It took me more than 65 years to bother to check out some reference to the phrase “red herring” (in other words, I just now looked). One source cited the possible practice of using a kipper (smoked fish) to try to divert hounds from staying on the trail of a rabbit. My own history with the term has been both vague and political. If grilled (me, figuratively, and not the fish, literally) I could say something about a move taken by a political faction to undermine an opponent’s position through insertion of some unrelated concept or “fact,” not supported by facts or the logic of the original position but appealing to the emotion and predetermined position of the faction’s constituents. I bet you have a similar impression, although more clear and less wordy.
So what would a red herring have to do with discussions about people experiencing homelessness? Plenty, it turns out. With associations less kind than the sentiments expressed by “natives” about others “from away,” it seems that if one takes the position that “the homeless” are in fact not from here, then it would appear to follow that this isn’t a matter of people needing help and thus we shouldn’t have to help or support them.
Of course what’s at the root of this isn’t only the cost of responsibility—with apparently dwindling collective resources, we shouldn’t have to take care of “them”—but prejudice. Examples are cited—the so and so from North Carolina who came to Maine for our “generous welfare benefits.” No matter how many times facts are cited to dispute this, like a sad urban legend demonstrating our prejudice, the belief persists. And consider how we ignore our own family histories and the struggles our own people had to endure—heck, the story we tell about the founding of our country is about some intrepid souls who fought to escape persecution and suffered and died to create a new land. But now when it comes to immigrants fleeing persecution and abuse and torture, and who have filed the necessary paperwork citing their being asylum seekers, not so many of us can make the connection with our own families. Many of us wish to deny them temporary benefits—modest help to keep them safe—because they are “illegal,” or most definitely from away.
Think about what it would take to give up most of what you owned and your bonds with community, friends and family and take a risky trip to a foreign place where the natives look different and speak another language and eat different food—and don’t make you feel welcome! Now consider our basic demographics and our state economy. It strikes a chord with me that former Attorney General James Tierney recently spoke to our need to welcome immigrants to help grow our economy. Doesn’t it make sense to imagine these folks as brave and hard-working? Doesn’t that resonate with the facts shown by analysis of immigrant behavior with regards to jobs? They tend to create and build small companies, exactly what many experts are saying we need to do!
So I’ve digressed and moved from “homeless” to “immigrants,” but the connection of place of origin still connects the topics, right? Now consider the story of violence from away making recent news—two young men from Maine go to California and allegedly (there were witnesses) kill a homeless man. How absurd would it be to postulate that maybe they thought hunting people would be better in California than in Maine? Is where they’re from as important as what they did? Does it really matter where they’re from?
People move in today’s world. Families and most businesses do not stay in the same town for many years. We’re also a violent society, including when compared to other Western, industrialized nations. Our economy has been struggling for decades, and now we’re generally old, poor and white. Consider what many young professionals are saying they want (diversity, locally sourced foods, more connectivity). What I hope I am also hearing is a wish for more acceptance and less arrogance and anger, and a belief that social justice and a sound economy are mutually supportive.
Red herrings are not naturally found in our oceans…