Hey Greg Gopman: Read This

By Karl T. Muth - 13 December 2013

Greg Gopman isn’t particularly wealthy. Or famous. Or influential. Or powerful. He’s another white guy who moved to San Francisco and who has an idea now and then. Occasionally, other people listen or – much more rarely – pay for these ideas. That’s all you need to know about Mr. Gopman.

Oh, actually, you need to know one more thing: Greg Gopman hates homeless people.

Specifically, he thinks they are “trash” who should “keep to themselves” only emerging from their Morlock-like caves to “beg coyly” for the scraps of society (his words in quotations).

I’m going to go out on a very sturdy limb here and wager a dollar that Mr. Gopman has never worried about being homeless in any serious, tangible way. Neither have any of the people in his Google calendar for the coming week. Neither did the woman he bumped into walking-while-texting in his neighbourhood or the man whose drink he nearly picked up by accident at Starbucks.

How do I know?

Because, like you, Mr. Gopman, I’m an extraordinarily privileged person who has never had to worry about homelessness. Probably much more privileged, in fact.

The difference between us is that I harbour no resentment toward the poor and that I realize that, below the people you despise and fear and ridicule and loathe, there is layer upon layer of about five billion people who are even poorer than the homeless people who are so rude as to negligibly inconvenience your idle jaunts around San Francisco. That’s right, the people who disgust you to no end are actually wealthier than most people in the world. In fact, they’re probably wealthier than some of your negative-net-worth neighbours with Bay Area mortgages and “startups” that are little more than a URL, a business card, and a custom-embroidered polo shirt.

I’m going to tell you a story now, Mr. Gopman. It’s a story about myself, very different from the one you told about your perpetual disgust at the sight of poor people. Ten years ago, I read an article in the Chicago Reader (a free newspaper). It was an article about Mark Weinberg, a lawyer in Chicago working on homeless issues. At the time, the Mayor of Chicago was attempting to outlaw panhandling (begging) and the City Council passed an ordinance criminalising the practice of asking others for money.

This ordinance created, in essence, the world Mr. Gopman idolises. Under the ordinance, it was illegal for a person who smelled like urine to ask you for money. It was entirely okay for Enron or Bernie Madoff or anyone else to ask you for money. It was okay for Mr. Gopman and his let’s-get-together-and-play-with-our-computers “masturbatory-LAN-party” startup (my words in quotations) to ask you for funding (I’d mention his startup’s name here, but I’m not in the business of giving free marketing to idiots). But, under the ordinance in Chicago, though it was okay for Mr. Gopman to ask you for money for his startup, it was not okay for me to ask a fellow citizen on the street for money to feed my family or to clothe my children.

I called the Chicago Reader and got in touch with Mark Weinberg, who would become my friend and become one of the people who would inspire me to attend law school. He was infinitely patient, incredibly honest, and enviably altruistic. He talked about how difficult it was, even without the ordinance, to be homeless in Chicago, a city I had known since childhood and fallen in and out of love with many times over the years. To him, homeless people had stories, names, and families.

I’d love for any legal scholar of any persuasion to explain to me how, regardless of your interpretation of the Constitution or broader Constitutional school of thought, the First Amendment doesn’t include within it the right to ask your fellow man (or woman) for assistance in a public place. The courts, eventually, agreed. Mark is now something of an unintentional homeless rights celebrity, fighting similar statutes in other jurisdictions – affirming again and again that a homeless person’s right to ask for help is, indeed, more important than Mr. Gopman’s precious discomfort at seeing poor people.

The courts are right. Our discomfort with our fellow man (or woman) should not be so severe, so obsessive, so ingrained that we cannot take time to say “no” or apologise when asked for assistance. Our judgments in these matters should not be so binary as to simplify away the humanity of people who need assistance. Nor, of course, should solicitation be allowed to mature into obligation. But ignorance should not be embraced, congratulated, and disguised as virtuous. There is no honour in being Greg Gopman; it is nothing to be proud of. It is nothing.

And even more offensive than the concept that Mr. Gopman would spend time, energy, and thought on how to best-express his disdain for the errant poor is the concept that he is somehow qualified to rethink the social structure or political economy of San Francisco, a city of nearly a million people, most of whom do not have the luxury of Mr. Gopman’s world view. The track record for urban planning by bourgeotopian wannabe-leisurecrats is not a happy one.

In sum, Greg Gopman, you weren’t special before you began saying offensive things about homeless people and you’re not special now. You’re not on a track toward ever becoming particularly special.

What you are is a member of the very large homogeneous club of affirmatively ignorant, undeservedly privileged white people who were born the right colour with the right passport and hence are forever exempt from having to get a clue about how the world actually works and hence you, along with the rest of your club, can congregate in San Francisco and whine to each other about how the city’s demographics don’t precisely match those of Stanford’s (or Berkeley’s) campus.

However, Mr. Gopman, I write this not simply to bash you. I write this also to give you a new perspective on how you actually fit into the world. If we are at a gathering together sometime, which I don’t doubt is a possibility, as the peripheries of our Rolodexes do (embarrassingly?) seem to intersect, I will do you the favour of wading through the disgusting unwashed sea of startup tech entrepreneurs in customised polo shirts to shake your hand. And then you will pretend to remember that we've met before.  And then you will ask what other deals I've invested in lately.  And then you will pitch me on your new startup idea.

You see, Mr. Gopman, it is you who lives amidst the ugly part of the food chain. You’re no different from the homeless people you hate. You’re just another hack (oh dear, that word stings a bit more when used as a noun rather than a verb, doesn't it?) looking for a patron, begging for money from people like me. You beg in a different venue and a different costume; you perform different stunts for our amazement and amusement. You are the same creature in a different environment. To hate the homeless is, in this way, to hate yourself.

I don’t spend much time in the Bay Area.

It’s not because of homeless people.

It’s because of people like Mr. Gopman.

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