Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Today's Social Psychology Lecture

A story I read in a social psychology text long ago has been going through my head for a couple of weeks now. I finally had to track it down:
[A]fter four students at Kent State University were shot and killed by members of the Ohio National Guard, several rumors quickly spread: (1) both of the women who were slain were pregnant (and therefore, by implication, were oversexed and wanton); (2) the bodies of all four students were crawling with lice; and (3) the victims were so ridden with syphilis that they would have been dead in 2 weeks anyway. As I mentioned in Chapter 1, these rumors were totally untrue. The slain students were all clean, decent, bright people. Indeed, two of them were not even involved in the
demonstrations that resulted in the tragedy but were peacefully walking across campus when they were gunned down. Why were the townspeople so eager to believe and spread these rumors? It is impossible to know for sure, but my guess is that it was [...] because the rumors were comforting. Picture the situation: Kent is a conservative small town in Ohio. Many of the townspeople were infuriated at the radical behavior of some of the students. Some were probably hoping the students would get their comeuppance, but death was more than they deserved. In such circumstances, any information putting the victims in a bad light helped to reduce dissonance by implying that it was, in fact, a good thing that they died.
Cognitive dissonance is the uncomfortable collision of two or more contradictory beliefs. It usually results in (unconscious) efforts to reduce the discomfort by modifying one's appraisal of the situation. The classic example is a smoker resolving the dissonance between "I want to live" and "I smoke cigarettes" by downplaying the health risks of smoking or deciding that old age isn't worth living through anyway.

Cognitive dissonance gets particularly ugly when reality collides with the just world hypothesis, the belief that "the world is an orderly, predictable, and just place, where people get what they deserve." Faced with tragedy, victimization, or injustice, just world believers have four options to reduce the cognitive dissonance: they can act quickly to help relieve the victim's suffering (restoring the justice of the situation), minimize the harm done (making the tragedy a less severe blow to their beliefs), justify the suffering as somehow deserved (redefining the situation as just), or focus on a larger, more encompassing just outcome of the "poor people will receive their rewards in heaven" variety. The first response - the only actually helpful one - isn't always possible. Unfortunately, the latter three pretty much always are.

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina confronted Americans with a constant parade of images of suffering. Terrible suffering, to extremes hardly imaginable in a wealthy and highly developed society. American citizens dying of thirst, dead bodies lying uncollected on the streets of a major city, elderly people and children penned into the Convention Center and the Superdome in unimaginable squalor, denied even the most basic of aid from their government. There was no immediate way for private citizens to help them. Faced with those horrific images, most of us had powerful reactions of grief, rage, shame, fear, pity. In others, however, the images of Katrina caused cognitive dissonance too great for them to tolerate. Where is the "just world," when wheelchair-bound grandmothers die of thirst? How to maintain, watching the abandonment of New Orleans victims to day after day of imprisonment without relief, the conviction that this is the "greatest country in the world"?

So rumors about the depraved criminal nature of stranded New Orleans citizens spread like wildfire. People managed to convince themselves that the suffering and dying victms of Katrina were too bad to be let out of their flooded prison. People argued that they chose to be there, that they were freeloaders in it for the relief money, that ther losses meant less to them than we would feel in their situation. In short, many people were desperate to restore their faith in a just world by clambering over the bodies of innocent hurricane victims, by convincing themselves that the starving, dehydrated, ailing people in the Superdome had somehow gotten what they deserved.

And who were those people, exactly?
people who have a strong tendency to believe in a just world also tend to be more religious, more authoritarian, more conservative, more likely to admire political leaders and existing social institutions, and more likely to have negative attitudes toward underprivileged groups. To a lesser but still significant degree, the believers in a just world tend to "feel less of a need to engage in activities to change society or to alleviate plight of social victims."

Ironically, then, the belief in a just world may take the place of a genuine commitment to justice. For some people, it is simply easier to assume that forces beyond their control mete out justice.
Most people subscribe at least somewhat to the just world hypothesis, on an unconscious level - if you didn't, you'd have little reason to try to do anything. But conservative media commentators have surely taken it to a higher art, and - to the detriment of their essential humanity - their listeners have become experts themselves.

Update: In the comments, Siobhan links to a particularly nasty version of the genre. Now I want to go take a shower.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Friday Baby Blogging

I'm all too aware of the wrenching contrast between the pictures in yesterday's post and the pictures in today's post. But here she is, the sole reason why I'm not down in Louisiana or Texas volunteering my psychological services with the Red Cross:



It's hard to feel the pull to help, and not be able to go. "These people," as we keep hearing them called with disdain, are pretty much the same as my patient population: poor, urban, African-American, traumatized. It's not a specialty that many psychologists have, but I love working with them, and I'm good at it. They could use me. But I have another commitment right now.

