In an episode of the old TV series Dragnet, an aspiring writer is having minor scrapes with the law because he is ignoring his financial responsibilities, especially to his wife. As he explains to Sgt. Joe Friday, he is having these troubles because he must focus his energy on trying to write a great novel like Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who wrote Crime and Punishment, or Leo Tolstoy, who wrote War and Peace, did. The unflappable Sgt. Friday, however, makes him see reason with one simple question, “But what about Mrs. Dostoyevsky and Mrs. Tolstoy?” And the next time we see the writer he has shaved his beard, cut his hair short and, with his now loving wife at his side, explains that he is now happily writing TV screenplays.
In his recent column in the Arizona Daily Star discussing homeless activist Jon McLane’s life and character, it would appear that Tim Steller has conjured up a similarly happy TV screenplay ending for McLane. After first visiting and interviewing McLane’s wife and kids, to whom McLane hasn’t been able to pay court ordered support because he has been living the life of a homeless person, Steller then gives some credit to McLane’s gift as a communicator, before concluding (and this is the part that conjured up the Dragnet episode for me), “But my view is that too many people are intrigued by McLane’s gift — and are feeding the idea that’s what matters in his life — when there are enough skilled people engaged in trying to solve homelessness in Tucson without him. A dose of humility, a steady job and a sense of responsibility is what he could really use.”
Besides the Dragnet-style happy ending scenario, there are, in fact, a number of problems with this column. First of all, is Jon McLane really enough of a public figure to warrant this much of an exposure of his private life? And, even if he is, should the Star really be going in for such a tabloidish, “she said, he said” direction of reporting, even quoting his wife’s employer’s low opinion of McLane as proof of his unworthiness? Shouldn’t it suffice in the arena of a respectable daily newspaper to report what is established fact, i.e. that McLane is behind on his child support payments for reasons of indigence?
From the activist’s point of view, however, the most contentious assertion is that McLane isn’t needed because “there are enough skilled people engaged in trying to solve homelessness in Tucson without him.” The patent absurdity of this is plain enough to see not only in the fact that there are so many homeless people in our fair community in spite of the efforts of this ample number of skilled people, but also in the very degree that Steller himself, as well as the rest of what remains of the Tucson local news media, have been forced to engage with the homeless issue because of the encampment that McLane, John Cooper and others have skillfully engineered in downtown Tucson.
And here we transition back to Mrs. Tolstoy and the Dragnet episode. Clunky though the episode’s message might seem – that people should just give up on their fancy aspirations, get a job and accept their lot in life — it was actually a clever bit of self-irony: the happy ending scenario of the aspiring novelist giving up his dream and becoming a screenwriter for TV shows was, after all, written by a screenwriter for a TV show (who we might assume has or had aspirations to be a great novelist).
There is no such clever irony, however, apparent in Steller’s summation. Would that there were, as he instead comes off as being rather presumptuous and insulting to be giving such advice to McLane – who is, after all, an adult, and apparently one capable of holding his own on the street and so not really somebody to be talked down to in this way. Criticize him, yes, for an egoism that can hurt the very cause he is trying to build and fault his choosing, if you feel it is the wrong choice, to help a large group of strangers over his own family. But when Steller writes that McLane should just settle down, get a stable job and shut up – when he can’t even be sure that McLane can get a stable job or hold it if he did get it — he starts sounding like Sgt. Joe Friday but without the irony, and this really isn’t where an intelligent columnist like Tim Steller should be.
Photograph of Safe Park by Norah Booth.