Thursday, April 3, 2008

My Date With Bill

I was a little nervous about being on the same panel as Bill Block the other night. I hadn't seen him since last November. We talked about the sweeps then. We were off the record. Real Change had just broken the story that the City had secretly launched a gloves off program of homeless sweeps before the summer and had no protocols to guide them. The City Council was blindsided, and so, said Bill, was he. I believed him. I still do. The look of shock and dismay on his face as I described what had been happening couldn't have been faked, not even by a good lawyer.

Then the Committee to End Homelessness in King County had nothing to say. The issue was consistently blocked from getting on their agenda, and the fight was left to those of us who have less immediate clout. Maybe some kind of back channel pressure happened. Who the hell knows? They're the one's ending homelessness, not me. I don't sit in those meetings.

But there was never any public statement. They were absent from the long list of agencies that signed onto RCOP's statement of principle. No one attended the hearing on their behalf. City Council wasn't hearing from them. And so forth. They went dark. I don't know why.

It struck me as cowardly.

So then I started making fun of him. Cruelty is the essence of humor. I noted that his single statement to the press — "The proposal covers a number of key components that concerned advocates" — was a lawyerly non-statement that said nothing. I ran a poll asking whose side he was on. I accused him of eating brie in a tree while homeless people go to jail with no bail and the Ten Year Plan fails. And so forth.

And knowing that Bill is a thin skinned kind of guy who isn't used to getting shit from people, I knew he'd be pissed. He totally chewed me out over Sock Puppet Rebellion last year.

I was a little afraid of seeing him.

I decided to take my time getting to Seattle University and show up when the panel started. I arrived with twenty-five minutes to spare and got a cup of coffee. I sat on a wall and smoked a cigarette. At about ten of I headed over. It was just around the corner. Bill passed me going the other way to deal with his parking. He smiled and waved. I waved back and went in.

During the panel Bill said he hoped I could see that there is a place in the movement to end homelessness for people like him who can ask for $10 million to build housing. I said I'd happily concede the point. We moved on.

During the break before the Q&A I got a handful of Hershey's kisses from the snack table and put one next to Bill as I went by to my seat. "Here. I gave you a kiss."

"I get lots of kisses from my dog."

Good one. This is part of why I actually like the guy. He's funny.

The panel proceeded without bloodshed. Bill was genuine and focused. He talked about systemic causes. So did I. He advocated reform and I advocated revolution. I think I'm just more unstable than he is.

Afterwards, he said that it doesn't help build the movement I want when I mock people. There was a brief stare down and we let it drop. I couldn't muster the words to say what I was thinking.

Later, I wondered if he was right.

The question behind the question is whether we have enough in common to even be in the same movement. And the question behind that is whether the Ten Year Plan is more about amelioration or co-optation.

In recent years, I've become quite critical of a focus on chronic homelessness that seems much about narrowing definitions, reducing distressing sights of visible poverty, and stigmatizing the poor by focusing entirely on their dysfunctions in a well-intentioned way.

I suspect that this might do more damage than good, particularly when it functions as a screen for policies that are just plain repressive. Mayor Nickels sweeps homeless encampments, but he supports ending homelessness and Housing First, so we're all supposed to shut up and applaud.

And then there's the question of where the line is. I've never been especially good at that. I'm east coast, and Seattle has easily offended sensibilities.

One of my early mentors was an acerbic guy named Jim Stewart in Cambridge. He was a Mitch Snyder lieutenant who appreciated the power of ridicule as a tactic. The best thing he ever did was a flier that retaliated against some screw-the-poor maneuver by House Speaker Tommy Finneran by making fun of his bad comb over. It was signed Committee Concerned for the Ultimate Disposition of Tommy Finneran's Immortal Soul.

I don't know if it had any effect. Probably not, but it was really funny. Jim always landed good quotes. He wasn't boring.

And I hate being boring.

But maybe Bill is right. Maybe we are part of the same movement. And maybe we're not. I really don't know. It's not an easy question.

Boston urban minister Kip Tiernan was fond of quoting theologian Walter Bruggeman, who said "Situations of cultural acceptance breed accommodating complacency.

Bill does not accept homelessness. He works his ass off towards its demise. He is not complacent. The accommodating part is where things get less clear.

You could fill a few hundred Columbia Towers with what I don't know. Maybe he rates the benefit of the doubt.

One of the things I try to do with this blog is to think aloud in a fairly unfiltered way. There is so much that we're afraid to say to each other. I've pretty much adopted the fuck it I'm saying what I think approach, and it's mostly worked for me. I find that others are thinking the same things.

But it's hard for me to know where the line is. Was it wrong of me, for example, to say that Patricia McInturff is a lying sack of shit? I don't know. I really don't. It felt true at the time.

There's a case to be made either way.

