THE PURSUIT OF WORLDLINESS
by Barry Edelson
Divided We Stand
Here is a two-part quiz to test your knowledge of recent human calamities:
First, identify among the three photos above (a) the fertilizer factory that exploded in West, Texas; (b) the clothing factory that collapsed in Bangladesh; and (c) the elementary school that was destroyed by a tornado in Moore, Oklahoma.
This part should have been easy, as the smoldering ruins of the conflagration in Texas is easily distinguishable from the other two piles of debris, and the denim jeans in the foreground of one the other two images gives away that it was a clothing factory. Otherwise, these and thousands of other photos taken of the three sites belie the awful sameness of all disasters that involve the destruction of buildings with people inside.
Now determine which of these disasters was caused by (a) the forces of nature; (b) negligence ignited by bad luck; (c) callous indifference to human life. If you think that (c) was the cause of the building collapse in Bangladesh, killing more than 1,000 workers who were busily affixing buttons and zippers to the shirt and pants you are wearing, you are correct. That one was a no-brainer. Even in poor benighted Bangladesh, where biblical floods annually inundate vast regions of the country and wash hundreds of thousands out to sea, where poverty and ignorance contribute to uncountable numbers of deaths from easily preventable diseases, and where the government, such as it is, seems barely able even to manage a simple accounting of its abominable failures — even in such a place as this, the owner of the factory was swiftly arrested and faces (one can only hope) a long life of misery in prison.
If you suppose that (b) mere negligence and a confluence of unfortunate factors are alone responsible for the Texas disaster, you would be mistaken. It is entirely possible that this particular factory could have continued to operate in its habitually shoddy manner for many years more without such a catastrophe befalling the company and its environs. It may have been sheer bad luck that something happened to ignite the ammonium nitrate that apparently was the proximate cause of the disaster, and sheer luck that the incident happened at night when the plant wasn't filled with workers, or the neighboring school filled with children. However, if we believe in luck then we are compelled to acknowledge the misfortune of the fire fighters who were attempting to put out the fire when the facility blew up, or the people in the surrounding streets who would not have been relaxing at home when the flames set the whole neighborhood ablaze had this happened in the middle of the day. But luck has nothing whatsoever to do with the ultimate causes of this catastrophe: the company's unregistered and therefore illegal stockpile of a substance commonly used in home-made bombs, and the federal government's failure to inspect the plant for decades, and the state's reluctance to regulate its industries altogether, and the local community's unimaginable failure to anticipate the consequences for a school located next to a large plant whose stock in trade is manufacturing a highly combustible material. Like the collapse of the clothing factory, human indifference played an outsized role in allowing a situation in which the lives of many innocent people were put at unacceptably high risk.
The misery of Moore is another matter altogether, as no human agency can be blamed for the tornados that carve up the landscape of the plains at regular intervals (climate change notwithstanding). But it did not go unnoticed around the country that only a tiny percentage of homes and businesses in the area have storm shelters. We've all seen the Wizard of Oz, but what we didn't know was that not everyone on the plains seems to realize that while Dorothy's adventures on the yellow brick road were pure fantasy, the twister that induced her hallucination was actually based on reality. It seems unconscionable that in the middle of a region highly prone to tornados, and in a town that was in fact struck by one a mere 14 years ago, there weren't even storm shelters in the elementary schools. The defense proffered by several officials, that nothing could have withstood the force of an F5 tornado, must have sounded peculiar to the few who emerged unscathed from their shelters after the storm.
It is hard to imagine how any state could fail to regulate for the safety of children, if nothing else. When a tornado-strength wind blew down a wall in a school cafeteria at the East Coldenham Elementary School in Newburgh, New York in 1989, killing 9 children and injuring many more, the state issued new regulations for the proper construction of school buildings. While some would call that a proper response to a preventable loss of life, others would denounce it as yet another example of the intrusion of the nanny-state. Perhaps New York's reaction was excessive; storms like the one that crushed those children to death at East Coldenham are very rare in the Northeast. The cost of any regulation ought to be weighed against the likelihood of the danger it is purported to avoid. But tornados are exceedingly common in Oklahoma and quite a few other central states. Why is there such a stark difference in the reaction to disaster?
We Are Who We Think We Are
Among the traits that Americans everywhere have in common, the most notable is sheer orneriness, which can roughly be defined as not wanting to be told what to do. A professor of journalism once explained this shared sensibility among fellow citizens of disparate backgrounds this way: most of us are descended from forebears who came to the United States precisely in order to get away from bad places where freedom and opportunity were restricted. Those who would prefer to go their own way, rather than go along with the pack, surely live in all habitable parts of the earth. But as the United States is literally a nation of immigrants (it is not just a politically convenient cliché), such individuals and their descendants tend to be more concentrated here.
In any event, as the centuries roll by, the relative orneriness of Americans has become differentiated among the inhabitants of the various states, so much so that we have come to caricature these differences in attitude and behavior with the "red state/blue state" label. Surely our cultural and political differences are not so simplistic, as enunciated by our current President in his famous speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004: "We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states and have gay friends in the red states." A very nice sentiment, indeed. Yes, we all the know the lyrics to the same songs, follow the same sports, see the same movies and eat the same unhealthy food. But while Americans from every state may seem much alike to our friends abroad, very few of us would argue that Massachusetts and Idaho are largely interchangeable, or that the regulatory frameworks of Vermont and Alabama are more or less the same. Whatever the reasons, there is more than one distinct subculture operating in this country, and we are currently going through a period when the areas of overlap among our various belief systems feel as if they are dwindling, and the gaps feel as if they are great and widening. Whether or not these gaps are being exaggerated by politically motivated hacks who stand to profit by driving us apart from one another, it is undeniably affecting how we think and behave.
