Marilyn J. Ellis (Letters, Feb. 24), "Homeless in L.A.," asks: "From whence comes this recurring theme that we 'owe' something to the unemployed, unsheltered, unwell, etc?" And she says her stomach is turned by "our societal attitude to provide 'womb-to-tomb' care for the leeches of our culture."
Let met tell Ellis whence comes this recurring theme. It comes from 3,000 years of a Judeo-Christian tradition of the responsibility of the fortunate for the unfortunate. This theme recurs in both the Old and New Testaments. It is perhaps best summed up in the judgment scene in the Gospel according to Matthew (25: 31-46) where the Son of Man separates the virtuous from the condemned "as the shepherd separates sheep from goats."
The Son of Man tells the virtuous to come into the kingdom prepared for them since the foundation of the world; he tells the condemned to go away from him into the eternal fire prepared for the devil. The standard the Son of Man uses in passing judgment is a most interesting one. To the virtuous he says: "I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me." To the condemned he says: "I was hungry and you never gave me food; I was thirsty and you never gave me anything to drink; I was a stranger and you never made me welcome, naked and you never clothed me, sick and in prison and you never visited me."
When the virtuous ask when they clothed and fed and visited the Son of Man, they are told that "in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me." When the condemned asked the same sort of question, the Son of Man tells them that "in so far as you neglected to do this to one of the least of these, you neglected to do it to me. The Gospel story concludes: "And they will go away to eternal punishment, and the virtuous to eternal life."
The moral of the story, as it applies to Ellis's letter is, I suppose, something like this: Be careful who you call a leech and treat neglectfully; you never know who it might turn out to be.
WALTER J. KELLY
Regarding the letter from Marilyn Ellis, I hope and pray that this reply clarifies and increases her nausea brought on by others' compassion.
Malevolence toward the unfortunate is a neurosis; it is based on a fear disguised as a sense of superiority. The fear lies in a perceived threat by the "leeches of society," that they are getting or taking something that they don't deserve or haven't earned, and are being somehow rewarded by those who have. The evidence at hand suggests that, unfortunately, this form of resentment-neurosis is on the increase in American society: growing numbers of us are angry with the growing numbers of us who are miserable.
It is understandable, but nevertheless unconscionable: "true" Americans wish the failures produced by abuses of our system would go away, disappear; in other words, get what they deserve. A form of xenophobia come home to roost.
If you would deign to look more closely and deeply, Ms. Ellis, some latent humanism in you might be touched by the realization that by far the majority of apparent down-and-outers are actually ill--either emotionally, or physically, or both. They may be more difficult for you to grasp than, say, cancer. But the troubles of the Other America are no less insidious, indiscriminate--and potentially terminal.
Ellis asks, at the end of her callous letter, how people survived before welfare, free shelter, free meals, Medicare, Medicaid, and other social programs. The answer is, they didn't. They died by the thousands. The private sector, so lauded these days, did nothing to abate these deaths or their causes, and it was left to government to step in and attempt to diminish, ever so lightly, the problems that cause these needless deaths.
She writes, "God helps those who help themselves," which is an old saying depending on the existence of a supreme being, who repeatedly, we are told, admonishes us not to tempt him/her/it into action. This would obviously preclude any help from divinities.
It may also interest her to know that many of these "fresh-scrubbed bums" shared many of her so-called conservative beliefs until they too were victimized by a system that puts its own theories ahead of living people.
Her attitudes, shared by a vocal minority so easy to hear today, and not the minuscule percentage of those on government aid who do indeed receive assistance greater than their needs, turn this writer's stomach. Ignorance is not pleasant to witness.
PETER JAMES KENYON
Ellis asked a very important question: "How did people survive in the days before welfare, free shelter, free meals, Medicare, Medicaid ad nauseam?"
Such a question is easily answered by taking a good social history course, or might I recommend that Ellis read "The Jungle," by Upton Sinclair, and "Factories in the Field," by Carey McWilliams. Both books show quite clearly how people survived before welfare. I hope Ellis takes time to read these books, as they just might answer some nagging questions of hers.
Letters from William Earnest and Marilyn J. Ellis (Feb. 24) both express the same feeling--the "unemployed, unsheltered and unwell" are "bums" and "leeches" expecting "womb-to-tomb" support. They pigeonhole those who favor social programs as "liberal-minded" and laud "hard-working conservatives," preyed upon by the rest of us. Their attitude seems a combination of "pull yourself up by your own bootstraps" and "let them eat cake."
That kind of narrow-minded, narcissistic view cost Marie Antoinette her head and ripped apart the French social structure. Fortunately, perhaps, for America's social structure, the drinking at the public trough pervades all classes and professions. Double-dipping by public servants and the executive expense account are gross examples. And the odds are that Earnest and Ellis will not refuse Medicare support when they are over 65 and ill. It's hard to tell who the bums are, isn't it?