Wednesday, March 26, 2008


I'll admit it, sometimes here at Adventures in Irony we don't want to write one more word about our mandated subject, Homelessness. We, meaning me, Copyright Dr. Wes Browning, have/has a long list of subjects I think are vastly more fun and entertaining. One of those subjects is Anthropology.

I probably like Anthropology because I am an anthropon myself. In fact, when I first learned that Anthropology meant the study, by human beings, of human beings, I pictured an Anthropology professor standing at a mirror, checking herself out. Or maybe I already had that picture in my head. I should get that studied.

It turns out that United Way has just discovered that people who are homeless are human beings, so they have hired an anthropologist to study them. I learned about it in the P-I last Thursday. So I get to talk about Anthropology after all!

Her name is Debra Boyer and the picture accompanying the story shows her standing in a Seattle alley "that is commonly populated by drunken homeless people" with a proud Vince Matulionis standing well behind her, clearly thrilled to have her there and ready to anthropologize away.

Vince Matulionis directs the United Way of King County's Ending Homelessness group. I met Mr. Matulionis a few years ago when the King County Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness was just getting started. He talked about the Ten Year Plan, such as it was, and the need to deal with chronic homelessness first, and gave every impression of knowing about whom he and his Ten Year Planning people were planning for. After all, he had different names for different kinds.

It wouldn't make sense, would it, to go off and plan to end a bunch of people's homelessness in ten years, if you didn't know anything about the people whose homelessness you were ending? It would be sort of like going to war in a foreign country when you didn't know anything about the people who lived there, or whether they would greet your troops with flowers or guns. Only a moron would do that.

So it's a bit of a shock to me now that Mr. Matulionis is so proud of United Way's implied belated admission (what's it been, four years?) that they have been planning to end the homelessness of people they didn't know.

Let me explain what a field anthropologist does. The P-I article isn't real clear on this point, so I think it's worth spending a few words on it. An anthropologist gets to know people by going and meeting them and talking to them. Then, she goes and thinks about what they said to her, and writes up what that tells her about them.

So, in other words, you hire an anthropologist to get to know people you don't have the time or the interest to get to know. Your anthropologist sums up her findings, and you work from there.

I feel compelled to make an admission of my own. Obviously, I did not get to know Vince Matulionis as well as I should have, those four or five years ago. Perhaps I was too interested in ordering lunch. Perhaps I just didn't care enough about Vince Matulionis and his planning group people.

And it's not just Mr. Matulionis. It's the whole bunch of them. I'm talking about all the Ten Year Planning to End Homelessness Planners. I'm talking about their Governing Board. I'm talking about the Interagency Council.

Who are these suits? Why am I always finding out they know less each day than they claimed to know the day before? Is it part of their culture? Is it passed down from father to son, from mother to daughter? Or, are there no fathers and mothers? Are their families structured some weird way I never heard of, and everybody is raised by pigs?

What I'm saying is, I need a field anthropologist to get to know Mr. Matulionis & Friends, and report back to me.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Crossing Allies

Last Thursday some Real Change people and friends camped out at the City Hall Plaza in the second such effort to draw Mayor Greg Nickels' royal attention to our call for an end to his inhumane and illegal sweeps of homeless encampments. I could go on and on about the fact that Greg Nickels gave every appearance of not giving a damn, and how that means we'll be back, and probably back again, and again, but there will be plenty of time for that later. What I want to do now is talk about cross-class sleeping.

[Above: A portion of the tents on the plaza that night. Photo stolen from catherd Doug McKeehan by way of a post on Apesma's Lament.]

My first experience with cross-class sleeping was the rebound whose Father owned a multi-million dollar chain of laundromats back East. Daddy gave her a red Corvette for her graduation present. She owned so many clothes she had to buy her own commercial size clothes rack. Her clothes rack was bigger than my whole apartment. We didn't get along very well. I came to believe that cross-class sleeping would not bring classes together, politically.

I now realize how wrong I have been. There are ways to make cross-class sleeping work. Those ways involve insomnia, coffee, and wet tents.

Get people together to try to sleep in wet tents! They will not be able to sleep! They will then be forced to talk amongst themselves, causing social glues to exude from their pores, sticking them to each other! It worked last Thursday between myself and a bunch of strangers. If I can bond to a bunch of strangers so can almost anyone.

