stride.
It has been over 20 years since Kaplan published those lines, and perhaps he would adjust his view. I don’t know. Still, I think his point is sound: a society that can tolerate material poverty without falling apart will thrive; those that cannot will not.
How you regenerate what has been lost, I don’t know. As Jones put it in another context:
Hey, most of the world lives in conditions that today’s well-off Americans find unthinkable. Therefore, another term for “apocalypse” is “regression to the mean.” What we are calling apocalypse is not all that surprising or unlikely. The world will keep going. But the world you are so fond of will be gone. And enormous numbers of people will be suffering. That’s a prospect that should give anyone pause.
I’ve lived (briefly) in the third world–not as some first world princeling on tour, but as one among equals. To me this should all be viewed as an unearned blessing, which means it would be sad but not surprising to see it go. Life will go on, but you should take care to distinguish between the better and worse forms of it.
I also think people underestimate the fragility of civilization. It’s very natural. But it’s a conservative’s job to remind them of its fragility. What do you think Germans in the late nineteenth century felt? They had reached the greatest heights of progress and civilization of any people on the earth up to that point. They were the most advanced, the most impressive, the most cultured, the most scientific. What do you think they would have said if someone told them that, in a few decades, they would introduce the world to the greatest depths of barbarism that it had ever seen?