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Quake Responses: Do People Help Or Are They The Problem?

Japan’s triple calamity of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster is one week old.  450,000 are homeless in freezing weather.  Water, food, heat and medical help are rationed.  340,000 are still without power.  Whole towns have been washed out to sea, four trains remain buried beneath the rubble, many of the missing will never be accounted for.

Stepping away from the minute-by-minute updates, I found this essay on human behavior during disasters by the Independent’s Jonathan Hari.  Unlike David Brooks, Hari understands human nature.  He writes about the real behavior people show in the immediate aftermath of natural and man-made disasters.  He contrasts it with the “people are the problem” stereotype that’s become a fetish in governments and large corporations.

It turns out that the stereotype put out by governments, Hollywood and neocon think [sic] tanks about the beastly, selfish ferocity of people in the midst of a catastrophe is wrong.  It is almost a Randian projection:

After the 2005 tsunami, the Ayn Rand Institute – set up by the philosopher-queen of the American right – issued an appeal entitled: “US Should Not Give Help to Tsunami Victims.” Even the people who every day take this callous view of victims within our own societies – the poor, the homeless, the ill – felt the need to distance themselves from this sociopathy.

In January 2010, David Brooks infamously echoed that Randian sentiment.  An earthquake and resulting landslides in Haiti left 50,000 dead, and many more injured and homeless, without food, water or medical care.   Mr. Brooks urged his reader not to give aid to Haitians, citing it as a “moral hazard”.  Haitians needed to learn to pick themselves up and to “internalize” personal responsibility. The racial undertone was unmistakable.

Matt Taibbi called Brooks’ OpEd a masterpiece of “cultural signaling” – for those living “between 59th st and about 105th”, in Manhattan’s ritzy Upper East Side.  Brooks was issuing an ignore-your-conscience-for-free card and Taibbi rightly called him on it:

I’m probably going to wait at least until they’re finished pulling the bodies of dead children out of the rubble before I start writing articles blasting a foreign people for being corrupt, lazy drunks with an unsatisfactorily pervasive achievement culture whose child-rearing responsibilities might have to be yanked from them by with-it Whitey for their own good.

Fortunately, Brooks and his patrons are outliers.   Sadly, they have grown in number since Ronald Reagan dismissed government as the problem, not the solution.  That sentiment now absorbs the Beltway elite and the companies whose lobbyists keep them flush with caviar and campaign cash.

They tend to apply Reagan’s arrogant attitude toward government to their own people.  Be it disasters, grab ‘n grope screening at airports, terror attacks or proclamations that we must go to war over there to save ourselves over here, they seem to feel that people are the problem, not the solution.  Jonathan Hari’s response:

“If you imagine that the public is a danger, you endanger the public.” They are the allies of public safety, not its enemy.

New York’s Rep. Peter King should contemplate that.  The famous reaction of Londoners to the Blitz was not exceptional, it’s the rule:

The evidence gathered over centuries of disasters, natural and man-made, is overwhelming. The vast majority of people, when a disaster hits, behave in the aftermath as altruists. They organise spontaneously to save their fellow human beings, to share what they have, and to show kindness.

Similar behavior occurred in the immediate aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake in 1906.  It leveled the city and led to fires that destroyed more of it, but it brought an intensely racially divided city together, with people literally giving others the shirts off their backs.

It happened in New Zealand a few weeks ago, and after the rains and flooding in northern Australia before that.  It happened after Katrina, in spite of the government’s grossly incompetent disaster response.  And it happened after Three Mile Island:

After the Three Mile Island meltdown in Pennsylvania in 1979, nearly 150,000 people were evacuated. The government was not in charge. Ordinary people spontaneously co-ordinated it themselves, without panic.

The trouble is holding on to that self-sacrifice and communal feeling afterward. That’s where governments come in.  Feelings can’t be sustained, but they can be channeled.  Governments can plan, institutionalize best practices, build physical and human resources, and  apply them where they are most needed for each large-scale emergency.  They can levy taxes to make sure all that’s paid for and ready when it’s needed.  Or they can dismiss the need, hire horse breeders to run national emergency response agencies, and then hire mercenaries to “maintain order” when things go belly up.

The Bush administration is best seen as an example of how not to do it.  As for David Brooks’ comments on the earthquake in Japan, unlike those about Haiti last year, they have been muted.  He’s selling his new book, The Social Animal.  Meanwhile, Jonathan Hari’s takeaway is upbeat:

From this disaster, we can learn something fundamental about our species. It should guide how the Japanese authorities behave today – and kill off right-wing ideologies based on the belief that humans are inherently selfish tomorrow.

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