»  National Review Online

May 19th, 2003

  End of the Line

[Note:  This, in the print version of National Review, is a slightly polished version of my online column of a few weeks earlier, "End of the Line." There is no need to read both pieces, other than to study my polishing technique.]


Liberalism is a philosophy of consolation for the West as it commits suicide.
                     — James Burnham
Freud and Marx … undermined the whole basis of Western European civilization as no avowedly insurrectionary movement ever has or could, by promoting the notion of determinism, in the one case in morals, in the other in history, thereby relieving individual men and women of all responsibility for their personal and collective behaviour.
                     — Malcolm Muggeridge

I had an interesting week visiting Colorado and points west to promote my new book. Met a lot of great people, saw some places I'd never seen before, had a lot of fun with math fans and NR/NRO readers, got home safely to Mrs Derb and the little ones. (Also to hundreds of unread e-mails. I am sorry if you e-mailed me any time in the past few days. I'm doing my best.) My trip included Berkeley and downtown San Francisco. The bookstore events in these places went fine, and many thanks to all who showed up. It's not the events I want to comment on, though. It's the street people.

Berkeley was pretty bad, but I had sort of expected that, having spent time in Ann Arbor last year. University towns tend to have a lot of street people, for reasons that don't take much figuring out. It was downtown San Francisco that really surprised me. I wanted to go look at the new Asian Arts Museum, which is in the old municipal library building, on one side of the city's main downtown plaza. Nearby is a spiffy new library, which cost $137m and was the subject of some scathing comments by Nicholson Baker.

So there I was in downtown San Francisco, right after a very successful book-signing event at Stacey's in Market Street, making my way between these grand heroic buildings under the bright California sun. It wasn't the afterglow of promotional success, or the magnificence of the buildings, or the sunlight and the wonderful, warm California air that I was noticing, though. What was mostly presenting itself to my eyes, ears and nose was the street people — platoons, companies, battalions of them. I have never seen so many street people. Here a ragged, emaciated woman mumbling to herself and making complicated hand gestures like a Buddhist priest; there a huge black-bearded Rasputin of a man in a floor-length heavy overcoat, pushing a shopping cart piled high with filthy bundles; across the way a little knot of florid winos arguing loudly and ferociously about something; sitting on the sidewalk where I passed, a youngish black woman, gaunt and nearly bald, with some sort of horrid skin disease all over her face and scalp, croaking something at me I couldn't understand.

Eighteenth-century Londoners used to amuse themselves with a day out at the Bedlam Asylum, where they could view the lunatics from a safe distance. Present-day citizens of San Francisco do not need to put themselves to so much trouble. Half the lunatics, drunks and drug addicts in America — in the world, I wouldn't be surprised — are right here in the center of their city.

Why? This is a great puzzle to the city's irredeemably liberal Board of Supervisors and their soul-mates in the local press. One of the latter, Ilene Lelchuk of the San Francisco Chronicle, recently began a sentence thus: "With San Francisco's homeless population growing despite the millions of dollars the city spends annually to help its most desperate residents …" Note that word "despite." We spend more and more on the homeless, and still their numbers increase. How can this be? What a strange and wonderful thing is the liberal mind! (Recall the similarly clueless New York Times headline, though this one I am quoting from memory: "Prison Population Swells Despite Falling Crime Levels.")

San Francisco is indeed generous to street people. A homeless adult on county welfare gets $395 a month, more than in any neighboring jurisdiction. There is no requirement that recipients have any roots in the county, nor is there any work requirement. I am willing to bet, though I haven't found a source, that there is not even a requirement for U.S. citizenship. So far as I have been able to discover, there are no requirements whatsoever. You just quit your job, move to a place with the most agreeable climate in the world, cease attending to matters of personal hygiene, get yourself a substance habit, and sign on for a hundred bucks a week, no questions asked. And Ms. Lelchuk wonders why the "homeless" population is growing!

