As a general rule with very few exceptions, whenever you encounter someone arguing that “We [America] shouldn’t be doing X to help those people over there until we fix Y over here for our own people,” then you have also just encountered someone who doesn’t really give a flying fig about actually doing anything to fix Y over here.
We saw this rule demonstrated after the Boxing Day tsunami and the Haiti earthquake. “Why should we be helping those people over there when we have homeless people who need help here in America?” asked tens of thousands of Americans who had not previously, and did not subsequently, express any meaningful concern for America’s homeless. “Why should we be helping Ebola victims in West Africa when we have people who need health care here in America?” asked the same people, before going back to denouncing the Affordable Care Act as socialist slavery.
The same thing happens every time tragedy strikes anywhere in the world and the United States responds — whether through private charities or through governmental action. We hear this same protest and same feigned concern every time there’s a famine or a natural disaster or a wave of refugees displaced by war.
And 99.9 percent of the time these sudden, fervent expressions of concern for “people right here in America” is completely and demonstrably insincere. It is almost always only said by people who have spent the rest of their miserable lives similarly protesting and opposing any effort to do anything good or fair or decent for those same “people right here in America.”
Those with a genuine commitment to improving life for “people right here” never make this argument. You’ll never hear Bryan Stevenson arguing that we shouldn’t send relief to Pakistani earthquake victims because we should be spending that money here in America to repair and rebuild our horrifically broken public defender system. You’ll never hear Elizabeth Warren opposing medical aid to eradicate malaria abroad because its a distraction from the need for trust-busting banking reform here in the U.S. You’ll never hear #BlackLivesMatter organizers suggesting there’s some kind of zero-sum game between stopping the brutal plunder of black communities here and aiding refugees fleeing war on another continent. And you’ll never hear Bill McKibben suggesting that resources spent resettling such refugees should be redirected to transition us from fossil fuels to cleaner, renewable energy sources.
Decent people don’t play that game. Happy people don’t play that game. People who genuinely care about one good thing do not treat every other good thing as competition that must be crushed and stopped. They do not argue that justice for X should come at the expense of injustice for Y.
Good people devoted to and focused on a single good cause come to see — precisely because of that devotion — the connections and intersections of that cause and of other good and worthy causes. They recognize the truth of King’s statement that “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” And they recognize that the transformations they are seeking in systems and national character are congruent with the transformations that those other causes require. At some basic level, the kind of nation that is able to respond to earthquake victims abroad will be more like the kind of nation that is able to make positive changes “right here at home” to address needs and injustices in America. And at that same basic level, the kind of nation that turns its back on those earthquake victims, or those Ebola victims, or those refugees, will be the kind of nation that is less likely and less able to ever address the problems it has “right here at home.”
So don’t lie to me and pretend you’re suddenly concerned about the common good right here at home and that that’s why you oppose doing even something as depressingly minimal as sheltering 10,000 refugees. Don’t lie to me and don’t lie to yourself by suddenly pretending that you’re concerned about homeless veterans here in America.
That’s bullshit and everybody knows it. The only people impressed by your pretense and your play-acting are the other pretentious fantasists in your Facebook feed who rush to “Like” your posturing because it allows them to join in the game and pretend that they’re also virtuous and heroic champions of homeless veterans, even though, like you, they didn’t give a rat’s ass about them last week and will go back to not giving a rat’s ass about them next week.
We know and you know and everybody knows that you’re lying. That you’ll always be first in line to slap on a self-congratulatory bumper sticker — maybe even a green lightbulb! — while at the same time always, always, always voting to gut the budget of any program that helps those “troops” you claim to “support.”
Let’s be clear about this. When you say or write or post something like this:
Then what the entire rest of the world hears from you is this: “I am a selfish bastard who would happily shiv a homeless veteran in the back if it meant lower taxes for me.” Along with this: “Look at me! Look at me! Look at me!”
I’ll bet everything in my wallet that not only don’t you have the foggiest idea about “How the Obama Administration Got 50% of Homeless Veterans Off the Streets in 4 Years,” but that the only word in that headline that gets an emotional response from you is “Obama,” which prompts for you a vicious, visceral opposition. And so you will claim not to believe that the U.S. government is, right now, actively and effectively making a huge difference improving the lives of homeless veterans. That willfully ignorant assertion of “disbelief” will allow you to not have to worry about finding and supporting real efforts that really work. Because, as everybody knows, you don’t really care about homeless veterans — not if it interferes with your resentful selfishness and your efforts to score points in the little fantasy role-playing game in your head.
Your performance of an imitation of concern is obviously not concern, and it’s not even a convincing performance. No one is fooled by your act. No one. Not even you.
Don’t deny it. If this game were working at all for you then you wouldn’t need to be so vehement about it. If you were convinced by your own imitation of concern then you wouldn’t need to expend so much energy talking about it.
