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Michelle Freeman’s “Night in the Box”

The Washington Post on November 17th ran a commentary, “Why I traded a gala gown for cold concrete,” by Michelle D. Freeman. She is president and chief executive of the Carl M. Freeman Cos., heads two family foundations, and is also a minority owner of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, which owns Verizon Center, Washington Wizards, Capitals and Mystics. It was a plea for corporate executives to “rough it” by experiencing what the young and homeless (mainly teenagers) experience, and to commit an altruistic act by “giving back” by assuming the responsibility for homeless youth. What follows is a paragraph-by-paragraph retort, with Freedman’s statements in Italics.

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Last November, I decided it was time to rethink the experience of giving. As a chief executive and single working mother of three, I work hard to be a guidepost for personal values.

When I was a teenager I decided to become a novelist. I am unmarried, have no children that I know of, and have worked hard all my adult life to become a publishable novelist. I achieved that goal, and more, despite a liberal/left culture determined to guarantee my failure. I never thought it my duty to become anyone’s “guidepost.” I just wanted to be left alone by the government and by society to pursue my values and my goals.

But last year I decided to put away the ball gown for a night and test a new model of corporate giving.

Given the horrific statistics cited by Miss Freeman, you would think that, because she’s a successful executive, it would occur to her to get the government out of the economy, and out of the education of today’s teenagers, and out of colleges, universities, middle schools, and kindergartens. But Miss Freeman’s own education has trained her to not look past the observable suffering to see or formulate more practical and effective solutions, solutions which would give the objects of her concern freedom and independence from government dependence and corporate charity. I’m betting that Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, Ludwig von Mises Omnipotent Government, and Frédéric Bastiat’s Economic Sophisms and Economic Harmonies are not on her recommended reading list, nor on her children’s.

This time last year, I spent a night sleeping on a bitterly cold concrete street in Southeast Washington. The goal was to raise money for homeless teens, many of whom were the same age as my oldest son.

I’ll never forget the way the cold pierced through all of my layers straight to my bones. I felt awful. I never fell asleep completely. The noise, the voices of strangers, the thought of rats and all the activity of the night became frightening and I felt exposed.

Miss Freeman’s concept of acquiring a dubious virtue and a motive to help the homeless is to spend a one-night-stand as a kind of third century desert ascetic, or to revel in the raw realities of Dark Age standards of living, to experience poverty and austerity first-hand. Far be it from her to stop and think: Is this really necessary? Aside from a broken home, what is the root cause of all these kids living like aimless hobos and cast-offs? Could it have something to do with government economic and regulatory policies that have made it virtually impossible for them to find jobs, or their politically correct education which does not prepare them to live like rational, responsible, productive adults? She should wonder.

In a few weeks, I’ll do it again.

Apparently, she won’t wonder, and such a notion will never occur to her.

Here in our nation’s capital, we have one of the highest rates of youth homelessness in the country. According to Covenant House Washington, there are more than 1,600 homeless youth in the District over the course of a given year, far exceeding the 77 beds specifically reserved for them. Child abuse and neglect are the highest in the nation, at almost 30 percent, and nearly two out of three teenagers will not graduate from high school in Wards 7 and 8.

The National Conference of State Legislatures reported:

The National Runaway Switchboard estimates that on any given night there are approximately 1.3 million homeless youth living unsupervised on the streets, in abandoned buildings, with friends or with strangers. Homeless youth are at a higher risk for physical abuse, sexual exploitation, mental health disabilities, substance abuse, and death. It is estimated that 5,000 unaccompanied youth die each year as a result of assault, illness, or suicide.

No government program is going to fix that, nor any private charity. The solution to Miss Freeman’s concerns is not bombarding people with brutal statistics and inculcating in them a sense of guilt and responsibility, but to take actions that would ensure that children and teenagers are given the best rational assistance possible so that they may live fruitful, productive lives – as free individuals. The Washington D.C. school system, by the way, regardless of the particular Ward, is one of the worst in the country.

Many of these young people in crisis turn to shelters such as Covenant House Washington, which gives them a safe place to sleep, a hot meal, counseling during a time of crisis, workforce and education training, and above all—the opportunity for a restart.

More than a hot meal, crisis counseling, and other kinds of training, these young people need to be given a reason for living, a means of formulating rational values, and, perhaps above all, taught that society does not owe them a living, that to survive as individuals and not as dependent clones or creatures of the state, they must be taught the virtue of selfishness.

Until I participated with other business leaders in Covenant House’s Executive Sleep Out, it was hard for me to fully grasp the issue. Perhaps I took for granted the basic needs that I provide for my own children: a safe home, warm beds, healthy meals, and clean clothes for school. So many kids in our city won’t receive those things today.

