I buy The Big Issue from time to time, if I can. I’m actually not someone who enjoys magazines at all, so in terms of content I don’t really know why. The writing used to be interesting, giving the views of young writers and people you wouldn’t normally hear from in a magazine. For a few years now, though, it seems to have turned to the same slick copy and quirky human interest stories that you’d find in my Nan’s Australian Women’s Weekly, no doubt in a bid for a broader market, and a disheartening focus on celebrity interviews. Lots of people like that sort of thing to help them relax after a horrible day of being a human being, and that’s absolutely fine. I like watching my favourite ladies punch it out on Mob Wives and reading Georgette Heyer, so it’s not like I’m a fan of highbrow gritty realism. It’s just that that particular form of tabloid escapism doesn’t work for me. Unless the celebrity is Big Ang Raiola and she’s promoting her new 100% saturated fat cooking show featuring Father Bob Maguire, I really don’t want to know about it.
So, as I said, I don’t know why I buy it exactly. It’s not as if I actually read it. I guess I just sort of feel like it’s the right thing to do.
That’s not entirely true. There is pleasure in buying this magazine, because despite all my solitary weirdness I am essentially a person who likes other people. It’s fun to have a bit of a chat with the vendors, faces I see in the street all the time. It’s fun to work out the money, share a joke, give a lift to the day (hopefully for both parties) and move on. It’s an attitude that seems to colour many social areas of my life, from sex to restaurant meals to job interviews – meet, exchange, joke a bit, feel slightly happier, keep moving. Your life is yours, not mine; but it’s nice to cross paths sometimes and exchange pleasantries, bodily fluids, job rejections or the occasional magazine.
There is a guilt attached to this particular transaction, however. Am I buying this item off someone who seems to be working a lot harder to sell it than I could ever be bothered doing, because: a) I want to do the right thing, or b) I’m a cretin stroking my own stupid middle-class ego? (Answer: Yes to both.) Is this act of buying a magazine I won’t read patronising and demeaning to the vendor, who has after all dignity as a fundamental human right? (Answer: Maybe, but who cares? Business is business, a dollar is a dollar.) And – most disturbingly – am I making some weird unconscious value judgement on the homeless, instilled in me by the Calvinist religious ethics at the root of late market Capitalism that dictate that only a working person is a worthy or redeemable person?
Answer: I sincerely fucking hope not.
I hope not, because in any situation that kind of thinking is lazy and stupid and cruel. It’s a mode of thinking that says it’s OK to treat one unemployed human being like garbage and another wealthy human like a king, even if that unemployed person is a sweetheart who would never hurt anyone and the king is an absolute bona fide ten tonne arsehole. It falls into all sorts of lazy traps as to what constitutes “work”, and eventually decides that activity is only “work” if the worker is financially remunerated, or at a stretch a volunteer in a position thought meretricious and preferably with a degree of social cachet – a pattern of thought justifying the inhumane treatment of women, in particular, who do two thirds of the distinctly unglamorous unpaid labour on this planet (and that’s if we’re only talking about housework). It links money to merit in a completely creepy way that has nothing to do with the reality of market forces, which make billionaires out of people for not doing any activity of social worth at all and keep legal aid lawyers, kindergarten teachers and nurses searching for coins down the back of the couch.
Merit doesn’t make money. Money makes money. No judgement attached, that’s reality. If a person was ever to want money in significant amounts, they’d be best served by dumping the high-handed moral bullshit about hard work always leading to just financial rewards and making cannier choices. If on the other hand this insight were to disgust a person to the point that they decided they didn’t want anything to do with “work”, and would much rather lie on the couch thinking lovely thoughts and hurting nobody until finally slipping into the abyss that waits for us all, well, that’s totally fine too. There is absolutely nothing about that that takes anything away from anyone else, and that’s the biggest misconception about work and money exploded right there.