Lewis Black recently said that politicians in Washington who are in the habit of suggesting that the nation's problems are best solved by the states, obviously haven't been to many of the states. Some of these states, he went on, shouldn't even be states. They should be territories. Like all good jokes, this one is funny because it plays on some painful truths. For example, within days of the flattening of a large part of West and the death or injury of dozens of its residents, the state's governor, Rick Perry, was appealing to out-of-state business owners to relocate to Texas because of its freedom from regulation. That's right, while the fire was literally still smoldering from an "accident" that could have been prevented by a minimal degree of regulatory oversight, the governor was proudly inviting to Texas any company that wants to share in the limitless bounty of the mythical frontier.
We wouldn't be surprised to learn that some governmental minister in Bangladesh was touting his country's exceptional business climate to foreign investors, even as the bodies were being pulled from the wreckage. This is not to suggest that Texas resembles an underdeveloped third-world country in any way. But in their zeal to differentiate themselves from the "elitists" on the two coasts, many politicians in the interior of our nation — quite a few of them with diplomas hanging on their office walls from the very same ivory towered institutions that they denounce with relish — are increasingly speaking and behaving as though they have never read a book or a newspaper or learned any history at all. If you take them at their word, they believe that if all individuals were left to their own devices, in a society with virtually no government and no regulation, the surfeit of decency and honesty among our fellow man is so great that we merely have to open our eyes to see the paradise that awaits us. Any suggestion that living in a truly free society with few checks on human behavior would actually be an unrelenting nightmare is merely an elaborate fiction designed by college professors, labor unions, feminists and government apparatchiks to rob free men of their liberty.
An Amicable Divorce
Judging by the rhetoric that flows in the various information media, it now seems as though half the country increasingly wishes the United States were more like Sweden — that is, a socialist hell with free health care, unlimited unemployment insurance and a vanishingly low rate of violent crime — while the other half wishes it were more like, say, Pakistan — where every male person carries a gun, women know their place (i.e, the home), religious fanatics are national heroes and the rule of law is for sissies. One half of the country apparently believes the other half is an assembly of inbred, gun-toting, Bible-misquoting half-wits, while the other is a cabal of Europe-loving, book-reading, God-hating tyrants. It seems only sensible, then, that these two irreconcilable parties consider a divorce.
There's no reason why such a division cannot be amicable. For instance, since the "red" people despise the very idea of a standing army and believe in the inviolable right to bear arms as a defense against the state, the "blue" people will take the armed forces, the intelligence services, the nuclear arsenal and the FBI in exchange for every weapon now in civilian hands. This will leave the Blues with the gun-controlled country for which they yearn and the Reds with the unlimited small arms they so desperately crave. The new Blue America will take all of the leftist parts of the government that the new Red America will consider intolerable intrusions on individual liberty: Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, highways, railroads, parks, environmental protection, natural resource conservation, air traffic control, housing assistance, aid for the hungry and homeless, occupational safety, food inspection, counter-terrorism measures, substance abuse treatment, weather forecasting, wildlife conservation and restoration, historic preservation, toxic and nuclear waste cleanup, emergency management and planning — the list is rather too long to continue here. Any enthusiasm for law enforcement, prisons, education, traffic control and the myriad other services traditionally left to the states would of course be left to the two nations to work out for themselves, with and without assistance from a federal authority, respectively. Dividing up all of those army bases and naval ports could be a bit tricky, considering all of the jobs that will be lost when the armed forces retreat to the new blue country. Professional sports leagues could very well continue to be shared, as we currently do with Canada, and they would provide a convenient outlet for patriotic expression. The best part is that the money that gets transferred disproportionately to the red states will of course dry up for them entirely, leaving Blue America with more resources by which it can oppress its subjects with government services, and leaving the new Red America free to exercise the holy principle that liberty is priceless.
Given that Americans of all political persuasions will be getting the country they desire, with the imminent prospect of living forever without ever again having to listen to the idiotic pronouncements of the blowhards on the other side, there will be every incentive to negotiate a fair settlement, devoid of the vitriol and rancor that now characterizes our body politic. Unlike the maelstrom into which the states descended in the 1860s, it would clearly be in no one's interest to allow this sensible division to devolve into civil conflict. Of course it will be difficult to draw the borders of the two new countries in such a way as to keep every red-leaning patriot on one side and every blue-leaning citizen on the other. But there is a historical precedent for allowing those caught on the wrong side of the new borders to move about peacefully so they can find more hospitable living arrangements: India and Pakistan accomplished this when they split up their country more than half a century ago, and see how well that turned out!
The important thing is that the newly independent Red America won't have anyone to tell it what to do any more, while Blue America will continue to live under the yoke of a newly invigorated federal leviathan. We'll sure miss our liberty in the blue states, but that's just the price of civilization. And the next time there's a big disaster in Red America, we will respect its credo of self-reliance, and send only our sympathies.
May 25, 2013
Return to home page • Send an e-mail
All writings on this site are copyrighted by Barry Edelson. Reprinting by permission only.