Thursday, January 05, 2006

What if everyone...?

Lame arguments II

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll has his own approach to holiday charity. He eliminates the middle man. Rather than contributing to some recognized organization (such as the United Way, for example), Carroll prefers his own "Untied Way." He described it in his Q&A column of December 19, 2005:

Q: How do I become an Untied Way volunteer?

A: Go to the ATM at your bank, convenience store or casino. Withdraw a sum of money. The amount of cash is up to you; I would suggest something just a little bit more than you're comfortable with. It doesn't have to hurt, but it should sting a little. Put the money in your pocket and go to an area where you often find people asking for money. My experience this year is that the number of those areas has increased quite dramatically. If you do not know of any locations with such people, ask a friend—and get out more.
That, in essence, is Carroll's Untied Way—random acts of monetary kindness.

The naysayers were quick to pounce. On December 30, the following letter appeared from a rapidly unraveling Chronicle reader:

Carroll column could lead to economic ruin

Editor—Jon Carroll once again has put on his Santa Claus hat (Dec. 19) and invited his readers to hand out $20 bills, willy nilly, to all the homeless people clogging our downtown streets. And if his idea catches on, San Francisco's social and commercial life will be destroyed forevermore.

The ranks of the homeless will multiply as panhandlers, hearing the good news, descend upon the city from all points of the compass; alcohol and drug sales will skyrocket in the Tenderloin; tourists who now provide the lifeblood for our Disneyland North will depart, screaming, for more hospitable climes; low-income workers (waiters, bus boys, maids, sales people) whose livelihoods depend on the tourist trade will face mass joblessness.

Thank you, dear letter writer, for a perfect example of the "What if everyone...?" fallacy. A popular form of over-generalization, the "What if everyone...?" fallacy should be familiar to most people. (Perhaps you have used it yourself!) Here are some classic uses:

  • If everyone "turns" gay, humanity will become extinct.
  • If everyone goes on welfare, who will pay for it?
  • If everyone contributed just $10 to public television...
  • If everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you?
  • If everyone ate more vegetables...

Some of these are harmless rhetorical devices, beloved of parents fighting such things as peer pressure (although in my youth I always wondered where it was that other children were leaping off cliffs to spite their parents). Others are pipe dreams whose realizations are at least as far off as the smokeless society and the paperless office. The pernicious cases those advanced as serious arguments.

For example, will straight people stop getting married if gay people are permitted to wed? ("Oh, I don't want to do that if they can do it, too!") Will our letter writer's fears be realized and the San Francisco economy collapse ("forevermore"!) if everyone emulates Jon Carroll's example and begins to hand out money indiscriminately? Note that the writer specifically alerts us to the danger that beggars will "descend upon the city from all points of the compass." Yes, as we all know, panhandlers are one of the most mobile segments of our society's underclass and will cross the nation in search of an easy handout. Shades of Upton Sinclair!

Upton Sinclair? Yes, the letter writer's scare tactics about indigents pouring into San Francisco have a venerable history. I'm sure it goes back at least as far as racism and bigotry, but the particular instance I have in mind was home grown here in California when Upton Sinclair ran for governor. It was 1934, in the midst of the Great Depression, and Sinclair's platform was End Poverty in California (EPIC).
Perhaps the most effective anti-Sinclair campaign was that of movie mogul Louis B. Mayer who, wrote [historian John D.] Weaver, "turned his Culver City studio into the unofficial headquarters of the film industry’s organized campaign of vilification and misrepresentation." The effort included "fake newsreel interviews with bewhiskered actors voicing their enthusiasm for EPIC in Russian accents. The most effective footage focussed on Central Casting hobos huddled on the borders of California, waiting to live off the bounty of its taxpayers once Sinclair got elected."
Yes, it's all been done before, but that doesn't make it any less invalid or less reprehensible. While Mayer was working as a conscious propagandist, our San Francisco Chronicle letter writer is presumably sincere and merely thoughtless in his scrambling for rhetorical devices with which to drive his points home. The thoughtful will not be deceived.

San Francisco is not going to suddenly turn into a panhandler paradise because Jon Carroll thinks it would be nice to show a little kindness during the holiday season. Those who participated in the Untied Way undoubtedly spread some joy among the less fortunate residents of the city by the bay, but Carroll himself pointed out that it wasn't going to solve the world's problems. I guess he's not accustomed to thinking as big as his letter-writing critic. Good for him!

No comments: