The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Do Homeless People Enjoy Being Homeless?

“Across The Universe” (2007)

Anyone who grew up with the Beatles and remembers the dreadful “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” film could help but have serious reservations about Julie Taymor’s ode to the 60’s, a psychdelic extravaganza like nothing I’ve seen in a decade or more…certainly not since Foreman’s film version of “Hair.” Weaving several stories together, and featuring archetypes more than characters (the radical chick, the immigrant Brit, the antiwar draftee, the Black Guitar Hero, the Rock Goddess) traversing a map of 60’s America—drugs, war, class struggle, racial strife, musical transformation, political activism and more—using the Beatles songbook. Because the songs are used (roughly) in order of their actual composition, it is fascinating to see the progression from simpl love songs and bouncy dance ditties to meditations on reality and sanity itself (Goo goo goo Joob!) and there is a use of the phrase “she’s so heavy” that made me laugh louder and harder than I have in months. Ultimately, though, I think this is the kind of movie that you either get, or you don’t. I got it, and loved it. Be warned—it’s a mind-bender, and the narrative is secondary to the emotional threads woven by the music itself. For most viewers, a “B.” For old Beatlemaniacs like me, an “A.”
A reader opined that America provides the basic services I suggested that we should provide as a safety net. He didn’t state whether he thought this was a good idea, but shall we assume he does? If so, all I’m saying is that these basic services provide a foundation from which an even more gracious, successful and dynamic society. Now, I think that this belief of mine is rooted in a basic sense of what human beings are—and at the most basic level, you can’t come to any universal conclusions. This stuff has been debated for thousands of years, and we ain’t gonna settle it here. I WILL say that I think our attitudes about these things relates to our basic sense of self. What we think WE are. And that the things inside ourselves we like the least we project onto others.

I believe (and I try very hard to label these opinions of mine AS opinions, rather than “facts”) that people on average aren’t “good” or “bad” but rather trying to move away from pain and toward pleasure. And as the levels of abstraction grow more complex, we tend to learn to cooperate to get what we want, to give and receive affection, to learn to be honest. In other words, we learn to do the things which are considered “good.” We want to survive.

But it seems to me that the average person is capable of performing, accepting or justifying horrors, given the right (wrong) situation. The more I researched slavery, the more it seemed clear to me that slave owners, and their neighbors, were just ordinary people who saw an economic necessity. And because of that necessity, they supported or participated in a system which inevitably led to murder, torture, rape, and brainwashing on a stupendous scale. I know their descendants. I’ve read letters and speeches by the people who profited by slavery directly or indirectly. The people who fought to maintain it, even if they didn’t own a slave (most Southern whites did not). Utter, raving horror. And people had to be in SERIOUS denial about its effects, create an entire mythology suggesting that blacks were sub-human, in order to justify the institution they felt they needed.

Evil actions. Evil people? Not in my mind. Most of the time, just people doing what they felt they needed to do to get by. I’m sorry, but I see human nature as damned flexible, that the standards and ethics we’re programmed with in childhood—explicitly (by parents, schools, churches) or implicitly (by observing the actions of the society around us.) determine our behaviors and beliefs to a degree most people would be terrified to admit.

Do homeless people enjoy being homeless? I had a friend say that he’d researched this, and found a world of hustlers and con-artists who “enjoy the life” on the streets. All right. I’ve had to rescue friends from homelessness, and that was certainly not my experience. Perhaps it would be more useful to say: “I believe that X percentage of homeless people are on the street because they consciously refuse to “play the game” of society” What would that percentage be?

All of these discussions really come back to the question of how shall we live together in society. And that question rests on the beliefs we have about human nature, what is it that we are. “What is Man that thou art mindful of him.” My position is that we are one family, that the evil we see in others is a reflection of what we fear in ourselves. THAT is why I say the things I say, and I’m very clear on that. To have less compassion would be to begin to judge the injustices I see in the world—and in history—in a very different way. I won’t go there. Wouldn’t be healthy.


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