Over the last two weeks of the aftermath of the Hurricane catastrophe, this newspaper has assessed the performance of individual government officials, both Republican and Democratic at federal, state and local levels, and assigned specific responsibility for government malfeasance of duty. As further evidence is revealed we will continue to do so. We will continue to name names.
But it is not only government officials who have responsibilities. Private citizens have a personal responsibility to be both law-abiding and self-reliant.
Before a government was formed to provide for the general welfare, self-reliant Americans fought a revolution with their own blood, sweat and tears rather than put their lives and fortunes in the grip of others.
Since then, we have been blessed by waves of self-reliant immigrants who took their fates in their own hands and struggled their way to America — most of them legally.
Down through our history, through wars, floods, pioneering and depressions, Americans have cherished the responsibility to fend for themselves rather than wait for authorities to take care of them, to instruct them in how to take care of themselves.
This virtue has not been the sole — or even primary — possession of the well-off. During the Great Depression, this country was saved not by the decisions of government (wise and important as many of them were), nor the responsible actions of the comfortable, but by the true grit and moxie of millions of Americans who were down but never out.
In assessing the events on our Gulf Coast over the past fortnight it is necessary to note that thousands of Americans in News Orleans showed almost no sense of self-reliance and personal responsibility. Some, of course, were sick, infirm or otherwise helpless. But many were not. This malfeasance of citizenship is as damaging as the failures of government officials, and rectification is just as crucial.
It is worth noting, as Michael Novak has shrewdly observed, that a majority of the 80 percent of the citizens of New Orleans who took personal responsibility for getting themselves out of New Orleans before the certain danger were African American. Few were rich. Many were surely poor.
Nor was courage and self-reliance the province of merely the young and strong. There was the heartbreaking account of what rescuers found at a nursing home where 31 elderly, infirm patients died. As the end grew near, these feeble old men and women valiantly, if ineffectively, started moving furniture to try to block out the death water that was soon to consume them. God bless them all. Surely their noble souls are safe now in His hands.
To their shame, thousands of New Orleans residents who don’t deserve the honor of being called citizens utterly failed to show personal responsibility. They heeded neither common sense nor a respect for their own human dignity, nor the warnings of government, to move out of danger’s path.
If they didn’t have cars, they could have walked, if only to higher ground within the city. Others stayed to loot. Not all of them were hardened criminals. Young children, old people, even police officers demonstrated, on national television and without shame, that their barbarity is, manifestly, kept in check only by watching eyes backed up by close and threatening authority.
How did so many Americans come to such a degraded condition? And what is to be done about it? This is not a matter of race, or class, or innate intelligence. It is largely the product of a mental state of dependency induced by deliberate government policy.
Franklin D. Roosevelt knew and feared the debilitating effect of putting a man on a dole. So he put millions of hungry, jobless Americans to work building roads, bridges, national park facilities — and character. Many of those young WPA men went on to demonstrate their self-reliance and dignity carrying rifles on distant battlefields only a few years later. Many of those young women went on to be the human force in our arsenals of democracy.
Yet today, the remnants of the liberal welfare state continue to subsidize the degrading human condition of giving the down and out a check without demanding in return the personal responsibilities that develop self-reliance.
Over the next months and years America will reclaim the ground on which the City of New Orleans once proudly stood, so that she may rise again — unabashed, sensuous and more productive than ever. Even more important, we must reclaim the strewn and damaged human clay into a condition of dignity befitting the American citizen.