December 03, 2012

The Vicious Lie of Isolated Good Deeds

[Update added.]

The idiotic superficiality and mawkish sentimentality of American culture are revealed in especially stark fashion by many Americans' enthusiasm for celebrating an isolated act of kindness, and then using the single act, ripped out of its surrounding context and thus rendered meaningless, as an obviously cheap, manipulative way of avoiding inquiry into the deeply disturbing wider problems implicated by the act in question. Today's example: the gift by a New York Police Officer of a new pair of boots to a homeless man.

Oh, (almost) everyone sighed, what a wonderful man the police officer is! Golly gee whiz, (almost) everyone cheered, isn't the NY Police Department the absolute best! Wow, (almost) everyone moaned in an explosion of self-gratification, aren't we the most wonderful people for noticing and caring so, so much!!

To which, my responses are, in order: the officer may be a decent human being, but you have no grounds for so concluding; no, the NYPD is absolutely not the best, or anything remotely close to the best; and absolutely not, you ridiculous morons.

Perhaps you think I exaggerate. (Some people may also think I'm being extraordinarily rude and crapping all over their beautiful parade. To which I can only reply: goddamned right.) Look at the opening paragraphs of this NYT story:
After Officer Lawrence DePrimo knelt beside a barefoot man on a bitterly cold November night in Times Square, giving him a pair of boots, a photo of his random act of good will quickly took on a life of its own — becoming a symbol for a million acts of kindness that go unnoticed every day and a reminder that even in this tough, often anonymous city, people can still look out for one another.

Officer DePrimo was celebrated on front pages and morning talk shows, the Police Department came away with a burnished image and millions got a smile from a nice story.
Millions of people are idiots.

And my God, read this part again: "becoming a symbol for a million acts of kindness that go unnoticed every day and a reminder that even in this tough, often anonymous city, people can still look out for one another." God, we are so wonderful!

If we're so marvelously wonderful and if we care so much, perhaps one of these angelic creatures can explain what comes next in the story:
But what of the shoeless man?

For days, his bare feet — blistered and battered — were well known. Yet precise details about him proved elusive.

His name is Jeffrey Hillman, and on Sunday night, he was once again wandering the streets — this time on the Upper West Side — with no shoes.

The $100 pair of boots that Officer DePrimo had bought for him at a Sketchers store on Nov. 14 were nowhere to be seen

“Those shoes are hidden. They are worth a lot of money,” Mr. Hillman said in an interview on Broadway in the 70s. “I could lose my life."
It apparently is impossible for the NYT reporters and editors to grasp what ought to be shockingly obvious: living on the streets of New York City is brutal, harsh, and dangerous. If you have anything of value, other people may try to steal it from you. In the course of stealing it, and especially if you resist, they might murder you: "I could lose my life." It's not only the NYT that can't understand this painfully straightforward fact: it seems never to have occurred to all those who so eagerly celebrated this single act, and how it conclusively proved how compassionate and caring we all are, and our society is.

The NYT seems fascinated by the fact that Hillman has been seen on a number of occasions and that he has been barefoot, both before and after this recent gift. The story returns to this point twice, first here:
Since Mr. Hillman’s bare feet became famous, other people reported seeing him without shoes — one even after Officer DePrimo’s gift — and one woman said she had bought him a pair of shoes a year ago. Whatever the case, Mr. Hillman seemed accustomed to walking the pavement shoeless.
He was barefoot "even after Officer DePrimo's gift" -- and a woman "bought him a pair of shoes a year ago"! I begin to get the sense that the NYT thinks it's Hillman's own damned fault that he's barefoot. People keep giving him shoes and boots, and the damned fool refuses to wear them. He's just "accustomed" to going barefoot. It couldn't possibly be some other problem, could it -- a problem that might implicate us?

And the story ends with yet another version of this theme:
On Sunday, Mr. Hillman was spotted by Jamie Seerman and her sister Samantha near 79th Street and Broadway as they were shopping for a Christmas tree.

As he was being interviewed, several people noticed him.

“What happened to the boots?” one man asked.
Why, Officer DePrimo is so wonderful, and we're all so goddamned wonderful, and some people just won't accept and use our generous gifts the right way! No wonder he's homeless. No wonder he's a worthless bum.

The story also makes certain to include this:
“I was put on YouTube, I was put on everything without permission. What do I get?” [Hillman] said. “This went around the world, and I want a piece of the pie.”
I don't blame him in the least -- to the contrary, I find his candor on this point deeply admirable -- particularly given how everyone else is cashing in on this episode.

For example, Mayor Bloomberg, who talked about the incident on his radio show and said: "That’s what they’re trained to do — help people.” That's not all the NY Police are trained to do:
The NYPD’s stop-and-frisk practices raise serious concerns over racial profiling, illegal stops and privacy rights. The Department’s own reports on its stop-and-frisk activity confirm what many people in communities of color across the city have long known: The police are stopping hundreds of thousands of law abiding New Yorkers every year, and the vast majority are black and Latino.

An analysis by the NYCLU revealed that innocent New Yorkers have been subjected to police stops and street interrogations more than 4 million times since 2002, and that black and Latino communities continue to be the overwhelming target of these tactics. Nearly nine out of 10 stopped-and-frisked New Yorkers have been completely innocent, according to the NYPD’s own reports.
And then there's the all too typical behavior complained of here, in a magnificent display of righteous fury. "There is no honor in this," infuckingdeed.