Also too, you may have noticed something else about all those admirable people devoted to good causes that I talked about above — and about anyone who is genuinely, actually concerned about homeless veterans. They tend to express that concern by talking about those causes, not by talking about themselves or about the imagined intensity of their concern or about their own purported devotion. You may not have noticed that you don’t do that. Your performance is all about you — like in the patch above, designed so you can literally wear it on your sleeve.
My point here is not to say that you’re a jerk. You are, in fact, behaving like a jerk — acting in jerk-like, dickish ways. And that, I’m afraid, makes you a jerk in training. It’s what you’re practicing for — practicing to become. And that habit will grow stronger until, one day, it may become almost impossible to break.
But there’s still time. You can still stop practicing jerkitude. Really, you can. Megan Phelps-Roper figured that out, and she had far fewer options and resources for doing that than you do.
We need you to stop. “We” there being everybody — the whole world, really. We need you to stop because right now there are so many people out there practicing jerkitude that it’s impossible for the world to get any better. You’re making it impossible — or, at least, much more difficult — to become the kind of world in which homeless veterans can get help and in which desperate refugees can find shelter and in which any other bare-minimum expression of basic justice or basic decency is allowed to occur.
So if any tiny part of you actually, genuinely cares even the tiniest bit for actual homeless veterans — not the abstract, imaginary ones that live in memes and in your head, but real people on real streets — then you need to cut the act.
But this isn’t just for their sake. It’s also for yours. Because this is killing you. It’s making you miserable and hopeless and unhappy.
Don’t — you were about to protest that you’re not unhappy. Don’t do that. Again, no one believes you. You don’t believe you. That performance isn’t any more convincing than the idea that you really give a damn about homeless veterans. Don’t double-down on that lie because that will only speed up the pace at which it devours whatever remains of your soul.
Please, please — for your own sake — don’t treat this like some point-scoring Internet battle where you have to keep up the pretense of self-satisfaction to try to win one for your team. This isn’t about teams or sides or politics. It’s about liberation. It’s about you taking the chance to stop pretending that self-satisfaction and manufactured outrage is, in any way, making you happier or improving your own life. It’s about you taking the chance to do and become something better — someone better, and happier.
Go with the homeless veterans thing. That’s good. Helping homeless veterans — really helping real people — is good. Stop talking about refugees or anything else as some imaginary competition to that and just jump in with both feet and really do it. Contact local veterans groups. Use Google.
• Hey, look, here’s a “How You Can Help” page from the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. They tell you what you can donate, how to help raise funds, and where you can volunteer. There’s nothing there about opposing refugee resettlement, and their advice will involve you working with local civic and church groups that are also many of the same folks working to help refugees — but don’t let that stop you. If you want to see someone better looking back at you from the mirror, then you can’t let that stop you.
• Here’s the Veterans Affairs page on “Ending Veteran Homelessness.” Maybe you hate the government and support politicians who want to see the VA and HUD drowned in a bathtub. Maybe the video message on that page from the first lady will fill you with white-hot white rage. OK, baby steps … don’t watch the video. Just read about the VA’s the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness and then check in with the mayor of your city or town and see if they’re on board. So far, 684 mayors and nine governors have committed to this all-hands-on-deck effort and it’s working. Figure out how you can support that.
• Write this down: 877-4AID-VET (877-424-3838). Put that in the contacts on your phone. That’s the VA’s national hotline for homeless veterans, staffed by trained counselors 24/7/365. It’s a one-call resource that can help a homeless vet get plugged in to local resources available to help them get off the street and back on their feet.
Yes, I know, ugh, the gubmint again. But we’re talking about veterans, remember? They worked for the government, they were part of the government — that’s what makes them veterans. It’s going to be tricky for you figuring out a way to hate the government while not hating — and hurting — the veterans who were a part of it. You may have to choose between the two. Choose wisely.
Now that you’ve got that number, be ready to give it to any homeless vets you may meet. Offer to call it for them and with them. Do it right there. And then, if that phone call means they need to get somewhere, offer to take them. (And now you’re in it, because if you drive them to somewhere, you won’t be able to just leave them stranded there. You’ll have to wait with them, and then …)
Have you noticed the problem with this hotline number yet? It’s a tremendous, actually helpful resource for homeless veterans, and you’ll really be helping people if you share it with them. But you may not be able to tell, right away, from a distance, if any given homeless person is, in fact, a homeless veteran. That can lead to an awkward situation in which you may end up speaking to some homeless civilian — some non-veteran neighbor — by accident. Who knows? You might even end up accidentally reaching out to help someone who turns out to be a refugee. And at that point you may still be thinking to yourself “Homeless Servicemen Should Come Before Any Other Homeless People,” but it may seem difficult in that moment to mention that out loud.
You might even find yourself, at that point, thinking that maybe you should help this neighbor, too, even though they’re not a homeless veteran. Maybe you’ll even start toying with the dangerous notion that helping someone other than the one select group you’ve designated as exclusively worthy of concern doesn’t entail a zero-sum loss for that group. Go with that. See where that leads you. Now you’re practicing something else, and thus becoming something else.
And that just might make you happier.