Tuesday, October 4

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 should.

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 opposite.

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.