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No Mercy 

The supes find a way

Wednesday, Jul 8 1998
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Homeless activist Bob Erlenbusch's usual eloquence ebbed slightly during his last attempt to get the Board of Supervisors to stay this month's General Relief termination, which would drop 7,000 people from the rolls. You saw him wondering just how many times he had to say, "They'll return to homelessness, to the streets and alcohol."

The supervisors didn't listen, of course. The GR cuts rolled through last week as planned. "For 14 years I've poured my heart out to you," Erlenbusch pleaded. "Are we to believe you will not support some kind of merciful act?"

We are indeed so to believe. Erlenbusch begged for another six months of county support for a full GR. He wanted it for the sake of people who were getting or had barely got their acts back together, who were finally living in SRO housing instead of on the street, who were in addiction-control programs instead of being addicted: hapless people who, in short, were about to have their $221-a-month rugs jerked out from under them.

And all because the county had made a deal with these same homeless activists well over a year ago, when the county lost the Gardner decision on appeal and wound up having to pay back the GR cuts inflicted on past GR recipients starting in 1993. The Gardner plaintiffs then agreed that these restorations would come out of future GR emoluments, but suddenly that future was now. Too bad.

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Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky interrogated Public Counsel attorney Paul Freese on this point, pressing for a salient in the argument. Didn't you guys agree to this cutoff? Now it's here. So what's the problem?

Well, the problem was that when Gardner was settled many months ago, the county seemed in much worse financial shape than it's in now. Hence the plaintiffs had agreed to this less than optimal deal: We take from B to pay back A. Now, however, the county is in much better fiscal shape, and the GR proponents, much closer to the consequences of their compromise, wanted a further break. Either just a month's stay to recheck options, which Supervisor Yvonne Burke had proposed in a motion on the agenda, or - optimally - another six months of GR for around $14 million.

But even Burke didn't vote for her own motion, and her motion was rejected in silence. The deed was done: For at least the next six months, a few thousand people will return to homelessness.

The official line last week was to blame the advocates. A deal was, after all, a deal. And these politicians had many times heard the same passionate pleadings. There could be something in this last objection; maybe Erlenbusch and Freese should try a different strategy next time.

But the supervisors' willingness to shift blame was overshadowed by what seemed the real reason for the board's inaction: the flaccid 1998 supervisorial realpolitik. There were probably never more than two votes for the Burke proposal; the widely held Eighth Floor assumption was that Gloria Molina, at war with Yaroslavsky on nearly every issue since the latter called for an MTA subway initiative, would have voted against the Burke measure had Yaroslavsky openly supported it (Molina's office did not return my calls for comment). The three liberal votes could otherwise have made the difference, at least before the budget was passed. The board's two conservatives were and are anti-welfare in any form. But now, after the budget's final passage last week, it'll take four votes to make the requisite changes.

So that's it for GR politics this year. Maybe next year, some of the state surplus will mitigate the cuts (Assemblyman Gil Cedillo's bill, now pending in the Senate, could do that, but it wouldn't kick in until January).

Meanwhile, internal, as much as ideological, board politics have had their say: There will be no further relief this year for the needy in this county.

Orwell's List

Like other journalists who came of professional age in the 1970s, I'm strongly influenced by the work and life of George Orwell. His exemplary complete letters and journalism finally made it into print then, and it became easier to study and to try to emulate his invincibly clear way of thinking on a page.

It was a good time to read Orwell. Twenty-five years ago, we endured the remnants of the old journalism - pieties, official versions and received wisdom - and the excesses of the new - fabricated monologues and dialogues, uncredited paid researchers and all. "Pompous and slovenly" writing abounded along with "the corruption of language" Orwell deplored. His direct terseness was the antithesis of spoiled prose and thinking. He wrote like a man incapable of dishonesty.

So what is with this persistent tale that, in the last months of his life, Orwell handed a list of more than 100 people, whom he alleged were suspect leftists, to a friend in British intelligence? Was this our George Orwell?

The story reappeared in the Los Angeles Times last week. But it's been around for at least two years. The earliest mention of the list that I can find is in Bernard Crick's 1980 Orwell biography, which doesn't mention Orwell's giving the list to anyone.

According to more recent reports, though, Orwell's personal blacklist was drawn up at the request of a friend, Celia Paget Kirwan, Arthur Koestler's sister-in-law and an editor with whom he had a long, quasi-romantic relationship. Kirwan (we don't know for sure whether Orwell knew this) also worked for British intelligence. The list he gave her was mostly of British politicians, journalists and other public figures known for sympathies toward the Soviet Union. But it also included people who shared nothing with the rest except Orwell's contempt. Some - Orson Welles and John Steinbeck, for instance - weren't even English.

Much as I like Orwell, to me the worst thing about the entire list controversy is that many of my fellow admirers want to exculpate him. In the Times piece, the expressed consensus was that everyone knew who these people were anyway, that those were dangerous times, and that in Stalin's era it was necessary for MI5 to know whom to keep an eye on and, if possible, out of British politics.

My problem is that these arguments replicate those offered in defense of Hollywood figures like Elia Kazan who, just like Orwell, named names. 1949 was a dangerous era everywhere; Stalin had the bomb, and it' s possible that some members of the Hollywood 10 might not have objected very seriously to a U.S. dictatorship of the proletariat. So what's wrong with snitching?

What's wrong with it is that in both cases it's immoral, as well as silly: Really, what chance was there that Dalton Trumbo might build a socialist America? Or that Welles or Steinbeck might change citizenship and involve themselves in English politics? (Though it's fun to imagine their parliamentary-career climaxes: Orson Lord Welles; John, the First Earl of Steinbeck).

There are mitigating factors. By March 1949, when (according to Crick) he compiled the list, Orwell was mortally ill. His publisher, Fredric Warburg, described him then as "a man who himself, however temporarily, had lost hope, and for physical reasons which are sufficiently apparent." Orwell was suffering from both terminal tuberculosis and severe reactions to the antibiotics that might otherwise have cured him. It's possible that he was mildly delusional. It is recorded that he felt weak, frustrated and doomed. He had 10 months to live. So Orwell's list is one of the final acts of a bitter, gravely ill man.

Even so, the roster can't be rationalized away. We Orwell fans can only be grateful that so far as it is known, Orwell's ill-intended itemization never cost anyone a job, let alone someone's freedom.

Ironically, Orwell's final months brought the worldwide success of his last, most famous book, 1984, which finally gave him the wealth and fame he by then had no use for. More ironically, that book's moral mainspring is a savage critique of the totalitarian ultimatum that people must betray one another for the sake of the state.

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