The latest Big Issue has been sitting on my coffee table for about a week. Russell Brand’s overexposed face on the cover has been glaring out at me for all that time, lips slightly parted and moistened, threatening to either punch me in the face or suck the tongue out of my head for my immoral, cosy attitudes towards life. Russell Brand is another name on the long list of famous people I really don’t know much about. He looks intelligent somehow. I know he was engaged to Katy Perry but it all went arse up, and was once quite enthusiastic about drugs (no more). I think someone once told me he was a friend of Simon Amstell, who is scary clever and funny and whom I like, so that makes me warm to the idea of him a bit if that’s right. I don’t know what he does, or why he’s famous, or why he looks like he wants to beat comfortably sedate people like me up before copulating with us passionately in a pool of our own haemoglobin.
Curiosity finally got the better of me today, so I broke tradition. I opened the magazine. The first thing I read was the editorial, entitled: “Help for Those Who’ve Earned It.”
The piece starts with the editor’s encounter with a lapsed Big Issue vendor; a man who we are told once slept in railway stations, and was once happy to be incarcerated as the prison provided food and shelter. The ex-vendor is described as being too ashamed to report to his former boss that he is now begging for money. The piece goes on to instruct people not to give money to homeless people begging and to buy The Big Issue instead, sounding much like a Park Ranger instructing tourists on the perils of feeding non-native birds:
“From what I see and hear, the number of beggars is increasing. There are myriad reasons for this; one is the fact that many people are prepared to part with some change on their way past. I see it most mornings – commuters ignoring a Big Issue vendor, with their small stash of magazines, and then pausing to give money to, or chat with, a beggar. As Julius Sumner Miller used to ask: why is it so? Why ignore a person trying to improve their circumstances, a person who is actually working, in favour of someone passively seeking change?” (Attwood, 2015: 4)
The editorial goes on to explain that people selling The Big Issue shouldn’t be “lumped in” (4) with other homeless people in the eyes of the public, (people shaking tins for charity are also mentioned unfavourably at this juncture), and to ask the reader to help clarify this difference in worth to their friends.
Um . . . What the fuck? I’m sorry, I’m confused. Is the editor of The Big Issue really telling me whom and whom not I can give my loose change to? Is he really claiming there are classes of the homeless, one deserving a better life and others not? Or that one person’s survival is more desirable than another’s? Or, most troubling perhaps to me, that he has the right to treat a former vendor as a high-handed bishop might treat a lapsed parishioner, to the point that that person is ashamed to share the details of his life with someone who should be a friend?
Surely not. Hang on, I’ll read it again . . .
Oh. Goodness. Yes. Yes, he is.
Well, allow me to retort.
- Displaced people are so fashionable right now. It must’ve escaped this fellow’s notice somehow; but basically if you’re an individual living on this planet at this point in human history, in terms of grouping people into categories of provenance, more likely than not you are displaced. On a large scale, this is probably due to war and attendant famine and sickness which are themselves the results of a destabilising world economy. On a domestic scale, this trend is mirrored by homelessness. This could be due to a complex range of issues – an abusive home environment; displacement due to a criminal record; factors to do with a mental illness or a personality disorder; racial inequality; addiction; transphobia; homophobia; just good old fashioned poverty; recent and sudden catastrophic loss, exacerbated disability or debilitating injury; reasons so personal another human can’t possibly understand them. Guess what. There’s no magic bullet.
- A job in sales is not for everyone. You need to have a pretty solid baseline of resilience to be a good salesperson, with a bit of chutzpah about you. I am someone living a fairly stable life, with a roof over my head, food in the fridge, clothes on my back, and a postgraduate education. I still don’t think I’d have it in me to sell The Big Issue to mugs on the street every day, (I have a resume full of failed sales positions – usually due to what I think is a highly ethical honesty about what a customer’s arse really looks like in those jeans – to prove it), and I’m sure many of the traumatised and desperate people living on our streets have even less “sell” in them. Demonising these people does not help them. It does not help anyone.
