The Compassionate Heart of America
April 2, 2004
The needs of "homeless" people were questioned at a recent community meeting at The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. The Compassion Zone, a place where vagrants might be corralled for everybody's own good, was mentioned. Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes answered the community present by rephrasing and throwing back the question everyone had in mind in the first place:
"How do we create an environment in downtown to recognize the needs of the homeless and balance the needs of other people who come there to live and work and to be entertained?"
The positive-thinking mayor might have answered the question positively in the first place. Houseless people need housing. Hungry people need food. Sick people need health care. Unemployed people need work. That much is rather obvious. What then will the mayor do if anything at all? As progressive positive thinkers know very well, the city can provide all that by rule of law, and the private sector can do so voluntarily.
Since the community meeting was attended by spiritually inclined people, the mayor might have preached the gospel: if the God of Love had anything to do with it, each and every pink-hearted Christian attending the meeting would take a houseless person home or to some other appropriate shelter. As for the "Almighty Father," he was allegedly good to his obedient kind, hence Kansas City's visionary mayor might have pointed that one reason Julian the Apostate, for example, admired Jews, was that every Jew was at home in Jewish communities - there were no beggars.
However that might be, the houseless people drifting through the Compassion Zone should not be stereotyped or dealt with in typical corporate cookie-cutter fashion. Yet we can make some legitimate generalizations based on statistical studies. First of all, poverty is not always the fault of the poor. We tend to blame the poor because we fear poverty and love our independence. Even devout people are reluctant to admit that, "But for the grace of God, there go I."
Self-help does go a long way, but the complex interdependence of the modern industrial system requires more cooperation or help-others than self-help as we once knew it. We no longer wholly agree with the economist Roger Babson, who during the Depression said something our positive-thinking mayor can appreciate: "Better business will come when the unemployed change their attitude toward life." Nor do many of us admire Henry Ford for declaring, "I think it is a shameful thing that any man should have to stoop to take charity, or give it."
People sometimes fall from the machinery or are ground up by it; more people than anyone can count in a lifetime might, by some quirk of fate or general economic downturn, wind up hungry and sick on streets paved with gold. Moreover, it is said that the majority of houseless people are drug addicts or alcoholics, and they deserve what they suffer in return for their moral turpitude. But the majority are not drug addicted to drugs and alcohol, at least not any more than your bulging-belly smoker of cigars or cigarettes who likes to have a couple of cocktails every day - he might not believe in giving cash to panhandlers because he fears they will spend it on smoking and drinking. Yes, it is true, many vagrants are are mentally ill; living on the streets is conducive to mental illness and addiction to poisons. And mind thee that many houseless people do work, but are paid a pittance and cannot afford to get up funds to land housing. But everybody knows all that and more besides, so let us return to Kansas City's political civic leader.
Mayor Barnes posed the obvious question. We have read the sociologists. We have listened to the social workers. We have read Diane Stafford's workplace column; we know about having a good attitude, about independent contracting, about creating our own jobs. We recall what Henry Ford said: "I have always had work, whether anyone hired me or not. For the first forty years of my life, I was an employee. When not employed by others, I employed myself."
More than half of us have been houseless during our lifetimes. We bounced back. We know what to do. So does Mayor Barnes. But what will she do if anything? Of course we might talk and talk about what we might do, ask others what they would do, then wind up doing nothing. We know we should back up talk with deeds, that we should do as presidents Herbert Clark Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt admonished us to do: cooperate, voluntarily and involuntarily. If only Mayor Barnes would put her phenomenal sales skills to work to realize the ideal Compassion Zone! Then the Heart of America would be the right place to be to boost America with the best of all examples.
The Heart of America is indubitably the true spirit of Kansas City. Booster Edwin J. Shannahan, a Pendergast Goat, coined the symbolic phrase in 1911. "It is the spirit the name suggests that is even more significant," he said. "The word 'America' gives it a patriotic flavor, and the word 'Heart' stands for all that is noble in life - affection, sympathy, enthusiasm, hospitality, generosity and other warm attributes which Kansas City possesses."
"There has grown within us," said Herbert Hoover during the course of his October 31, 1932 speech at Madison Square Garden, "to gigantic importance, a new conception... voluntary cooperation within the community... to perfect the social organization... cooperation for those in distress... this is self-government by the people outside of government; it is the most powerful development of individual freedom and equal opportunity that has taken place in the century and a half since our fundamental institution was founded."
Republican President Hoover's reputation was fatally tarnished by his failure to respond appropriately to the Great Depression. That failure was ironic because Hoover happened to be one of the greatest Czars of Compassionate Relief who ever lived. Still today my father chokes up when he mentions Herbert Hoover's relief organizations in Europe, how he provided relief for 10,000,000 homeless and hungry children. Hoover, a mining engineer by vocation, raised over $3 billion in relief funds and coordinated the distribution of 23 million tons of food in 30 European countries during the Great War. Back in the U.S.A., he began a long political career. As Secretary of Commerce under Harding and Coolidge, Hoover reorganized the department along voluntary-cooperation lines. He raised $34 million in relief for the great 1927 Mississippi flood, relocating 1,500,000 people to safe ground.
As president Hoover was faced with three big problems: regulation of Prohibition; instability in Europe culminating in a tremendous financial collapse; the Crash and Great Depression. He helped save the banks by organizing the Reconstruction Finance corporation, but his relief to the unemployed was too little, too late. There is a lesson in his failure. His experience in Europe convinced him that Americans were a different kind of individuals than European individuals. Americans were rugged individuals who were more capable of voluntarily helping themselves and each other. He believed that, as far as America was concerned, the government should only intervene with massive relief in the event of natural disasters or wars; otherwise, the American business system, rugged individualism equality of opportunity would resolved economic problem. He did not recognize that the rising unemployment at the outset of the Great Depression was a disaster warranting massive relief. He wanted to keep most of the cooperation voluntary, that is, outside of the government. He mouthed platitudes about self-help, rugged individualism, and equal opportunity, while an increasing number of people were losing their homes and going hungry.
Platitudes. In a sense our lives are cliches and our libraries are filled with plagiary. The sin is in failing to be "original" individuals, in failing to disguise our commonplace cliches and platitudes. In other words, the words of Ella Wheeler Wilcox:
"We are given to sneering at platitudes in this age, and we sometimes forget that principles are platitudes.... We despise the commonplace, yet the virtues are commonplace qualities, when we come down to the facts."
Wherefore we should not dismiss President Hoover's platitudes out of hand, for they hold true to a certain extent. The error was in his definition of that extent and in his misunderstanding of the evolution of the industrial-scientific revolution - the so-called "American System" was not a closed system' owned by Republicans; it was dynamic, not static.
In any case, American individuals were not as original or unique as Hoover opined. He was more than ready and willing to help needy European individuals, but he seems to have looked down on them and thought that, despite their disastrous situations, they were somehow morally deficient in the rugged equal opportunity individualism, self-help and help-others departments. That would never happen to original American individuals, he figured, at least not to that extent: they would never become that down-and-out. Therefore he made a terrible mistake and millions of people suffered needlessly as a consequence until Roosevelt recognized the problem and solved it. Incidentally, Roosevelt first campaigned as a fiscal conservative.
When Hoover looked down at the European recipients of relief, he should have said, "But by the grace of God, there go I." And so should we. With that in mind, the Heart of America will start beating in the Compassion Zone.