[Paleopsych] CHE: Disasters and What They Show Us About America's Values

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Disasters and What They Show Us About America's Values


    There has always been a contradiction at the heart of America -- even
    before it became the United States. Two sets of warring principles
    have always pulled at our psyche. These contradictory impulses cross
    all the other lines -- rich and poor, female and male, left and right,
    and all the different permutations of politics, class, color, and
    culture that have been present in this large place for these 500
    years. Maybe this argument is present in other countries, but I know
    that the division between these two sets of beliefs cleaves the
    country as surely as the Mississippi divides the continent, and that
    our best and worst showed all too well in the streets of New Orleans.

    On one side are the two principles that show the best in us. I will
    state the first bluntly: No one is expendable. Everyone is worthwhile,
    and there are no disposable human beings. This belief comes out both
    in an insistence that we protect the children and elderly, and in the
    Marine injunction to leave no comrade behind -- alive or dead. It is
    an essential element of democracy -- each vote counts because each
    person counts.

    The second of these positive principles is that what happens to you
    could as easily happen to me. We are all interdependent because there
    is no inherent reason for our outcomes to be different in life.
    Hurricane, terrorist attack, battle -- what determines outcome is
    fate, chance, the hand of God, however you choose to define it, but
    not our own worth. It is the part of us that understands that the
    question "Why me?" when something awful happens could as easily be
    phrased as "Why not me?"

    I am particularly aware of that principle as I watch the coverage of
    Hurricane Katrina. My daughter graduated from Tulane University Law
    School last year. As a graduation gift we rented a French Quarter
    condo for her and her roommates during graduation week. On Friday,
    September 2, CNN ran a story on a group of tourists stuck in a New
    Orleans condo, with seven people down to the last half gallon of water
    and no help yet in sight. Two young lawyers at opposite ends of the
    country saw the story and suddenly realized they had celebrated in
    that same building. What was different between the groups?
    Fundamentally -- nothing. The tourists had wanted to leave but
    couldn't, in part because the airline industry declined a government
    request before the hurricane for empty planes to help with evacuation
    as "economically infeasible." Even with money and somewhere to go,
    there was no way to leave.

    This example, far from the worst suffering on the Gulf Coast, leads me
    to the two principles that what became America has had to struggle
    against since at least 1492. They are the evil underside of our
    national psyche; much of the suffering on the Gulf Coast can be traced
    to the ascendancy of these beliefs for the past quarter-century.

    The first mistaken American notion is that "I can do it myself, so you
    don't matter." A more frequently heard slang version is "I've got
    mine, so screw you, Jack." At root is the idea that if I become strong
    enough, rich enough, or mean enough (or all three), I can control what
    happens to me and those I love. In this view, the problem of those
    tourists in the French Quarter was that they weren't rich or powerful
    enough to get out of town. A direct result of this belief is that
    anything that takes from me and my ability to accumulate wealth and
    power is bad and endangers me. Why pave the potholes when you can
    afford shock absorbers? The bumps are someone else's problem.

    Individualism is not, of course, inherently a bad thing. Many of the
    stories emerging from the Gulf Coast are positive examples of
    individualism. Neighbors helped rescue neighbors rather than wait for
    help; medical personnel volunteered; even the most poor and vulnerable
    at the convention center created a toilet by cutting a hole in a chair
    and placing a bucket under it in an attempt to keep their space
    bearable. But such individualism has traditionally been tempered by a
    communal sense that some things made more sense not to do
    individually. Individual initiative constructing a toilet is good, but
    a sewer system is better. Barn raisings, wagon trains, and mutual help
    and burial associations all worked on the principle that giving time,
    money, or effort to the group produced greater personal return than
    individual accumulation or effort could. Why the change?

    Over the past 25 years many Americans have been persuaded by some very
    effective marketing campaigns that not only can government never do
    anything right, it is also too expensive. The cost of government,
    particularly the federal government, has become more expensive for
    individuals and families because the cost of financing the government
    has been systematically transferred to individual taxpayers, with
    corporate taxes shrinking at a remarkable rate. Legally, corporations
    in the United States are constituted as "persons" under the law. In
    the 1950s, when corporations were at their most productive, they paid
    39 percent of the tax revenue collected by the federal government. By
    2004 corporations paid only 11.4 percent of the taxes collected. Even
    that may be an overestimate. Common Dreams, a Web site for the
    "progressive community," noted: "In 2003, corporate revenues
    represented only 7.4 percent of federal tax receipts, the
    second-lowest level on record, according to the Congressional Budget
    Office. Sixty years ago, corporations paid half of the U.S. tax bill."
    Eighty-two of the Fortune 500 companies paid no income tax at all in
    one of the past three years. At the same time the functional tax rate
    for citizens has risen. We have allowed, even encouraged, our
    corporate "citizens" to become tax evaders on a grand scale.

    The second of our weaknesses also explains too much about the tragedy
    we see in New Orleans and surrounding areas. I can best phrase it as
    "Only those like me count as fully human." This belief has stalked the
    continent since the first explorers captured native peoples to take
    back to Europe as trophies, through a civil war, to a mine owner
    saying of striking immigrant miners, "They don't suffer, they can't
    suffer, they don't even speak English," to a refusal to allow a ship
    full of Jewish refugees from Hitler's murderous intents to land, and
    down to the present day. The people of New Orleans are predominantly
    African-American, and nearly one-third live below the poverty line.

