Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Lessons from the Past

They just don't make natural disasters like they used to. That's Rebecca Hagelin's complaint. She longs for the "civility, honor, and selflessness" of disasters like the Titanic, in 1912:

This famous, selfless cry for the safety of others is best associated with the tragedy of the Titanic, when thousands lost their lives in the frozen waters of the sea so many years ago. Not unlike the rising waters in New Orleans, where the ocean began to fill its natural territory after man-made walls that held it back for so long failed, so the mighty waters of the North Atlantic engulfed the damaged vessel that sought to defy nature's icebergs and open waters. But, unlike New Orleans where dry land was nearby, the Titanic was a lone ship, in the middle of the vast waters, filled with helpless souls who had nowhere to go save too few lifeboats.

The harsh reality that dreadful day in 1912 is that most of the passengers would die, and they knew it. Yet, amid the panic and impending doom, the accounts of survivors remind us of a time when civility and honor were more important to many than survival itself.

So how is it that in fewer than 100 years we have digressed to a society where, when disaster strikes, the story is marked by a display of the worst side of human nature rather than the best?

Could it be that in a pop culture where the gangsta style is "hip" and is reflected and perpetuated in everything from violent rap and hip-hop music, to the clothing styles, to the language and gestures used in "normal" communication, to the negative attitudes toward females and children, that the "style" isn't just a fashion trend but has actually become a way of life for some? In other words, in a culture where many people dress like gangstas, talk like gangstas, and strut like gangstas, should we be shocked and horrified that they start engaging in gangsta crime when given the opportunity?

I can't help but conclude that if the tragic natural disaster in New Orleans had occurred in a culture that had daily practiced the Golden Rule, rather than the Gangsta Rot, we would have seen more scenes of neighbors helping neighbors and far fewer scenes of neighbors preying upon neighbors.

So that's why almost all the passengers who survived were the wealthy ones from first-class! That must be why none of the passengers in third-class, or steerage, got on to those lifeboats, or even made it to the upper decks! They sacrificed their own lives to save the lives of their betters. I think they must also have been the ones who locked the exit doors out of steerage. They were making absolutely sure that none of their number would be tempted to put his or her own safety before that of their upper-class masters.

I suppose it would be churlish of me to point out that the culture Ms. Hagelin admiringly credits with following the Golden Rule is the same culture that kept black people subjugated and terrorized almost 50 years after the Civil War had ended. The year the Titanic sank was also the year the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People began to keep independent records of the number of lynchings that occurred annually, although these records did not even begin to represent an accurate count of how many lynchings actually occurred in any given year. In 1914, two years after the Titanic sank, the NAACP reported 74 lynchings for the previous year. Two other sources of statistics on lynching, the Tuskegee Institute and the Chicago Tribune, reported 52 and 54 lynchings for that year. The numbers varied because of differences in the way lynchings were defined. (For example, black people were commonly set on fire and burned at the stake, dismembered, mutilated, castrated, and tortured to death in various creative ways. Some official sources defined these as lynchings, too; others only counted the incidents in which black people were hung by mobs of whites from a tree or a lamppost.) Tuskegee's numbers were widely regarded as conservative; but even if we accept 52 as the accurate number of lynchings that occurred in 1914, that is one lynching for every week of the year. How civil and honorable of those whites living in that gracious time!

Via Avedon Carol.

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Meanwhile, Lis Riba has discovered a timeline for the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake; and although it does not have much to say about the civility, honor, and capacity for self-sacrifice among San Franciscans, it does show us that effective disaster mitigation is possible -- even when the disaster occurred in a technologically less advanced time than ours.

And also via Lis, David at DKos lists six separate stories of FEMA turning away people and groups wanting to help.

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