I came across this awesome collection of photos of the North Dakota flood and have to share it. Many of the photos are of volunteers filling sandbags and transporting them to where they are needed, building levees, pumping water — the things that need to be done. Some of the workers are standing in freezing water; many are mud-splattered. The governor is in one photo, on the ground in a blizzard.
Our esteemed Congress and President think it’s a good idea to encourage volunteering by issuing government edicts and creating and enlarging programs that pay people to “volunteer.” We know that the president and first lady believe that people who go into “public service” as opposed to private business are the good people.
I’ll bet that almost all of the volunteers in the North Dakota have regular jobs. They are not professional volunteers. They are just acting as Americans have traditionally acted — taking care of their communities and their neighbors in need. The pictures warm my heart. The government is there too in the form of the National Guard. But without the hard work of all those other people, the damage would have been far worse.
Many countries do not have such traditions of self-help. Fewer and fewer, as their governments take over more functions (in industrialized countries) or traditional social structures are disrupted as countries develop. It is something that Toqueville noted in his visit to America in the early 1800s — our tendency to develop organizations to take care of our local needs. Two things now threaten this tradition.
One is the ever-increasing encroachment of government. Where people are accustomed to being taken care of by the benevolent state, that is what they expect in their time of need. Look at New Orleans. President Obama wants to help this process along by, for example, reducing the tax-deductibility of charitable contributions. By crippling charitable organizations, the government can step in to take over more and more of what used to be private.
The other is the decreasing assimilation of immigrants, the lack of attention paid to teaching them American customs and culture, and the tendency for some immigrants to cluster in their own groups with little desire to become part of the country where they have settled. I hope I am wrong about this. I hope that if there were a group of Somali refugees living in Fargo, their neighbors would ask them to join the groups filling sandbags and they would willingly agree. But I am pessimistic.
Our tradition of volunteering to help each other, of taking care of our needs with as little government involvement as possible needs to be kept alive. And it needs to be taught to new Americans. It’s not a genetic characteristic, it’s cultural. It could be lost. Or it could be passed on to every immigrant who makes his new home here.
Addendum: I forgot to link to Ann’s post, Refugees flowing into Fargo, when I wrote this.
Update: The answer is yes, some of the refugees have pitched in.