    For all too many Americans they are the "other," unlike us. When CNN
    interviews a young black man in baggy pants and a do-rag, most
    Americans expect a gangbanger, not a hero who escorted 18 children
    under 10 out of a flooding housing project when their mothers could
    not fit on the boat. It is a false sense of division that makes it all
    too easy for Americans to erupt into violence or threats of violence
    -- whether it is people firing at rescue helicopters or Lt. Gen.
    Russel Honore having to order National Guard troops not to point
    loaded M-16s at the unarmed civilians they are there to help.

    That same politics of race extends into the daily life of most
    Americans, often at their workplaces. One of the most frequently
    leveled criticisms of affirmative action is that it will keep the most
    qualified individual from being hired, which will cause financial loss
    or danger. It is often posed as the opposite of American values of
    expertise and professionalism, in which individuals are valued both
    for what they know and for their commitment to a set of practices such
    as those held by doctors, lawyers, and engineers. In our increasingly
    specialized world, those professional categories expand to include an
    ever-greater number of things -- including disaster response. As they

    Anyone who has ever opposed affirmative action needs to look long and
    hard at the case of Michael D. Brown's appointment as head of the
    Federal Emergency Management Agency. Before moving into a senior
    command rank in 2003, he had only one very brief experience in a flood
    in Oklahoma. His previous position was running an Arabian horse
    association, and he left that under a cloud of recriminations. So how
    did he get the job? He was hired as FEMA's general counsel by his old
    college friend, Joe Allbaugh, the agency's head; he became director of
    FEMA when Allbaugh left to set up a consulting firm on getting
    government contracts. And what had Allbaugh done before FEMA? He had
    been in charge of George Bush's 2000 election campaign. I defy any
    critic of affirmative action to demonstrate that nowhere in the United
    States was there a female or minority candidate with more objectively
    valid professional qualifications to run FEMA than Michael D. Brown.

    I understand the frustration of white male Americans who have felt
    that their economic chances have decreased in the past 25 years. They
    have. But it has not been because of affirmative action -- that notion
    has been a tremendously effective wedge used to drive Americans apart.
    In the last three decades virtually every man I have spoken with in
    higher education who inquired why he did not get a particular job has
    been told it was because the department was under pressure to increase
    diversity because of affirmative action. If all those stories were
    true, the current faculties of our colleges and universities would
    look like the faculties of big-city elementary schools
    -- overwhelmingly female and minority. Clearly that is not the case.
    The real victors in the campaign against affirmative action are not
    women or minorities; they are well-connected men like Brown, who can
    use who they know to trump what they ought to know to do their jobs
    well. And again, people paid with their lives for a wrongheaded
    commitment to the comfort of "people who are like me."

    The current tragedy reveals an additional problem -- a reluctance to
    face and fix the hard issues. As early as 1998 Louisiana scientists
    and politicians created a plan called Coastal 2050 for preserving the
    wetland environment, strengthening the levees, and avoiding much of
    the result we see today. But the moment of consensus was allowed to
    slip away; there was "no money," and none of the plan was financed. In
    the drill last year for the fictitious "Hurricane Pam," FEMA officials
    became well aware of more than 100,000 people who did not own or have
    access to cars and who could not evacuate without government-provided
    transportation, but again the problem was considered "too hard" to
    solve. Both problems could have been avoided -- but we lacked the will
    to do the work. These are not "traditional American values," but their

    One of the most noted creations of American thinkers is pragmatism, a
    school of thought that arose in the 1890s that insisted on judging
    ideas by the effect of following them. In other words, if a
    distinction between two ideas doesn't make any difference it is
    useless to talk about it. If an idea does not work, it should fade
    away. Hurricane Katrina has tragically demonstrated that the
    underfinancing of government, particularly by allowing corporations to
    receive subsidies while avoiding tax responsibilities, is quite
    literally and directly a recipe for disaster, as is a desire to focus
    only on those "like me." These are ideas that need to fade away for us
    to move forward. The philosopher William James talked about the
    "marketplace of ideas" -- extreme individuality, a focus on those
    "like me," and underfinanced infrastructure are ideas that need to be
    remaindered, not purchased.

    Both the positive and negative sets of beliefs are equally part of
    America. Neither one is un-American in the sense of being an outside
    imposition. The "Greatest Generation" was great because its members
    saw themselves as in it together. In the 1960s both the antiwar
    movement and the GI's in Vietnam operated in part from a deeply felt
    sense about death and destruction that "it could have been me, but
    instead it was you." If many voices sounded negative, that was because
    it was as necessary to fight error as it was to stand for values.

    Those we now call Americans have spent the last 500 years
    demonstrating that we are both the best and the worst that human
    beings can be. Certainly the news from New Orleans has shown some of
    the best -- whether in the form of military rescue units, medical
    personnel, or just ordinary civilians who did the right thing because
    they could not see others suffer. But the scale and magnitude of
    suffering could, and I believe would, have been much smaller if we
    reasserted those positive values -- no one is expendable, and it could
    have been me -- and rein in our worse selves. Those truly are
    traditional American values.

    Lynne M. Adrian is an associate professor of American studies at the
    University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa.

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