It Only Counts When It Hurts
The first thing I want to say about Jordan Neely is that his killing was a terrible crime and I hope his assailant is arrested and indicted. I don’t know what the right charges are, I don’t know what the right punishment is, but you can’t just choke someone to death like that. I don’t know why anyone would assume I would feel differently, but this is how I feel. I should have a piece out soon about Neely and involuntary treatment, discussed in theoretical and in practical terms. Today I want to talk about something broader. Broader and sadder.
Here’s what I really want to say to you today: if you only love someone when they’re unthreatening, if you only support a group of people when you can cast them as blameless, if you’ll only fight for a class of people when you can insist that they’re harmless, you do not love them, you cannot support them, and will never really fight for them. Love that does not love the unlovable part of someone is not love.
When Michael Brown was killed, and The New York Times ran the infamous passage above, the controversy that ensued struck me as uniquely sad, thanks to the way the reaction against it spoke the same language. There was justifiable anger that the Times would front an 18-year-old’s checkered past - whether real or propaganda is not the point - in a story about him getting shot to death in the street. Some of those who responded to the NYT piece, I’m sorry to say, responded by demanding that he was in fact innocent of the claims about his past and the allegations about his conduct on the day he was killed. I can understand this impulse, but I found it unfortunate in a really profound way. Because to respond to the implication of “no angel,” that someone might have been complicit in their own execution because of bad things they’d done, by denying that they’d done anything bad is to surrender to the assumption that such an execution can be deserved by dint of bad deeds. It attempts to win a battle by declaring surrender in the war.
If your response to a crime committed against someone is to minimize their negative qualities, you are inherently accepting the logic that the crime committed against them would have been justified had they not been as blameless as you’ve made them out to be. If you need Michael Brown to have been just an innocent 18-year-old who never did anything wrong in order to demand justice for his death, you don’t actually want justice. If your outrage about the killing of Jordan Neely requires you to say that he was just a blameless Michael Jackson impersonator who never did anything wrong, you aren’t actually outraged on his behalf. In each case, you’re only defending a caricature; your moral standards are provisional, transactional. You’re accepting the logic of “he was no angel.” Jesus insisted that we love everyone, including those who are down and out, including those who we don’t want to love. He didn’t say “love them because they’re really not all that bad.” He said that you are bound to love them whether they’re good or bad, whether you want to love them or not. Of course, I’m not Jesus, and neither are you. I’m not really telling you to love people despite their flaws. I’m only asking you not to kill them.
There is nothing that the aspirational class will not use as fodder for competition. And since Neely’s murder there’s been a great competition online, among a certain species of liberals and leftists, to be the most unconcerned with instability in public places, to be the loudest voice saying that you could never be afraid of a mentally ill person, on the train or in the park or on the street. Well: congratulations. Congratulations to you. In my life, I have been scared of mentally ill people. Many times. Maybe my context has been a little different from that of the average Twitter user. But like I said: congratulations. I wonder if it ever crossed your minds that your compassion for them means that much more if you sometimes have been frightened of them.
There’s a homeless guy who lives in a tunnel in Prospect Park. I pass through all the time. He’s fine. He mostly just sits in his spot and rocks. Sometimes he talks to himself. And sometimes he gets a little aggro and starts yelling at people as they pass by. I’ve never seen him piss in there but sometimes it does smell like piss and I would guess that he’s doing it. I think he’s harmless. I would never call the cops on him or try to strong-arm him out of there. I don’t think he’s a good candidate for involuntary treatment, although I’d love it if a social services worker tried to gently and respectfully present some options to him. After three years or so of walking in the park every day, I expect his presence and certainly don’t fear him. But then, I have years of familiarity with him, and also I’m a large man who feels confident that he can defend himself when he needs to. Were I a 5’2, 110-pound woman who was walking through that tunnel for the first time, I would likely be afraid of a homeless man shouting to himself or at me, and it would be perfectly natural and defensible if I was. It would not be defensible to call the cops. It would not be defensible to wish him harm. It would demonstrate a lack of character to not want better for him. But simply to be a little scared of him would be natural. Because despite a popular myth, people with some kinds of mental illness really are more likely to be violent, and someone who lives on the street is vastly more likely to have one of those conditions. Your responsibility is to control your fear and act responsibly. But the risk of violence is genuinely higher with a homeless person. I’m sorry, folks. Click the links.
I’m not asking for people to be rounded up. I’m not calling for more police. I’m not asking you to abandon compassion, but to do the exact opposite - to have compassion for people as they really are. And some people are really badly broken, in a way that makes them dangerous and antisocial. It happens that I do believe that more involuntary care could save lives. But right now I’m just trying to get to the preconditional understanding that some things in life are bad, and mental illness and homelessness are among them, and it simply does no good for anyone to act like we should be blasé and desensitized to the outward expressions of them in our urban spaces. And, indeed, to make your support contingent on a false picture of who the severely mentally ill really are is to demonstrate that your compassion only encompasses those who are not really sick.
And of course there’s the politics. A movement that insists that homeless men ranting on the train should be seen as a regular and unproblematic part of life is, for one thing, a movement that hates mass transit - if you tell ordinary people that taking the subway or the bus means that they’re going to be exposed to chaos and instability, and they have no right to complain about it, then people will stop taking public transit, they’ll stop voting to fund public transit, and public transit will wither and die. I’m so, so proud of you for being the bravest boys and girls and feeling zero discomfort about homelessness, mental illness, and crime. But the normies care. They just do. And they outnumber you. More, that kind of oh-so-cool attitude will simply convince regular people that our movement doesn’t care about them and can’t be trusted to establish basic order. It’s an unfortunate habit of progressive people to act as though, since we are the ones who speak for the rights and interests of the marginalized, those who aren’t marginalized have no rights or interests that we should protect. But to protect the marginalized requires us to appeal to the majority. It’s the only way we can protect them.
The attitude I’m criticizing is not niche or rare. Here’s Emma Vigeland of the Sam Seder is Better Than You Show insisting that urban people should just live with chaos on the subway. Everything else aside, it’s political suicide. There’s more where that came from.
I despair, a little more, every day. The way we talk about just about everything is broken. Today, the brokenness that saps my strength lies in this utter inability to see outside of anything but a pure binary of good and bad. If Jordan Neely was not a criminal who deserved to die, apparently, he must be a secular saint who could never have made anyone uncomfortable, let alone unsafe. And, again, the inherent and inescapable implied logic is that he must be that or else we could not mourn him and demand justice for his death. Well, here’s some moral simplicity of my own: mental illness is bad. People who have mental illness aren’t bad. But mental illness is bad. On the societal level it causes unspeakable harm. Mental illness ruined Jordan Neely’s life. He occupied the same reality where teenagers cosplay severe illness on TikTok for clout because we lack the integrity and courage as a society to acknowledge that mental illness is just bad. Many progressive people have decided that support for those with mental illness must entail insisting that mental illness makes you quirky and fun or else some kind of enlightened sage. They think they can be allies to the sick without acknowledging their sickness. And it is far past time that we disabuse them of that notion.
We failed Jordan Neely in more ways than I can count, and I desperately wish we could all go back and save him. Like so many, he resisted treatment. When you ask people who have been in psychiatric hospitals why they don’t want to go back, one of the answers you hear most often is that they don’t want to have to be around the other patients. The erratic behavior, the screaming, the general unpleasantness. What I would ask of those who insist that there’s never anything to fear in mental illness is this: how can you be so sure that no good person could be afraid of the mentally ill, when so many of us are afraid of each other?