On Reason and Humanity

Sounding reasonable doesn’t make you reasonable. Being “logical” doesn’t make you humane. And being contrarian for the sake of being contrarian doesn’t make you anything but craven for attention.

Former NBA basketball player (and I use that term rather loosely) Paul Shirley recently penned a long and elegantly written statement on the plight of the Haitian people. Unfortunately for Mr. Shirley, “long” and “elegant” are not synonyms for “knowledgeable” and “insightful.”  If nothing else, it would have behooved Mr. Shirley to have done some research into his assumptions before foisting his nonsense on the rest of us.

The bitingly humorous take on Mr. Shirley’s work has already been done (and done extremely well) by the Kissing Suzy Kolber blog.  I will, as I’m sure you’ve guessed already, be taking a wholly different approach (albeit rather long) to the matter.  For the record, I do not and could not disagree with respect to the idea that money donated to the Haitian disaster relief effort should be distributed and utilized in a way that rebuilds the impoverished nation with an eye toward protection from major natural disasters such as last week’s earthquake that has claimed at least 150,000 lives. That is, I believe, generally incontestable. Dialogue is important, especially when the amount of money that has been donated is inevitably billions of dollars.  We need to be sure that relief goes both directly to people and insures against future catastrophe.

That being said, while Mr. Shirley’s piece may make some academically and philosophically interesting points about self-sufficiency and aid, it is also fundamentally wrong in several respects, which undermines his credibility on the subject.

Take, for example, his comments on the homeless at the beginning of the post:

“I haven’t donated to the Haitian relief effort for the same reason that I don’t give money to homeless men on the street. Based on past experiences, I don’t think the guy with the sign that reads “Need You’re Help” is going to do anything constructive with the dollar I might give him.”

None of us gives to every homeless person on the street.  If you live in a large city such as New York, it’s impossible without making yourself destitute.  Of course, it would be interesting to see how much “past experience” that Mr. Shirley has with homeless men and women.  I think it’s relevant to note that a study published in July 2009 by the National Coalition for the Homeless reports that 25% (apparently a conservative estimate) of the homeless population is severely mentally ill, compared with only 6% of the American population at large. Mental illness is also the third largest cause of homelessness for single adults.  This figure alone can tell you that many homeless people are not useless, drunk, or lazy. In fact, many are seriously ill.  With that in mind, doesn’t it seems possible that the dollar Mr. Shirley might give to a homeless person might just be used to buy food, or a cup of coffee, or something to shelter him from the elements?  And shouldn’t that give Mr. Shirley some pause before making a flippant, thoughtless comment about a homeless person’s perceived use of a dollar?

“Very few have said, written, or even intimated the slightest admonishment of Haiti, the country, for putting itself into a position where so many would be killed by an earthquake. I can’t help but wonder why questions have not been raised in the face of this outpouring of support. Questions like this one: Shouldn’t much of the responsibility for the disaster lie with the victims of that disaster?”

Of course, Mr. Shirley is sure to note that, unlike Pat Robertson, he doesn’t blame the Haitians themselves for the actual earthquake that leveled their entire nation.  Instead, Mr. Shirley would just like to note that Haitians should not be building “flimsy shanty- and shack-towns.”  This, he reasons, is one of the primary causes of the devastation and should have been dealt with years ago.

Mr. Shirley is correct in his assessment that Haiti lacks the infrastructure to deal with disaster; it is easy for towns such as the ones he has depicted to be swept away by large tropical storms or collapse under the shifting of tectonic plates.  Ideally, it would have been a great idea for Haiti to build really nice houses in really nice communities.  Unfortunately, Haiti, as Mr. Shirley acknowledges, is “the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere with 80% of the population living under the poverty line and 54% in abject poverty” (many thanks to the CIA World Factbook). Haiti is the 146th largest country in the world, with a total area of 10,710 square miles.  It is not rich in natural resources, and “two-thirds of all Haitians depend on the agricultural sector, mainly small-scale subsistence farming, and remain vulnerable to damage from frequent natural disasters, exacerbated by the country’s widespread deforestation” (again the CIA World Factbook)

Of course, perhaps this could all change if only the people would rise up against their corrupt government and install leadership that would bring them to the forefront of technological and political innovation.  After all, according to Mr. Shirley,

“Ultimately, the people in a country have control over their government. One could argue that in totalitarian regimes, they do not have much control, but in the end, it is their government. And therefore, their responsibility. If the government is not doing enough for the people, it is the people’s responsibility to change the government. Not the other way around.”

Before staking such a claim, most people might think to at least attempt to use the world’s most popular research tool to find out about Haitian political culture (http://lmgtfy.com/?q=2004+haitian+rebellion).  In fact, the Haitian people have been “changing their government” since the Haitian Revolution declared independence on January 1, 1804.  Since the 1980s, Haiti has had new constitutions, military governments, elected presidents, different prime ministers, and a coup d’etat in 2004 that removed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide from power. Only recently has the calm subsided enough that in 2006, Rene Preval was elected president.  In other words, Mr. Shirley, the Haitian people have had demonstrable difficulties in finding a government that works.  It is not, however, for lack of effort.

Apparently, Mr. Shirley doesn’t blame merely Haitians for their natural disasters.

“After the tsunami of 2004, the citizens of the world wailed and donated and volunteered for cleanup, rarely asking the important – and, I think, obvious – question: What were all those people doing there in the first place? Just as important: If they move back to a place near the ocean that had just been destroyed by a giant wave, shouldn’t our instinct be to say, “Go ahead if you want, but you’re on your own now.”?

