The Passing Parade: Cheap Shots from a Drive By Mind

"...difficile est saturam non scribere. Nam quis iniquae tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se..." " is hard not to write Satire. For who is so tolerant of the unjust City, so steeled, that he can restrain himself... Juvenal, The Satires (1.30-32)

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Leisure time on someone else's nickel, or so I'm told

The history of social activism is a long and honorable one here in this our Great Republic, the names of those who gave so much of themselves to alleviate the burdens of a suffering humanity comprising a roster of some of the most revered names in our country’s history, people like Jane Addams, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mother Cabrini, which is probably why you’ve never heard of Al Capone’s soup kitchen. Social work and its attendant reform movements tried hard to do right by the poor and suffering, to appeal to all that’s good and decent in people, to remind one and all that we are, in fact, our brother’s keeper, and a man who believed that you could go farther with a kind word and a gun than you could with just a kind word tends to look a bit out of place on that roster of revered names I just mentioned. But, for what it’s worth, Al Capone had a soup kitchen.

Capone opened the soup kitchen in 1930, just as the Great Depression was beginning to take a big bite out of the American economy and the Feds were about to take a big bite out of Al’s free time.  The Internal Revenue Service was after him for income tax evasion, Eliot Ness and the Prohibition Bureau was after him for violating the Volstead Act, although in Al’s defense I should point out that the Volstead Act was probably the most violated act in American history up to that time, and Chicago’s business community was after him because after the St. Valentine’s Massacre Capone stopped being great local color and became bad for Chicago’s business climate. In addition, the people of Chicago were hurting financially and many of the good people who took an avid thrill in the doings of the local underworld when times were good now wanted the hoods tossed into the slammer now that times were bad. Seeing the gangsters and their molls parading around the hot spots in the newspapers rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, especially at a time when they didn’t know where their next meal was coming from or where they were going to get the money to pay the rent.  So, in 1930, Al Capone, owner and proprietor of a good-sized chunk of the City of Chicago, Illinois, opened a soup kitchen to help feed the city’s growing population of economically desperate people.

Now, you may not have heard of Al Capone’s soup kitchen, which is understandable, I guess, but the people in 1930 certainly knew about it—the mass media of the day thought the event newsworthy enough to send reporters and photographers and newsreel cameramen to cover the soup kitchen’s opening day. The troops of reporters and photographers and newsreel cameramen trooped into the soup kitchen, trooping being what troops of anything do when they have nothing better to do with their time, and the reporters interviewed and the photographers photographed and the newsreel cameramen filmed one garrulous old fellow who thanked Al Caponio—yes, that’s what he called Capone—for the beer bought bread he and his compatriots were eating and the he went on to say that there ain’t no work but by God we want to work and he didn’t know when there would be work but when there was work they’d be working. I’m not certain that I follow his exact train of thought; it is entirely possible that he couldn’t either; but I like what I think he’s trying to say. Did he actually believe what he was saying? Who knows? He may have been a down and outer, the Chicago equivalent of a Bowery bum, the kind of man who would have taken a handout no matter whom was doing the handing out, but what I find interesting here is that he felt the need to justify his actions at all.  He lived at a time when a man did not take charity, not if he could help it. A man supported himself and his family, if he had one, and that was that, even if you were a bum who didn’t ever intend to work. Taking a handout, admitting that you couldn’t support you and yours, was deeply embarrassing, if not actually shameful.  You wanted to work, you wanted to earn your keep; that’s just the way things were then.

I bring this up because this is not the way things are now here in this our Great Republic. Nope, nowadays the government can cause widespread economic hardships and its attitude is basically this: you got nothing to worry about, friend, really you don’t. Don’t have a job and you don’t have any prospects of getting one? Why, take some of your newly acquired leisure time and become a writer or a photographer or an artist, do something that unlocks the inner creative you. Be all that you can be, as the Army recruiters used to say, only without the down side of having terrorists taking pot shots at you. Of course, writers and photographers and artists don’t really make a lot of money doing what they do, but again, the government tells you, that’s not a problem, either. There are welfare and unemployment benefits and food stamps and a whole host of other programs that will tide you over as you go searching for the inner creative you.

And who pays for this search for the inner creative you? Why, the rich, of course, they’ll be more than happy to foot the bill, except when they’re not happy to foot the bill, which will be most of the time.  There’s a reason why rich people hire accountants and tax lawyers, folks, and it isn’t to help you find your inner creative self; it’s to help them hang on to as much of their money as they can. And the poor certainly can’t finance your dreams of artistic expression; they don’t have any money, something you already know because you’re one of them. No, the government will have to get the wherewithal for your search for the inner creative you the old-fashioned way: taxing people with jobs. The people with jobs will not want to finance any of this artistic navel gazing, of course; being the mean and petty bourgeois people that they are, they will want to spend that money on their kids’ education or improving their homes or buying a big gas guzzling SUV that only serves to warm the Earth and kill polar bears and cute little harp seals; but the government is watching out for you, never fear. The government will make those greedy bums fork over the money just like they ought to because at a certain point you’ve made enough money and you should help spread it around, you know what I mean? And for such a good cause too. The government doesn’t do enough to help people find their inner artist; there ought to be a program for that.

And yes, I will concede that if the government cut taxes and regulations and simply stopped hogging the road so that others could get by then a lot of these problems would solve themselves, but nowadays here in this our Great Republic the party of Tweed, Tammany, and White Supremacy is in charge and getting out of the way of people who actually do productive things is definitely not on any politician’s agenda. I think that this may explain the ruling class’ sudden love affair with leisure time and the arts. That an unemployed person now has a greater opportunity to look into new and creative ways of spending their leisure time strikes the cynical observer, and yes, I am one of those, thank you for asking, as the sort of thing a husband says when his wife catches him in bed with the babysitter because he doesn’t have the wit to deny everything and invoke the Marxist principle of who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?  Sometimes there is simply too much pig and not enough lipstick to go around.  Annoying but true, I fear.

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  • At 4:50 PM, Blogger Dick Stanley said…

    Al, poor Al, where are you now that we need you? Dead of syphilis in 1947 at age 48, according to Wikipedia. A life cut short by, uh, too much search for the inner something or other.

  • At 3:00 PM, Blogger miriam sawyer said…

    Welfare was considered shameful for my parents' generation, back in the 30s.

  • At 9:05 AM, Blogger Dick Stanley said…

    The 30s are long gone. Likewise your parents generation.


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