Old Ways/New Ways Part 10

(c) 1999 by Robert Waldrop

Civil Society and how it saved our bacon

Throughout January, there was a gradual slow down of activity, especially for the government. The national guard and regular military had been deployed in cities, so there was little civil unrest, and the crime wave the greeted the new year was handled with aggressive policing and incarceration policies. Mail was delivered sporadically, and was disrupted entirely from the last week of January through the third week of February (for many areas, this was the worst time).

Here in Kansas City, except for the police and fire departments, local government was pretty much gone by mid-month, the offices were closed. I wasn't too surprised about that, but I was glad to see the police remain active. That thin blue line never looked so good. In the best of times, Kansas City government was pretty dysfunctional; our entire emergency preparedness department consisted of a single administrative assistant, whose primary resource was a big book full of phone numbers. The KC Star had discovered in 1998 that many of the phone numbers were wrong.

So I wasn't betting any farm on Kansas City government as an active player in the recovery, and was right to do so. The most useful thing they contributed wasn't until March, when the city council managed a meeting and, in response to a request from a coalition of civil society organizations, authorized the "bucks" alternative currency program. If the water department had waited on instructions from city hall, there would never have been a resumption of water deliveries to city residences and businesses. Indeed, if it hadn't been for the support and organizational skills of civil society organizations, it is possible that city government could have disappeared entirely.

The myriad of organizations, religious organizations, ethnic associations, clubs and etc that exist in our communities saved our bacon on many occasions. As politicians deserted their responsibilities, civil society stood firm in the breach. Churches opened their doors as shelters and soup kitchens, ethnic associations organized self-help and rescue operations, specialized clubs contributed their expertise -- the ham radio associations as usual did a major service by providing communications. Ministers, priests, and rabbis reminded us of our duties to our neighborhoods. Gardening associations taught people how to build greenhouses, cold frames, and start seeds inside for early planting. As snow melted, they assisted in selecting large community garden locations and helped prepare them for planting.

In the beginning, there was little or no coordination among groups except for those closely associated geographically (such as churches and schools). It would have been nice if there had been some coordinated plan that everybody could have implemented from day one, but nothing so prudent had been attempted locally. Instead, these groups and organizations each looked to the situation it was immediately in, and took action to resolve the challenges and emergencies as they presented themselves. As people knocked on doors of churches for help, shelters were born. Custodians and deacons went in search of propane and kerosene heaters. The Altar Society started cooking dinner for 500 people. The Knights of Columbus went door to door, together with the Mormon elders and the evangelicals and Jehovah's Witnesses. People took things one day, sometimes one or two hours, at a time. "Let's get through this and then see what we need," was often heard in those early days. We never borrowed any trouble from tomorrow, because we had enough trouble with each day as it presented itself to us.

The advantages of civil society in the situation were many. There were located on the ground, in the neighborhoods, and had existing communications structures that could be utilized in the present emergency. Most of all, they had structures of trust and action that could be brought into play. Times of great stress are hard times to build trusting relationships; it's better to get to know people in advance, and community organizations were full of people who knew and trusted each other, and had a track record of working together on projects.

Religious and civil society organizations also had authority, and in a time when "we the people" had truly been let down by major authorities and structures in our lives, this residual religious and civil authority was very precious. It's hard for a devout Catholic to say "no" when his or her priest gets insistent, for example, and many priests got downright insistent in January and February with their congregations. The same was true for religious leaders of other denominations. All religions have a core set of beliefs and practices that derive from past emergency situations, and the institutional memory of such organizations is very long. In a time of grave trouble, one of the most important things is for leadership to set an example of strong, proactive, and positive response to an emergency, especially in a situation where there is a serious possibility of a cascading series of events that lead to a highly dysergistic and negative outcome.

