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Still Life

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Every once in a while, I discover something that is wonderful because it is wonderful–it’s not connected to politics or morality or any of the usual subjects.  It’s not “important” in the way we usually apply that word.  It’s something that just is, and I’m glad it exists in my universe.

The something wonderful this morning is the existence of a group of people in the UK–an apparently organized group of people–who go around rescuing sick hedgehogs from the wild, bringing them in for medical care and food and cleaning up, and then taking them back to the wild when they’re all better.

The hedgehogs seem to take very well to this treatment, and to return to the wild quite successfully.  I kept getting images of said returning hedgehogs trying to explain their experience to hedgehogs who had never had it. 

If hedgehogs had better communications systems, maybe we would find little troops of them showing up at back doors, making bids for adoption as pets.

I found the story about the hedgehogs in an article by Theodore Dalrymple in the New English Review–an old article, in a collection of them, in a book called Forever Fear.

The book had been, until yesterday, one of those casualties of my TBR list.  It’s been floating around for a while, in spite of the fact that Dalrymple is one of my favorite writers and I usually read what he writes as soon as I get into the house.

I have no excuse for why I didn’t do that with this one. I do have a suspicion that it may have arrived at a crisis point, like exam week.

Whatever happened, I finally picked the book up yesterday, and the first thing in it was the story about the people with the hedgehogs.

But this is a book by Theodore Dalrymple, and that means we did get around to the usual subjects eventually. Even the article with the story about the hedgehog society wasn’t actually about the hedgehog society.

The article that got my attention was called “Steel Yourself,” and it was about what has happened to two former steel-manufacturing towns in the UK (one in England and one in Wales) now that steel manufacturing pretty well no longer exists in the UK.

My initial reaction–before I’d read the article through, I’ll admit–was that this was not going to be a very interesting piece. We all know what happens when the jobs disappear.  Dalrymple himself has written several articles on this theme, and so have many others.

As it turned out, however, the article was not about the usual thing.  It was not about the fate of the steelworkers and their decendants. 

It was, instead, about the fate of refugees–Kurds, mostly, and also mostly young men.

The refugees have been resettled in these two former steel towns, where there is no work, and where starting businesses is nearly impossible because of regulations of various kinds.

And now, some years later, these people, who had had enough initiate and courage to brave a truly harrowing passage from their home countries to the UK–these people are, now…inert.

In fact, what Dalrymple’s description reminds me of is the parents and neighbors of my deep remedial kids, the ones who live in housing projects where garbage is lying all around on the floors and in the courtyards, where lightbulbs go out and stay out for months at a time, where, no matter how bad things got, nobody would actually get up and do anything.

Dalrymple suggests in this article that the listlessness–what I’ve called the passivity–is caused by a combination of a good-enough welfare state combined with restrictions on individual enterprise.

And this may be, of course, true–as it may be true for some inner city American Latino communities composed largely of people who were willing to brave border patrols, Minutemen vigilantes, and God only knows what else to get here.

And it is almost certainly true that we have, as has the UK, developed a class of people (social workers, low level regulators of various kinds) who have a vested interest in making sure that poor people stay poor.

In the end, though, I can’t quite see my way to accepting this as The Explanation for that passivity.

After all is said and done, these are not the only poor people in the US and the UK, and they’re not the only immigrants.

As Dalrymple mentions, as an aside, none of his descriptions of passivity, squalor and demoralization apply to the Indian and Pakistani immigrants in Britain.

They don’t apply to the Indian and Pakistani immigrants here, either or to the Thai and Vietnamese or Chinese.

In spite of the very real barriers to starting a small business, these people start them.  In spite of lackluster education systems and racial discrimination against Asians in college admissions, these people get their kids into first rate schools.

Their children become doctors and lawyers and professors and members of the Obama administration.  Their out of wedlock birthrate is nearly nonexistent.  Their arrest rate is almost as low.

I can’t see that any of the usual “explanations” of the extreme passivity I used to see in those  housing projects.  The immigrants who succeed are both religious and nonreligious. So are the ones that don’t.  The same legal and regulatory systems apply to both.  They both exist in the same economy.  At least at the beginning, they all go to the same schools.

There has to be something else going on here. I only wish I knew what. 

But what I do know is two things:

First is that anything we can do to head this sort of thing off at the pass, we ought to do. 

People who are passive to the extent and in the way I saw, and that Dalrymple seems to be describing, are no use to anybody, not even themselves.  They’re not even properly exploitable. 

If there’s something we know how to do that will bring people out of such a state, we should do it.  If we know something that demonstrably works, I’ll be happy to pay the taxes for it.

