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Miscellaneous thoughts and ramblings
Monday, September 05, 2005
Unnatural Disaster: A Hurricane Exposes the Man-Made Disaster of the Welfare State

I've been trying to come to grips with the difference between the local reaction to the disaster on the Gulf Coast and other disasters I've seen in the past in the U.S. Looting, rape, murder, obstruction on one hand vs. pulling together, lifting up and surviving on the other. This piece by Robert Tracinski makes some sense.
The article you link to makes me sick.

First, what is emerging from the various explanations is that, as usual, events confirm people's ideological presuppositions. The Globe and Mail piece blames the looting on American individualism, presumably because the writer leans to the left of the political spectrum. Mr. Tracinski blames it on the welfare state, presumably because he leans to the right. And religious fundamentalists interpret the catastrophe as an act of vengeance on God's part, for the depravity of the city.

All three explanations are unprovable and their authors are welcome to them. I reject them all.

Mr. Tracinski's explanation, in the end, blames the victims: the poor blacks of New Orleans who were abandoned to their fate. They're just a bunch of welfare recipients, Mr. Tracinski says — people who have no initiative. They're all criminals: there's no distinction between the people in the jails and the people living in the public housing projects. They're all just waiting for a breakdown in the authority structure so they can indulge their base instincts.

This is a sickening analysis, born of class and racial prejudices.

The truth is, the looters are probably little different than the folks who live in your neighbourhood. Who knows what would happen in your city (wherever you live) if your house and your occupation were suddenly destroyed, if many of your loved ones were suddenly killed, if the region's infrastructure totally collapsed in a matter of hours?

Do you know that your community would behave any better than this one? I don't — because people's behaviour is unpredictable when they are subjected to such extreme stresses.
Well, I think by now all of us have learned to distinguish between people taking food and medicine because they need it for survival, and those who steal jewelry and electronics which they DON'T need for survival and raping women on the street, also unncessary for survival.
The truth is, the looters are probably little different than the folks who live in your neighbourhood. Who knows what would happen in your city (wherever you live) if your house and your occupation were suddenly destroyed, if many of your loved ones were suddenly killed, if the region's infrastructure totally collapsed in a matter of hours?

I live about 8 miles from the epicenter of the 1989 Loma Prieta quake. Large portions of Santa Cruz and Watsonville were destroyed in that quake. Not to say that the situations are identical; they're not. But, at least here, as in other places (New York City in 2001, Miami in 1992) the community banded together, helped each other out. If there was looting, it was on a small scale. I don't know any stories of raping and pillaging as has occurred in New Orleans.

You're equating criminals who stood in the way of help with the people who were denied that help by those you seem to be defending. Rescue crews were shot at. Women were raped. People were murdered for their posessions. Whether the author is right or wrong in tying the actions of these thugs to the Welfare state, you insult their innocent victims by excusing their behavior.
I personally object to terms such as "welfare parasite." We are talking about human beings and they should not be described as if they were vermin!

I've known many people who have been on welfare - good people, kind people. But everyone I knew who was on it agreed that it was a trap! They wanted out, but didn't have the skills or strength to lift themselves out of that pit.

I think there is some truth in observations that the welfare system leads people to "learned helplessness" -- and that means they are unable to help themselves effectively in times of crisis.
Hey, here in good ol' Los Angeles we don't even need extreme stresses to prove that we can devolve into a lawless society of looters. Any disagreeable jury decision will do, thank you.

First, I apologize for being so heated in my first comment. It was Mr. Tracinski's column I was reacting to, not you.

And I take your point about not excusing violent behaviour. To be clear, I do not condone the theft of TVs, the raping of victims of the disaster, shooting at relief personnel, etc. Of course not.

I was reacting to Mr. Tracinski's false dichotomy between us and them. They are a bunch of criminal-friendly welfare recipients. We are good law-abiding people who don't look to government to hold our hands all the time. I reject that analysis; it shows an appalling lack of empathy for people who have lost everything and who were abandoned to their fate.

The puzzle is that sometimes people react to a calamity by helping each other out, and sometimes they react by turning on one another. Whatever the explanation is, it isn't that they are a fundamentally different kind of human being than us. If every social structure were suddenly kicked out from beneath our feet, maybe we would turn out to be not-so-different from them.

That's all I meant to say — I did not mean to condone wicked behaviour.
Let me take another run at this problem, because I think it's important. I am responding to comments posted by Ball and Chain and Dr. Bean on an earlier post. But I'm responding here because I think they were reacting, in part, to my first comment above.

Ball and Chain — you wrote,
Simple answers are insufficient. However, Since some subject are simply taboo these days, a real, detailed analysis of the problem (and solutions to keep it from happening again) will never be done. I just throw up my hands.

I can't help but wonder if this comment arises from my angry response to Nomad's post / the Tracinski article. If I'm suppressing open dialogue around here, I sincerely regret it. I agree that people should be free to debate ideas, even if they are not politically correct.

Dr. Bean:
I know you state that the breakdown of society in New Orleans had complex causes. But you seem to be arguing that the primary cause was the lack of intelligence of the poor blacks in the public housing. A little kinder than Tracinski's explanation, perhaps, but moving along a parallel track.

Here's my input. Intelligence is a great way to get ahead as long as law and order are in place. But once law and order breaks down — once anarchy takes hold — brute force may be of greater utility than intelligence.

In that situation, a scrawny but intelligent person may obtain a gun and ammunition, take in a vicious dog or two, gather a supply of food and water, find a house that is above sea level, barricade the doors, and prepare to fend off intruders.

A muscular, street-hardened individual may fall back on brute force instead. He may gather some like-minded toughs and form a gang.

Both are using the best personal attributes they have at their disposal to ensure their survival in a highly abnormal situation.

It is fair to say that some neighbourhoods have more people who fit into the first category (not physically powerful, but intelligent) while other neighbourhoods have more people who fit into the second category.

And in this case, the first group tended to evacuate New Orleans before the hurricane hit; while the second group, with fewer resources at its disposal, remained behind.

Two quick comments are in order here. First, according to the New York Times, An estimated 50,000 households in New Orleans do not have cars. Second, welfare payments are made at the beginning of the month, and the hurricane struck on the 29th of August. In other words, those who rely on welfare had empty wallets when disaster struck.

I'm trying to get away from that business of blaming the victims, and I sense that Dr. Bean is making a similar effort.

Keep in mind that no one helped these folks get out of the city. The Ottawa Citizen offered this little insight:

Brian Wolshon, a former consultant on the state's evacution plan, told the New York Times that at disaster planning meetings, when the question was raised about how to move out the "low-mobility" population, "there was often silence."

To me, this brings us back to the emphasis on "rugged individualism" in American society. Those who could get out, did so. Those who couldn't, received no assistance from the City of New Orleans. Both groups were left to fend for themselves — rugged individualism in action.

In sum: these folks had fewer resources at their disposal to enable them to evacuate; the city abandoned them to their fate; and, when there was a total breakdown of law and order, they fell back on the main asset they had to survive — brute force.

This doesn't excuse raping fellow victims or shooting at rescue helicopters. But I hope it sets the looting and even some of the thuggish behaviour in a relatively sympathetic context.
Q: We totally agree that the city failed miserably. Arial photos show many school busses sitting in parking lots which could have been used to evacuate those who didn’t have access to transportation. The state failed to have a working disaster management plan in place, and the Feds failed to send FEMA assistance promptly. And the individuals left behind didn’t have the brains, the resources or the culture to help themselves. How’s that for a consensus statement on something that was a major f***-up at every level?
Agreed. You have to wonder how different it might have been if any one of the aforementioned had done something right.
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