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On Katrina

Mick Stratton


Katrina has shown us our glory and our shame. If we glorify the glorious and shame the shameful we will have more of the former and less of the latter.

Like many of you, Hurricane Katrina affected me greatly. It demonstrated the awesome power of nature, the fragility of humans, our heroism and our ugliness all at the same time. It also started me contemplating about the balance between seemingly antagonistic values: caring for – demanding of, tolerance – intolerance, forgiveness – accountability, and cooperation – individualism. Katrina also has made me contemplate about the roles of family, religion and the state.

Of course all of this has to do with children as they are the ones who will perpetuate us. So the questions become, exactly what should these values be and how do we go about teaching them?

First we should look at what were the values that Katrina taught us, why were they important and are some of them really antagonistic to others? You will notice that when these values are paired we can see that the political and philosophic dichotomies of our society are involved.

Caring for Others Versus Demanding People Take Care of Themselves

When the right and left debate, it often seems as if they are on opposite sides of the debate, though they may not be. It’s just they disagree on what the balance should be. The left tends to stress it is the government’s responsibility to take care of those in need, and the right stresses that people learn to take care of themselves. I would suggest both believe there is a place for government, and that self-sufficiency is good. The argument is over the balance.

What did Katrina show us? While the state helped immensely (for a minute concentrate on the successes and not the failures), those who did not depend on it fared better than those who did. It seems to me that we may be stressing too much that the state is the solution and the individual doesn’t need to be responsible. Wouldn’t we be better off to rear our children to believe that they are not owed anything, but their destiny is up to them?

Katrina also showed us just how generous, caring and charitable we are as a people. I believe most of those who helped were taught that it is their responsibility to help those in need.

So even though it doesn’t seem to make sense at first, it seems that children can be taught that they do not have the right to expect others to help them, but nevertheless, they are responsible for helping others. I know that many families teach this; should religion and the state reinforce it?

Tolerance Versus Intolerance

In our society today the value of tolerance has absolutely won the day. There are few left who preach the value of intolerance and this is a shame. If you stop to think about it, a society cannot function without a lot of intolerance. The discussion should be about what we should be tolerant of and what we should be intolerant of.

What do I mean? We would be worse off if society became tolerant of murder, rape, stealing and lying. We would also be in great risk if we tolerated fraud and shoddy workmanship. In fact, we have started to tolerate all of these more than we used to and the consequences are obvious.

Katrina showed us this in several ways. Everyone seemed to know the bureaucracy in New Orleans and much of Louisiana was corrupt but they tolerated it. Money that should have gone to the levies went elsewhere, the police were known to have an inordinate amount of corruption and the state seemed more interested in why people behaved a certain way than stopping them from doing so (looting). The result was what we saw.

This is not to say that tolerance is bad: it is not. By tolerating different philosophies, religions, cultures and behaviors we create situations that allow for invention, creativity and success. The problem is the balance. Katrina told us that we need to reassess the balance between tolerance and intolerance and do a better job of deciding why something should, or should not be tolerated. In any case, we need to acknowledge that there is a place for intolerance.

Forgiveness Versus Accountability

All of the great religions teach forgiveness as well as most families and societies. If you think about it we could not function without it. Why? Since no one is perfect, all of us will do an unjust act sometime in our lives. If we never forgave, humans could not function together.

The problem is that we have begun to believe that forgiveness and accountability are antagonistic so we believe if we forgive we should not hold the perpetrator accountable. That is an incorrect belief. From the religious view, there is always accountability. God forgave David, but he still suffered the consequences of his actions. In the religious realm accountability is atonement.

Katrina showed us that while forgiving people for making poor choices is good, they still need to be held accountable. A large percent of the people who live in poverty are there because of poor choices. Many of them quit school, take illegal drugs and drink alcohol excessively. Nor are they disciplined in their personal relationships. It is not surprising that many had no idea what to do, or how to do it when the hurricane hit. By forgiving them without making them accountable for their behavior we encourage them to continue to make poor choices.

This is not saying they are evil people or that they should not have been forgiven their choices. What it is saying is that a large dash of accountability should have been included. When you realize that three months after the hurricane many of them had still not begun to find work or get their lives in order, you know someone has failed at teaching accountability.

Cooperation Versus Individualism

Our country was made great because of both of these seemingly antagonistic values. We tend to believe the more individualistic you are, the less likely you will work with others. This may be true to some extent but that does not mean that you cannot have a strong dose of both of these, or that society might not benefit from having citizens who are extreme in one or the other (diversity?). The important thing is that we realize that both values are important and should be taught.

Katrina definitely highlighted our ability to cooperate and showed the consequences when we didn’t. It also highlighted the individual, with the stories of individual heroism. I imagine if we looked more closely we would also see that a lot of the poor who had a strong streak of individualism got out of Katrina’s way and survived quite well on their own.

My concern is our tendency to down play the accomplishments of the individual because we fear it might make others feel bad. Almost all of civilization’s great inventions, art and visions came from the individual. We should never forget that.

Family, Religion and the State

As stated in the beginning, for our great country to continue to be great the children of our society need to be taught values. The question is who is most responsible for this? Katrina gives us an opportunity to find some answers.

Because of Katrina we saw that many of us have plenty of the needed values. As a people, we rose to the occasion and took care of our fellow citizens in need. It also showed us that many of us lacked the needed values. Crying, ingratitude, complaining, back biting and blaming others were traits that were all too common.

What we should do is look at those who had the needed values and find out why they had them. Then look at those who showed us our ugly side and find out why they are as they are. After that we might have a national dialogue on how the family, the religious organizations and the government can cooperate in teaching our children the needed values to be productive citizens. (Yes, the state and religion need to learn to work together.)

My bet is that most of the responsibility for developing values should be put on the family with the other two institutions reinforcing its efforts. The state should do what it can to encourage the family and hold it responsible for what it does. In any case, let’s research, analyze and discuss!