Saturday, January 08, 2011

Without a "Golden Voice" or a "Golden Kidney".... The "Fickle Finger of Fate"

David Seaton's News Links
The story of a homeless beggar with a "golden voice" has caught the world's imagination. The man in question, Ted Williams, is charming and witty, with suffering written all over him, and it is impossible not to wish him well.  From one moment to the next, this poor man, who was sleeping in a makeshift tent behind a filling station and panhandling spare change beside the highway, is now appearing on national television and has many job offers... If the decompression and sudden attention doesn't destabilize him and cause him to fall back into the drugs and alcohol that ruined him in the first place, his celebrity and future prosperity are now assured.

I can't help wondering what would have become of Ted Williams if he were a former electrician or an ex Wal-Mart "associate" without any stunning talent like Ted has.  

For a rich, western, nation, Ted's story is a bit unique... and not just the "only in America" thing of becoming world famous overnight.

Let me tell you a little story from the far off world of the 1970s.

The father of friend of mine from those years was Spain's ambassador in Norway. In front of the Spanish embassy in Oslo was little park and living in that park, sleeping on a park bench, was a very shabby wino.

Now, after some 800 years of Moorish occupation, the Spanish have been left with a few Islamic habits, such as their proverbial hospitality and also the Muslim custom of "al-zakat", the giving of alms to beggars in return for their blessing, "que Díos se lo pague", (may God pay you).

Spanish ladies are an especially soft touch.

So, very soon after arriving in Oslo, my friend's mother, on spotting the wino sleeping in front of the embassy, took him a bowl of hot soup and a few coins. She discovered to her astonishment that he was quite indignant, he not only refused the food and the alms, he took out his official government, "registered alcoholic" card and explained to her that that government employees picked him up once a week and took him for a medical check up, vitamin injections and a bath. I imagine that if he had the slightest interest in going on the water wagon there would have been psychologists and group therapy to help him. As far as the Norwegian state was concerned, the choice was his and they would help him either way. My friend's mother was quite impressed back then. Nowadays she wouldn't be that impressed, because today Spain has similar services. 

I am sharing this story with my American readers to give them an idea of how a civilized, rich, western country (Norway) and a civilized, if not quite so rich, western country, (Spain) handle a problem like the one Ted Williams had. I also imagine that if a Norwegian Ted Williams was able to dry out, that the state would have put him in vocational training courses and with his "golden voice", in the course of time, he would have found work in Norwegian radio without having to wait for the "fickle finger of fate" to turn him into a viral sensation on YouTube. Not so much fun for the rest of us, but probably easier on his nervous system.

The other story that impressed me in similar fashion this week is the story of the Scott sisters of Mississippi. Bob Herbert tells it so well, that I'll just quote him:
As insane as it may seem, Gladys and her sister, Jamie, are each serving consecutive life sentences in a state prison in Mississippi for their alleged role in a robbery in 1993 in which no one was hurt and $11 supposedly was taken.(...) The prison terms were suspended — not commuted — on the condition that Gladys donate a kidney to Jamie, who is seriously ill with diabetes and high blood pressure and receives dialysis at least three times a week.(...) Governor Barbour did not offer any expression of concern for Jamie’s health in his statement announcing the sentence suspension. He said of the sisters: “Their incarceration is no longer necessary for public safety or rehabilitation, and Jamie Scott’s medical condition creates a substantial cost to the state of Mississippi.” (...) What is likely to get lost in the story of the Scott sisters finally being freed is just how hideous and how outlandish their experience really was. How can it be possible for individuals with no prior criminal record to be sentenced to two consecutive life terms for a crime in which no one was hurt and $11 was taken? Who had it in for them, and why was that allowed to happen? Bob Herbert - NYT
In the case of the Scott sisters it is obvious that being black and in Mississippi was a huge component of their problem. The whole thing reminds me of a story from northern Georgia that my father told me way back in the 1960, when he worked there... and I wonder how much has changed? 
A Yankee salesman is driving very fast down a back road in Georgia in a terrible hurry to make it on time to an appointment in a nearby town. As he tears down the road,  two black men walk out from behind a tree and start to cross the road, the Yankee is going too fast to stop and he hits them. One of them is thrown twenty feet into a cotton field and the other crashes through the windshield into the car's front seat... both men are bleeding and unconscious. The horrified salesman manages to run to a nearby farmhouse and call the county sheriff. In a short time a siren is heard and a squad car pulls up light flashing. Out steps the sheriff, a full "Rod Steiger", Georgia sheriff: mirror sun glasses, thin lips with toothpick and a very fat gut. The frantic salesman runs up to the sheriff and says, "this is terrible sheriff, what will the charges be?". The sheriff  slowly surveys the scene and drawls, "Well, this n****r here in the front seat, we'll charge him with breaking and entering and that one over there we'll charge him with leaving the scene of an accident".
Reading about the Scott sisters, I wonder what is so "new" about the "New South"?

I also wonder, how much of a coincidence it is that the Scott sisters and Ted Williams are African-Americans. Certainly all three of them are/were horribly vulnerable and it is true that some of America's most vulnerable citizens are conveniently color-coded. But there are also many people of varying shades of pink and gray who are in situations of stark neglect that are just as obscene as that of Williams and the Scott sisters.

In the end I think that even more than racism, which, no matter how nasty it is, at least has some passion, some feeling in it; the story of Ted and the Scotts and of all the vulnerable people in America, is the story of the callousness indifference of the system. DS


Anonymous said...

You don't mention that in the United States, many - but hardly all - social problems are or were resolved at the community level.

My father's ranching family went to many fund-raiser dinners to help members of the community blind-sided by bad luck, and the Mormons and Jews in particular are known to take care of their own. Ted Williams' crack habit had estranged him from his own family.

But you are right, African-Americans don't always have it that easy.

David Seaton's Newslinks said...

You are talking about charity and I am talking about social democracy, where all of this comes with citizenship in a tax paying society.

Anonymous said...

"If the decompression and sudden attention doesn't destabilize him and cause him to fall back into the drugs and alcohol that ruined him in the first place, his celebrity and future prosperity are now assured.".

That's a very big "If".

I'm sorry but the tokenism of, and self-congratulatory response to stories like Ted Williams' make me cringe. Nevertheless, I hope Mr. Williams continues to lead a sober life regardless of his "success".

As for the Scott sisters, there are no words to express my contempt for the system which has abused them so unjustly.

A friend of mine recently said that the problem in the USA is that a majority would rather see the whole society go down rather than allow any of their fellow citizens to get "something free" from the state. I tend to agree that it is this pettiness which has the system hopelessly gridlocked.

Anonymous said...

If the community expected you to contribute your part (or else not come to it if the brown stuff hit your fan) then it was an involuntary levy, a tax.

One was done at the national level with lots of social workers; the other at the local level on an ad hoc basis.

One can't understand - and shouldn't discuss - the American willingness to exist without a national, government-run safety net without understanding that many communities have fairly effective "invisible" safety nets that predate, and sometimes outperform, the welfare state. That, and the unwillingness to subsidize far-flung Americans whose work habits are unknown.

Anonymous said...

PS. the fervour with which Americans attend their churches is in no small part a function of these informal safety nets.

Michael said...

"the fervour with which Americans attend their churches is in no small part a function of these informal safety nets."

This is a really critical part of the debate of the role of the state in America that is omitted for some reason. Church attendance is high in no small part due to the lack of social safety nets, but the strong power of the church also blockades the creation of such safety nets. There's been alot of writing on this subject from the Left and Right that should be looked into.