I think I had an actual sighting of one the other day during a little episode on an exit ramp of Central Expressway in Dallas. Didn't know they actually existed. Couldn't believe my own eyes.
Standing in the January wind at a traffic-clogged intersection was the by-now-standard crippled-up black guy with the cardboard sign saying something like "I have no family, I have no friends, but I have God."
Well, that ain't news. Those street-corner guys haven't had any friends besides God since the first Reagan administration, unless you want to count Bill Clinton.
No, the newsworthy thing, in the man-bites-dog sense, is that a fashionably-dressed Park Cities woman in an expensive car did, amazingly, this: She waved the homeless guy over and gave him the big deli sandwich she'd just purchased for herself at nearby trendy Central Market: Just freely forked it over, right there in front of God and Highland Park.
Wow. I'd been hearing about these mythical creatures for four years now, but here one was, in the flesh:
A Compassionate Conservative.
I know what you're thinking: She was probably just a liberal in a stolen car.
But since it was Dallas, where there are no liberals, I'm gonna count it as a valid sighting; in fact I'm logging it as a "double," because she may also have been a real Christian. I mean, it could happen. Even in Dallas.
But as I logged it into my journal, along with a note to keep an open mind about the Easter Bunny, I thought about my own response to the homeless guy: I'd avoided eye contact just like everybody else in the queue of traffic. We didn't want to see him, and we secretly and guiltily wish those guys were way off in some other reality, one that doesn't include us.
And then I realized: The whole Neocon juggernaut feeds not on our heartless lack of generosity, but simply on our natural desire not to have to see "that stuff."
And the fact that the homeless guy is no longer considered "news," well, that is also a very big part of the problem, and maybe the biggest news of all.
The willingness to use the common wealth to do something about social problems didn't make any headway until the first part of the 20th Century, when the efforts of the media "muckrakers" brought scenes of misery into everybody's parlors, motivating appalled well-meaning souls to do something to help. But once "at the scene" they saw things that not only made them wish they hadn't seen them, but also recognize that individual efforts weren't enough to significantly address the vast root causes.
The logical response, when the poor first stopped being invisible, was for concerned people (which really IS most of us) to use government to concentrate the common weal not just to hand out the sammitches, but help these people get back on their feet somehow. They voted this way in exchange for the expectation that they would no longer have to get accosted by these dismal creatures every day.
But we have stopped seeing the problems the money was being used to solve -- largely because the media stopped showing us.
Back in the declining days of journalism, the '70s and '80s, but before its complete fall in the '90s, mass-market media outlets made sure that newspaper subscribers didn't conveniently forget that there were less fortunate people who used those newspapers as blankets, and reminded bigscreen TV owners that there were real-live men, women and children living in the crates they came in. And they made it clear that very often these people were in these sad straits through no particular fault of their own but because a fatcat somewhere saw a way to cut costs and increase dividends with the merest flick of a pen, and outsource the work to Bopal.
But then oligarchs began infesting the once-egalitarian media, and brought with them the bean-counters and the focus-group approach, the one where you ask people what they want to see, and show them that, rather than what they might need to see. And of course the people in the focus groups told the bean-counters what the pencil-necks knew all along they'd hear, but wanted to quantify: That we'd rather just not see all that Human Misery crap.
We would have to be mentally deranged, really, to "want" to see it. Who wants a mess o' smelly ol' homeless folks served up right on the tube at dinnertime? Not me. Not you.
And certainly not the sponsors: How is Joe Consumer gonna get unequivocally excited about responding to that Pizza Hooch 2-for-1 special if the commercial comes on the heels of grim video of some mother of three dumpster-diving for restaurant leftovers?
So, at the urging of the people whose journalistic assessments count the most -- the number-crunchers who both hire and fire -- just about everybody quit showing "that stuff."
Now we show them instant celebs, and alleged presidents carving fake turkeys and strutting around in flight suits, and Paris Hilton spoofin' on the yokels, and folks elbowing each other to suck up to Donald Trump in hopes of getting a job, and Christmas shopping frenzies.
The only ghostly reminder left of the poor, as far as the target audience of Haves is concerned, is that still-lingering hole in their paychecks, and all they have to do to get rid of even that faint spectral echo is just vote it away -- until one day they either find themselves rendered redundant and invisible with the flick of an oligarch's pen, or the poorfolks just come a-marching into their living rooms desperate and hungry and armed, and inclined to give about as much mercy and charity as they've received in recent years. At which point we will be shown a furrowed-browed President Daddy announcing he's further cutting our allowances in order to build more prisons, faster, to make all these people invisible once again.
So I just hope that nice lady with the sandwich will read between the lines all the news she's not getting these days, and saves some of her compassion for the polls.
That would be "man bites dog" indeed.
Brad Bailey is a recovering newspaper writer in Dallas.