Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Divine Wrath

Eugene Volokh writes a spectacular take-down of the dissident religious view that the natural disaster to hit New Orleans was a product of its wicked and sinful ways. If natural disasters are God's way of handing out punishment, Volokh notes, then God must really hate the poor--because it's them and not abortion doctors or homosexual tourists or high-roller gamblers (or corrupt officials, for that matter) that die in these sorts of thing. So, either being poor is a worse sin than all of those, or else God has a screwed up sense of accountability. I'm reminded of the old stereotype of the evil overlord (Number 45 to be exact), where the overlord turns to a general who screwed up, says "this is the price of failure," and then turns and shoots some random underling.

I rejected the secular version of this argument by refusing to jump on the "poor are responsible for staying behind" meme. To me, it's rather simple--poor people face structural disadvantages in their lives, some of which might be their fault, many of which are not. To hold them responsible for the ancillary effects of being poor, to me, represents a lack both of human empathy and a far too optimistic view of our system's meritocratic qualities.

However, some folks still are defending the "it's the poor's fault" line. Michael Williams argues that:
As a rather conservative Christian myself, it appears to me that most of the evil and terrible things that happen to people in the world are either the direct result of their own evil actions, or the direct result of the evil actions of others. Arguably, much of the suffering in New Orleans is due to poor/incompetent preparation by local officials who neglected their duties -- and some of that blame then rests with the voters who elected them.

The first note here is that Williams is explicitly equating "stupid decision" (electing incompetent officials in NO) and "evil." That seems a mite bit harsh, no? Second, it shifts a lot of the blame away from the federal government, whom these residents have almost no say in the actions of--this line of reasoning works only with local officials whom one can reasonably say the poor underclass of NO had a chance of reasoning. New Orleans is in Louisiana, and Louisiana voted for Bush, and Bush appointed Michael Brown, who has been an abject failure this entire episode, stretches the line of causation a bit too thin. Thus proving yet another time how "Christian" interpretations of events always magically and perfectly mesh with Republican talking points. Amazing.

But more fundamentally, I'm skeptical about how much one really can link the selection of officials in New Orleans to the dead and victimized underclass. There are several reasons to suggest that it is not innercity black voters who are really empowered here. First, they might not be voting--it's well known that poor black voters are registered and vote at a far lower rate than their fellow Americans. So their power is at a far lower level than their numbers would seem to dictate in a democracy. Second, even those who haven't become totally disenchanted with the democratic process may not be able to vote--either because of draconian felony disenfranchisement clauses, or because they have no way of getting to polling places, or because election day isn't a holiday and they can't get off from work. Third, many don't have the education to make an informed decision. The vast majority of Americans couldn't tell you what constitutes a viable, effective, fast, and comprehensive evacuation plan for their city in the event of a disaster. We don't have the expertise to make the decision. So even on the off chance that the issue came up on the campaign trail, poor voters--even less than privileged New Orleaners--have absolutely no basis for determining that one official has a "good" plan and one has a "bad" plan.

I'm probably--okay, almost definitely--being too hard on Mr. Williams. I'm sure he is very sympathetic to the plight of those killed or ruined in the wake of Katrina, and I'm quite skeptical that he believes that they "deserved" what happened to them. But the sort of Panglossian logic that tries to rationalize the horrific suffering of events like Katrina as necessary, inevitable, or justified offends me as deeply as it does Professor Volokh. Certainly, this view doesn't jibe with my conception of who God really is.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link!

I don't think I wrote anything, anywhere, implying that the hurricane was "necessary, inevitable, or justified". If you look at the Bible passage I quoted (Luke 13:1-5) you'll note that Jesus' point was that everyone is worthy of death; the victims of tragedy no more so or less so than the rest of us. That death continually passes most of us by is a blessing from God, and it serves a purpose: that we should take the opportunity to repent of our sins.

There's certainly a difference between "stupid" and "evil", but the government of New Orleans is/was well known for being terribly corrupt... and it's a tenet of democracy that people get the government they "deserve" (in the sense that they vote for it). Deciding not to vote is a choice, and if in fact many of those left behind didn't vote (as you imply) that doesn't in any way relieve them of responsibility. Though, as I said, most of the responsibility isn't with the voters, but with the clueless officials.

FEMA certainly hasn't exactly shined in the situation, but it's always been known that federal disaster assistance takes 48-72 hours to get in place, and that's about how long it took to get things rolling. Why wasn't it prepositioned? I don't know, maybe for the same reason hundreds of school buses weren't used in the evacuation? No one in power took the situation seriously enough.

President Bush may bear some blame for appointing Michael Brown, if in fact it turns out he's done an awful job, which looks possible, but it's hardly reasonable to expect Bush to have been on top of every potential disaster before it happens. He's got a lot on his plate, whether you agree with what he's doing or not.

As for voting, I don't get time off work to vote, and I don't need a holiday to do it. Plus, sad but true, most inner city blacks are unemployed or underemployed, so they should have an *easier* time voting than the average person. That they don't have the education required to make an informed decisions probably *is* true, but the same can be said for many in our society, alas. One of the flaws of democracy is that it requires citizens to stay informed.

Finally, I think you're conflating what you call "the ancillary effects of being poor" with the actual causes of poverty. Is poor education a cause or effect of poverty? Both, in some measure. What about drug addiction and alcohol abuse? Crime? They're all interelated. Yet, the usefulness of morality depends on an social agreement that difficult circumstances don't abrogate a person's responsibility to take care of himself and to behave well.

-- Michael Williams, http://www.mwilliams.info

Anonymous said...

"...but it's hardly reasonable to expect Bush to have been on top of every potential disaster before it happens."

We are not talking about *every* potential distaster -- we are talking about *this* specific one. It is entirely reasonable for the president to be aware of *this* major distaster since (a) the storm had been tracked for days, as had the probability of its damage, and (b) the results of such a storm have been anticipated -- and ignored -- for years.

Sure, I agree that Bush and his administration couldn't be expected to be on top of terrible earthquakes, or other catastrophes that happen without warning. But Katrina? I can expect it. And I demand it.

You say he was busy? True, he did have to stop his 5 week vacation early. But, too bad -- he's the president. That's his job.

Alexandra said...

Hi David,how are you?
Don't you think the issue has moved on quite a bit now, in light of some recent developments, especially in relation to the blunders of Gov.Blanco and the ousting of Michael Brown?
Do you think we might have a sacrificial lamb on both sides?(more like deserving goats really, but still)
Would love to hesr what you think in a post.
All the best
Alexandra All Things Beautiful

Alexandra said...


"...poor people face structural disadvantages in their lives, some of which might be their fault, many of which are not. To hold them responsible for the ancillary effects of being poor, to me, represents a lack both of human empathy and a far too optimistic view of our system's meritocratic qualities."

I couldn't agree with you more. The word 'empathy' is very often confused with the word 'sympathy' by those who simply don't comprehend the difference, those who conveniently forget the difference, and those who never knew there was a difference.