I suppose the citizens of San Francisco have got used to the situation by slow degrees, but for a visitor arriving in the downtown area from some more civilized place — in my case, Denver — the spectacle is very shocking. The street people leer at you, yell at you, sometimes harass you. If you are a woman, they make lewd remarks at you. Near the entrance to the Asian Art Museum (which, by the way, is lovely, with a $10 admission fee to keep out undesirables — unlike the new library opposite, which, I am told, the street people have totally colonized), they are as dense as shoppers in a street market, and you have to pick your way carefully through them. Acts of violence are common — a young man was shot dead in Market Street a few days ago, a block or two from the tony bookstore where I had done my book signing. Stabbings are frequent.

And of course, the street people stink. Even in the open spaces downtown, you can't avoid the stink. It is probably worse than it used to be before the UN Plaza fountain was fenced off in March, as the street people had been taking baths in the fountain. They had also been urinating, defecating, and discarding drug paraphernalia there — the last to such a degree that the water was dangerous with chemical contaminants, even if you could bring yourself to ignore the waste products. The city used to do a daily clean-up, fishing out the needles, the turds, and the Muscatel bottles, but at last they got fed up and erected a chain-link fence round the whole thing in the teeth of, it goes without saying, vehement protests from "advocates for the homeless."

By last year the larger situation had already got so bad that city voters were presented with a November ballot initiative, Proposition N, under whose terms that $395 monthly cash handout to the winos would be reduced to $59, the balance being replaced by city-provided food and shelter. This "Care not Cash" initiative was passed, with 60 percent of voters in favor of it. That of course outraged the city's lefty activists, who immediately challenged the vote in court. On May 8 Superior Court Judge Ronald Quidachay ruled that only the Board of Supervisors can set city welfare policy, and that the ballot initiative was therefore invalid. The hundred-dollars-a-week handouts to anyone that shows up will continue — in a city that is looking at a $350m deficit this year.

When you cross the United States from the east coast, San Francisco is the end of the line, the last stop on the long cross-country trail. It is also the end point of liberalism, as foreseen by Rudyard Kipling: the point at which "all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins." You can't go any further than this geographically without falling into the ocean; you can't go any further than San Francisco has gone in yielding to the "rights" of people who acknowledge no balancing duties, no responsibility whatsoever to their fellow citizens, nor even to their own persons.

This United States of America was founded on the notion of self-support, of people taking care of their families, joining with neighbors to solve common problems in a humane and sensible way. Those common problems would include the occasional citizen, like Huckleberry Finn's pap, who could not, or stubbornly would not, look after himself, and for whom some public provision should be made. When a person "came upon the town," the town would give him some minimal aid, while of course private citizens, if they felt inclined, could exercise the virtue of private charity to any degree they wished. The recipient was, however, expected to defer to community standards. If he persistently committed gross violations of those standards — pooping in the town fountain would certainly have counted — he was locked up or institutionalized. This was a sound system, widely admired outside our borders. Listen to the most American of American presidents, Calvin Coolidge.

The principle of service is not to be confused with a weak and impractical sentimentalism.

Self-government means self support.

The normal must care for themselves.

I have no respect for anybody who cannot take care of himself.

It would be very easy to deal with the "homeless problem": enact, or re-enact, vagrancy laws, sweep the bums, junkies and lunatics off the streets, incarcerate them in well-supervised but spartan facilities until they showed some inclination to cease being a nuisance, an embarrassment and a danger to their fellow citizens. Those facilities should be open to the press. Perhaps they should even be open to the general public, since apparently 40 percent of San Franciscans enjoy the company of stinking winos. Was Bedlam such a bad idea, after all?

But that, of course, would never do. The "homeless" have "rights" that must be respected — the right to crap in public fountains, for instance, the right to shoot themselves up with deadly drugs in public squares, the right to shriek gibberish at passers-by, and the right to expose themselves to female office workers heading for the subway station. If we didn't respect those rights — why, we wouldn't be America, would we?