Monday, April 28, 2008

Hypothetical Kindness

The Chicago Tribune is calling it a backlash. After three unsolved murders, some in Madison have decided to pin the guilt collectively on the city's homeless community. Thus, after nearly a decade of failed social and economic policies have driven thousands of people formerly on the margins over the edge into homelessness, our overdue public dialogue about the homeless centers on how best to lynch them.

Fred Mohs' "Out of My Backyard" suggestion simply moves the problem to a different part of town. The Trib article points out that one possible reason for increased trouble in downtown student neighborhoods is recent efforts to move panhandlers off of State Street. The rants since the start of the latest "backlash" seem to fall into two camps (apart from David Blaska's macabre, victorian workhouse fantasy). First there's the "let's all throw away this namby-pamby, liberal compassion pretense and judge them!" response. John Roach, for instance, suggests we dedicate an official month to brainstorming ideas for combatting the homeless menace. This dovetails nicely into the "Throw them all in prison!" camp, which is really what these people are getting at. Fining people with no money doesn't work. Moving them around the city with petty restrictions doesn't work. We're talking about incarcerating a group a people we're afraid of. Imprisoning Madison's estimated 3400 homeless residents, at $30,000 per inmate, would cost right around $102 million a year. Are these people really willing to spend this much? If they are, I've got a better idea.

Let's return to reality for a moment. Let's come back to the world where (assuming it even was a homeless person) we're worked up about one guy in a community of thousands of people who've been completely neglected by society and whose only common offense is lacking a roof and four walls. How about we take just a fraction of that hundred-million-dollars a year (say a tenth) and invest it in transitional housing, humane mental-health and substance-abuse treatment, and even a few more level-headed beat cops like Officer Meredith York (featured in the Tribune article).

Will it mean an end to unsolved murders, aggressive panhandling and even homelessness? Of course not. There are too many issues here and too many individuals to fall under any blanket solution, especially with the poverty rate rising. What it will do is get more of these people off the streets and into programs focused on helping them, rather than prisons focused on punishing them.

Regardless of who's to "blame" for any one person's homelessness, there are people in this city in need of shelter. We can deal with them constructively or we can deal with them punitively. . . or we can try not to deal with them at all. No points for guessing which we'll choose.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Now Fear This

A few days ago the Wall Street Journal published a short op-ed piece responding to Governor Doyle's characterization of the results of Tuesday's Supreme Court election as a "a tragedy". To be fair to Doyle, he was actually characterizing the loss to the state of Louis Butler, paying Butler a compliment more than making a comment on the election process. I, on the other hand, would characterize the entire election as "a tragedy" without any reservation.

The Journal goes on to frame the election as a contest between a liberal judicial philosophy and a conservative one and, after listing Justice Butler's myriad assaults on corporate liability protections ends with this stern warning, "A seat on the bench is not a sinecure, and justices who abuse or contort the law must sometimes answer for their actions."

What a load of crap. The merit of the right's all-encompassing "activism" label notwithstanding (it's implied here and used explicitly earlier in the piece) to frame the discourse of this election as having anything but the slightest connection to corporate liability is horribly dishonest. To be sure, protection from civil liability was at the heart of the corporatist push to elect their hired man at any cost but this wasn't something the Gableman campaign or any of its surrogates were eager to share with the public. "Elect me and I'll slam the courthouse door in your face." isn't a rallying cry that really resonates with the rank and file. No, apart from using a liberal enough sprinkling of the "activist" label to make it clear that even he wasn't sure what he meant, Mike Gableman ran his campaign on pure fear.

In tough times, the right has made fear its weapon of choice. Fear of communists, fear of minorities, fear of homosexuals, fear of terrorists, they've all been used to justify and defend some of the worst decisions in this nation's history, everything from draconian civil-rights abuses to our current, disastrous foreign policy.

Gableman's choice was fear of criminals. He used it to blind the public to the true role of Supreme Court in Wisconsin's judicial system to say nothing of the role of public defenders. In Gableman's world, there was no presumption of innocence, no right to due process of law and no ethical obligation to ably represent the accused. He wanted you to think that Butler was just trying to let these people out SO THEY COULD KILL YOU!!!

So do I, as the Journal suggests of Doyle, think too little of the Wisconsin electorate? If I thought so, I wouldn't be writing this. These types of scare tactics have played far too large a role in our public discourse lately and they wouldn't work if people took the trouble to think about what's really going on. We live in a state that incarcerates twice as many people as Minnesota (at $30,000 a piece) with no real difference in crime rate to show for it. We live in a state that barred equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians without a shred of credible evidence that fears of some catastrophic societal degradation were remotely founded. We now live in a state where corporate interests from all corners of the globe can sully our airwaves and lie to our faces for months and be rewarded with a bought-and-paid-for partisan hack on the Supreme Court bench, twice!

A century ago Wisconsin cleaned up nonsense like this and I think we can do it again. All it takes is understanding where the true threats lie, not to fear them, but to face them.