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By Tom Cushing

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About this blog: The Raucous Caucus shares the southpaw perspectives of this Boomer on the state of the nation, the world, and, sometimes, other stuff. I enjoy crafting it to keep current, and occasionally to rant on some issue I care about deeply...  (More)

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Sad Commentaries

Uploaded: Mar 10, 2014
What's happening to us? That's the depressing question that looms large for me after reading two sad articles in tandem, one local and another about life in Attalissa, a little farming town in Iowa. They seem to share elements in-common – and reflect poorly on life in these United States.

The Iowa story: The Boys in the Bunkhouse, is a long exposee that appeared in the NY Times Magazine. It lays-out a horrific tale of chronic abuse that spanned nearly forty years. The Iowa bunkhouse was the northern outpost of a company, Henry's Turkey Service, which may have started as a way to provide productive labor to developmentally disabled young men. They were taught the crude rudiments of such tasks as turkey fertilization and slaughter, and then seconded to farmers and meat packers at a legal, sub-minimum wage. Over 1000 boys and men were chosen from Texas state institutions to live and work under the program's guidance.

In Iowa, Henry's rented an abandoned two-story school building that became home for their workers at the local Louis Rich turkey processing plant. These men did the rankest, most foul jobs available in that circle of hell, unloading and eviscerating the birds and "pulling guts." They did it with evident pride, thousands a day, year after year, and became a limited fixture in the Attalissa community.

Their situation quickly spiraled into abuse, however. The boys were never given a pay raise – not one – in more than thirty years, and after Henry's deducted money from their minuscule wages for room, board and various prescribed annual outings, the boys never brought more than $65 per month back to the bunkhouse. They were physically abused, their teeth and health succumbed to neglect and lousy food, they slept on soiled floor mattresses in squalid conditions and learned to shield their food from cockroaches that routinely dropped from the ceilings. The few who attempted escape either disappeared, were caught and returned, or froze to death in the open.

The boys were kept against their will, in the sense that they were chosen because they had none, and were completely pliant. They were trafficked as surely as if they'd been imprisoned behind barbed wire, with lifetimes of wages and experiences robbed from them. No word whether the saying "Work will set you free" was painted anywhere over the doors, but why not? They even assumed that the social worker who finally freed them was their new boss lady, and greeted her warmly.

Who failed them? Everyone. Henry's and their overseers exploited them; governments via police, mental health and labor authorities in Texas and Iowa failed to notice or act on their behalf; their families abandoned them and moved-on, heartbreakingly early in their captivities; and both the Louis Rich slaughterhouse and the townspeople, including the church they attended, just looked the other way as their personal and collective living conditions steadily deteriorated.

Production was maintained. Nobody noticed, nor paid attention, nor asked questions or even visited the bunkhouse. And you just have to wonder: how many other bunkhouses are out there, among such as migrant camps, sweatshops, brothels and elsewhere? Are we complicit, in failing to notice, ask and act?

The other story was in Sunday's Chron/SFGate , and nominally concerned the creation and promised enforcement of new rules designed by the city's Main Library to rid the premises of homeless folks who hang out there, and often use it as a restroom and bathing facility.

Now, I understand the need to maintain the facility for its important intended purpose. I also know that "homelessness" is a thorny, seemingly intractable and many-faceted problem and a constant headache for some residents. That said, what bothered me initially is the evident lack of any kind of coordinated community response, beyond encouraging the library to export "the problem" back into the street.

But what was much worse was the utterly snide, nasty and calloused majority of hundreds of commenters who responded to the article. The Most Liked opinion recommended that "homeless advocates ought to have to keep the homeless in their own houses. LOL!" And it went downhill from there. You couldn't even call this the kind of benign neglect that occurred in Iowa, or conclude that these readers were only hostile to the homeless. In their anonymous glory, they didn't even want anyone else to so much as Help the homeless!

It's said that the only good thing about internet anonymity is that you might get to find out what people Really think – and Lord Knows even this community publication has its challenges with that format. So let's assume that's true and the commenters meant it: this was a failure of empathy on a massive scale. Set in a row with the Bunkhouse horrors, it presents a depressing, if limited review of our culture.

