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Human dignity. What does that mean, exactly? It's easy to have presence, to act like one of the lords of the planet that humans are, when you're wearing your best suit and have recently eaten, showered, had your hair done, or whatever else it is that you do to feel good about yourself. It's a lot harder when you're hundreds of miles from a home that is now flooded with filthy water, from which you escaped with little more than the clothes on your back. It's a lot harder when you expect to be utterly dependent on the kindness of strangers for weeks or months.
That's why people are refusing to leave New Orleans, filthy and stinking and unlivable as the city is. That's why people would rather stay on cots in the Astrodome than be shipped off to any of the hundreds of communities all over the country that are standing in line to welcome them. They are asserting their personhood, their dignity, their right as humans and Americans to control their own destiny.
Bureaucracies are notoriously bad at human dignity. They process numbers that just happen to be attached to human beings. They pass responsibility around and around, everyone making sure the blame doesn't land on their desk. No bureaucracy, and few employees of bureaucracies, will ever look a person in the eye and say, "I'm sorry this is happening to you. We made a mistake. I want to help make it right."
Leaders, on the other hand, are supposed to be very good at human dignity. Respect for one's followers, as individual human beings, is part, perhaps the most important part, of what leadership is all about. From that respect flows a whole web of obligations: to be worthy of the authority given to you, to be accountable for past failures, to be responsible for corrective action to prevent future failures.
I'm not seeing a whole lot of leadership in the wake of Katrina. Maybe I'm looking in the wrong places, but I'm mostly seeing a lot of dodging, a lot of attempts to lay blame somewhere else, but very few people willing to look the individual human survivors in the eye and say, "We made a mistake. This shouldn't be happening to you. How can we make it better?"
(These musings on leadership inspired in part by this post, on public service, keeping faith with one's fellows, and the fraying of the social fabric. Link by way of Evelyn Rodriguez, who writes about her own experiences on the receiving end of bureaucratic empathy.)
Inviting Disaster is a very interesting book about failures in complex systems, from nuclear power plants to oil drilling platforms. It observes that a single failure is not usually enough to cause disaster. Instead, disasters arise from a chain of events, all of which seemed insignificant at the time.
Though the book focuses on disasters in manmade systems, the same chain of failures is obvious in natural disasters like the one still unfolding in New Orleans.
When the water recedes and the politicians and bureaucrats start arguing about the lessons learned and the next steps, I hope they'll think about the whole chain of failures. It's always easy to believe that the next disaster is a long way off, that planning for it is too expensive, too difficult, too time consuming, and just not that important. And the next disaster usually is a long way off. Until it isn't, and then it's too late to prepare.
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