I just think this says it so well:

8/18/04
Matt Miller’s latest column . . .
COMPASSION BEYOND CHARLEY

It may seem odd to look for the silver lining in a cloud as dark as Hurricane Charley.

But if you listen closely, the reaction to the storm that has inflicted more than $10 billion in damage and upended countless lives offers a clue about our collective possibilities.

Why? Because when a natural disaster like Charley strikes, the proper role of government is unambiguous.

“We are here to help you,” runs Governor Jeb Bush’s refrain as he tours the devastation. “There will be ramifications for many families … and we are prepared to provide support.”

“This is God’s way of telling us that he’s almighty and we’re mortal,” Bush remarked at another stop.

“You can’t plan for the unforeseen,” Bush added. “And these are powerful storms that don’t behave in any kind of way that you can say with certainty where they’re going to go.”

Over and over, as Governor Bush and other officials struggle to cope, two related elements are cited to justify our communal response – things so obvious they hardly need to be articulated.

First, the forces at work are beyond anyone’s control. Second, the people who have suffered from the storm are blameless victims of some very bad luck.

When these two conditions are present, even conservative Republicans stand instinctively ready to redistribute money (and help) to those who have been hurt by the storm.

See where I’m headed?

Oh, I can hear conservatives grumbling already. Isn’t it just like a liberal to take a disaster like Charley and try to convert it into some fable about redistribution! Are you so sick and twisted, my mail will soon read, that you have to politicize this tragedy?

Well, that certainly doesn’t sound like a question one should answer in the affirmative, but I suppose I’m guilty. You have to seize your teachable moments where you find them.

If we don’t pause to parse our empathy in the wake of Charley, and ask ourselves, “If we’re prepared to act here, where else does that mean we should be prepared to act,” we’re not doing right by our best instincts.

To take one example, poor children are about as blameless as you can get. Yet millions of these kids lack health coverage and decent schools.

Why can we agree to help Charley victims and let these kids languish?

It turns out that asking such questions isn’t just grist for policy wonks like me. According to Michele Landis Dauber of the Stanford Law School, the analogy to “disaster relief” has driven key advances in social policy throughout American history.

In a smart book due out next year, “The Sympathetic State,” Dauber debunks the “false narrative” according to which America remained a nation of “rugged individualists” right up until the New Deal.

Instead, Dauber’s research shows that from the late 18th century onward, the federal government consistently stepped in to redistribute wealth, often via the politically popular vehicle of “disaster relief.”

Such relief was legislated for the usual earthquakes, floods and fire. It also eased the pain of collateral damage in armed conflict, from the Whiskey Rebellion to the War of 1812 to the Civil War. It was this tradition and this metaphor that FDR’s shrewd lawyers called on during the Depression to make their case for bold efforts to help the unemployed, and eventually to craft Social Security.

“They expanded the definition of what could count as a ‘disaster’ and who could be eligible for relief as a ‘blameless victim,'” Dauber explains.

Unemployment, for example, had never been seen as an external “disaster” before; you were jobless because of something wrong with your character. The Depression let unemployment be recast as a macroeconomic version of Jeb Bush’s “powerful storms that don’t behave in any kind of way that you can say with certainty where they’re going to go.”

Seen this way, the task for progressives in every era may be to push America’s compassion toward a new consensus that broadens the meaning of unmerited “disaster” and appropriate “relief.”

Charley and this history of social progress offer hope by reminding us that deep down, many conservatives are merely liberals waiting to be awakened. They just need a little help connecting the dots when the accident of birth or hand of Fate is less dramatically (but no less truly) a “disaster.”

Matthew Miller, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, is the author of ‘The Two Percent Solution: Fixing America‘s Problems in Ways Liberals and Conservatives Can Love.’ Reach him at http://www.mattmilleronline.com.

Monday (or soon): Don’t Mess With Texas

 

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