I do have to say, though, that when the rage and the bitterness and the sick hopelessness threaten to overpower me, it helps to have my attention claimed by a little person who is learning how to eat cereal, likes to have poetry read to her, and keeps rolling over onto her tummy and getting stuck there. I was about to call it "perspective," but it's not that. It's just solace.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

"Executed Absolutely Flawlessly"

They're not ashamed of leaving those people trapped and desperate for days. They're proud.
We waited until we had enough force in place to do an overwhelming force. Went in with police powers, 1,000 National Guard military policemen under the command and control of the adjutant general of the State of Louisiana, Major General Landreneau, yesterday shortly after noon stormed the convention center, for lack of a better term, and there was absolutely no opposition,


complete cooperation, and we attribute that to an excellent plan, superbly executed with great military precision. It was rather complex. It was executed absolutely flawlessly in that there was no violent resistance,


no one injured, no one shot, even though there were stabbed, even though there were weapons in the area. There were no soldiers injured and we did not have to fire a shot.

Some people asked why didn't we go in sooner.


Had we gone in with less force it may have been challenged, innocents may have been caught in a fight between the Guard military police and those who did not want to be processed or apprehended, and we would put innocents' lives at risk. As soon as we could mass the appropriate force, which we flew in from all over the states at the rate of 1,400 a day, they were immediately moved off the tail gates of C-130 aircraft flown by the Air National Guard, moved right to the scene, briefed, rehearsed, and then they went in and took this convention center down.


Those that were undesirable to re-enter the convention center were segregated from the people that we wanted to provide water, shelter and food. Those people were processed to make sure they had no weapons, no illicit dugs, no alcohol, no contraband, and then they were escorted back into the building. Now there's a controlled safe and secure environment and a shelter and a haven as they await movement out of that center for onward integration to their normal lives.

It's a great success story -- a terrific success story.


Wednesday, September 07, 2005

What Might Have Been

From CNN:
The Yves St. Laurent and Tommy Hilfiger labels may be phony, but the thousands of Hurricane Katrina victims getting knockoff items seized by federal customs officials probably don't mind.

Displaced survivors in the Houston Astrodome can choose from counterfeit and abandoned clothing, toys, and even dog food.

More than 100,000 items were quickly taken from warehouses and more will follow, said Kristi Clemens, spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection division.

The agency has some 1 million items stored, and Customs officials are going through their inventory to see what else would be useful. While the initial shipment went to Texas, officials are looking toward a wider distribution, Clemens said.
At first that story made me smile. I could picture some frustrated worker at Customs, someone whose responsibilities had nothing at all to do with disaster relief, watching hour after hour of CNN until it hit them: we've got things those people could use. Disaster relief isn't supposed to be our mission, but it could be.

Then perspective seeped in, and I began to feel bitter.

Our sermon at church on Sunday was about the soul- and world-transforming power of work, and about the fundamental impulse people feel, when faced with something like the devastation on the Gulf Coast, to ask "how can I be useful?" It's the impulse that led Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling to fly a refugee family of nine up to Boston and personally take on the responsibility for housing them and supplying their needs, instead of just writing a check. It's what led a caravan of Minnesotans on a 2,300-mile, 52-hour journey to deliver 100,000 pounds of "food, water, diapers and hygiene items" to Louisiana. (No permalinks - scroll down to 5:14pm.) It's what's led Kathryn Cramer to help evacuees figure out whether their houses are under water from her home thousands of miles away. Across the country, around the world, people are using their ingenuity and their desire to be useful to address a million needs of evacuees, small and large. School uniforms for evacuated children who will be attending Dallas public schools, so they won't look different from the other kids. Animal blood for veterinary casualties. Admission to universities all across the South for students whose college educations have been disrupted. (All stories here, sadly without permalinks.)

Properly harnessed, this impulse to be useful could have created the greatest rescue and relief effort the world has ever seen. If FEMA had facilitated and directed - or even allowed - the spontaneous direct help offered to Katrina survivors, thousands of lives might have been saved and untold amounts of suffering might have been prevented.

