Over the holidays, a friend of a friend posted a link to a video that she had found “moving” and wanted to share with her friends. The video was a CNN Money report called “How a homeless man learned to code” about Patrick McConlogue, a white computer programmer in New York who taught a homeless black man named Leo how to write computer code, a process which led Leo to later create a cell phone app. Heartwarming to my friend’s friend was McConlogue’s heroism in mentoring this gentle, secretly intelligent soul who “unjustly” lives on the street (see reference to McConlogue’s blog post below); inspiring to many was the journalist’s gentle, gruff-voiced voiceover describing Leo’s “infectious inner peace all the money in Silicon Valley just can’t buy.”
Paternalism? Absolutely. Racism, white privilege, classism? Definitely. Tokenism? Sure. (Incidentally, I believe my friend’s friend has since deleted the post, as it cannot be found on her page anymore.)
As we consume media stories, seeing reportage like this is good fodder for sharpening our critical thinking skills, a reason why taking the opportunity to read and watch news from the other side of whatever end of the narrow political spectrum our country permits is a good practice. We can explore the underpinnings of such stories in the form of American cultural myths, i.e., “Homeless people are where they are because they’re lazy,” “Hard work paves the way to everyone’s dreams,” and other judgments tacit and overt of the moral character of unsuccessful (read: disadvantaged and marginalized) people in the U.S. It is certainly deserved that McConlogue’s blog post title, “Finding the unjustly homeless, and teaching them to code,” was slammed for its implication that there are people whose homelessness is a justifiable punishment for their life choices or lack of values. Watching such stories go by can give us the chance to whittle our tongues and pen nubs to add to the myriad criticisms in the blogosphere.
The video gave me a similar opportunity, but one element of it struck home for me particularly as an educator. It came in the form of a single comment by the journalist who wrote the story: “Let’s face it: if Patrick was teaching Leo English, few would care. But coding is the language of a new American Dream.” Wince and growl from the language teachers in the crowd. Hang in there everyone: we have more sharpening of knives to do here.
Why is it, exactly, that “few would care” if Leo was ‘only’ learning English? I would doubt that it’s because any of us feel that language learning is unimportant. We hear plenty about immigrants and nonnative speakers of English needing to study ESL for their schooling, for work, for their lives in mainstream American society. I believe that what’s implicit here is another message: Learning English to participate in American society is important, but what will change your life, what will get you on that path to a new American Dream, what will make you viable, is learning to be applicable, to be hireable. That is to say, we’re hearing the expression of another cultural myth that has reflected a gradual shift in the political and economic climate in this country starting in the 1970s: “Follow the dictates of neoliberalism, find your place in the capitalist machine, and we will accept you.” Neoliberalism, the great juggernaut powered by market values while wearing the cloak of independence, fills our minds with promises of success for all, so long as our common-sense assumptions hold that the value of things is defined by their profit-making capacity. This includes human beings.
Consider this: Would this news story ever have been created if Leo had turned out to be an aspiring poet? Such a story would have no happy ending, because Leo’s contribution to society would have been questionable, if not wildly selfish and delusional. His “guardian angel” (a direct quote from the video, I swear), McConlogue, would have had little to do with an artist or – perish the thought – an English language learner. But someone who could be molded into a useful, applicable version of humanity – a computer code writer – who would be rewarded as such by market forces in the form of gainful employment…now that was a find. Add to this the fact that it was a black man living on the streets of New York who seemed spiritual and pitiable in his powerlessness, and well, we have a winner. A feel-good story for all that warms the heart and leaves the viewer feeling capable of seeing the (useful, consumable) humanity in anyone.
The moral of the CNN report is this: Be a spreader of neoliberal cheer to those around you, even (and especially) to those who seem to deny their potential by failing to live this new(ish) American Dream of viability in the job market. Find a homeless person and help this person gain a skill to get work, which is what we all really need to…what? Be happy? Be American? Who knows.
The point is, don’t question the system that put this man on the street in the first place. Don’t ask how inequities are perpetuated by the education system, systemic racism, the treatment of people with disabilities by the criminal justice system, or any factor that intersects with the reality of urban black men today. And certainly don’t ask why you should consider that posting this on Facebook may reveal less about your commitment to social change and more about your ignorance about what human dignity really should mean.