In I, Robot, the 2004 movie based on the work of science fiction author Isaac Asimov, the antagonist, a super-powerful artificial intelligence system, determines that in order to follow the first “Law of Robotics”—that a robot must never harm a human being or, through inaction, allow any human to come to harm—humanity must be prevented from destroying itself through war and ecological destruction. Protecting us from ourselves, as it were.
While there might be a cold logic to that idea, the physical manifestation of such “protection” wound up being armies of robotic stormtroopers brutally enslaving or killing every human they came across. Obviously, we’re talking about a (very) fictional movie, and, the robot revolution is unlikely to materialize anytime soon, but the plotline particularly relates to a chilling phenomenon in modern day society: that of charitable organizations who are prevented from feeding the hungry because of regulatory hurdles such as public space permits and nutritional content guidelines.
Across the nation, from San Diego to Philadelphia, municipalities are enacting bans on feeding the homeless and hungry in public places, often perversely using appeals to public health considerations as a justification for the bans. Sometimes, as was the case in St. Louis, the authorities even have the nerve to claim the policy is there to protect those in need of a meal.
There, the city health department forbade Churches on the Streets Ministries from giving out home-cooked meals during their Monday night service, a year-old effort which had fed dozens every week. According to the health department, the problem was providing home-cooked food to the “public” because the department had no way to verify that the food was prepared according to nutritional and sanitation standards. Pre-packaged food was allowed, but let’s be realistic. While it may be possible to cook a huge meal without breaking the bank (who’s ready for spaghetti?!), serving store-bought, pre-packaged food to dozens of people would be prohibitively expensive.
Of course, (thankfully) former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg wins the prize for most clueless “protector,” with his administration’s ban on food donations to the city’s homeless shelters, as part of his obsession with imposing healthy dietary habits by fiat. Because the Department of Homeless Services is unable to assess the “salt, fat, and calorie contents” of donated food, it is verboten. It is unclear whether this policy will continue under the new mayor, but, for the sake of rational human behavior, one would hope not.
These stories, and the dozens like them occurring around the nation, would be ridiculous on their face, even if the motivation of the authorities in question truly was to protect the homeless and hungry from the oppression of bad cholesterol and undercooked noodles. Once you dig below the surface, however, a more malicious thread emerges.
As the staggering inequality of the economy of the digital age continues to grow, the problems of homelessness and hunger will continue to grow with it. And with the opportunity for upward mobility—always a somewhat exaggerated phenomenon—suffering in the age of a virtually non-existent manufacturing sector and college degrees which are only valuable to the bank which issued the student loan, the population of Americans who need help certainly isn’t going to shrink.
Local leaders, who must continue to convince developers and businesses that their municipality holds the key to the future, regardless of actual conditions on the ground, are searching for ways to “incentivize” the undesirables who puncture the all-is-well bubble to move on down the road. Putting pressure on the charitable groups who service these people is just one step in a broad effort to sweep the problem under the rug—or at least to the outskirts of town—and leave the pretty public places to the privileged who can afford them.
The paper-thin appeals to public health that accompany these policies are simply a testament to the nature of our times, where public deception is considered standard practice among elected officials. Politicians have always lied to the people to protect their careers, but we used to at least pretend to be outraged when they were caught. Now, we just accept that what comes out of the mouths of our leaders to be a steamy pile of bullshit, and, all too often, ask for second helpings if said leaders happen to identify with the correct political tribe.
In the case of feeding the homeless and hungry, the bullshit is masking a concerted effort toward a general devaluing of human beings. If you can’t afford to live, you don’t deserve to. And, if you are one of the fortunate ones who can afford it, you are essentially forbidden from helping those in need, unless you do so through approved (and profitable, in the case of St. Louis’ pre-packaged food requirement) channels.
All of this comes from the malignant idea that has burrowed deep into our national consciousness, that we are independent actors on the world stage, disconnected from each other’s circumstances. We support businesses that operate according to this principle, and elect politicians supported by those businesses. We shouldn’t be surprised that public policy is starting to reflect that callousness.