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Monday, May 30, 2011

Tornado brings out the best in people

I have, over the years, covered a couple of tornadoes and their aftermath. What I saw last Sunday in Joplin was worse than anything I'd seen to that point.
I saw firefighters, shaking with frustration as they watched a house burn, rolling up the hoses they couldn't use because there was no water pressure.
I saw people wandering through the streets, with a dazed expression on their face, looking for missing loved ones. Others simply sitting in stunned disbelief at the devastation of what was once a thriving, growing community.
I also saw amazing things.
The employees of a Walgreens pharmacy at 20th and Main simply walked out of their shattered store with armloads of medical supplies and blankets and started treating the wounded who were wandering up. Soon enough the parking lot of that store was a makeshift triage center.
I saw people walk up and simply ask, "What can I do to help."
I only got a small snippet of what was going on in Joplin that frightening evening. I know there are at least 90 dead — a number likely to rise — and hundreds, if not thousands, wounded.
What I did see was something that always makes be proud to be from this part of the country.
No one was sitting around waiting for someone to come help them. No, they dug themselves out of the rubble, shrugged, got their sense of humor in place and then went looking for someone to help.
No one knows what the next weeks and months will bring. There are many businesses and their attendant jobs which are simply gone.
If past experience brings any insight, it is that Joplin's population will likely shrink some as people look elsewhere for housing and jobs. But I also know Joplin will bounce back, as other communities have done.
I know there has been some looting in the aftermath of the storm, there always is. Disasters like this always bring out the worst in some people. However, it also brings out the best in far more.
Already there have been many selfless acts in Joplin. People who are opening their homes to those who have lost everything. Businesses donating food or shelter to those who are on the streets.
The road back for Joplin will not be an easy one. I worked in Parsons in the aftermath of the EF-4 which hit there about 10 years ago. It took the best part of a decade for Parsons to return to what it once was. I imagine that will likely be the case here as well.
I know the people of Joplin are as tough and resilient as they come and the vibrant community that was Joplin will return as well.
In the meantime, Kansans, who are no strangers to this kind of devastation, will be here to help with our hands, our hearts and yes, our prayers.
All IMHO, of course.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Ethics require a firm foundation

I had the opportunity to reflect a bit on ethics recently. For a couple of reasons.
World renowned physicist Steven Hawking has stated there is no heaven, that our brains are basically like computers and "there's no life after death for a broken computer."
Then Vincent Bugliosi, the guy who wrote a book claiming President George W. Bush should be prosecuted for war crimes has a new book out in which he makes the case for agnosticism — in other words "I don't know if there's a God or not and anyone who believes there is, is an idiot but so is anyone who believes there is no God is also an idiot."
I'm a Christian, if perhaps not the best one in the world, so I have "there is a God," as my default position.
I could, of course, be wrong. I take the existence of God on faith and move on from there. Faith necessarily means believing in something I can't prove.
I've always gone with something I read once, I can't remember who said it: "If I act as if there is a God and I'm wrong, what have I lost? But if I act as if there is no God and I'm wrong what have I gained?"
I find it difficult to believe any ethical system can arise without an underlying foundation. For me, it is my Christian faith. From a sociological standpoint it almost doesn't matter. In pretty much every society on Earth the basis of ethics has always arisen from the religious beliefs of the society in question.
If there is no power outside yourself, nothing but the law to hold you to ethical behavior then logically there is no standard of behavior — anything goes.
In many ways that's where we are as a country. We have so removed from public life the articles of faith which once guided behavior in this country that we no longer have anything by which to judge our behavior.
Ethical behavior has moved from "doing what's right," to "everything is fine so long as you're happy."
We seem to have decided, as a civilization, a black and white definition of right and wrong no longer exists, all ethics are situational.
Now it is to some degree true that ethics are situational. It's wrong to murder someone, however, should someone be trying to murder you, then it's ethical to use deadly force in self-defense. In that situation killing someone is ethical.
However, no matter what the situation, cheating on a spouse is wrong. Stealing is wrong.
But when we tell our children, indeed our entire population everything is right, so long as it gets them what they want, should we be entirely surprised when college students can't seem to figure out what's wrong with plagiarism? Or software piracy?
People like to throw away the "slippery slope" argument but it is a valid one. Once you break a small rule it becomes easier and easier to break small rules until you suddenly find yourself breaking big ones.
As journalists it is a choice we face every day. There are so many ethical constraints on what we are and are not allowed to do — and so many of them are so subjective in nature — that many of my colleagues seem to observe their ethics more in the breach than the compliance.
At the national level I'm sure that's true. Not so much at the local level.
However, walking that ethical minefield has taught me a couple of simple things.
One, there has to be some standard from which you work. Ethical behavior, while often dictated by the situation one finds oneself in, must have a clearly defined base from which to work. Whether the 10 Commandments or the American Society of Newspaper Editors ethical statement you have to start somewhere.
Second, and perhaps most importantly, the "slippery slope" argument is a valid one. The best way to stay off that slope is to never step onto it in the first place.
All IMHO, of course.

