The Favelas of Sao Paulo, Act 2: Root Hog or Die


Root Hog or Die!

I awakened at 4 AM one morning in mid-November thinking that there were no people in that photograph.[note]See for Act 1.[/note]  The story of those dark favelas and the bright condominiums needs people.  I’ll write them in, WordShop[note]WordShop: a riff on PhotoShop.  Both can create a verisimilitude of reality out of the nothingness of imagination.  The epistemological problem is a story-telling problem.[/note] their stories:

I stand on that fence – a singularity dividing the reality of an economic success and a social catastrophe.  Looking left I see a tired resigned woman holding a hungry baby up to the condominium in supplication “am I not entitled to a little more of your economic miracle than the scraps from your table and the trash from your dumps?”

Looking right I watch a prosperous middling age man open his patio door and step around his private swimming pool to the railing.  Cupping his hand to his mouth he shouts over the fence “this is mine, I earned it.  I am a maker not a taker.  You will have no entitlements from me.  Figure out your life yourself, it is of no concern to me!”

He turns to his entitlements, the swimming pool, the air-conditioned condominium, the luxury automobile.  As he reaches the door he turns back and shouts “I am entitled to my wealth in the face of your poverty!  Root hog or die!”  His final words echo down those crooked streets, across tin roofs, between cardboard walls – the canyons of poverty.  He looks down from the precipice of wealth once more and closes the door.

The fence remains unmoved, it tells no tales, a mute witness to wealth and poverty, economics and morality.  It defines the boundaries and dimensions of an economic success and a social catastrophe.

Root hog or die![note]This is an old expression.  See:,_or_die for its history.  I heard it used recently and, as an example of path dependency, it became the center of this essay.  It was on my mind.[/note]  It echoes through the canyons and convolutions of my mind.  How did a social species which at one time lived within its ancient rules for fairness, cooperation and care arrive at “root hog or die?”[note]In the next essay I will take up the issue of my postulation of a primordial evolutionarily developed moral system of fairness, cooperation and care in a social species.[/note]  Now that is a story worth telling.  I ask “can I tell both sides of that story” and then take up that yoke.

The woman on the left made a fairness argument based upon the difference in living standards, health care, probable life span of herself and her baby.  “This is not fair, I can see it.”  It is a fact evident on observation.

The man on the right made a fairness argument based upon homo economicus, the concepts and value set of an individual successfully bound into and operating within the values of civilization.  “What I have, what you see, is the result of a fair exchange.  I receive value for value given.  You claim entitlement to value to be received for no value given.  In fact, you subtract value from the greater good by your very existence.  I make, you take.  It is not fair for you to ask value of me.”

Looking left again I hear the woman muttering “your glistening condominium, your powerful automobile, your overflowing stores were stolen from me.  I am only asking for a tiny piece of mine back from out of your illicit gain.  Private property is theft.”

Looking right I hear the man saying “no, you don’t and probably can’t understand.  I built this out of intelligence, perseverance and hard work.  I found resources that you walked past and didn’t see, and out of them made this.  It is mine.  You see that stone?  You walked past it to grub a root and grab a lizard.  I saw that rock, fired the ore, and forged a hoe and a knife.  Now you can dig and cut better and easier.  Your lives are better for mine being more better.”

“No!  It is you with your wealth and the power conferred by that wealth that do not and cannot understand.  You speak of today as if all the “progress” of the millennia were yours.  Let me speak of an earlier time. To get to now you had to start then and it is then that the fundamental unfairness began.  Your progress, the development of sedentism and civilization, created a new social structure that delivered the wealth made of my labor to you and denied it to me.  You have played a gigantic game of economic keep-away from the beginning.  You have taken from us for millennia.  With that should come a new responsibility to us but which you deny.  You are only selfishly shirking your responsibility.  It is still there in your primordial moral concept set and values but diminished and denied.  ‘He who hath an eye, let him see.’  Look!  Look at me and my baby.  ‘He who hath an ear, let him hear.’  Hear me and my baby.  We cry.”

Homo economicus, my condo man, has closed the door.  He cannot hear.

“Root hog or die” echoes through those miserable canyons of poverty, scraping against tin roofs and cardboard walls, and rubbing along dirt streets.  Gradually its hard coat is abraded to reveal a core meaning that returns, echoing as the man closes his door.  It says “Must I feed, clothe, and house useless bodies?  Cannot you at least have the common decency to turn up your toes and die to spare me the cost?  Root hog or die!”

Root hog or die is revealed as a portmanteau phrase.  It contains a theory of poverty – it is the fault of the poor.  It contains an economic reason for doing nothing – it is not cost effective to support a useless population.  It contains a moral justification for abandoning the poor to their fate – their fate is their responsibility.  The phrase contains a theory of poverty and the moral response to it.  It hides a raw truth in a husk of common sense and wisdom.  But it is a bitter brutal morality.  It says “This is tough love but it is for your own good and for mine.  You have the responsibility to do something to ameliorate your own condition – or die.”

