Desperate People

A desperate person is someone who does not have the resources to sustain either his or her own life or what might generally be considered an adequate way of life. Desperate people can be homeless, or suffering a terminal illness, or victims of a war. They do not know where to turn to help them out or else, like the people of Puerto Rico, they don't know why they have not been helped out. They are different from people who are caught up in a way of life that seems normal to them, rather than desperate, but which may have many of the same sequelae. Someone living in a gang infested neighborhood may think that is just the way things are, some people getting shot at random, however unfair that may be. Others living in the same neighborhood are truly desperate because they don’t think this is normal, not the conditions under which anyone should live, a definite privation rather than a culture. People who emphasize the idea of the culture of poverty portray gang violence in the first way, as the way life is, dysfunctional for the community as a whole, but not for the gang members who get money and excitement in exchange for their shortened lives, while people who emphasize the structure of poverty portray gang violence in the second way, as the way life doesn’t have to be except for the fact that gangs provide work (in the drug trade and other illegal ventures) as well as a sense of security to people who do not have other resources. We can begin to understand the nature of desperation better by focussing on the general phenomenon of a disaster rather than looking at the ongoing disaster that characterizes some American communities and which is confused with a normal way of life.

It is easy enough to see how the need of someone to come to the rescue of desperate people works with children. My young son was in tears when he saw “Bambi”. Who would take care of him if his mother, who had taken him to the movie, was no longer on the scene? As my wife later told me, his face suddenly brightened up and he said “Daddy would take care of me!”. My wife was suitably impressed and amused by the fact that her son saw her as essentially as a caretaker, whatever other feelings he also had for her. He had gotten to the center of the matter. I remember, as a child, looking out my apartment window and saw a man playing his violin for spare change. I was immediately taken aback because I didn’t know how to play the violin. What would I fall back on if I became desperate? How would I sustain myself? Thes two incidents show just how serious it is to consider being or to be desperate. Like most people, I found my way into the job market and that took care of me. But what if you are surrounded and the cavalry does not come to the rescue?

Now think of a natural disaster, such as a hurricane or a drought or a plague, or else a manmade disaster, such as a war or a crime wave or a depression. It is a collective desperation that calls out for immediate relief. Indeed, a disaster can be defined as a collective situation, a breakdown of social and physical infrastructure, that occurs when the social resources of a community are overwhelmed and so the community cannot rescue itself. Supplies were sent across the bay from Oakland to aid San Francisco after the earthquake of 1906. Supplies were dispatched within a few days from Los Angeles. What worries students of disaster is the likelihood of a secondary disaster that is brought on by conditions left by the first disaster. In the case of San Francisco, it was a gigantic fire that resulted from open gas lines in the debris of the earthquake which were set off by people attempting to cook meals for themselves among the ruins. At the moment, I assume, disaster relief experts are concerned that many deaths might ensue in Puerto Rico if power is not quickly restored because diseases caught from polluted water will be rampant, as will the toll on people suffering from untreated wounds. Time is an imperative and for reasons I still don’t get supplies have not been moved as yet to remote areas.

Who is responsible? Trump says the Puerto Ricans who will not assist the federal government and the Mayor of San Juan blames the federal government for not doing enough. Trump has a point in that the Puerto Rican population have not made the island a prosperous place by stateside standards, its electrical grid not repaired for years by a power company that recently declared bankruptcy. Puerto Rico is a territory already deeply in collective debt despite all sorts of tax favors provided by the federal government. But there are those people without water and in times of crisis we put aside blame and come to the relief of others, don’t we?

We can better get at this question of blame, which seems to hold up even in natural disasters, by engaging in the sociological project of alternatively de-aggregating and re-aggregating a population. When we collect people into being a kind of people, then it is possible to place blame because the category is held responsible. A single poor person may be excused his poverty or helped even if he is the cause of his own destitution. But as soon as you speak of the poor as a group, then you can blame them or some portion of them for their situation. There are always the undeserving poor mixed in with the deserving poor and so you can dismiss the claims of the deserving by focussed on the bad actors in their midst. You can always make up, as Ronald Reagan did, a welfare queen who drives up in her Cadillac to pick up her welfare check. You can always say, as Trump does, that there are Puerto Ricans who are not cooperating in the recovery from the hurricane. The opposite process, for its part, is humanizing. You look at the poor wretch in the gutter and think someone should help even if you don’t want to help yourself. The cops should do it-- and they do. This idea goes against the notion that we hold individuals responsible for their behavior. Yes, some people want individuals convicted and maybe even executed, but that is because they are criminals, which means that they are part of a group that is collectively guilty, while a relative of yours who did a bad thing did so only because of having joined a bad crowd.

So whether there is blame to be placed depends on the language used about a group. Some terms used to describe those who have been through a catastrophe are relatively neutral, such as when those who have lived through concentration camps or hurricanes are described as “survivors”, that term prefered even to the term “victim”, which implies some diminishment of the person or some passivity in the person. It is unusual to use derogatory terms with regard to the survivors of a disaster because such events tend to hit people at random or through no cause of their own. Trump is unusual in turning on the people of Puerto Rico and considering them lazy or unwilling to help in their own recovery from a disaster, but then again nothing he says should be taken seriously, as an opinion rather than an angry response to the fact that he has been challenged on one of his many lies.

A good example of when even supposedly more reasonable people sometimes use harmless categories while at other times use derogatory categories occurs in the case of another disaster that has caught public attention: the opioid epidemic. Television and newspaper coverage treat the epidemic in individual rather than collective terms. This person or that person got hooked on a prescription drug or something else that is easily available, even though it is often mentioned as an incidental fact of the opioid epidemic that Appalachia and other rural communities are hit particularly hard, and then the epidemic is blamed, if that is the right word, on the despair felt by people living in those communities because of their marginal economic existence. It is to be remembered, however, that when the crack cocaine epidemic was at its height during the Eighties, the blame was much more easily assigned. It was a feature of ghetto communities and the lifestyle of people living in them. People who would not think of themselves as bigots found it appropriate to point out the provenance of addiction, as if that explained it, because a collective property can serve that purpose. It was not the first or the last time that there was and is a difference between the way black people and white people are talked about. So we don’t want to blame white people for their addictions.

There is another privileged party to this discussion: we don’t want to blame doctors for having over prescribed opioids, even though they are supposed to be very careful about using their prescription pads. It is all well and good to say that doctors feel compelled to do so because pain is real and should be addressed and because patients don’t want to go home after a doctor visit without anything. Moreover, that would be to go back on the doctor’s obligation to do something useful for his or her patients, even if it is only to ease suffering. But that means the doctor is treating a patient as a customer rather than a client: not intruding his or her judgment about what a patient needs. Even a hardware salesman is likely to recommend something you need and which may be other than what you asked for.

There is, then, plenty of blame to go around in any number of walks of life, though I think it would be generally advisable to avoid placing blame on those who suffer during disasters and think of placing blame on those responders who do not do anything useful. FEMA came up short in Puerto Rico, doctors came up short with opioids, and Congress has repeatedly come up short with regard to gun control legislation. As the expression goes, you don’t need an automatic rifle to shoot Bambi should, as a hunter, you be inclined to do so, but Republicans in the Congress are so much in the pay of the NRA that despite their protestation that they are just normal people who love their families, they are not likely to share my son’s identification with Bambi or, at any rate, to turn that into action when it is real people rather than allegorical representations of people who are at stake.