Saturday, September 03, 2005

Thoughts on Civility ...

As important as any local, state or federal and military rapid response to a mass casualty event such as Hurricane Katrina is our ability as citizens to maintain a certain level of civility or decorum. We note, for example, our experiences in the streets of downtown Washington, D.C. moments following the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon, where drivers were angrilyblowing horns at one another on gridlocked streets. Profane verbal matches and shoving bouts broke out as the situation broke into a scene that could have provided the video track for the De La Soul hip hop classic "Me, Myself & I" Images of New Orleans, from Superdome to Convention Center, remind us of this lesson and the threats abound when there is a total breakdown of community.

This is not the first time those poor, Black, dejected, discriminated, lynched, chatteled, battered, beaten and whipped have survived disaster. The totality of the collective African American experience over more than 400 years is fraught with disaster and sorrow, as proud and legendary as that experience is. Watching the 24/7 news cycle overflowing with an infinite stream of disaster images, you can't help but be bothered if you're Black. Perhaps this is the psychological catalyst behind many emphasizing race and class, highly public Black figures carefully wording speeches, interviews and press conferences: "... dignity;" "evacuees" or "survivors," not "refugees." And then we pull from legends, family stories and ballads from the days of slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, boycotts and movements when entire communities (as Black and as poor as our most unfortunate brothers and sisters being bused to shelters across the four winds) bonded in a show of solidarity and brought together by a common need to survive.

And it doesn't stop at African Americans. We express disgust at the endless stories of Katrina survivors of all races, colors and classes who are being hounded by hotels, bus drivers, cabs, and gas stations for cash that is - for the near and long-term - clearly unavailable and irrelevant. Clearly, this is the time when market capitalism, greed and our society's typical need for instant gratification must be set aside.

A passage from Yale Law Professor Stephen Carter's seminal work Civility: Manners, Morals & the Etiquette of Democracy comes to mind when surveying the situation on the Gulf Coast (primarily in and around New Orleans):

"The illusion has seeped into every crevice of our public and private lives, persuading us that sacrifices are no longer necessary. If railroad passengers a century ago knew the journey would be impossible unless they considered the comfort of others more important than their own, our spreading illusion has taken us in the other direction. We care less and less about our fellow citizens, because we no longer see them as our fellow passengers, We may see them as obstacles or competitors, or we may not see them at all, but unless they happen to be our friends, we rarely think we owe them anything."