I worry about us – our pre-occupations with immediate, urgent and personal routines, the ease with which we sever ties and take our leavings, our impersonality, our failures to really connect with each other on a humane level, the absence of real community in our communities. Hell, I even worry that the least-read of my own virtual scribblings hereabouts, by a comfortable margin, was titled The George Saunders Kindness Forum.

These two stories are rife with institutional, community and interpersonal failures. If they don't give us pause to ponder, to vow some greater personal attention to be paid to our fellow travelers, our ties to each other and our expectations of those who lead us, then there will be many more, equally depressing and tragic scenarios headed our way.

Comments

Posted by Cholo, a resident of Livermore,
on Mar 10, 2014 at 2:30 pm

The Magdalene Laundry in Ireland is a similar story. As of 2/2013 Taoiseach Enda Kenny has failed to apologize to the girls who experienced the horrific treatment.

A humane response to suffering does not always occur.

Various holidays can bring out the best in some Americans but certainly not all. The poor/homeless are often found dead on the streets due to inadequate shelter starvation and violence.

Slavery is alive and well in America today. Prostitution is modern day slavery and highly profitable for pimps etc.

Hunger in America is common.

Thousands and thousands of Americans do not have proper medical/dental care.

Random crime RULES! Greed is everywhere.








Posted by Cholo, a resident of Livermore,
on Mar 10, 2014 at 2:42 pm

On February 19 2013 MY HERO TAOISEACH ENDA KENNY APOLOGIZED:

Web Link

VIVA TAOISEACH KENNY! VIVA!


Posted by American, a resident of Danville,
on Mar 12, 2014 at 11:08 am

I agree, Tom, "I worry about us", and "What is happening to us?", when we live in a society where people like Mumia Abu-Jamal in cold blood murder a brave police officer, and bloggers focus on the attorney who represented this killer, rather than the horrible grief facing the police officers wife and children? A wife lost her husband, children lost their father, and society lost a brave police officer, and how about not glossing over their horrible loss? How about a blog about what is wrong with our society where people in cold blood just murder a police officer? Doesn't the police officer and his family deserve some compassion, and don't you have any outrage at criminals who do not value life at all?

Yes, it is fundamental that everyone has a right to be represented by counsel, and that counsel shall zealously defend them within the ethics and rules of their state bar. I am glad that there are people who want to be public defenders, and want to defend criminals who commit horrendous crimes, as I could never personally do that. I value people who can do that.

But that being said, as a society, and in particular, bloggers like you, seem to gloss over the bigger picture, the true worry and concern as to "what is happening to us?" where people like Mumia Abu-Jamal with no remorse commit horrible violent crimes, and have no respect for the value of life. T.V. crews now have to send armed guards with them to Oakland when filming a story, as criminals in Oakland routinely will rob the news crew at gun point of their cameras and valuables. A story about a violent murder in Oakland or Richmond does not even make the newspaper anymore as it is so common.

So yes, Tom, "I worry about us", and "what is happening to us?", where the real issues and real concerns are glossed over by the media and bloggers like you.

Am I the only one who feels this way? Is anyone else concerned that victims of crime and their families are no longer newsworthy or important?


Posted by Tom Cushing, a resident of Alamo,
on Mar 13, 2014 at 12:56 pm

Hi American: thanks for your comment. Point taken about the need for compassion. I believe that police officers probably get closer to their justly due dose-of-mourning than other fatal crime victims get, and I have no problem with that. I guess the most famous non-police crime victim of that general era was Kitty Genovese, whose cold-blooded killing while people looked away caused a great deal of national soul-searching.

The Danny Faulkner case was indeed tragic. It has continued to receive a remarkable level of attention in the press, 33 years later, in part due to the ignominy of his killer. I view him as the probably-innocent victim of a wider war between the PD and the militant organization to which Jamal belonged, called MOVE. There were many victims of that war, including residents of the two full city blocks that the police allowed to burn because the MOVE HQ was one of the buildings on-fire. I lived near Philly during that time, and there was brutality all around that situation.

BTW, just for the straight record, your post refers to Danny Faulkner's children. If memory serves, Officer Faulkner and his wife did not have children. His widow was vocal in opposing the Adegbile nomination, as is her right.


Posted by Another sad tale, a resident of Carlton Oaks,
on Mar 13, 2014 at 3:21 pm

Well, since Mumia is still the focus....