Instead, offers of help were disregarded, delayed, deferred. One hundred surgeons and paramedics sat idle in a superbly outfitted mobile hospital, prevented from entering the diaster area, while other doctors attempting to volunteer were ignored or delayed and evacuees died of treatable illnesses and injuries. While people trapped in the Convention Center had no water and those in the Superdome were rationed to a pint a day, the USS Bataan waited for federal orders just offshore:
The USS Bataan, a 844-foot ship designed to dispatch Marines in amphibious assaults, has helicopters, doctors, hospital beds, food and water. It also can make its own water, up to 100,000 gallons a day. And it just happened to be in the Gulf of Mexico when Katrina came roaring ashore.

The Bataan rode out the storm and then followed it toward shore, awaiting relief orders. Helicopter pilots flying from its deck were some of the first to begin plucking stranded New Orleans residents.

But now the Bataan's hospital facilities, including six operating rooms and beds for 600 patients, are empty. A good share of its 1,200 sailors could also go ashore to help with the relief effort, but they haven't been asked. The Bataan has been in the stricken region the longest of any military unit, but federal authorities have yet to fully utilize the ship.
National Guard units offered by other states were held up until late Thursday night because of paperwork not been signed in Washington. Federal caches of fire-fighting equipment designed to be shipped anywhere in less than 12 hours remained unshipped because hurricane-ravaged governors had not made formal requests for them. But that's okay, because the thousand volunteer firefighters FEMA requested, many of whom had special qualifications in search-and-rescue, paramedic training, and hazmat experience, were told they would be used only for PR work. The only 50 to enter New Orleans? Were sent to stand beside Bush during his photo ops. A flotilla of 500 small boats was refused permission to help evacuate the stranded and dying in New Orleans. The American Ambulance Association wanted to send 300 ambulances from Florida, former Senator John Breaux reported, and "were told to get permission from the General Services Administration. 'GSA said they had to have FEMA ask for it,' Breaux told CNN. 'As a result they weren't sent.' "

So, good for the Customs Department, I guess. But it's such a frustrating glimpse of what could have happened if all federal agencies had been directed to figure out what they could contribute to the relief effort, and if everyone who had skills or supplies to offer had been allowed to provide them.

I'll close with one final emblematic story. This comes from Door County, Wisconsin, a region so un-central to the recovery and relief efforts that you can be guaranteed that if it happened there, it happened everywhere.
Early on Friday morning Christie Weber watched the Mayor of New Orleans screaming on CNN, "We need buses to get these people out of here. Get off your ass and get down here."

She picked up the phone and started calling local charter bus companies. By 6 AM she discovered that there was an abundance of vehicles ready and waiting to be deployed - if and when they were called upon. But, until now no one had called. All of the charter bus companies that Weber rang up had already signed on with FEMA several days earlier, and they were just waiting for a call back regarding financial reimbursement, a destination and an approved route.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Lost In Translation

(This post is a collaboration between Respectful of Otters and Idealistic Pragmatist.)

We here at Respectful of Otters were in the middle of putting together a post about Bush's visit to the Gulf Coast, and wanted to lead with the horrifying report Laura Rozen received from a reader:
"Dutch viewer Frank Tiggelaar writes: There was a striking dicrepancy between the CNN International report on the Bush visit to the New Orleans disaster zone, yesterday, and reports of the same event by German TV.

ZDF News reported that the president's visit was a completely staged event. Their crew witnessed how the open air food distribution point Bush visited in front of the cameras was torn down immediately after the president and the herd of 'news people' had left and that others which were allegedly being set up were abandoned at the same time.

The people in the area were once again left to fend for themselves, said ZDF."
We here at Otters looked around for more information, and found that the story had spread to more than a hundred other blogs by Monday night, all of them quoting Laura's commenter, none of them providing a link. That began to seem strange. ZDF News is the German equivalent of the NBC Nightly News in the United States--a respectable mainstream institution with a broad nationwide presence. It seemed probable that if they'd reported something as shocking as food distribution points being set up only during Bush's visit, it would be easy to find out more.

So we here at Otters turned to Idealistic Pragmatist, who is an English/German bilingual, and asked her to look through the ZDF News site for the story. A second post at War and Piece provided a video link and a link to a text summary, to get her started. IP discovered that the blogosphere--beginning with Laura Rozen's Dutch commenter--had gotten several crucial facts about the story wrong. Although the images do show Bush visiting a New Orleans food distribution point, there is nothing in the New Orleans segment that suggests the distribution point had been specifically set up for Bush, and in fact nothing that even represents his visit as staged:
[This comes about a third of the way through the broadcast, all of which has thus far been about New Orleans.]