Friday, May 13, 2011

SF is about more than just spaceships

A while ago I wrote a column declaring my personal geekdom. This didn't come as much of a surprise to anyone who knows me.
Be it Star Trek, Star Wars, Farscape, Firefly or science fiction books and comics — I love them all.
I was reflecting this weekend on the late, great Robert Anson Heinlein this weekend. Heinlein started out as a flaming liberal, and later became a raving libertarian.
He's often been called conservative but this is far from accurate. Heinlein believed in, and wrote about, a world where personal responsibility and individual freedom were the most important principle of all. As one of the premier writers of the Golden Age of SF, he did so in a time when writing about race relations or equality between the sexes was a touchy subject.
Heinlein tackled them anyway — and could do so because SF allows a writer to tackle subjects which would otherwise be controversial.
I said earlier I was reflecting on Heinlein, I was doing so because I'd read books by several of my favorite authors recently which all had a bit of a Heinlein-esque flair to them.
Two of them had strong female protagonists, which is very common in Heinlein's work, and in all cases the heroes either lived in, or were trying to build, a world in which personal responsibility was the rule rather than the exception. As beautiful as the worlds they created were, I'm not sure they're possible in the real world — but that's not the point.
Science Fiction, at it's best, uses the meme of the future in order to shine a light on the present. SF has often been dismissed as a literary art form. However in many ways it is the truest to the ideals of literature of all genre's. SF has tackled controversial subjects years before conventional art forms were able to. In the 1960s Star Trek had a black woman, an Asian man, a Russian and an alien all in positions of power and authority — in the middle of the civil rights movement.
There's always been a strong individualist streak in SF which seems to be getting more pronounced as time goes by.
As more and more of our essential liberties are infringed SF authors are increasingly showing us how it would be to live without strangling regulation and bureaucrats poking their nose into every aspect of our lives.
There are leftist SF authors too, of course, and they sometimes show a different path, but even then, many of them tend to have that same individualist streak.
The joy for me of SF, is that while showing us the folly of modern life and the way to a better future, the genre — or at least the authors I read — manages to do it without being preachy.
My only problem is wanting to live in those wonderful societies where there are few regulations, little to no taxes and everyone takes care of themselves. I don't see one of those around here. More and more we are hemmed in by regulation and bureaucracy. As a nation we have more total energy reserves than anywhere else in the world. But we won't let ourselves access them.
We prevent the construction of cleaner sources of power while screaming about pollution from coal. We are the most powerful nation on Earth, with a people who work harder and longer hours than any other people, and yet we act like we are beaten, broken and exhausted.
None of this is the case, yet we are choosing to make it so.
SF points out to us that we don't have to make that decision. That we can choose another way. This is the true genius and joy of the genre.
What's really depressing to me is I get out of one of Sarah Hoyt's novels or Michael Z. Williamson's books and realize you not only do I not live there but probably can't. Besides, turning into a dragon would be fun.