These are two notable examples of reprehensible, despicable, and typical behavior by the NYPD, just off the top of my head. If I researched the NYPD's abusive behavior for only a few hours -- including, please let us not forget, that they sometimes beat and murder innocent people -- this post could be 10,000 words long and contain an endless number of links.

The NYPD commits acts that are heinous in varying degrees with alarming regularity. You might agree this is a rather consequential fact. Moreover, it is a consequential fact that must be considered when judging the kind of human being Officer DePrimo is. I'm willing to believe DePrimo made the gift to Hillman out of genuine compassion -- but even if I accept that view of this particular act, it doesn't explain why DePrimo joined the police department in the first place. I would want to know his reasons, and I would want to know about his record as a policeman. In many ways, this is similar to the difficulties in judging an individual who joins the U.S. military, about which I have written in some detail. Even though I think joining the military is always a mistake at present, and a very serious mistake, that does not mean that a particular individual is necessarily immoral for joining. To make that kind of judgment, we would need to know the individual's specific reasons, his context of knowledge and understanding about the military and its functions and, very importantly, we would need to know exactly what he does (or did) while in the military. (This is hardly an exhaustive list of the relevant factors, but it would be a good start.)

We would need to know similar kinds of information about DePrimo with regard to the NYPD before we could make a meaningful judgment about him as a person. Even people who are monsters can act with kindness and generosity on isolated occasions. I'm certainly not saying that DePrimo is a monster. I know nothing about the man except what's been reported in connection with this lone incident. And that's exactly my point: as far as I can tell, no one knows much of anything about him beyond this incident. To view him as a wonderful man and/or as a wonderful officer is completely unwarranted. But the kinds of questions I raise here (and that I raise about those who join the military) don't occur to most people, which only demonstrates how superficial, meaningless and lacking in seriousness most people's judgments are (and not only about these kinds of issues).

Let's return to the fact that life on the streets is so dangerous that Hillman regards it as extremely unsafe to wear the boots that DePrimo gave him. Even though the Times is fixated on Hillman still being barefoot to the extent that it mentions it no less than three times in a comparatively short story, the obvious questions that ought to arise don't occur to anyone at the Times or, if they do, the Times doesn't view them as worthy of mention. The first question that should occur to anyone who actually thinks about this story is a very simple one: Why is Hillman still living on the street? Why is he still homeless? Isn't there a shelter in which he could safely spend his days and nights, while he tries to figure out what he wants and is able to do with his life in the future?

Note that the story tells us: "Mr. Hillman said he came to New York about a decade ago and had been on the streets most of that time." He's been homeless for most of ten years. The story also informs us Hillman joined the Army in 1978, served for five years, and then was honorably discharged. (We're also told that Hillman served as a "food service specialist" in the U.S. and Germany. Since he didn't torture or kill innocent people and left the Army almost 30 years ago, his service would seem to suggest no negative moral judgment of any kind.) Aren't there veterans' services that could help Mr. Hillman -- or is he yet another example of how the U.S. government uses people up and then discards them, in the manner of throwing out used up junk?

With regard to homeless shelters in New York City: in August of this year, there were a total number of 46,631 homeless people in municipal shelters. (A horrifying graph on that page tells us that the comparable number in March 1987 was 28,737.) What about the number of homeless people not in shelters? To that question, there is no answer:
While there is accurate data on the sheltered homeless population, there is no reliable measurement of the unsheltered homeless population in New York City. The City of New York, under a mandate from the Federal government, produces an annual estimate of the unsheltered homeless population based on a single winter night's survey. The City's controversial estimate has been criticized by advocates and academic researchers as a significant undercount of the actual number of unsheltered homeless New Yorkers.
At this point, if not much earlier, and at least if we are honest, we begin to realize that Mr. Hillman is one tragic example of a problem that is far worse, a terrible problem that is extremely disturbing in what it indicates about New York City and our society in general.

When we consider the extraordinary amount of wealth represented by the individuals and businesses in Manhattan alone, especially after the trillions of dollars taken from taxpayers and funneled directly into the already engorged coffers of the financial crooks who are stealing everything in sight before the system collapses altogether, and when we remember, as only one telling example, that apartments in Manhattan routinely sell for many millions of dollars (with one penthouse recently selling for more than $90 million), it is outrageous in a manner impossible of description that tens of thousands of people must rely on shelters to find safety for the night, and that a completely undetermined number of additional people -- 40,000? 70,000? more? -- do not even have a shelter to which they can momentarily retreat.

But that is America today in sickeningly, disgustingly brief form, isn't it? Untold wealth for the few, those who are the ruling class and its especially dedicated, favored executors, who make certain that every bit of wealth is siphoned up solely for their benefit and and never for anyone outside their sanctified circle, while everyone else is systematically reduced to living in ever greater desperation. And some lives are so desperate that even the gift of new boots is something that cannot be used, because to do so would place one's life in danger.

Perhaps Officer DePrimo is a decent man, but we have no way of knowing based on the information publicly available. Whatever his virtue as an individual, that virtue is not automatically transferred to the NYPD, about which we know many extremely negative facts. As for what this story means about "us" in general, and about our society at this moment in time -- well, it appears to me that we're not so wonderful and compassionate after all.

In fact, we are not wonderful and compassionate to a degree that any decent human being would even notice. This is a brutal, cruel and uncaring society. Stories like this one are simply another means of avoidance, a way to lie to ourselves as we steadfastly refuse to recognize the truth of our condition.

And that means that all of this will get worse, much, much worse.

UPDATE: More on the Hillman story and its significance here.