Friday, February 16, 2007

Ennui Wonder Why?

“I really loved the place, of course, but somehow knew it was not my city, not where I’d end up living for the rest of my life. There was something about Rome that didn’t belong to me, and I couldn’t quite figure out what it was…
-‘Don’t you know the secret to understanding a city and its people is to learn—what is the word of the street?’
Then he went on to explain… that every city has a single word that defines it, that identifies most people who live there. If you could read people’s thoughts as they were passing you on the streets of any given place, you would discover that most of them are thinking the same thought. Whatever that majority thought might be—that is the word of the city. And if your personal word does not match the word of the city, then you don’t really belong there.
‘What’s Rome’s word?’ I asked.
‘SEX,’ he announced… ‘What’s the word in New York City?’
I thought about this for a moment, then decided. ‘It’s a verb, of course. I think it’s ACHIEVE.’
(Which is subtly but significantly different from the word in Los Angeles, I believe, which is also a verb: SUCCEED. Later, I will share this whole theory with my Swedish friend Sofie, and she will offer her opinion that the word on the streets of Stockholm is CONFORM, which depresses both of us.)”
-Elizabeth Gilbert, eat, pray, love

Ever since LJ sent me that book for Christmas, I have been trying to figure out the WORD of every city I have spent significant time in, and Belfast's continues to elude me. But for the people in the north and west ends of the city, especially the teenagers, I’d say the word is something like BOREDOM. This manifests itself in a lot of ways.

Unemployment rates along the Crumlin Ward are ridiculously high. I think it’s something like 67% of people that are “economically inactive.” When I mentioned to Jack the fact that I didn’t think many of my neighbors really worked, once again I heard the phrase “dependency culture,” which even residents here will freely admit is status quo: if you can get it, take it.

This culture has developed from a number of factors, narrowed down to two main reasons that I can see. Firstly, both sides of the conflict feel they are owed something. Both feel like victims who deserve something to make up for the years of violence, discrimination, hatred, you name it, they feel like they received the brunt of it. Rare is the working class Catholic or Protestant who is willing to admit that just maybe, “our side” did as much damage as “their side.”

The second factor is the overwhelming willingness of the British government to support its Northern Irish citizens financially. This is visible in the long lines at the post office every Tuesday; comprised of people waiting to receive their weekly allowance from the government. The first week we moved into our house, I went across the street to meet my neighbors. The friendly young woman who I’d said hello to in passing was Claire, her boyfriend was Mark. Together they have four kids, ranging in age from 10 to a little over a year. “You don’t seem old enough to have a kid who’s almost ten,” I said, half-joking. “Ach, the babies started appearing out of nowhere!” Claire laughed, “Aye, I had Jordan when I was sixteen.” My automatic mental response was, “actually, it’s been scientifically proven that babies do not, in fact, appear from nowhere,” but I figured that wasn’t something good neighbors say they first time they meet someone. It wasn’t until later that night that I began to really think about the fact that not only is Claire not much older than me, but her story was not unusual. I have heard more than once from 15 year old girls, “I’m tired of living with my parents. I’m going to drop out of school and get pregnant. I want my own place.” The government is willing to support teenage mothers, single mothers, and a wide cross-section of people of the unemployed variety. No, they won’t be rich. But they won’t necessarily have to work, either, a huge draw.

In September, confronted with a society that approaches welfare from a completely different mindset than the one I have grown up with, I pondered the implications of the term “dependency culture.” It has now bewildered me for six months. I grew up middle class, and often I have felt the need to apologize for that and for the things that I was given because of that. As a result, though, I have also grown up hearing negative opinions toward welfare; discussion of system abuse and the interesting moral position that puts taxpayers into. As a resident of a country seeped in individualism, a country that is either too proud, too self-sufficient, or simply too opposed to the idea of being dependent on anyone but ourselves, the image of a culture where dependency is the norm; an accepted part of the mindset, is far from easy to understand. The Declaration of Independence takes on new meaning in light of what I see here: the American mindset has largely become a declaration of independence not only from Britain, but from asking for help, from admitting need, from accepting ‘handouts’ that you have not earned. It reveals itself in the Protestant work ethic that permeates our mentality, shows its face in the way we treat immigrants, becomes glaringly obvious in our health system (universal health care is one of the best things about the UK, and its absence in the States is extremely unfortunate).

Granted, all of this is blatant generalization. Much like many here incorrectly imagine every American to have a pool, a three-car garage, and a boat, there is no way to categorize an entire culture based on simplistic phrases, and those who milk the system are most likely matched by those who refuse to collect the money they are due. And in a lot of ways, I think the social services system here is much closer to the ideal than the US model, particularly in the area of health care (as I gratefully discovered during my hospital encounter). However, the disabling aspect of the welfare system is that it seems to create an unappealing (and, in the case of paramilitaries and idle teenagers, dangerous) mix of free time and lack of economic contribution, which has led to the general loss of identity and sense of purpose that communities really need to stay cohesive. It’s worrisome, and it’s hard to reverse.

Status quo is fine for a lot of people here. The dependency culture, at least in my area, tends to create a cycle of apathy. But for many, like my friend Deborah, it isn’t satisfying, but the way out of it seems insurmountable.
(I’d like to add here that writing about the social situation in North Belfast gets increasingly difficult as I envelope myself into the community here. It’s a catch 22—you have to be with the people to know what they think, and once you know are a part of their lives you feel guilty writing about them as if they’re hypothetical situations or case studies. In The White Man’s Burden, William Easterly rails against the shades of paternalism and condescension that color the Western world’s dealings with the Third World, but they are possible whenever an outsider enters a foreign situation and decides to analyze it. Forgive me if I ever come across as paternalistic or condescending, because I honestly do not feel that way and struggle to remove any feelings of superiority that creep their way in without my permission. Even using the word “their” bothers me, but I haven’t discovered another way of referring to my neighbors and friends here.)

Deborah is an overweight single mom who has attended Crumlin Road for about as long as she’s been a Christian, three years. She had Carson when she was 22. He’s now seven. She is outspoken, loud, painfully insecure, and extremely intelligent. I like Deborah a lot, because you always know where you stand with her, and she likes to debate. Deborah is another story of support from Housing Executive, and lives paycheck to paycheck (if government support can be classified as a paycheck). I once asked Deborah what she wanted to be doing in five years, ten years. She got kind of quiet, thought about it for a bit.

“I don’t want this, Laura. This is not what I wanted for myself, not how I pictured things going. I don’t want to spend my life just waiting around for the next few pence to come through. I want to be contributing something. I would like to work, but I don’t know what I could do.” In all fairness, the fact is that few opportunities exist to break the trap of a poor educational system and lack of employment prospects, but laziness plays a part as well.

The pervasive atmosphere of helpless boredom, dangerous lack of what I would consider normal social services and the fact that economic opportunities are found largely on the dole or through paramilitaries are a pretty brutal combination. But, much like the "word" for this place, ways to change the post-war pattern seem to be hovering just out of reach.

"The only horrible thing in the world is ennui."
-Oscar Wilde

1 comment:

Hillary Holman said...

If you go to Bosnia, you will probably see a similar pattern - minus the government dole. It was a huge surprise to me to see the sidewalk cafes full of young people all day long. There are no jobs for them. So all they can do to keep from going crazy is sit in cafes and drink coffee. As you said, this is a generalization, but it is prevalent. And it is frustrating not to be able to help.