Friday, October 19, 2007

Great Mother, Great Father - by William Saxton

Hurricane Katrina and the Weltangschauung

On Monday, August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. The destruction was horrendous.

All that week, every news program focused on relief efforts. What was wrong? Was the government doing enough? But people weren't content merely to watch TV talking heads report; they wanted to help. Universities nationwide offered free tuition to displaced students. It seemed every web site I saw had at least one link: "Click here to help Katrina victims!" By Thursday the general discussion group at Hatrack (sister site to this one in a way -- they're both Orson Scott Card's contributions) had three threads sharing places to donate.

Then, Sunday, the New York Times published an editorial by famous novelist Anne Rice, decrying America's indifference to the suffering. "During this crisis you failed us. You looked down on us; you dismissed our victims; you dismissed us. You want our Jazz Fest, you want our Mardi Gras, you want our cooking and our music. Then when you saw us in real trouble, when you saw a tiny minority preying on the weak among us, you called us 'Sin City,' and turned your backs."

The world she described certainly wasn't one I'd been seeing. What kind of world would it be, if her perception were accurate? (This question led directly to my story "Great Mother, Great Father," in which people truly do turn their backs on the weak and the suffering, and are proud of it.)

Imagine a world in which the nation could look at a city in terrible trouble, shrug, and say, "Why should I care?" As John Lennon would say, it isn't hard to do. We all, I believe, have selective areas of compassion and disregard: abortion, the death penalty, or the suffering of animals. But these days, most of us at least pretend to care when an innocent and articulate adult is in jeopardy of life or limb. (Hypocritical, sometimes, but hypocrisy isn't the worst thing: At least it shows you have standards.)

It didn't have to be this way. Consider the Maya. In their religion, one of the marks of wisdom was cultivating indifference to the suffering of others (and, to be fair, to one's own). The ancient Maya might well have shrugged at reports of hurricane-caused deprivation. When you've stood by and watched people being ritually mutilated, it shouldn't be a problem to hear that people are at risk of thirst or rioting.

Consider also the imperial Japanese. Brutality to the weak was not simply human failing; it was custom. If their treatment of Chinese forced laborers is any indication, they wouldn't have seen a point in getting clean water to the Astrodome.

Finally, consider the Nazis. They did support benevolence to their own kind (that is, ethnic Germans), but cultivated brutality toward others as a virtue. They would have been happy to have Katrina save them the trouble of killing non-Aryans.

Rice's op-ed to the contrary, our civilization looks good by comparison. Admittedly people often don't live up to their beliefs. Even if your world view says "love all mankind," you still might ignore the suffering of others, or even inflict it, as history has shown. But it could be worse: our society could urge us to stifle our compassion, to instead stick it to the loser and torture the helpless. Too farfetched? Remember the Vikings. For that matter, remember fourth grade.

Did we just luck out?

In a way, if you believe in luck. The view of right and wrong that has spread itself over most of the world came from a tiny corner of the Middle East. There, the only God whose opinion mattered kept telling his people to give to the poor and help the helpless. By our standards, the ancient Israelites were brutal -- but our standards came from their standards. Their moral competition came not from Mother Teresa or Up With People, but from the Canaanites, who burned their babies for the god Moloch. We can condemn Abraham and God in the story of the sacrifice of Isaac for even considering human sacrifice, but the big news then was that you could be totally devoted to your god and still not murder your family. I consider this progress.

We've made more progress since, and a good thing. But we made it by expanding and deepening this standard of humane treatment. Good thing we didn't expand and deepen the Assyrian view of the world. Then we wouldn't be angry about the Spanish Inquisition and witch-burning; we'd wonder why it had to stop just when it was getting good.

But in another sense, our current state of affairs wasn't luck at all. It's a fair bet that if a society condones some horrific practice (cannibalism, say, or sex with children), that society is a small tribe in a remote area. Something about such practices cause the societies that promote them not to prosper enough to spread themselves. By contrast, the world views that spread themselves and their societies the farthest have this in common: they accept the dignity of the individual. When people say, "All religions teach pretty much the same thing, so if we just adhered to that core..." I always want to say, "All the religions we think about today, you mean." There have been plenty of others.

We shouldn't be complacent: horrible world views may die out, but it's not inevitable and not instantaneous. Human sacrifice lasted for a long time. Slavery lasted millennia after that. If Hitler had gotten the bomb, today mercy to strangers might be merely a quaint custom in areas the Nazis hadn't gotten around to colonizing yet.

So let's be grateful to the giants whose shoulders we stand on, and determine to be giants ourselves. Somebody has to. We might have another hurricane.

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