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Another one for "For The Dream" [Sep. 17th, 2005|09:03 pm]
I've got another update at http://www.forthedream.com/blogentries, but I decided to copy it here... it deserves some wider distribution.

When I was a child, I fell in love with "The Great Brain" series of books by John D. Fitzgerald. They describe a (hopefully fictional) account of John's childhood, and his older brother Tom, the namesake of the series.

Not all of the stories in the books are about Tom, however. One in particular bears a bit of relevance today.

The books are set in the turn of the 19th century (1890s to 1900s), in a small-ish town in Utah. There's a traveling Jewish peddler named Abie who voices a concern to the boys' father that he can't keep up with his travels much longer. His father suggests he set up shop in their town. Sure, it's a heavily Mormon town, but they're not prejudiced; they'll do business with anyone. After all, the Fitzgerald family is Catholic, and they do business just fine.

It's important to understand this. The town isn't a bigoted town. Abie makes regular stops there, and it'd be pretty silly to do that if he was disliked, right?

So, Abie sets up shop. It's interesting; as a child, I didn't know the stereotype of Jewish people as money-grubbing businessmen, so I didn't recognize part of the source of a rumor that flies around town of Abie having a chest full of gold coins, but the rumor does get around. Maybe that plays into what happens next.

You see, the Mormons in the town really, honestly, and truly, don't hate Jewish people... but they do prefer to do business with a fellow Mormon. Not many people end up doing business with Abie... and people start noticing he's not looking well.

In fact, he's starving to death. He's doing so little business, he can't even afford food. In the end, he starves to death right under their noses. The boys' father realizes in his grief that they let him starve because he was a Jew.

Nobody disliked him, and no one would have done anything to hurt him... but when it turns out no one can recall him getting his food from anywhere, no one asks around. When people notice him looking pale and thin, well, he's an old man. And, after all, how could he be too poor to buy food? He had that chest full of gold coins, remember?

I imagine he was a proud man who wouldn't have asked for charity - it must take a hell of a lot of pride to starve to death when there's food everywhere around you - but I'll bet dollars to doughnuts that he wouldn't have been the first such person who people found a way to support, without hurting his pride. All they had to do was care enough to realize that he was dying right in front of their collective faces... but they didn't.

People ask if the slow response in New Orleans maybe had something to do with race... and many people angrily deny that race played a factor. After all, no one hates black folks (or, at least, people won't admit to doing so in polite company anymore). And, of course, as President Bush said, the Coast Guard didn't check skin color when performing rescues.

Me... I'm not going to claim that the response was slow because of race. This is a case of not attributing to malice what can be explained by incompetence.

At the same time, the information was out there to be seen, and the rescuers and resources were available. All people had to do was realize that New Orleans was dying, right in front of their collective faces... and in too many cases, they didn't.

Did race, or poverty, play a role? I don't know; I hope not, but I'm afraid it might have. I only know this: a whole bunch of people didn't have the right sense of urgency. Not enough of the right people dug in enough, and cared enough, to act on the available information.

The people in the fictional town of Adenville had to ask themselves if they really were callous enough to let a man they cared about (at least as a friendly face) starve to death in front of them. America is going to have to ask itself the same sort of question... but this time, there are a whole bunch of starving Abies out there, if we open our eyes and look for them. Let's make sure that next time, we recognize the needs of our neighbors before the disaster strikes.

[User Picture]From: karenkay
2005-09-18 11:56 am (UTC)
In addition to the issues of race and poverty, there is the equally subtle issue of New Orleans as Sin City. I've seen (TV man-on-the-street interviews) several people claiming that New Orleans is reaping what it sowed.
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[User Picture]From: lblanchard
2005-09-18 05:14 pm (UTC)
Louis Farrakhan for one. He said it right here in Philly, while speaking at Tindley Temple. To appreciate the full horror of this, it was Tindley who penned the "African American National Anthem" (as it's called at least here in Philadelphia), "Lift Every Voice and Sing."
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[User Picture]From: johnpalmer
2005-09-19 06:35 am (UTC)
I know; I've seen a lot of those types of comments as well. I don't know if that played into the slow response once the extent of the damage was clear, but it does seem to be playing a role in what's going to happen afterwards.

It'd be nice to think that humanity has outgrown this type of thing, but I don't suppose it ever will.
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[User Picture]From: lblanchard
2005-09-18 01:46 pm (UTC)
John, as you know I live in an area that was until very recently one of those pockets of poverty.

I have to be very careful when I articulate this lest it sound like blaming the victim, which it isn't. But in assigning responsibility, we must also assign some part of the responsibility to a culture that responds magnificently to present disaster in most cases but more often than not remains passive in the face of impending disaster. I'm talking to all the folks who remained passive about saving themselves as Katrina barreled across the Gulf.

