Tuesday, May 20, 2008

On Flattened Cities and Drowned Cities

I was getting dressed at the locker room of my gym the other morning. The TV in the corner, tuned to one of the news channels, was droning and humming monotonously. I wasn’t really listening to whatever the talking head was saying. Suddenly the picture changed to a scene of many parachutists pouring out the side door of a cargo plane, sailing down towards the ground with a sense of purpose. The talking head came back on camera and said:

“The Chinese response has been extraordinary. As a point of reference, after Katrina it took the US government twice as long to get less than half as many people on the ground.”

Those words put the hook in me, and I sat down in front of the TV and got to thinking about the question: Why was the US response to Katrina so shameful? And why was the Chinese response to the earthquake so much better?

While there are undoubtedly many factors involved, two immediately elbowed their way to the front of the queue and demanded to be heard.

First, credit must be given to China’s “activist” concept of government. Regardless of what one may think of China’s strange mélange of communism, corporate fascism and free-market enterprise (I personally am not a fan), one is forced to acknowledge the fact that the people in power in Beijing view it as a proper function of government to be part of the solution. Unfortunately for the American citizens living in New Orleans, their government was being run by members of a political movement whose core belief was that government was, by definition and in all circumstances, part of the problem. This movement was openly committed to slowly and painfully starving government to death, forcibly downsizing it until it was “small enough to drown in a bathtub.” Instead, all their political philosophy succeeded in doing was drowning a major American city.

Second, and in many ways much more important, is the strong element of communitarianism in Chinese culture, a cultural element that is very old and exists independently of the communist political philosophy of China’s current government. Communitarianism privileges the interests of the community over the needs of the individual. The concept of social solidarity – especially in times of crisis – is understood as something mandatory, not optional. Tens of thousands of ordinary Chinese citizens, some from as far as a thousand miles away, got themselves to the earthquake zone any way they could and threw themselves into the rescue efforts. It never occurred to them not to do this; in Kantian terms, they were faced with a categorical imperative. In the US, on the contrary, in spite of some relatively small islands of solidarity and volunteerism, no mass commitment by the people took place. With the population conditioned to worshipping that uniquely American “I got mine, so fuck you” form of “rugged individualism” – what might be more accurately and honestly described as a form of Social Darwinism – the best among us felt a brief twinge of conscience and eventually wrote out a check for twenty or thirty bucks and considered that we’d done enough. And the rest? We stared at the horror on TV, and we tsk-tsked, and we blinked in bovine incomprehension, and then we flipped the channel to watch American Idol as our fellow citizens suffered and died.

The Iraq invasion made me feel anger at my country for the first time in my life. But our response to Katrina – especially when compared to the disaster in China, where the people and the government dealt with the situation properly – made me feel something even worse: shame.


Mark Krusen said...

Well written post. I don't feel shame at myself as much as ashamed of my Government for not jumping in and helping what ever way they could.For not having a plan in place. It's not as if they never knew it could happen. Maybe we didn't know what to do besides write that check. Maybe it's time to be prepared ourselves for the next time. Because we all know. There will be a next time.

CrustyPolemicist said...

It's not as if they never knew it could happen.

But, but, but, "no one could have anticipated that the levees would break"! Least, that's what they kept telling us. :-) Thanks for the feedback.