Yesterday, outside a coffee shop here in New Orleans, I saw a man slumped on the sidewalk in the heat. When he opened his mouth to talk, I could only see two teeth. He was about as broken and unhealthy as an unhoused person can be. He was borderline unintelligible as he asked me to go in and get him something to drink. The temperature has been 100 F here repeatedly over the last two months, the hottest summer we have ever had. I got the guy some iced tea, but I worried about what comes next for him. He had been completely abandoned by his fellow human beings. Unable to speak, suffering in the heat, unable to stay clean, all he can hope to do is survive day to day.
I thought of the guy I met yesterday when today I saw Fox News host Jesse Watters go on a rant about how we need to “stigmatize homelessness.” Watters’ repulsive tirade went as follows:
Homelessness isn’t about lack of affordable housing. It’s about drug addicts that want to wander around and live in tents on the sidewalk. And so you can’t coddle anti-social behavior. You can’t subsidize anti-social behavior. You have to stigmatize it. You can’t celebrate people with purple hair, with nose rings, four kids with four different men, who are dressed like trash, and make them out to be some sort of cutting-edge heroes. You have to call them what they are. These are people that have failed in life and they’re on their deathbed. And if we’re not honest about it, we’re never going to fix this problem.
As usual with the right, there is so much wrong with this one paragraph that it will take far longer to respond to it than it did to speak it. One minor observation before we deal with the homelessness stuff is that I am constantly fascinated by how often the right invokes “purple hair” as a sign of everything that’s wrong with the country. It interests me in part because it seems to be an admission that even mild cultural nonconformity (non-approved hair colors, a piercing in the wrong place) upsets the right. To me, this proves that those who say they are on the side of “individualism” and “freedom” in fact believe in a stiflingly narrow set of possible ways to exist, and dislike even the most modest deviation from its arbitrary norms. Every time I hear someone on the right complain about “purple hair” and “nose rings,” I am reminded that I do not want to live in the kind of society where people are constantly judging each other harshly for their choices of individual expression. (Unless it’s one of Jordan Peterson’s garish jackets.)
But then there’s this ridiculous notion that people “want” to “live in tents on the sidewalk.” What does Jesse Watters think the appeal of living in a tent during 100 degree weather is that would make people “want” to do it? Yes, the guy without teeth collapsing in the heat, begging for a drink of water, has simply decided that this is the best of all possible lives. Freedom of choice! Just like famine victims are just choosing low-calorie lifestyles and migrants fleeing poverty have decided they’d enjoy being cut to bits on booby-tapped buoys.
For fabulously wealthy people like Watters, “failing in life” is simply something you decide to do, and if you make that decision, you should just be left on your “deathbed” to perish in the scorching heat caused by the high-emissions lifestyles of people like Watters. Even though homelessness rises as rents go up, the existence of tent cities, these people tell us, has exactly nothing to do with the economy. This is because there is essentially no such thing, within the right-wing worldview, as being the victim of forces you did not control. It is a fundamentally Social Darwinist mentality that says: if you die on the streets, it’s because you were clearly unworthy of life. It doesn’t matter if your parents were drug addicts, or imprisoned (Jesse Watters’ own parents were successful professionals. His mother seems a perfectly nice person whose efforts to encourage her son to stop being a demagogue and seek solutions to social problems have fallen on deaf ears.) Even addiction itself is simply a choice, with the addictive properties of chemical substances having nothing to do with it.
I don’t think there’s any way to refute this worldview effectively, because its proponents see it as essentially axiomatic. If I present stories of single parents evicted when their rent was raised by huge amounts, Watters will just say that they shouldn’t have become parents to begin with. I don’t think any number of case studies can induce someone like this to show compassion for other people. Clearly it is simply not something he possesses. If you’re the type of person who can look at someone dying in the streets, and instead of rushing to their aid, simply say “well, they ought to be stigmatized,” you have long since shed your last iota of human empathy.
Stigmatize them. That’s what Watters wants to do. The guy slumped in a doorway, pleading for water, should be stigmatized. We should make him feel bad about his situation. (News flash to Watters: society already stigmatizes unhoused people plenty.) And we certainly shouldn’t help him, because that would “incentivize” his “behavior” by “subsidizing” it. The only way he’ll learn not to die in the street is by dying in the street.
Clearly, people like Watters don’t have any actual solutions for homelessness. We actually know the solutions, and they’re quite simple. (When you give people housing unconditionally, they no longer live on the streets, and the problem of people living on the streets is solved.) Their objection to these solutions is not practice but moral; they think it is not fair that they, the prosperous, should have to subsidize those they view as indolent and irresponsible. They think those who live on the streets are getting their just deserts. Watters has no actual explanation of how stigmatization is going to solve the problem. But even though he says he wants to “fix” it, I don’t think he really does. I think he just wants to find some way to avoid having to feel bad about it, to live happily with his wealth without having to contemplate the lives of people who suffer.
Is it worth mentioning Watters’ ridiculous claim that we need to stop making “cutting-edge heroes” of those without housing? I don’t even know what that means; I think he just uses words for their sounds without any regard for their meaning. Those of us on the left believe that the poorest people are human beings, not heroes, and that is the difference between us and people like Watters. We think human beings deserve compassion and care, and do not think it right to say “you and your four children will sleep in a tent because we judge your moral choices.” In such a rich country, nobody should have so little money that they have to sleep in a tent. Period. This is our own axiom, our own moral absolute.
I’m constantly sick of the hypocrisy and inaction of rich liberals, but right-wing cruelty really is next level, to the point where it’s outright sadistic. Back during the Trump years, I wrote about a few cases of unbelievable cruelty that got little attention, such as the deportation of Jimmy Aldaoud, a schizophrenic diabetic from Detroit who was sent to Baghdad, where he died on the streets from a lack of insulin. The battle lines in American politics are between those who think this is okay and those who cannot sleep soundly at night until it’s stopped. (I should note that many Democrats seem to sleep perfectly soundly as president Biden carries out all kinds of cruel policies.)
Matthew Desmond has an excellent new book called Poverty, By America that draws attention to the shocking indifference we show toward poverty in this country, even though we could do something about it with a bit of political effort. Every night I see CNN talking nonstop about Donald Trump, and Fox News about the latest woke outrage, and there seems no room in the political discourse for discussion of the basic fact that every day we are cruelly letting people suffer whom we could help. We need to fight Watters-ism (the ideology that the deaths of homeless people are a form of cosmic justice) with a humane alternative that takes seriously the worth of every person and our obligation to build a country and a world where everybody is taken care of. Amid all the distractions (Trump’s arrest, the president’s son’s own legal troubles), it can be difficult to remain focused on this vision. So whenever we see a monstrous clip like Watters’ talking about stigmatizing the poor, let’s remember what our core priorities are, and what differentiates people with a basic moral sense from the sociopaths on right-wing cable news.