One might argue that for folks mired in poverty and ignorancethis is a case of learned helplessness, and one might very well be right. Here's one of the places folks learn it, in church:

I don’t know
About tomorrow
I just live from day to day
I don’t borrow from its sunshine
For its skies may turn to gray
I don’t worry about my future
For I know what Jesus said
And today he walks beside me
For he knows what lies ahead
Many things about tomorrow
I don’t seem to understand
But I know I know who holds tomorrow
And I know who holds my hand.

This is a favorite hymn at my largely African American church. When I visit that Baptist church across the street from me I know that folks will nod approvingly and sing lustily if I ask for that hymn in the "prayer and praise" session before service. Think about the message it sends. Then think of all the folks who were quoted saying "I'll just have to have faith in the Lord," as they sat on their front steps in Treme etc.

Now, we can go back to root causes etc., etc., and assign all kinds of responsibility for creating a whole population that embraces this attitude. As a Wiccan, you might argue that this is one of the flaws of Christianity as a belief system. As a Lutheran, I might argue that somehow passivity was never part of the sermons I heard as a child, and I may lay it at the door of the Great Society program and its progeny. But root causes aren't going to save anyone from a flood.

Arguing from atop another of my hobby horses, I could speak of the pernicious mission creep that allows whole segments of the population to look to the government to protect them from just about anything. There's also a whole generation of folks who've never had to share a bedroom, never or a television or a telephone, who've never been exposed to physical danger in the form of war, pestilence, or crime, and who believe that a risk-free life filled with material comforts is their birthright. Both groups are stunned when their world-view is shattered by a cataclysmic event.

Put these two world views together and there's going to be a lot of shock and awe when disaster strikes and the big old bureaucracy trips all over itself trying to figure out who should be doing what for whom and when.

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[User Picture]From: johnpalmer
2005-09-19 06:52 am (UTC)
Well, as far as the Christian influence goes, I'm a bit of an amateur theologian, and I've done a lot of thinking about that type of message in the bible. Really, I think it ties to the same message that you can't worship both God and money. If you worry too much about what tomorrow will bring, you might be afraid to do the right thing now, to cast your proverbial bread upon water, because you're too afraid that you'll need those resources tomorrow. This type of message is not supposed to lead to the type of faith that is represented by the old joke that I'm sure you've heard ... A person declares that they do not need to be rescued from the flood, as several would-be rescuers offer assistance, because God will care for them, and after dying, ask God why they were not rescued, and God says that he sent several avenues of rescue, why didn't this person take advantage of one of them.

I've read at least one blog talking about the bus situation in New Orleans and Louisiana, asking why the governor and the mayor didn't have more buses evacuating people. Well, I looked at the time-line of the storm, and I don't know if you summon all of your buses for a category 3 hurricane, but Katrina was only upgraded to a category 4 some 29 hours before it hit. The question I asked in those blogs is how you would find hurricane-proof housing for thousands of people inside of 29 hours ... then you can wonder about how you would get the buses, the drivers, and fuel. (Then you can worry about the logistics, how you will alert people to use the buses, and how you will keep the evacuation orderly. )

Well, it hit at 6:00 a.m., and if you count backwards, that means it was upgraded to category 4 at 1:00 a.m. the previous day. People who didn't wake up until 8, 9, or 10 had even less time to try to get out of the way of the hurricane. I imagine that many of them simply felt that it was too late to try to evacuate, unless they lived within walking distance of the dome. I mean, where would they go? Was there a place where they knew they would find shelter? I would imagine that most of them felt that they were safest staying at home, and hoping for the best. You wouldn't want to end up outdoors when the hurricane hit.

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[User Picture]From: lblanchard
2005-09-19 11:32 am (UTC)
If the buses are in the evacuation plan, these things are supposed to have been worked out well in advance.

I mean, does it take a rocket scientist to figure out that you will need to put your regular drivers on standby 72-96 hours out, so that if you make the decision to evacuate at 48 hours out they're ready to roll and their families are prepared?

The Inquirer just told us that Philly has an evacuation plan in the event that the Sunoco refinery blows but "it's a secret." Don't want to tip our hands to the terrorists, you know. As someone living less than two miles away from the refinery, I don't know what's more unnerving -- the lack of publicized plan or the fact that the siren/alarm system isn't working.

More sobering in yesterday's coverage is the news that if a Cat 3 hurricane roars up the Delaware Bay South Philly is likely to be under ten feet of water. We had a bit of a dinnertime discussion about exactly how we'd prepare for *that.* Heck, we can't even nail up plywood -- our windows have metal surrounds.

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