There are no regrets, on the other hand, over the United to Extend Homelessness spoof flier incident. That needed to be said. Nor do I regret the voice mail I posted from Sandy Brown. If someone's going to throw around power, they have to expect to have it thrown back at them once in a while.

Someone confided to me at the time that when a grenade like that is thrown, there's more room to maneuver in after the smoke clears. I think that's right. The parameters of what gets discussed are broadened. Humor is a weapon.

I'm going to have to keep thinking about this one.


Anonymous said...

It may be a semantic question -- the McInturff thing, that is. You did not make a mistake in CALLING her a lying sack of shit because she is indeed a lying sack of shit. However, you may have made a mistake in SAYING she is a lying sack of shit. There's a fine distinction there between what is a factual statement and a possible mistake in making that statement.

Dr. Wes Browning said...

I think the essence of humor is clown-squeezings. I think mocking, like a clown-press, is a tool, that can be used either strategically, or willy-nilly. I just wanted to put the words "willy" & "nilly" in your blog comments, along with several commas.

I think you've touched on a very very important question, namely, when to lay off making fun of, or for that matter, attacking, people who think they are on your side. I am hoping I can collect my thoughts about it enough to make fun of that very important question for next week's column. I think it is related to madrigals.

Anonymous said...

Either madrigals or nightingales. Or possibly farthingales.

Tim Harris said...

Dr. Wes, as usual, sees through all the rigamarole, and, in his acute appreciation of the importance of clown squeezings, goes to the heart of the matter without shilly-shallying or dilly-dallying. I look forward to a comma-laden column that, in its full embrace of various antiquated figures of speech, could have been written by my parents.

Bill said...

Whether it's clowns, or jesters as was the wont of Shakespeare, the clear outcome is that humor has a place to convey message. The kind thing about writing is it creates distance between the writer and the reader; in effect, room for the message to be mulled. The downside is, of course, there's an ongoing influx of new readers of such a message, and so the timing of the message can get quite fouled. Re: Shakespeare, as an example, withot being scholars of a sort, we miss most of the humor. While Tim is younger than William, the earlier, not the more recent Block, there is a danger, or maybe better put, "significant limitation," in something like a blog to effect social change. In my humble opinion, it is NEVER as good as what's done in real space and real time to produce REAL CHANGE. In fact, I'd bet that one RC vendor on a corner is making more progress than anyone's blog, present company included. After all, a blog is a lot like looking at oneself in a mirror and asking us to look, too. In that sense it is a narcissistic exercise more than true social activism. I am likely on a limb in that thinking, but I gotta say, I do not think I am contributing to ending homelessness by posting on this blog. It would be better to phone Dave Ross right now than write this because he's talking about Squirrel man and enough callers are saying stupid prejudicial things that remind me that the hill to climb in ending homelessness is one that requires at minimum a tow line and more likely requires a rope climb. Tim, you are right about systemic change and the crisis we are in. Yet Block is not all wrong; in fact, perhaps slightly more right than wrong. The trouble with the CEH method is IT NEVER MEASURES LOSS; rather, only gain gets measured, as defined, because it is built on altruism, not justice. You are building to bring about justice, and we each and all know too well, as the movie says, and I mean this in turns of asset redistribution, "there will be blood." Not revolutionary death-producing bleeding in the streets kind-of-blood, but LOSS, redistribution, sacrifice, surrender, neighborhood where neighborhood is akin to "motherhood/fatherhood." Many, even you, could say such thinking is another form of Mr. Block. But our nonviolent choices, and they must be nonviolent choices, overlap,... yours, Block's, mine, RCOP, so many others. So, when we seek to use laughter, it will make a lot more sense to find the genius that comes with mocking self along with others, or even self without attacks on others, and to be clear enough so that all get the joke on the grander scale. Re; McInturff for example, great humor wouldn't have needed to assess her performance but rather could make the same end points by parody, by scenarios like, "I dreamt I was the HSD Director last night,..." I think that was Shakespeare's genius. Maybe this ought to be re-titled from "...Lament," to "Alice's (or Tim's) Looking Glass,".....

Pastor Rick said...

The ancients celebrated something called the Feast of Fools in which the community selected the village idiot to be Bishop for a Day, and generally turned the local power structures upside down. It would devolve into jolly Bacchinalia -- a more political version of Halloween.

I'm imagining a Real Change Be-In; pick some vendor to be mayor, Dr. Wes Browning to replace Bill for a day. I shall bring cigars, and wear an outragious costume. . .

Tim Harris said...

Well, it's not the first time I've been called a narcissist. The act of writing, if it is to be honest, calls for a certain amount of self-revelation. We all have our protective facades. For some it's cynicism. For others it's a well developed sense of political and social propriety. Vulnerability is hidden. Safety is maintained.

I get sick sometimes of hearing about how this blog isn't activism. Of course it isn't. It's a fucking blog. I do other things. The blog is a place where I live in public as a writer and thinker. This sometimes brings clarity, and not just to myself.