Notes from Abroad
Thoughts about Narratives
Yes, the newsletter is late again. Maybe I should commit to once every 10 days. Or so. Being dominated by calendar is so …. Industrialized. When did we all decide that was the way to live, anyway?
Which brings me to this week’s food for thought.
As I was wandering around recently in South America, I asked my Uber driver if “Hay muchos personas en Buenos Aires sin un casa?” He looked at me like I was on drugs, and not because I said it wrong. Here homelessness is called “a situation of the street.” We negotiated our understanding of my question and he told me that no, it’s not common at all. He was astonished when I said that in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and all U.S. cities, there were homeless people everywhere.
We had driven many miles through an anthill of millions of olive-tan Argentines - mile after mile after mile - and it struck me: I saw ZERO unhoused individuals. A packed avenue stretched for dozens of blocks of sidewalk vendors, hardly an affluent neighborhood. Almost psychotic with cars, busses, people, piles of jeans, gaudy storefronts, more piles of jeans, shoes, toys, household goods, this was hardly some sanitized tour of pretty places but raw Giant City where existences are eked out.
There wasn’t a tent, a cardboard box, or a sprawled body in sight. Buenos Aire’s homeless population is reported as somewhere between 7,000 and 15,000 out of a population of 15 million. Los Angeles? About 40,000.
Uruguay’s Montevideo doesn’t report an official homeless figure as it appears there aren’t enough to count reliably out of a population of 1.3 million. San Jose California, on the other hand, with a population of roughly 1 million, reports some 6,000 homeless. In my California town of 30,000 I see homeless folks in every neighborhood, by every freeway. Walking around here, it’s extremely rare.
The dramatic difference is not because homeless people are being locked up out of sight. Programs are run by both charity and the government to support homeless people, in some cases working to shelter them in otherwise abandoned properties.
Today’s newsletter is not a deep dive into “the homeless problem” and it’s not about the nuances of who is “homeless” as opposed to “in extreme poverty.” It’s about a difference in social values and the narrative behind them.
As I struggled to sort out day-to-day complexities of getting by in a megacity where I barely know the language, people responded to me, and to each other with an attitude of “Yea life is crazy and weird here, so we all help each other out.”
In the US, the narrative is more like “Yea life is crazy, woo hoo drive fast and break things! Let’s have some disruption! Kill the bookstores! Kill the taxis! Kill the elections! I’m gonna get mine. Fuck you if you get in my way.”
It doesn’t have to be that way to have the benefits of technology to increase knowledge, health and longevity, food supply, and well-being. It doesn’t have to be that way to have a functioning world, and we should not accept that mentality.
In ancient cultures people who were greedy, rapacious, self-serving, abusive and disruptive, who selfishly consumed inordinate amounts of community resources, were exiled. Banished. Ostracized.
Just this week’s food for thought.
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