One government agency that showed strong leadership was the Outreach Extension of the U of Missouri. They provided all kinds of assistance regarding food production and preservation. I found myself wishing many times that we had had the foresight to build a community canning kitchen before all this happened, but oh well, hindsight is always 20-20, it's foresight that is hard to resolve to a correct focus. Schools made significant contributions, both as shelters and as resources for learning and rebuilding. There are many teachers, and they did not disappear when the phones went dead and the electrical system failed. The same is true for the librarians, whose presence suddenly became one of the most important factors in a positive recovery. Libraries opened very early, and some only closed for a week or so. If we ever get around to building memorials, surely there will be several to the librarians who helped us find the knowledge and data resources we needed to dig ourselves out of the hole we had gotten ourselves into.

We know on many levels (spirituality, instinct, experience) that structure is necessary for human community to work. And we know how big a problem this has been in our history. Knowing the mistakes that have been made in the past, people were frightened early on as to what might happen with the government. Should we be worried about the national guard patrolling the streets? Or should we welcome this as a sign of stability and commitment to law and order? . If the old structures are going away, what shall we replace them with? Who's to say we won't end up in a worse situation than before?

Civil society played an important role in processing such fears by reminding us that our civilization is much more than mere technology and that most people are better than we think they are. We have been taught by repeated exposure to advertising that we are nothing more than the sum of the products we consume. If we don't have X new and pricey gadget, or a Nike "swoosh" on our clothes, or possess some other substitute for a real life, then we are nothing at all. Unless we obey our corporate masters, we are not doing our civic duty. Spend More -- Buy More was the mantra of the old ways.

This structure of sin created an unstable and unsustainable economic system that was little more than a stack of cards waiting to be knocked over. Everybody was locked in -- credit card payments, mortgages, new clothes every fall and spring, new car every third year, insurance payments every month, student loans -- wealth constantly transferred from the productive to the idle rich, all of life being monetized and politicized by a myriad of structures that rewarded those with political access and punished those without power. Government had become a zero sum game where for one group to prosper, another must be impoverished, and the only ones coming out ahead of the game were at the top of the pyramid. A constant and unrelenting war of aggression and theft was waged against the poor. In the old days, the middle class was being squeezed and torn apart -- a small portion making it into the upper 20%, the rest slowly dropping into the working and poor classes. Government statistics suggested that 45% of white families and 75% of African American and Hispanic families would be in danger of homelessness within 60 days if their incomes stopped.

And then our technological infrastructure collapsed. Civil society helped us to focus on what was immediately necessary -- shelter, heat, water, food -- and the religious organizations, in particular, helped us to remember our duties and obligations to our neighbors. In the Old Days, there was some thought that people, as individual families, could stockpile food in their basement and then survive when all around them were starving. Even in those days, this was a fantasy, but many people thought they could get away with it. Sure, it was vitally important that people store food, but people who thought they could eat while their neighbors starved were mistaken about the way things work. Fortunately, when push came to shove, there was very little of this kind of behavior. Those who rejected helping others were left alone, and most all of them had a pretty hard time of it in their fear and isolation. Their thinking was mired in the old ways; they didn't realize just how necessary it was to be part of a functioning community. Their attitudes were influenced by the arrogance common to the Old Days, "I've got mine and that's all that matters." Those who couldn't adjust to the new and more cooperative way of life tended to leave the neighborhoods; who knows what happened to them, I hope they found someplace where they could live in peace with their neighbors.

We needed to repair and re-create, not only our technological infrastructure, but also our ways of thinking about ourselves and other human beings. In religious terms, this became a time of great metanoia -- a turning from bad to good. It's a shame it took something like the y2k problem to bring us to our senses, but sometimes a bit of world-shaking is in order, especially when a system is as ruthless as the America Empire.

So just in the nick of time, the cavalry did ride over the hill and save civilization, but it wasn't necessarily the government's cavalry. As it turned out, the cavalry was from the Lion's Club, the Knights of Columbus, and the Northeast Kansas City Women's Literary Association.

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