Origins Of Poverty

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In Luang Prabang, Laos.

[So I'm almost finished writing this book about how I first hated but later came to like living in Korea, and I recently took out the following expository bit, which takes place during my first jaunt into Southeast Asia, because I thought it interrupted the flow of the story, although after a second reading I'm thinking that I might put it back inside. This length excerpt comes just after I gave a slice of pizza to a homeless boy in Vientiane, Laos]

Maybe it gets to me, and maybe I’m so naïve about it, because there are no visible homeless people in Acadia. All of the poor people have houses or shelters or relatives, and it’s too cold for them to stay outside through most of the year, so I never saw them. In Korea they’re rare as well, since the culture doesn’t have much consideration for anyone who can’t keep up with the breakneck pace of life in the thoroughly developed Far East, and a homeless person can spend days begging at the busiest subway station in Busan without making a single dollar. Thousands of people will go by and generally assume that it is impossible for someone to be genuinely homeless and in desperate need—the crazy old guy sitting on the stairs and mumbling to himself must be a lazy fraud, and doesn’t deserve so much as a single penny for his troubles, because I worked hard to get to where I am, and he had his chance, and he blew it, while I have to save my money for important things like designer bags and sports cars. In Southeast Asia the situation is more desperate, the wealth disparity is far more severe, and there are traveling hippies to be found, now and then, whom beggars can do business with.

Before the sight of this muddy young boy in his filthy tank top and shorts, the westerner was ashamed of his wealth, because a young white man with a middle class income that allows him enough money to travel to exotic countries once every six months is richer than almost everyone else on Earth, as well as almost everyone else who has ever lived. This boy didn’t have enough money to eat, and I was the 1%—talking with a Finn on the far side of the planet. What to do? What, really, to do? How could I whine about corporate corruption in politics, how could I have possessed the moral authority necessary to tell my students back in Busan to stop hitting each other, if I failed to make the right choice, there and then, with this boy?

There was a slight chance that he was some kind of slave of the mafia, but it’s impossible to buy anything in the world without donating to some unjust cause; significant portions of taxes levied on every financial transaction in America go toward the construction or preservation of nuclear weapons. We don’t refuse to buy groceries; why should we refuse to give trifling sums to the homeless? What would you do, after all, if you had not been so lucky, if you were truly alone, if you had no help from anyone, no home, no clothes, no nothing? How would you lift yourself up out of poverty? Escape might indeed require a little simple begging. Most western people, after all, can “spare a buck”, as the black veteran back in D.C. said to me all those years ago, but we still choose not to.

The modern hatred of the poor, the invention of welfare queens and lazy do-nothings, is a relatively new phenomena, and a result of the gospel of capitalism, wherein only the lazy and unworthy can become marginalized from the overflowing cornucopia of postindustrial society. But it wasn’t always like this. In medieval Europe people generally believed that salvation was impossible without charity. Jesus says the meek will inherit the Earth; “For I was hungry, and you gave me food to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me drink; I was a stranger, and you took me in.” (Matthew 25:35) In the days before the Protestant Reformation, one could not get into heaven without helping those who could not help themselves; and the natural order of society, with the aristocrats, the knights, and the priests, on top, and the peasants and the beggars on the bottom, was the obvious result of god’s will, and not due to laziness or overdependence: “Man must accept his destined condition with humility.” The poor were not generally blamed for their poverty by famous politicians as they are today—during the 2012 American Presidential Race, Newt Gingrich stated that “Really poor children, in really poor neighborhoods, have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works, so they have no habit of showing up on Monday. They have no habit of staying all day; they have no habit of ‘I do this and you give me cash,’ unless it is illegal.”—and according to Bronislaw Geremek, whom I just quoted in his incredible Poverty: A History, it was not until the Protestant Reformation that the exaltation of the work ethic superseded the exaltation of the poor. Overzealous acts of charity, funded by the rising merchant class (who were enriching themselves by increasing trade links with the East, a result of the Pax Mongolica and The Crusades), were condemned because they made the vagrant life look far too easy; the Protestant idea of Sola fide, by faith alone, guarantees a person’s entry into paradise so long as that person believes that Jesus Christ is the Son of God; it is not a coincidence that Max Weber observes in the opening lines of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, “that business leaders and owners of capital…are overwhelmingly Protestant.” Good works, charity, and even “Thou Shalt Not Kill”, are no longer necessary to join the heavenly choirs, which perhaps helps to explain how George W. Bush could cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, and make such a killing in the process of doing so, while likewise believing himself to be well on the way to an eternity that is pleasantly free of brimstone.

Most of us appear to believe that the poor do not deserve our immediate help. Every last reader of these words has, at one time or another, ignored a homeless person—but perhaps, in the past, when wanderers could be disguised gods roaming about to test the morality of mortals (as in Baucis and Philemon), and when a mouthful of bread handed to a mendicant could purify one’s infinite and immortal soul, this idea was not so widely held. Like every idea and every belief, the notion that we have better things to do than give a damn about the poor is certainly the outcome of and reaction to a long evolution of different ideas and beliefs, extending into the depths of antiquity, prehistory, and even the ancestry of the human species.

Dostoevsky would hate me for seeming so magnanimous about all this—for making a big deal of it, for mentioning it at all—and he would also hate me for identifying myself as a Christ-killing Yid, but I always preferred Tolstoy, Gogol, and Nabokov, to the Big D.

For my last two summers in America I worked as a gardener with my mom, who had been fired from her job as the director of development at a high-profile nonprofit for being a woman after devoting most of her professional life to the cause of raising money for various charities. She sued her last employer for discrimination, and actually won, but became blacklisted from that field, eventually switching instead to the far more pleasant and rewarding occupation which is known as gardening. My sister and I occasionally joined her, making the plants and flowers smile under streams of silver tapwater, exchanging our labor for very decent salaries, usually in front of enormous forest mansions, which were unoccupied for about fifty weeks out of every year. Several families at least could have lived comfortably in each structure, but thankfully as a result of America’s flawlessly perfect meritocracy only those who know how to work hard enough to be born into wealthy families are able to live in such places.

As a result of weeding for the rich and rooting around in their gardens I became a fairly conservative communist [a line I stole quite shamelessly from Christopher Hitchens], believing that we ought to tax the wealthy to pay for the general happiness and wellbeing of all the people who aren’t convinced that minimizing costs, maximizing profits, cutting out the middlemen, providing a better service for a lower price, safeguarding the brand, offshoring, and taking advantage of tax havens and loopholes, are the only reasons human beings are put on God’s Earth—deciding instead that the purpose of civilization is to maximize the amount of free time for everyone.

When I was in the company of these polite American aristocrats, the reviled enemies of the millions of protestors who have taken to the streets all over the world in the months leading up to the writing of this book, I couldn’t help but draw the same conclusion as one of Shakespeare’s gardeners—

Why should we, in the compass of a pale,
Keep law and form and due proportion,
Showing, as in a model, our firm estate,
When our sea-walled garden, the whole land,
Is full of weeds; her fairest flowers chok’d up,
Her fruit trees all unprun’d, her hedges ruin’d,
Her knots disordered, and her wholesome herbs
Swarming with caterpillars?


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