Voiceover (over pictures of Bush visiting New Orleans): And U.S. President Bush actually did come to the region of the catastrophe today. He spoke with flood victims and toured a site where they were passing out supplies; one of the few in existence, mind.

Bush (in voiceover translation; partly the English is audible, and partly it's been reconstructed from the German): We're gonna stabilize the situation; we're gonna bring water and food. I was traveling with the Red Cross and the Salvation Army today. People are gonna see compassion pour in here.
It isn't until a later part of the story--a part that details Bush's visit to Biloxi, Mississippi--that the charges of Potemkinism are mentioned:
Anchor: President Bush also paid the almost completely devastated small town of Biloxi a quick little visit as a part of his tour. Claudia Rueggeberg in Biloxi, how did the citizens react to the visit from the President?

Claudia Rueggeberg: There was a lot of variation. We talked to people here after the visit: one woman said a symbolic visit like that was better than none at all, and it was good that the President was showing his face there and looking at the situation up-close. Others tended to react with desperation. One woman burst into tears and said, full of rage, that the President shouldn't come here, he should finally see to it that help comes. All of the people, his whole entourage, these cars, they should be loaded up with supplies and not with bodyguards, and he shouldn't play the good samaritan here, and a staged visit like this doesn't help. And it actually was the case that all of a sudden this morning helper personnel showed up here, people who cleared away the rubble, who went through the houses in search of bodies, but exclusively along the route where the President traveled. Two hours ago the President left Biloxi again, and all of the helper personnel along with him.

Anchor: We know that President Bush promised quick help. Can that be felt where you are? For example, is there clean water and food?

CR: There's nothing here at all. Aside from what was cleared aside by the helper personnel this morning, the rubble is lying all over the street exactly as it was several days ago after the storm. There are no reasonable provisions; there's an emergency medical station and otherwise nothing. There is a stench of decomposition across the entire city. There are bodies that haven't been covered up in the buildings. Everything has been reduced to rubble, and help--from what we can see here and what others from other cities have also said--isn't coming.

Anchor: Thank you in Biloxi, Claudia Rueggeberg.

(Translation by Idealistic Pragmatist, based on her transcript of the ZDF video.)
Looking at the transcripts, it seems easy enough to figure out what happened. Laura's commenter, who appears to have been reconstructing from memory a news story he'd seen on TV, elided the New Orleans segment (which had Bush speaking at "one of the few" supply distribution points) and the Biloxi segment (which had cleaning crews working only along Bush's route, and disappearing afterward). Combined, these two segments became a story about supply distribution points disappearing after Bush's visit.

That story fit in well with Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu's report that construction equipment had been brought in to the levee for Bush's visit, and then removed again. And it also fit in well with the lefty blogosphere's traditional distrust of the American media ("There was a striking discrepancy between the CNN International report on the Bush visit to the New Orleans disaster zone, yesterday, and reports of the same event by German TV"), and their perceptions that foreign reporters are more likely to get it right.

The fact that the story fits so well with our current frames for interpreting Katrina news may explain why, when War and Piece posted a translation the day after the original report, no one (including Laura Rozen) seemed to notice that the translation was substantially different from the original story. It's natural that rumors are flying everywhere right now. But we should be careful about what we do with unsourced news, especially when it confirms our biases. We here at Respectful of Otters and Idealistic Pragmatist are hardly Bush supporters, but we do think it's important to set the record straight. It's easy to lose the subtleties--or even the main point--of a news story that isn't in your native language. But we need to be careful not to undercut the points we're trying to make with even unintentional amplification. The news coming out of the U.S. Gulf Coast, including the biting commentary by ZDF news, is damning enough as it stands.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Depraved Indifference

CNN reports on "the big disconnect" between conditions in New Orleans and the official party line. They present a damning series of quotes from FEMA Chief Michael Brown, who said Thursday that he didn't know anything about uncollected corpses, people trapped in the Convention Center, or problems with hospital evacuations. You know, the same things everyone else has been reading about in the paper and seeing on 24-hour cable news for days. I guess he was too busy making big decisions to turn on the TV.

He's not the only one who's had better things to do than hurricane relief:
Yet where is the National Guard, why hasn't every able-bodied member of the armed forces in South Mississippi been pressed into service?

On Wednesday reporters listening to horrific stories of death and survival at the Biloxi Junior High School shelter looked north across Irish Hill Road and saw Air Force personnel playing basketball and performing calisthenics.

Playing basketball and performing calisthenics!

When asked why these young men were not being used to help in the recovery effort, our reporters were told that it would be pointless to send military personnel down to the beach to pick up debris.