The classes I have bonded with so far include various intern-classes and legal-aide-classes. In the future I hope to bond to other kinds of classes.

One very promising class is the class of clergy. I came literally within inches of bonding with representatives of the clerical class during the camp out. I actually felt their silky vestments! How many of you readers have ever come so close to bonding with clergy that you felt their silky vestments? (Just a raise of hands will do. Details aren't necessary.)

It turns out these clergy were mostly morning people, so my plans to invade their tents and bond more thoroughly did not pan out. But I can plan better for the next camp out. I am looking forward to a night, three months from now, of cross-class alliance-ing with at least three ministers simultaneously. My plan makes room for a very early pillow fight. With proper timing, I should be able to get in, bond, and get out again in time to bond with some night people elsewhere. Lawyers or bartenders, conceivably.

Even the little bit of bonding I was able to do with the clergy at last week's camp out taught me a very important lesson about them. Clergy are human too. They have the same needs that we do. Some of them eat lasagna.

Another class I look forward to bonding to is the class of Seattle City Council Members. I only saw one city council member Thursday, new guy Tim Burgess, and he didn't join in the camp out. Next time I want to see all nine in tents of their own. I'm sure they all love camping, why else live and do politics in the Pacific Northwest? I'll bet Mr. Burgess skis, even.

Further into the future I foresee opportunities to ally cross-class-ly to all sorts of classes I now rarely have occasion to think about. The class consisting mainly of retired television repairmen. Whatever class acupuncturists belong to. The class of jewelers who are also former tugboat workers. The class of Times and/or P-I reporters.

Who knew that Times and/or P-I reporters valued their evenings so much that none of them could swing by after rush hour to see it? The lesson: If there isn't a riot or a conflagration going on, Seattle's mainstream reporters are going to stay home to watch Lost.

After socially allying with mainstream reporters, I may be ready for mayors.

[Below: High priority for mainstream reporters everywhere.]

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Time to Recount

We are approaching what is being called the 5th anniversary of the Iraq War, and my attention has been called to that calling of it. The attention calling was done by fellow editor Artis "Not Just The Spoonman" [no last name.] Every time the subject of the Iraq War comes up in the little editorial committee meetings we have, Artis reminds us that "The Iraq War" has been going on without letup at least since the United States invaded Iraq on January 17, 1991, and therefore the anniversary we should have recognized was not the 5th but the 17th Anniversary, two months ago.

It occurred to me just last night, as I was sobering, that this is a case of "reckoning." I believe the word "reckoning" is not used often enough, and this instance demonstrates the need. Whenever someone reckons something, it would help a great deal if he/she would announce it by saying, "I reckon that... ", or, "The way I reckon it is... ", or, "By my reckoning... ", so we would all be reminded it wasn't a date or a number or an age we just heard, but a reckoning of one.

Reckoning can be loads of fun. For example, you can reckon that the official start of the War on Osama bin Laden began the day the Saudis told him they didn't love him anymore. That happened exactly when the Saudis decided to accept non-Muslim assistance in defending against the threat of Iraqi invasion (after Iraq invaded Kuwait, remember?) in direct opposition to bin Laden's idea to kick Iraqi butt with an all-Muslim army. (See? There WAS a connection between bin Laden and Iraq, before 2003!)

I could reckon that the Iraq War began at the precise beginning of history. The first written words, I reckon, were written on a clay tablet and inventoried bricks thrown by people of Sumerian city-state Eridu at people of upstart Sumerian city-state Bad-tibira. Since then there has always been an Iraq War, it's only been a question of whose war it was. For instance, for a time the Mongols owned the Iraq War. Later, the Ottomans owned it for almost 4 centuries. Then the British owned it for awhile. In 1977 even the Israelis owned a piece of it. Persians have owned it off and on, since King Cyrus. And since 1990, at the urging of Margaret Thatcher, the United States has been principal proprietor.

[Above Right: A crude facsimile of a Sumerian tablet bemoaning the fact that war only benefits brick-makers. Below: The terrible consequences of uncontrolled brick-proliferation.]