If we do not know something that demonstrably works, but we can show that removing both the majority of welfare state benefits AND enterprise-inhibitory regulation will at least reduce the incidence of this kind of thing, then we should do that.

You’d have to go to the direst poverty on the planet before you found something more inhumane, or lives less human, than what this is.

And the level of poverty I’m talking about is, for structural reasons, not achievable in a modern technological state.

What has always scared me most about this situation is that it might be a temperament, and therefore inborn and largely unchangeable. 

Dalrymple had a point, though, about those immigrants who come through great obstacles.

So I’ve got my fingers crossed.

Written by janeh

September 28th, 2013 at 9:51 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Still Life'

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  1. My most recent “glad it exists” thing I saw in a nature show about hummingbirds. There’s a small town in Texas on the Gulf coast where the ruby-throated hummingbirds gather each fall before they launch into their migration across the water.

    Normally, hummingbirds need to feed every 15 minutes throughout the day, but their flights can last as much as 22 hours to cross the 500 miles. They need to feed enough to double their weight before they take off.

    So the entire small town puts out thousands of feeders, and boy do they get hummers! Just watching the hundreds of birds gathering at one spot, swarming despite human presence & activity. One thing that give me great pleasure is making hummingbirds happy, we maintain about 6 feeders here. So seeing a whole town doing the same makes me glad it exists.


    28 Sep 13 at 12:17 pm

  2. I knew about the hedgehog people. Do you suppose they sing the Terry Pratchett Hedgehog Song at the end of meetings?

    (Ahem.) On to the main issue. I have an answer and you won’t like it. I don’t. I think the modern state–post WWII in Britain, post-Great Society here–is a machine which destroys anything above welfare cases and below what I call Ivy League yuppies and Jane calls EUMC. For that matter, it destroys all associations not dependent on the government, including any business under maybe 50-100 people. You can watch Latin American immigrants to the US–decent, hard-working, family oriented. But if they don’t punch through to college degrees in one generation, the next generation has crime, welfare and illegitimacy rates much like our native ghetto-born.

    The question is why some groups resist this better than others. I think it’s worth noting that the most resistant groups of immigrants–Viet, Chinese, Indian and Pakistani–are the most alien. They get into the EUMC before they assimilate.

    This only works if they bring a family structure and traditions of scholarship and business activity with them. We owe the Hmong a lot, and as far as I’m concerned we should let them all in who want to come–but they were tribal in Laos, and they’re not the sort of success stories here that Jane mentions.

    I also suspect with Dalrymple’s Kurds and some other immigrants we’re faced with “reversion to the mean.” The individuals who came here bucked the trend, but some of them come from societies where passivity is a survival strategy: hundreds of years of knowing the tall nail gets hammered isn’t easy to shake off, especially when we reinforce the lesson.

    My counsel? The usual: a few clear and simple rules with minimal opportunities for bureaucratic shakedowns, and nothing given to able-bodied adults except in return for work. Let me know when the political class gets interested in exchanging some of their power for someone else’s prosperity.

    The system benefits those who run it. If we want a different system, we will have to have a new ruling class.


    28 Sep 13 at 2:48 pm

  3. a Harvard economist, and Eldar Shafir, a psychologist at Princeton, propose a way to explain why the poor are less future-oriented than those with more money. According to these authors, one explanation for bad decisions is scarcity — not of money, but of what the authors call bandwidth: the portion of our mental capacity that we can employ to make decisions.

    Worrying about money when it is tight captures our brains. It reduces our cognitive capacity — especially our abstract intelligence, which we use for problem-solving. It also reduces our executive control, which governs planning, impulses and willpower. The bad decisions of the poor, say the authors, are not a product of bad character or low native intelligence. They are a product of poverty itself.


  4. I come from poor. I know exactly what it looks and feels like not to have running water, electricity, sewerage service and so on and so forth, or the means to acquire such things, or even the security of knowing where the next meal is coming from. I’ve lived for significant periods, ie two or more years, in genuinely poor, subsistence communities in the developing world. It was pretty much the default state of the Australian working class until the post-WWII boom times.

    If poverty reduces our cognitive capacity today, it surely would have done so back in the day. Back then, real poverty was a real and tangible thing, malnourishment and its sequellae (ricketts anyone?)- not the ersatz variety that exists in sections of our western societies these days, where possession of flat screen TVs, cell phones and other hitherto luxury devices seem not to count in measuring the location of the “poverty line”. Yet, routinely then, people clawed their way out of abject poverty to become veritable giants in their communities and even nations.

    Something else is at work, or not.


    29 Sep 13 at 9:24 pm

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