I find it pretty sad that a blogger would simply assume Mumia is/was guilty; and pretty sad too that his Joe McCarthy responders think that a government agent, in this case an attorney, should be found 'guilty' on grounds of his associations and beliefs. Attending a pro-Mumia/pro-justice rally? I mean, really.

Now, that said, in preparing a law course in human and civil rights -- honest, I'd never lie about such a thing -- I stumbled upon this blog. I find it pretty remarkable that all this ink would be wasted without any mention of the possible innocence of Mumia Abu Jamal. Philadelphia, during the time of the shooting of the cop, wasn't exactly a hotbed of racial tolerance. Indeed, the police force had a reputation as being one of the most violent in the nation, the Mayor's office was a haven for racism, top to bottom, and the district attorney's office worked hand in glove with police and mayor. Who shot first? [That was never established.] Was Mumia the shooter? [Much conflicting and retracted/recanted testimony in this regard.] Could Mumia have been framed in order to satisfy a racist police force and prosecutor's office? [As if this has never happened to black males in the United States before.] Biased jury? Biased judge? Ah, but upper courts upheld the decision. Well, then he must have done it. Right. [See numerous convicted 'murderers' released after sitting years on death row after being exonerated by DNA evidence.] At any rate, I find it a bit amusing [sad] that people get their panties all wadded up in a knot because a top-notch legal person didn't get a particular job [he'll survive, people], while a likely innocent man rots in a prison cell for the remainder of his life.

Signed,
Seamus


Posted by Jake, a resident of Alamo,
on Mar 14, 2014 at 6:23 pm

Tom:once again you have challenged us to pause and ponder a complex issue. My sense is that at the retail level we have seen the inhumane behavior of individuals/groups, however, the larger concern is our values and conduct as a society. While there are many factors influencing this, I believe the two main contributors are deterioration of the family unit and the failure of leadership at various institutions of our society. The leadership sets the tone and the expectation that influences its members. I have observed this in the business environment where a failing organization became a success when the top changed. I must admit that the observations of cause and effect are much simpler than providing effective solutions, however, I offer that we start where we have most influence as individuals by being self observant and set a an example for our family and friends and hope that the leadership will catch up with us.


Posted by Formerly Dan from BC, a resident of Bridle Creek,
on Mar 17, 2014 at 9:12 am

Formerly Dan from BC is a registered user.

Tom,

Although at first I had a problem with your linking the two articles, I finally came to the conclusion that the issue at heart was/is this: for those social issues where the Government takes a lead, societal disfunction occurs years or decades afterward.

Slavery, desegregation, war on poverty/drugs, closing of mental health institutions; a convoluted tax code; sub-minimum wage for disabled citizens...etc. You name it, ALL were instituted by Government. ALL have led to abuses and societal disfunction. All were/are wrong.

To focus any amount of time on "anonymity" of calloused (I might call them frustrated) commenters is a straw-man, and frankly, doesn't focus enough attention on local, state and federal government policies.

Sincerely,

Dan


Posted by Tom Cushing, a resident of Alamo,
on Mar 17, 2014 at 10:06 am

Thanks, folks for your thought-ful responses. There are many ways to express these concerns. Anonymity, failures of family, leadership and example, institutional/governmental failures.

I appreciate Dan's concern, because the hand of government can be found associated with many social problems. I would resist the cause-and-effect relationship, however. After all, government intervention happened later, in an attempt to address those social problems -- those efforts certainly didn't cause those problems.

Indeed, while we tend to focus on the obvious failures of government, would anyone honestly conclude that efforts to end segregation and discrimination on many characteristics haven't been hugely successful? If so, I'd suggest that you are not thinking of the folks formerly kept under the boot. That said, well-meant government actions seem to too-often fall victim to unintended consequences. I do not believe that the cure for that is to look the other way.

I'm reminded of the Myth of Gyges, wherein the 'hero' finds a ring that makes him invisible -- what a wonderful tool with which to do good! Instead, he robs the Treasury, kills the King, rapes the Queen and sets out on a career of terrorism. If that dark side of our natures is given sway, mayhem ensues. I think anonymity is a bit like invisibility -- lack of consequences leads some folks off straight-and-narrow, in the general direction of bad behavior. So I wouldn't call anonymity a straw man -- it IS an outcome of many things, as above. I'm aware that some people lay the blame at the government dependency door -- I'm just not one of them.


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