Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A disastrous steadfastness

Few things are as off-putting as someone who brags without merit.

Sure, I brag about being the best blogger ever, but it’s true.

Lately, I’ve stumbled upon a recurring meme in the wake of the flooding of the Morganza Spillway. Namely, that the people affected by the spillway floods are not going to take government aid because Cajuns are too proud and self-sufficient to do so.

This always crops up come disaster time. It reached an ugly peak after Hurricane Rita, when we saw comparisons between the proud, steadfast, bootstrap-yanking Cajuns and the looting, stubborn, lazy Ninth Ward residents of Hurricane Katrina. Even before Rita smacked the southwest Louisiana coast, I would hear people (and even some in the media) deride New Orleanians for not evacuating before Katrina, and in the next breath praise defiant residents of Calcasieu Parish for standing pat.

I guess storms spare you if you express your work ethic loud enough.

You heard back then, as you do now, that those people would not only rebuild, but would do so without government help. I won’t judge someone if they are able to do exactly that. But does anyone, really? Are there really people who, when confronted with a government agency leaving a pallet of cold drinks in their front yard, run up, smash every bottle and proclaim, “Don’t tread on me”? I don’t remember that happening in Butte La Rose when FEMA left drinks and some food supplies for residents ravaged by Hurricane Andrew. (Then again, I was 12. Maybe I just didn’t notice.) And even if they did refuse/destroy the aid, how is that a victory for the taxpayer? The stuff’s paid for. And given that many southern states receive more in federal aid than they pay in, chances are some other state’s taxpayers footed some of the bill. Is that the concern?

It’s a testament to these cracked times we live in that someone would even pretend to weigh this kind of decision. All of us here in Louisiana know at least a few people who will say without blinking that they’d refuse any government aid even in the midst of disaster. What’s especially funny is that your typical bootstrap conservative/libertarian will say that government’s sole purpose is to defend and protect the people. It seems to me that disaster relief would fall in that narrow category, and yet somehow gets demonized with the same fervor as the imagined welfare-queen state.

Whenever I ask someone about this stance, they respond with something to the effect of, “I work hard and don’t want any handouts.” Again, getting something for your tax dollars hardly seems like a handout. But I guess when you’ve been indoctrinated into the fallacy that all government is bad, you know no other way. Even when you’re in desperate need of help (via a man-made disaster, no less).

What I understand less is the pride behind it. Forget the hypocrisy that is sure to arise when these people accept the aid (which they will in true Jindal fashion) — why be proud of such a self-defeating quality? My heart sinks when a Cajun (or anyone else) pats themselves on the back for standing up for a ridiculous principle that they’ll wind up violating anyway, once they realize that their need to stay alive overrides their irrational politics. It’s even worse when those same people deride others for doing the same thing, usually out of unspoken racial tension.

And yes, I think racial tension drives most of this talk. Almost all of this “We do things right here” gloating comes from people who, in their minds, work harder, have better ethics and morals and feel in their hearts that they were raised better than anyone else. And thus they have a right to sneer at those who they feel don’t live up to those standards. People like those lazy New Orleanians from the Ninth Ward.

Pride in upbringing is a large swath of the southern fabric. But that pride so often seems based in not changing and other social mores to which I’ve never subscribed. I’ve had people in Lafayette say to my face that I’m not a true southerner. Which is funny, because I am. I was born and raised here. I went to all the same schools, attended the same festivals and share much of the same Cajun blood. But they are right in the sense that I’m not a cultural southerner — I don’t hunt, I don’t revere the rebel flag, don’t eat a lot of fried food, don’t care for rigid social customs and don’t embrace far-right politics. I have a lot of company here. And yet, we’re so often marginalized by the people who are most high on themselves but are most in need of introspection.

Can’t we all be Louisianians? None of us are perfect. It’s time for everyone to admit that. Ultimately, we’re all more alike than different, and our way of life is special. Becoming more tolerant and humble people shouldn’t diminish that. If it does, maybe it isn’t worth saving in the first place.

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