The Ecphorizer

Prognosis Negative
Ed Rehmus

Issue #28 (December 1983)

The plight of the marginal, including the intellectual, in our society.

In the TV ads all Americans are young, healthy, upper middle class home owners who hold down emotionally and financially rewarding jobs. Everyone has perfect teeth - no doubt because of all that brushing with Crest - and the only question mark on the horizon is whether or not the dishwashing

intellectuals ... can damn well take care of themselves.

detergent will leave spots.

[quoteright]The October 17th New Yorker's "Talk of the Town" suggested that the poor aren't worth bothering with now because they're just trash - all alcoholics, mental defectives, uneducated Blacks or Mexicans without English. I mean, The New Yorker doesn't actually come out and say these people are trash, but it doesn't take much reading between the lines. The unspoken conclusion is that we needn't take their plight all that seriously. Naturally, there was no mention of poor intellectuals. Presumably the consensus is that there have always been those and they can damn well take care of themselves, if they're so smart. The point of the article, however, was that we shouldn't forget simple Christian charity, now that the present administration has more important things to do. We might throw this trash a bone now and then, is all the New Yorker is saying, when we aren't too busy. What the New Yorker chooses to overlook is that poverty, like cancer, can strike anyone. And the fact is, even those without food stamps can generally manage sooner or later to scrounge up a bag of peanuts or to locate the latest coffee and doughnut line. Food is not necessarily the most pressing problem of the unfortunate.

I have an acquaintance who lives off a small inheritance - just enough for the rental on a small room and one decent meal per day. He is content to live simply in this fashion because It enables him to write. He can't afford medical insurance and simply gambles on staying healthy. If inflation sets in again or if he does get sick, there goes his income. Meanwhile, he isn't sponging off the government, but since he doesn't work (writing isn't work, you know, unless you're Norman Mailer or Hugh Hefner) he's obviously a parasite of some kind. The interesting question, though, is - is he rich or poor? I also happen to know a woman past 70 who still trudges off to a depressingly dreary office every day despite arthritis and other miseries. She works for meager wages and does nothing really useful, but prefers that to the guilt of idleness. Even though she has Medicare and Blue Cross, she still has to pay for her medication and visits to the doctor. Is this being "gainfully employed"?

Then there are the self-employed. The government attempts to discourage this dodge by forcing such misfits to file complicated quarterly tax returns and subjecting them to a raft of regulations. But mind you, not all self-employed are owners of fashionable boutiques that enable them to swill champagne and sleep in silk. Some of them are second-rate free-lancers or occasional domestics or nickel and dime entrepreneurs. Sometimes they skip meals too, just like the trash. Since their incomes are dicey, they tend to cut out non-essentials, like medical insurance.

Finally, I'm obliged to offer myself as an example of the most despicable minority of all. I don't have the excuse of being born black or of suffering from a language handicap. I've contributed a few things to society from time to time, but never within the framework of a conventional job. Out of the hundred jobs I went through during my youth, not one of them was of any use to society or to myself - so I dropped out.

I'm supported

Social Services has a category for that. It's called "Free rent and free board" and living off "contributions". And of course I don't have medical coverage either.

All of us rogues, who used to be handed Medi-Cal on a silver platter and allowed access to the most sumptuous hotels - er, I mean, hospitals - were cut off abruptly as of January 1983 and left to fend for ourselves. We're told that the emphasis nowadays is on health and preventative measures, so there's no reason for us to get sick and if we do, it's our own fault. What this means is that we go to the County Hospital for everything from aspirin to amputation.

I had occasion last week to visit the Emergency Room of the San Francisco City and County Hospital and discovered that they now have a triage desk. Have you ever heard of triage outside of battlefields, disaster areas or full-scale epidemics? Gives you some idea of the inadequacy of County facilities. Most of the old hospital buildings, which are spacious, 1920's style highrises, have been shut down and all business is now conducted in a small, depressingly ugly modern building that is under-staffed and obviously overcrowded. There is talk of further cutbacks and the closing down of this and that clinic. As I watched one car-wreck victim slowly bleeding to death because no intern could be found, I noticed that most of the signs giving instructions to new patients were in Chinese or Spanish, but not in English. What amazed me, however, was that not all of the patients were alcoholics, minorities or the like. There were also a number of apparently middle-class types of what the present administration would call the "not truly needy". Surely you don't need help if you look respectable, do you?

So here we are back at the 19th Century again. Our government can't afford to subsidize local medical facilities. Instead we have to open hospitals in never-before-heard-of countries so that when the Commies threaten we can rush in the Marines to save the American personnel. The President knows what he is doing. He is aware that the majority of Americans are so unused to thinking for themselves that they will support anything he does. Obviously, an adequate National Health Program would allow for marginal types and for those who don't fit nicely into the statistics, but this is precisely the element that the present administration wants to get rid of.

As far as I'm concerned, any society that tries to make things impossible for the marginals is nothing short of tyranny. What kind of freedom is it that says you are OK if you do as everyone else does but not OK if you are different for any reason? Do as the system decrees or die!

The Orwellian view of 1984 had Winston rewriting history - or destroying it. We needn't go that far. All we have to do is forget what the 19th century was like in its treatment of the poor, the sick and the aged. Well, I'm as bored by the words "Life" and "Liberty" as everyone else, but I don't think the founding fathers had in mind only the unborn when they insisted on the right to life. 

We have been trying to program our computer to generate articles according to the algorithm Ed Rehmus published in our October issue, thereby eliminating the need for contributors, but the results so far have lacked inspiration.  They're "just words."  Perhaps our computer has not yet suffered enough.

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