- Homeless people are unthinkably vulnerable. It’s only two years since a gentle, genial man known as “Mouse” Perry was brutally stabbed to death at his campsite by the Yarra, by a 19 year old graduate of Melbourne’s elite Melbourne Grammar School. The boy responsible claimed mental illness as his defence, purporting that he thought he was attacking werewolves. That is probably so, and if so that’s very sad. But whatever psychotic state this kid’s head was in, it sure picked an easy target as the werewolf. Around the same time, The Age was covering stories every week about homeless people being assaulted by gangs of thugs coming into the city from fairly affluent outer suburbs. People were being beaten up, robbed, and one woman who was chased down and bashed by a mob reported that she’d fully expected them to kill her. It seemed to me, at the time, that the same sorts of rage-filled young men who loved to go gay bashing when I was young had now found an even easier group of harmless people to terrorise – but according to the comments below the stories, many readers felt that the victims were parasites who gave nothing to society and took our money . . . Now, where did I just read that?
- I will give my money to whomever the fuck I want. I am not someone with a great deal of money to spare; in these cases, a sort of financial triage comes into play. Sometimes I might not have six dollars on me to buy a magazine, but I might have a dollar I can give to someone. Sometimes, I might see a homeless person begging with whom I have a passing acquaintanceship, and maybe I might want to give that person a few bucks to help them out. I am not an idiot, and for all I know this money is going straight up that person’s arm. It might equally go up the arm of the lady I bought a coffee from earlier, the ticket inspector who looked sad about having no one to fine on the train this morning, my GP, or (*gasp*!) a Big Issue vendor. It’s really none of my business, and addiction is not a problem that gets solved by increasing a person’s poverty. All that aside – What I do with my cash is my business. Not that of some magazine editor whom I’ve never even met. Giving the odd buck to a beggar might strike him as stupid, sure. But even if I were coating it in fois gras and feeding it to my tame leopard, that would still be none of his business.
It’s true that earning a wage through hard work can help people feel better about themselves, get them socialising, and potentially help them to lead a better, more stable life. That is a very good thing. But classifying those who don’t or can’t as little more than vermin shows a frankly lazy ignorance about how complex, and how different another person’s life is from one’s own (as well as an alarmingly lackadaisical approach to world economics). My struggles are not the struggles of the person next to me. Just because I’ve been through hard times, it doesn’t mean they’re the same as yours, or that you and I will respond to the same crisis in the same way. We are all made differently. We all break differently.
So, after all that, will I still be buying The Big Issue from time to time? Yes. Yes, because unlike its editor I believe that there is more than one part to the problems of homelessness and poverty and generational learned helplessness, and this is clearly an effective solution for many people. Good on them for having the courage and the drive to get up and out and onto the street corners, weathering rejection from all the marks going past and learning all sorts of skills in the process. Good on them for challenging stereotypes and helping to ease society from its endemic disease of lazy thinking. These are all very good things. But while we applaud these brave people, let’s not forget the other heads of the Hydra. Let’s not forget the poor bloke at the start of this strange editorial who couldn’t keep up his job selling the magazine, who was once glad to end up in jail where at least he got to eat every day. Let’s not forget the millions of displaced people around the globe, fleeing from atrocities in fear for their lives, many of them children, whether it’s from a war torn country or a suburban Melbourne home. Let’s not forget the vulnerable woman who, for no reason, was brutalised by a gang to the point of believing she was about to be murdered. Let’s not forget Mouse Perry.
Yes, too, because the people selling The Big Issue are not the people who wrote an editorial that I find so offensive on so many levels. I’ve had bosses, too.
Yes, finally, because I now have read the thing and know who Russell Brand is, which is kind of novel, although I equally know that I really didn’t need to know who Russell Brand is, even though he is possibly a very smart and nice man who would be fun to sit next to on a long plane trip.
I will now resume reading the excellent Friday’s Child by Georgette Heyer, just as soon as I’ve emptied this bucket of coins out the window. Oh, there I go again . . .
REFERENCE: Attwood, A 2015, “Editorial: Help for Those Who’ve Earned It”, The Big Issue, No. 492, 28 Aug – 10 Sept, 4.