Sanctioned Sadism

Why the Right Needs the Homeless

What made the Barrett case stand out? For one thing, none of the other victims (except Webdale) was a young white woman. And in the Webdale case, the perp was a white male. But the attack on Barrett had all the makings of a tabloid feast: an attractive, white female victim and a wanted poster featuring a fearsome black man. For Rudy, it was a perfect way to distract people from the image of a heartless politician ripping children away from their mothers. Instead, the face of Paris Drake could stoke another, deep-seated image: the one that brought Bush père to power. This is the rationale the right always offers voters, and it's why—in a time of sharply dropping crime—they need the homeless now.

But racism is only one reason street people are such an inviting target. Their presence provokes deep anxiety, especially for the children and grandchildren of immigrant groups that once filled the city's poorhouses: the same white ethnics Giuliani is courting. These people are the largest voting bloc in New York State, and their reaction to homelessness today is an amalgam of pity and horror. This ambivalence is why the homeless are a hot-button issue to liberals and conservatives alike: Both sides see the larger stakes in the public's response. It's been that way in the city since colonial times.

City Hall Park, where Al Sharpton was arrested last Monday for protesting the mayor's crackdown, was the site of the city's first poorhouse, erected in 1736. Here, criminals were housed with vagabonds, beggars, "parents of Bastard Children," and any servant or slave deemed "ungovernable." They were all subject to ritual labor—such as shredding old rope for reuse—in order to teach them industry and deference. Those deemed unruly got "a moderate whipping."

Doorways are still for sleeping despite Giuliani's work-for-shelter policy.
photo: Michael Sofronski
Doorways are still for sleeping despite Giuliani's work-for-shelter policy.

The heirs to this tradition of coercing the poor into virtue and industry are running New York again, thanks in no small part to the Manhattan Institute, the think tank that helped Giuliani craft his social agenda. It's also Heather Mac Donald's base. You might have seen her on TV when the mayor's roundup began, referring to the homeless as "a so-called victim class."

From Mac Donald's meditations in City Journal, the institute's influential publication, you learn that "illegitimacy is the natural cause of poverty." She wants the city to launch a crusade to "restore the burden of having a child out of wedlock." To achieve this, every health-care worker should be "required to discuss adoption as the most loving alternative for the child." Unwed mothers should be forced to live in supervised group homes and denied additional benefits if they have more children while on welfare. As for the fathers, if they are too poor to provide child support they should be forced into workfare, and if they are already enrolled their "hours should be increased."

Of course, Mac Donald notes, it will take years to achieve these goals, but clearly Giuliani has made a strong start by threatening to take away the children of welfare recipients who don't work. This is precisely the kind of initiative Mac Donald recommends.

It's easy to forget that New York had poorhouses up until Franklin D. Roosevelt made welfare an entitlement in 1933. So the Manhattan Institute's approach is a throwback to an old tradition, right down to the breakup of indigent families. "The underlying dynamic, from my point of view, is that when the poor rise up they get some relief," says Frances Fox Piven, professor of sociology and political science at the CUNY Graduate Center. "But when quiescence is restored, partly as a result of these programs, there is an effort to roll them back, and those who do get relief are made into pariahs as a lesson to everyone who is working about the degradation that awaits them if they don't."

This fear of falling is a major motivator, even in boom times. It's why so many people are willing to work long hours in uncertain jobs with meager benefits. But that's not all. "Everybody looks at welfare as a psychodrama, which distracts attention from what's happening to the broad safety net that's been constructed over the past 60 years," says Piven. "Unemployment insurance is being cut back, social security is being tightened." We're being propelled toward an economy of chronic insecurity, and whipping up stigma serves to blind us—as it always does—to our common destiny.

There's a moment in a recent Forbes testimonial to Heather Mac Donald when she approaches a homeless man in a soup kitchen, the reporter in tow. Fixing "her unblinking gaze at him," Mac Donald fires off questions about his work history and personal life. When the man mutters, with "glazed eyes nervously darting back and forth," that he has no family and no home, Mac Donald delivers her verdict: "He should be diagnosed for drugs."

The right word for this response is sadism—and it's not limited to fellows of the Manhattan Institute. It's the dominant political style of the right. First they create anxiety by stoking a sense of danger, then they turn it into pleasure by inflicting punishment on those deemed dangerous, deviant, or merely unworthy. The right rises on this cycle of resentment and gratification. And now, in this most political season, they are using the homeless to light their fire.


Research: Jason Schwartzberg

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