Important: Never call your reckonings calculations. If you call them calculations, people will think you're doing math. They will then groan and shun you. Likewise, never admit to counting anything. Always say you're "re-counting" it. That way it sounds like you're telling a story, which is a warm fuzzy human thing to do, instead of adding up numbers, which is a cold metallic alien thing to do, because we all personally know aliens who add all the time.

Incidentally, the word "reckon" originated with Old English "gerecenian" meaning "recount' as in "relate" or "tell a story." So etymology backs me up on this front.

[Left: What a difference an extra "E" makes!]

Which brings me around to the point I want to make. It is war, not the act of counting, that is the exact opposite of recounting and relating. War is organized confusion. War negates story telling. War kills stories. Therefore war kills reckoning.

Again, etymology is on my side. Of course, just as Eskimos have no one word for "snow", and Bedouins have no one word for "sand" (I'm making this up), so the ancient Germanic peoples didn't have a word for war per se. But one word they used, which was the word that comes down to us as "war", meant "to confuse." They were very cognizant of the fact that wearing a bear suit and a helmet with horns and running through a village shrieking and hacking at people with axes is perplexing, even disorienting, behavior.

Conversely, if you want to fight war you have to do it by taking back reckoning and recounting and story telling.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

History of the Poor, Part I

As this great Nation prepares to change, it's time for us all to look at the lessons of the past for inspiration and guidance in changing. A particularly important part of history is the economic part.

Usually, when someone proposes to talk about economic history, they mean the history of making and spending money. But to waste space today, I would like to talk about the opposite, namely the history of not making and spending money. I want to talk about the history of poverty.

The poor have always been with us. According to Amos, a minor prophet, the going price for a poor person in Israel ca 750 BC was a cheap pair of sandals. So you know they had poor people in fairly large supply. In fact they had so many poor people that they made it a practice to talk of THE poor, as opposed to this poor guy or that poor guy.

[Above: A pair of sandals and change.]

In those days, the poor were mainly used to determine who was a good person or not. If you treated the poor justly you were good. But if you showed favoritism, by, say, not lashing them when they stole bread, that showed you were in need of correction. The idea that you might favor poor people may sound strange today, but in those times it was the equivalent of Populism.

The poor were so numerous in Biblical times that they became the cool people. Jesus hung with them, and there were poor-wannabes. To satisfy the people who wanted to be poor but couldn't quite go the extra mile it took, a new category called "the poor in spirit" was invented. Just like today's categories of "middle class" or "black" or "zen", anybody in those times could say they were poor in spirit. No one could disprove it. Especially since they had no surveillance cameras.

[Above Right: Jesus with poor homies and wannabes.]

It was the practical Romans who said "let's get real" about this and first defined poverty. They called it paupertas and had ways to measure it. You had to empty your pockets and they'd count your cash and tell you if you qualified. In some cases they would just take your word for it. That has come down to us as the rule of "in forma pauperis" by which you can get some relief by swearing a "pauper's oath." The point was, they had a definition, so they could always check if you were lying.

In the Middle Ages there was a period beginning around the 13th Century when there was some confusion of beggars with the poor. Monks would take vows of poverty and go around begging (the word "beggar" comes from the name of such an order) and people would get annoyed (especially at fakers among them) and take their annoyance out on all the poor. Things got so far out of hand that by the 16th Century the Council of Trent had to get behind the virtues of owning property, to stem the tide of mendicants.

[Left: Typical faking fake beggar, ruining it for real beggars everywhere.]

For many centuries the idea of poverty was mainly of concern to churches and courts. It wasn't until the late 1800s that sociologists came up with the term "underprivileged." To understand this term you have to know that the word "privilege" really means "private law." In other words to have privilege is to have laws on your own personal side. So the underprivileged are people who have less of that. In other words, it means, "poor in laws." Recognizing that there could be such a thing was a great leap forward which required the invention of many new college departments and degrees.

When I was growing up in the 1950s the poor divided neatly into three categories. There was 1) the Salt Of The Earth poor. That was your basic Appalachian poor, your coal miners, your sand farmers, and such. There were 2) the vagabonds and the hobos. And there were 3) minorities.

Then, Ronald Reagan was elected president, and invented homelessness. And here we are.