Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Devastation in Oklahoma: Government and the Common Good

The devastation in Oklahoma is, of course, in the forefront of my mind this morning. Just yesterday, I swapped emails with a former colleague who now lives not far from Oklahoma City. He was telling me about the previous round of tornadoes that passed close to where he lives. We agreed that those of us who have grown up in or lived in areas where tornadoes are prevalent learn to heed that humming in the blood and bones that tells us tornadic conditions are nearby, though there's precious little one can do except take the best shelter one can find when a tornado approaches.

By bedtime last night, I'd heard from my friend by email, and was relieved to know he and his wife are safe. 

Oklahoma and its people have been on my mind lately, too, because I'm now reading Sanora Babb's Dust Bowl classic Whose Names Are Unknown, which I discovered after I was so taken with some of the dialogue in Ken Burns's masterful PBS history of the Dust Bowl, which featured Babb's observations. 

As I think about what happened in Oklahoma yesterday, and as I watch clips about the unbelievable destruction and loss of life, I'm also wondering who will repair the damage done to Oklahoma City if federal and state government are not heavily involved. I do not by any means want to score political points when many people have just lost their lives, but the question has to be asked: if not the federal and state government, then who?

This question has to be asked since one of the two major political parties in the U.S. is now dominated by a starve-the-beast ideology of government which tells us that government is the enemy. It's to be distrusted. It's to be starved.

Let churches take up the slack, many adherents of this ideology tell us. It's the proper role of churches to dole out charity, feed the hungry, heal the sick, clothe the naked and shelter the homeless. Let individuals and groups organized by individuals take the initiative. Trust the market to stimulate creativity that will respond to disasters better than the government can ever do.

I have no doubt that faith communities will be on the ground in Oklahoma--are already on the ground--to assist those trying to recover from this disaster. I have no doubt that many courageous individuals will also rise to the challenge. They're already doing so.

But I think it's absolute folly to pretend that disasters of such magnitude don't require the intervention of government. If nothing else, the resources of federal and state governments to address such disasters vastly exceed those of individuals and of faith communities. 

E.J. Dionne asks in a recent essay if democracy is in trouble worldwide. Dionne sees alarming signs in many places that democracy is on the defensive, that it may even be on the way out.

If this is the case (and I think he may well be correct in his analysis), then a large part of the reason that democratic institutions are faltering throughout the world today is that all of us in ostensibly democratic societies have permitted the rise of starve-the-beast ideologies that directly attack democratic institutions and directly target the ties that bind us, radically undermining the common good in democratic societies.  Too many of us have sat by in silence while anti-democratic ideologies that serve only the interests of tiny wealth elites have been allowed to rise to the very top of our societies, and to begin controlling our societies and how their governments do business.

Too many of us have sat by passively while the wealthy elites pulling the strings of the starve-the-beast ideologues who now occupy central places in our government have used those ideologues to tell our societies destructive lies that work against the common good and the interests of the entire society. And unless we do something about all of this very soon, it may be, as Dionne proposes, too late to mend the situation.

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