I have often heard the saying “the pen is mightier than the sword,” and passing a homeless man begging on the street yesterday I began to wonder what, for him and his demographic, would be a better choice: writing or violence? If every homeless person sat down on the street, at park bench, or a library computer and began writing about their wretched situation would their lot improve? Or, would the life of the homeless population improve if every member of homeless population began to engage in concentrated acts of , indeed of the underclass in general, violent civil disobedience ?
Scenario #1 – The Homeless as Writers.
Here in British Columbia there has been a large Tent City in the province’s capitol, Victoria, for months. The population of the city is irked, but it is just one more hassle in their day-to-day life. Some of them may spit venom on the Internet about the “waste of resources” or even attend a protest, but the encampment remains. The legality of the homeless bivouac rests on what CTV News (http://vancouverisland.ctvnews.ca/legal-loophole-tent-city-springs-up-on-victoria-courthouse-lawn-1.2671674) describes as a leagal loophole that allows campers to set-up shop on lawns (I guess) owned by the provincial government. Until this “loophole is changed” our homeless population will be allowed to camp here giving them some, very limited, sense of security.
What better time for them all to pick up the pen and become writers. Using this newfound power they may be able to write about the need for systematic changes, changes that go beyond the usual drivel about providing affordable housing and mental health services, as administered by the usual charitable and state actors. I read today the Portland Hotel Society is ready to step in and offer their rarely efficacious but always self-aggrandizing (didn’t Gabor Mate get his start there) services.
Yet, no matter how much they write and no matter how insightful the documentation of their own experiences will anyone listen? At best, one of these charity leeches would publish a book collecting these experiences and self-publish it. The CBC would talk about it, and some of those who consider themselves “left” of centre would buy it. Money would be funnelled back into the charity’s essential work (new “affordable housing”, or the hiring of Gabor Mate for more workshops) and not much of anything would change.
Maybe I am being too cynical. There probably are literary agents seeking out new works from the homeless. Or maybe, one of these charities would create a blog for our newly empowered homeless and Christy Clark, upon reading the blog, will call for a vast redistribution of wealth.
Scenario #2 – The Homeless as Revolutionaries
The common sense wisdom that I am trying deconstruct, for a reminder, is “the pen is mightier than the sword”. I have shown in “Scenario #1” why for the disempowered group I have chosen as my exemplar, the pen portion of the saying is a diaphanous phrase that does nothing but reinforce the status quo . Now let us think about the sword portion of the handed down wisdom.
First of all let us acknowledge that the state possess overwhelming force. Any violent civil disobedience by the disenfranchised – in this case the homeless – will be ruthlessly put down. Yet, let us go back to the Pen portion of the piece of sophistry we are discussing. One could argue that in North America, over let’s say the last thirty years, one of the most articulate and prolific critics of the status quo via pen, has been Noam Chomsky. And what has his clear eyed analysis achieved? A lifetime of throwing stones from the ivory tower and for what? Rebellious undergrads discarding his books once they get their first “real job”?
Let us go back to Tent City. Imagine if the encampment was set up out of reach of the usual misery profiteers, maybe somewhere like Cadbury Bay. Imagine the homeless camp in Cadbury-Gyro Park and that they violently react to any attempts to intervene, imagine, if you will, that they begin to self-organize. The Portland Hotel Society could deploy its most experienced employees to go and get housing for our campers, but what if our campers say no, chase away the do-gooders and disengage from the usual cycle. They declare: “No what we want is not what you have given generations of destitute before us and what you plan to give generations of destitute after us: affordable housing, welfare then disability insurance, then a lifetime of state-sponsored misery. We want the advantages you have procured from the current economic system. We want what you have!”
What is the end game of such a declaration? Certainly at some point the police will be called in and they will do as they are told. Blood will be spilled, maybe on both sides, but mainly on the weaker side. People will be sent to jail, but will that be the end of it? Could this initial battle be a Fort Sumter in the proletariat overthrow of the the neoliberal state in British Columbia?
Like Marx, I am certain the catalyst for change will come from the bottom. When those at the bottom recognize that all the help they are offered by the current state and charitable actors only prolongs their misery and that the only true change will happen when it is taken, well it will be only a matter of time.