This is a reflection of Miss Freeman’s cognitive stunting. Safe homes, warm beds, and healthy meals and the like are the limit of her conceptual awareness of what is needed to raise a child to become a fully rational, self-sufficient adult. Or is it fully rational, self-sufficient adults that she wishes to help foster? I suspect not. I think she is a kind of Mother Teresa ensconced by her inherited wealth on the other end of the economic scale, a person whose self-worth is tied to, as Ayn Rand might have put it, how many fingers she has in so many festering sores. It’s said that Mother Teresa resented and disliked individuals who no longer needed her help.

It’s easy to think of homelessness as a faceless issue.

It certainly is. Why should anyone wish to be faced with youth homelessness every day? Is caring for the homeless some kind of necessary virtue? A moral imperative? Or perhaps it isn’t supposed to have anything to do with rational living, it’s just out there, ready to be embraced by the politically correct and socially conscious, an intrinsic “in-your-face” social condition which everyone should deal with.

We in the corporate community can change that.

America businesses can certainly reduce the amount of homelessness in the country (keeping in mind that many of the homeless choose that state of existence) by advocating laissez-faire capitalism, by upholding of individual rights, working for the sanctity of private property, and for the separation of the state from the economic realm.

Join me on Nov. 21 on the streets of Southeast to experience for one night the cold reality of the many homeless young people in the District. Take a stand with me for an issue that is growing in urgency right here at home. Be a model in giving—for your colleagues, for your children, and for your community.

Yes, grovel in the filth for your own good, rub shoulders with the homeless, the hapless, and the helpless, become a model in giving – and then, thank capitalism, after you’ve experienced your ration of humility and have rewarded yourself with a gold star of selfless slumming, that you can rush back to your clean homes and offices and healthy families. You only need to do it once a year.

While one night of sleeping out hardly compares to what homeless kids go through every day, I know from experience that this one night has far-reaching benefits for our young people, and our community at large.

There’s your woozy wisdom. I would like to know what those “far-reaching benefits” are, and if our young people and the community at large (whose community?) really appreciate your temporary, guilt-ridden, dutiful sacrifice.

If you can’t sleep out, find your own way to help. Be a mentor. Write a check. Tell a colleague. Just don’t turn the page without doing something.

If you were not oblivious to the living conditions of Occupy Wall Street in New York City, and if risking robbery, rape, murder, or contracting a communicable disease is just too much to ask while mulling over a stint of slumming with the “disadvantaged,” then become a “mentor,” or whip out your checkbook, or let everyone else know just how virtuous they, too, could be if they joined you on the cold concrete in Southeast Washington D.C.

As leaders of this business community, we can all point to a person that set us on our own path to success. Now is the time to be that person for someone else.

I can point to several individuals who inspired me to follow my own path to success, but not one of them is an altruist or guilt-ridden success like Bill Gates. Or Michelle Freeman.

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So, Michelle Freeman spent “a night in the box.”* From this visceral experience she claims the right to piously lecture other business executives on the “uplifting” worthiness of experiencing the conditions of their objects of charity. Freeman is unfortunately typical of the beneficiary of inherited wealth. The Carl M. Freeman Companies are a sizable real estate development organization specializing in apartment buildings, townhouses, and single family homes, begun in the late 1940′s by Freeman’s father-in-law. As so often happens with successful private enterprises, the heirs of the founders turn altruist and support government policies that make it difficult if not impossible for other ambitious individuals to succeed.

Michelle Freeman’s call to the “cold concrete” fits into the Left’s establishment mantra of focusing on victimhood and not on success or achievement, as columnist Thomas Sowell so ably discusses in his article, “The War Against Achievement.”

But to celebrate him [the achiever] in the mainstream media today would undermine a whole ideological vision of the world — and of the vast government bureaucracies built on that vision. It might even cause people to think twice about giving money to able-bodied men who are standing on street corners, begging. The last thing the political left needs, or can even afford, are self-reliant individuals. If such people became the norm, that would destroy not only the agenda and the careers of those on the left, but even their flattering image of themselves as saviors of the less fortunate.

I could not learn if Michelle Freeman or any of her colleagues donated to either of Barack Obama’s presidential election campaigns, however her philosophy of “giving” until it literally hurts fits into his agenda of transforming the country into minimum security prison makes it too likely. I would not be surprised to hear Obama proposing to draft all those homeless teenagers into a 21st century version of the Civilian Conservation Corps, FDR’s answer to unemployment and homelessness (also caused and aggravated by government economic and regulatory policies).

America business “leaders” should stop looking for ways of doing penance for their success, and start advocating a political philosophy of freedom and individual self-reliance. Experiencing a taste of hard-scrabble existence benefits no one but the person who feels guilty about his success.

*A repeated line in the floorwalker’s monologue from Stuart Rosenberg’s Cool Hand Luke (1967), set in a Southern prison/ chain gang camp. The “box” was a narrow, vertical, suffocating shack in which a prisoner was put as punishment for the slightest infractions of camp rules.

  • writeby

    Miss Freeman needs people who are suffering. How else would she achieve what she construes as virtue?