We did the same after Hurricane Katrina. We were quick to vilify humans who were too slow to respond to the needs of victims, forgetting that the victims had built and maintained a major city below sea level in a known target zone for hurricanes. Our response: Make the same mistake again. Rebuild a doomed city, putting aside logic as we did.” (emphasis added)

For a moment, let’s put aside the issue of why people live in the places they do.  Instead, I’d rather tackle Mr. Shirley’s comments on Hurricane Katrina, which is the largest natural disaster in the history of the United States.  I was unaware that the victims of a Category 5 hurricane were responsible for their own demise because they built and maintained a major city below sea level in a known target zone for hurricanes.  Of course, it would be prudent to note here that cities that are prone to natural disasters usually have several tactics to mitigate damage.  New Orleans relied on two plans in order to protect it’s citizens from a Category 5 storm.  Mandatory evacuation ordered by Mayor Ray Nagin eventually moved 80% of the population out of harm’s way.

The reason New Orleans was so devastated after Hurricane Katrina was not because it was below sea level (scroll down to North America) or because it was a known target zone for hurricanes.  It was because, “[d]ue to poorly designed levees and the worst civil engineering failure in United States history, most of the city experienced flooding similar to a direct hit.” In fact, “[t]here were over 50 failures of the levees and flood walls protecting New Orleans, Louisiana, and nearby St. Bernard Parish during Hurricane Katrina. The levee and flood wall failures caused flooding in 85% of New Orleans and 100% of St. Bernard. Millions of gallons of water spilled into vast areas of New Orleans, flooding thousands of homes and businesses with 10 feet or more of water.”

So yes, Mr. Shirley.  We vilify not random people, but political and governmental leaders who were responsible for not only failing to respond to the needs of the victims, but for failing to foresee that these structural problems that are not the responsibility of the average citizen but of the federal and state government, were not dealt with in a timely manner.  We castigate these leaders because they did nothing, even in the face of evidence to the contrary

“In the event of a slow-moving Category 4 or Category 5 hurricane (with winds up to or exceeding 155 miles per hour), it’s possible that only those crow’s nests would remain above the water level. Such a storm, plowing over the lake, could generate a 20-foot surge that would easily overwhelm the levees of New Orleans, which only protect against a hybrid Category 2 or Category 3 storm (with winds up to about 110 miles per hour and a storm surge up to 12 feet). Soon the geographical “bowl” of the Crescent City would fill up with the waters of the lake, leaving those unable to evacuate with little option but to cluster on rooftops — terrain they would have to share with hungry rats, fire ants, nutria, snakes, and perhaps alligators. The water itself would become a festering stew of sewage, gasoline, refinery chemicals, and debris.”

– Chris Mooney, The American Prospect, May 23, 2005 (emphasis added)

Mr. Shirley also takes the time to let us know about the personal responsibility of the earthquake victims –

“A Haitian woman, days after the earthquake:

“We need so much. Food, clothes, we need everything. I don’t know whose responsibility it is, but they need to give us something soon,” said Sophia Eltime, a mother of two who has been living under a bed sheet with seven members of her extended family. (From an AP report.)

Obviously, a set of circumstances such as the one in which Ms. Eltime was living is a heart-wrenching one. And for that, anyone would be sympathetic.  Until she says, “I don’t know whose responsibility it is.” I don’t know whose responsibility it is, either.  What I do know is that it is not the responsibility of the outside world to provide help. It’s nice if we do, but it is not a requirement, especially when people choose to influence their own existences negatively, whether by having too many children when they can’t afford them or by failing to recognize that living in a concrete bunker might not be the best way to protect one’s family, whether an earthquake happens or not.

Ms. Eltime’s reaction helps define what is the crux of my problem with the reaction to this and to other humanitarian crises. I recoil at the notion that I’m SUPPOSED to do something.”

First of all, I recoil at the notion that an established media presence such as Mr. Shirley would cherry pick a quote from one news report and use it to broad-brush an entire nation. But aside from that, I cannot believe I have to point out that this woman is living with seven members of her extended family under a bedsheet.  This is a verifiable fact from a reputable news organization, and the rest of us are supposed to be concerned with discomfort you feel with perceived expectations placed upon you?

Mr. Shirley, you have been blessed to be born and raised in a prosperous country. You are lucky enough to have grown to be 6’10 with enough athletic ability to allow you to have traveled around the world. You have secured some modicum of fame for yourself. For that I commend you.  But your attempts to rationalize your opinions on charitable giving with facts are woefully under-researched, underdeveloped, and under thought. Your version of “logic” (read as: tough love) could be interesting in an academic sense if it didn’t mean the suffering of millions upon millions of people.

You write early in your piece that we have moved on from caveman times.  “We are more civilized now.”  Civilized people do not merely point and scold at the epic misfortune of others.  There will be a time and place in the future to address concerns about infrastructure building, education and protection.  A week after one of the greatest humanitarian disasters of the century is not this time.  We’re still clearing the debris and finding the bodies. So with all due respect, Mr. Shirley, grab a shovel and help, or keep your mouth shut.


3 Responses to On Reason and Humanity

  1. Ed Collyer says:

    Take note, ESPN fired Mr. Shirley this morning. Bravo Adam.


  2. WereBear says:

    This was great. Very well reasoned.

  3. As a Newbie, I am often searching on the web for articles in which can guide me. Thank you

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