There are evidently two fairness systems, the primordial and the civilizational[note]This is my first use of the phrase “the primordial and the civilizational” and it adumbrates a major topic for my succeeding essays.[/note], vastly different, even diametrically opposed.  The primordial looks at the civilizational and sees evil – perhaps an incomprehensible evil of unfair inequality.  The civilizational looks at the primordial and sees the fairness of reward for value generated and the unfairness of being asked to share that value with those who consume value and generate none.[note]The non-working poor, the unemployed, do have a valuable function.  They are a ballast keeping down the wages of the working class and providing a motivation for them to remain employed even in in terrible jobs.  There are worse conditions than a poor job.[/note]

The rich, they take and only claim to make.  The rich, they take the product of our labor as if it were their own.   The rich, they are selfish and irresponsible.  The rich, they steal on a vast scale and claim it to be a virtue and a necessity, a just recompense.

The poor, they take and do not make.  The poor, they are a drain on social resources.  The poor, they are their own fault.  The poor: they are dirty, ugly, ignorant, illiterate, unmotivated, profligate, and prolific.[note]Litanies of socio-moral deficiencies are imputed to both sides and that is a common feature of enemification to which I will return later.[/note]  In the memorable words of Robert Southey they are “rats that only consume the corn,” vermin to be exterminated.[note]Robert Southey’s poem “Bishop Hatto” recounts the legend of Bishop Hatto:   This link is a much longer discussion of this and similar legends and is the source of the previous reference:[/note]

Condo man has the last word, “I do not care.  I will not care.  I cannot care.  It is wrong to care.”  This is the statement and summation, an exculpation and moralization, of acquired sociopathy.  It is a characteristic of civilization.

But primordial care does not go away.  Its ghostly remnant is present as the beggar on the center divider of the street holds up his sign “I’m homeless.  Please help” and I drive on, thinking “get a job” yet nagged by “I should….”  In the Biblical words ‘I hardened my heart.’  That is acquired and situational sociopathy.  “And I am ashamed.”  That is a cognitive dissonance – I should but I did not.

I have written a story of fair and unfair, of primordial and civilizational values – immiscible and incommensurate – and a story of clashing public truths:

“Failure to relieve poverty will destroy our country.”

“Relief of poverty will destroy our country.”


Well!  That was fun.  The photograph provided the scene and the problem.  I placed two characters into the scene and wrote a story to see what would happen.  As I contrived the story, its plot – the embodiment and working out of the problem – became more intractable and insoluble.  My language, my choice of words, hardened with each succeeding paragraph.  The more I wrote these truths the more they clashed.  I took up the yoke of telling a story of poverty in the midst of wealth but I did not find a middle ground.  There was no conclusion, no reconciliation, no ending – only returning echoes of mutual condemnation.

I had worked on this essay for two months before I realized that it was a story brawl between Karl Marx and Ayn Rand, the bookends of 20th century political economy thought.  This brawl illustrates my contention that while each story is truth to millions of people, neither is truer than the other.  They are stories built upon the personal experience and motivations of their authors.  They are path dependent stories that tell as much about the experiences and the minds of their authors as about the subject of the story.

They are public truths that resonate in the minds of some readers and become their own personal truth, organizing their perceptions derived from their experience.  They do something essential for their believers.  They generate community, certitude, and the energy of being absolutely correct.  They are more functional than truthional.  They are also stories that irritate other minds and are violently rejected.  That likewise develops community, certitude, and the energy of being absolutely right and of having an enemy.  Public truths may clash.

“Stories convey the power to rewire other minds,”[note]The original is “words convey the power to rewire other minds”.  I no longer remember the author but I remember where I was when I read it and my immediate reaction of ‘Wow, what a great insight!”  That sentence rewired my brain.[/note] to alter perception, to provide motivations, to generate emotions, and to release behaviors.  The power of stories is the story of communication and the subject of this set of essays.  My first set was about ‘inception’ – the process by which stories arise in my mind, where they come from, about what subjects, and what they do for me.  This set is about stories set afoot and what happens as they encounter other minds.  They rewire: they resonate and they irritate.

I am going to escape from the Favelas of Sao Paulo, there is not much more I can do at this time.  Instead of advocating one side or another I opt for “this is curious; what is going on here anyway?”  Within that clash of truths perhaps there lies the possibility of something to be learned.  My thinking is driven in two directions: to the substance – to understand poverty and inequality, and to the process – to understand private truths and their communication into public truths.

I will leave the substance, the conundrum of poverty amidst wealth, for another time. I am slowly working on the substantive question but to get there I am going through other places.  My remit is, for now, solely the process, the problem of clashing public truths.  How is it possible to look at the same evidence, the same photograph, and tell such dramatically different stories?  What happens when such stories clash in a public arena?

That is a problem of communication and to understand communication I need to know something about the context in which it occurs.  These clashes are within a social species and I first need to write “What Is a Social Species?” to begin to understand the context of stories and their function.  Once again, I will tell a story that began with words in my mind, irrupting into consciousness, and not under the control of my conscious mind.  It was a surprise.