Litter is the least of our problems. We need the president to back up his declaration of a disaster with a declaration of every man and woman under his command will do whatever is necessary to deal with that disaster.
Although at least one person was able to borrow a sense of shame from the public to make up for her own congenital deficit:
All day Thursday, from the New York Post to several popular blogs, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice came under attack and ridicule for having fun in Manhattan while New Orleans sank and exploded in violence. By nightfall, she had cut short her vacation and returned to her post in Washington. [...]

Wonkette and Gawker got in on the action, with the latter revealing that she had just been spotted shopping for expensive shoes at a chic New York City boutique -- where she had to endure another female customer shouting at her about enjoying herself in such a way while thousands were perishing down South. All of this sparked criticism at many other sites.

By Thursday night she was back in Washington, convening a perhaps-overdue staff meeting to discuss ways of coordinating offers of foreign assistance from dozens of countries and organizations.
Perhaps the best display of depraved indifference comes, unsurprisingly, from Bush himself, who went on Good Morning America to say that "I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees." Fortunately - and at last! - the mainstream media's not letting him get away with that one. There's been widespread reporting of the extensive history of scientific and media reports anticipating that very disaster. Bush has finally lost USA Today and Tim Russert - evidence that there are substantial cracks forming in his "America's hero" facade.

Finally, as several people have pointed out, small-government conservatives have now seen their vision of how America should operate fulfilled.
One of the most core principles of Republican philosophy is to get rid of big government, and worse, to disparage all sorts of government. But emergency planning is a government job and function. FEMA is a government organization. Stockpiling of emergency resources is the responsibility of government.

The way Republicans not very subtly attempt to dismantle government and the agencies of government is to cut taxes and starve it. Republican philosopher Grover Norquist said he wanted to starve government so it was small enough to drown in a bathtub. Drown was a sadly ironic word.
(Incidentally, I hope everyone out there is following Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden and Jim MacDonald's hurricane coverage in Making Light. They've got the best information warehouse, link collection, and discussion I've seen anywhere on the web.)

Why The Aid Wasn't There

The Red Cross has been ordered not to enter New Orleans with relief.
Hurricane Katrina: Why is the Red Cross not in New Orleans?
  • Acess to New Orleans is controlled by the National Guard and local authorities and while we are in constant contact with them, we simply cannot enter New Orleans against their orders.

  • The state Homeland Security Department had requested--and continues to request--that the American Red Cross not come back into New Orleans following the hurricane. Our presence would keep people from evacuating and encourage others to come into the city.
"Our presence would keep people from evacuating and encourage others to come into the city." See, and here you thought that tens of thousands of people spent the last few days trapped in the Superdome or the Convention Center without food, water, medical care, electric power, or basic sanitation, in constant fear of violence, surrounded by the unburied corpses of their fellow victims, because they couldn't evacuate. But all this time, they've been there by choice. If they had a Red Cross station distributing fresh water and sandwiches, they'd choose to stay in their fetid, corpse-riddled, life-threatening, lawless swamp of a city indefinitely. You know what those people are like, always sitting around waiting for a handout. Humanitarian aid just encourages them.

Yes, clearly, it's far better to evacuate Katrina's victims than to leave them in place in New Orleans. But when you can't get them all out right away - and they haven't even been able to finish evacuating the hospitals, much less the lower-priority evacuees - you need to provide aid in place. Immediately, not five days later. To willfully withhold basic life support from tens of thousands of desperate people because you think it will discourage evacuation is - actually, I have no words strong enough for what it is. Unconscionable. Morally depraved. A crime against humanity. Nothing seems strong enough.

Meanwhile, the Administration's lapdogs rush to assure us that none of this is their fault:
[T]he administration's defenders noted that the waist-deep floodwaters -- not a lack of effort by the federal government -- kept relief convoys from arriving to help stranded residents in New Orleans.

"The problem is not a lack of resources, will or the organization to provide assistance," said James Jay Carafano, a senior research fellow in homeland security at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "The problem is how to get it to the tens of thousands of people who need it."
Yeah. If only the United States had, oh, I don't know, a branch of the military specializing in dangerous amphibious landings. Or, you know, boats. Think what they could have done then. But no, "the greatest country in the world" (as the conservatives never tire of assuring us) is utterly flummoxed by the insurmountable obstacle posed by waist-deep water.

That leaves me much more terrified than anything Osama Bin Laden ever did.

(Update: Superdome evacuations have stopped with thousands of people still stranded - but not before wealthy hotel guests were permitted to jump the line. Via Sisyphus Shrugged.)