At around 6 pm last night (November 28), a fire erupted in a Rainier Avenue strip mall that had been empty since 2016. The building that went up in smoke was built in the late 1960s and once housed a supermarket. It then became a furniture store and a number of Asian businesses, the most memorable of which was the Boss. There was (and may still be) a plan to develop the site into a mixed-use building (apartments above; businesses below). The plan was, however, dragged by a cleanup of contaminants that were "found at levels that exceed allowable standards under [Washington State's] law." Some of those harmful chemicals were consumed by the raging fire and smoked the area's air. 

But even as the Seattle Fire Department fought the flames, social media began debating the cause of the fire. Many, of course, blamed homeless people. This group of human beings has also been blamed for a number of fires that have erupted on Rainier Avenue over the past two years.

From April: "A person was found dead after a vacant commercial building caught fire in Seattle’s Mount Baker neighborhood Thursday morning." The structure once housed an automobile and truck wrecking concern, Auto Depot.  

From March: "Firefighters put out flames burning through a vacant building in Seattle’s Rainier Valley." Four months before that, the abandoned Burger King burned down to the ground. KOMO wasted no time blaming this fire on the homeless.

And most famous of all, was the fire that, on May 27, 2022, destroyed what remained of a much-loved business, Borracchini’s Bakery (it closed on March 20, 2021). Rainier Avenue not only has some of the worst traffic in the city but, clearly, it has become a fire row.

The point of this post is not to contribute to the whodunnit debate, which is clearly dominated by those who blame the homeless—indeed, the "passionate intensity" of that group even overwhelmed the anti-homeless and pro-business Seattle Times. It had to close the comment section for the post: "Fire in Rainier Valley destroys abandoned strip mall." ("Editor’s note: The comment thread on this story has been closed to new submissions because too many recent comments were violating our Code of Conduct.") Those who blame what the late cultural theorist Mike Davis described as "hot demolition" in his last masterpiece Planet of Slums (I include the relevant quote at the end of this post), meaning those who blame the rich, will (and rightly can) never be as loud and as determined as those who blame the poor. Why? Because it's far easier to hate those who have nothing than those who have everything.

Now we can blame the structure of this feeling on the fact that the rich own all of the forms of mass communication. There is, for example, no major news network that's devoted to the poor. Night after night, the majority of Americans are swamped by the world views of a tiny class of people at the very top of their social order. One can argue, and not without reason, that under such conditions, sympathy for the poor faces an enervating headwind. But there is something else to this hatred of the poor which might be less cultural than natural. For this perspective, we must quickly turn to sociobiology, a scientific discipline that evolutionary psychology corrupted.

We are a social animal, and this means we have a sharp (if not powerful) instinct for reading and responding to the appearance of other humans. Poverty (hunger, emaciation, bodily disorder) in a state of nature, can only trigger our socio-biological alarms. The present economic system that dominates our world (which is being-with-others) exactly permits this reaction (cultural disgust); but it does not permit its ancestral response: altruism. That feeling is checked. It's not permitted. The very root of our mode of sociality—empathy, concern, sorge of the other—is verboten. What we are left with, what is permissible, is the expression of the social emotion that mirrors our physical response to rotting food or bodily waste: disgust.

With this idea in mind, I want to conclude this post with a famous poem by the 17th-century English poet John Donne. Read it and reflect on what is lost when we are less than human, when we can only feel disgust but not its resolution, empathy:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend's were.
Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee. 

* From Mike Davis's Planet of Slums:

Slum fires, however, are often anything but accidents: rather than bear the expense of court procedures or endure the wait for an official demolition order, landlords and developers frequently prefer the simplicity of arson. Manila has an especially notorious reputation for suspicious slum fires. "Between February and April 1993," explains Jeremy Seabrook, "there were eight major burnings in the slums, including arson attacks on Smoky Mountain, Aroma Beach and Navotas. The most threatened area is close to the docks where the container terminal is to be extended." Erhard Berner adds that a favorite method for what Filipino landlords prefer to call " hot demolition" is to chase a " kerosene-drenched burning live rat or cat - dogs die too fast - into an annoying settlement ... a fire started this way is hard to fight as the unlucky animal can set plenty of shanties aflame before it dies."