Sunday, August 16, 2009

Thinking About Exploitation..

Prior to a recent post about a Harvard Div Schooler's experiment with homelessness, I've never really *gone negative* here on the blog before; in fact, I think that the fact that I tend to stay positive and cheerlead a bit here is a fair and valid critique of the site. (But I would counter that anyone who knows me could say my online persona and my real self are one and the same).

But a recent comment from someone who found the post via a Google search made me do a little chin-scratching about what I said, and what I think can be constituted as *exploitation.*

The main crux of the matter is this -- is the relationship in question a two-way deal, or is one party *using* the other for personal gain without a reciprocal offering in turn?

I offered that the student, with a neat little website dedicated to his project, complete with contact information (laid out for potential publishers?) was essentially exploiting the homeless population of Harvard Square. I'll admit that I made that judgement without ever having met the individual, and I'll admit that I could be wrong -- it's possible that somehow the writings or lessons learned from the project could help facilitate better understanding of homeless issues...however, based on what I gathered from the Globe story, and from looking at the site, I'm just not seeing it. Right or wrong, I'll stand by my original words.

People are allowed to have opinions and they're allowed to make judgements. At the end of the day, I'm not a big fan of this guy's project -- and that has more to do with the project than the individual himself.

I don't hide much here on the site. I know I've talked at length about why I decided to join the military in the first place, and why I've decided to make it a career (to sum it up in a few words, it's about being in the action vs. being on the sidelines). However, I've also never hidden the fact that I'm potentially interested in writing and/or politics someday.

Of course, a military background would help to further either of those goals (just look at the career of so many great American writers and pols from the 20th century!), but I would argue vociferiously with anyone who said that meant I was *exploiting* the service that I love. My argument back is a simple one -- I'll give as much or more than I'll take. I'm not *pretending* to be in the service; on the contrary, a coming deployment is quite real, and it's definitely already impacting my employment prospects and near-term plans. It will become a heckuva lot more real as the calendar pages start to turn. If I ever tried to write a long magazine piece or book about it, yes, I would be *using* the experience, but I also know it would be experience of someone who put all his energies into a very real-life situation that really impacted real people.

I would say the same for my decision to move here, to write this blog about it, and to become involved in the community. There's plenty of give that goes along with that take. There are the obvious things like property and other taxes, as well as dollars spent locally. Then are less tangible things like promoting a place, an idea, or ideas about a place.

I wrote the post in question just after having written about "Yes Men" and the revulsion I felt towards a hoax that was played on the victims of the Union Carbide disaster in India in 1984. Some clever video editing showed that the hoax "really wasn't so bad" but I would counter that those who were served by it were the "Yes Men," while the action was played on the backs of the BBC, Dow Chemical, and yes, the real victims of the Bhopal Disaster.

I feel the same way about the Borat and Bruno movies that are supposed to show how xenophobic and homophobic Americans are. I would counter that they show only how Borat-phobic and Bruno-phobic we can be when we're put into uncomfortable situations with strangers who falsely identify themselves to try to create a *gotcha* for a screen capture.

At the end of the day, I lump a Harvard student playing homeless for the summer, replete with promotional website, in this latter category; it just smacks of insincerity and pompous one-wayism. Maybe if it were a documentary about an actual homeless person, or an exposition about ways to address social problems in America, I'd feel differently.

But that's the beauty of the 1st Amendment.

I've got the freedom to think it. You've got the freedom to agree or disagree.

And we could both be a little right, a little wrong, or both.


Jon and Kate said...

You are completely in the right and kudos to standing up to that guy who actually compared John Frame to Jesus.

What John Frame is doing is the grossest form of exploitation, because it is so transparently patronizing --being homeless isn't an "experience" that one has for a summer and then returns back to normal life like a backpacking trip through Europe.

If you want a real laugh, read Frame's disgustingly precious "diary" about all the quirky, tragic "characters" he has met in his difficult journey sleeping three blocks from his actual home. You can read about his wacky adventures -- now he panhandles! now he takes in a free concert! and through it all he has "a lot of fun!" Forget radical chic, this is Homeless Chic and I want to vomit.

The New Englander said...


Glad you see it the same way, and thanks for adding those lines (the backpacking comparison and the 'homeless chic' tone to some of the writing and quotes). Loved the bons mots in the comment.

I thought the JC comparison was a bit much but would've been more willing to accept it if Frame did something truly radical like sell all his possessions, give his money away, and use that to benefit other people. This is anything but radical.

The diary and the website are nauseating... last thing though..I absolutely meant everything I just wrote (comment #5 to Frame post) to 'Bryan' about how rare but great it is to have an honest disagreement with somone in cyber-space that doesn't instantly degenerate into ad hominem crapola. He definitely made me think about what it means to throw terms around like 'exploitation,' which as I said, I stand by in this me, for something to NOT be exploitation, it would require truly mutual benefit or at least mutual agreement into the situation (i.e. someone in Vietnam working at a Nike factory by choice would NOT be exploitation).

Separate note -- have you seen or heard of Yes Men? If you do, let me know what you think of the Bhopoal chemical disaster hoax..would love to hear your thoughts..