Food for Thought

Those of you who have seen my recent Twitter posts are aware that I went to Wilmington, NC to volunteer with Operation BBQ Relief. We provided meals for people affected by the massive flooding in the Wilmington region resulting from Hurricane Florence. I helped from Sunday, September 23 through Friday, September 28. It was an exhilarating  experience. But I was far from alone. The massive civilian response to this natural disaster clearly rivaled, and in some cases appeared to exceed, the response by FEMA. On September 30, OBR reported having provided 314,575 meals during its time in Wilmington. Similarly, World Central Kitchen, affiliated with Chef José Andrés, reported on October 1 that they had prepared 300,000 meals for the Wilmington area. Many rescues as the floodwaters rose were carried out by the Cajun Navy, which sent over 300 volunteers and responded to over 1500 calls for help during the flooding. They kept a smaller group of volunteers in the region after the initial rescues so that they could deliver food and supplies to neighborhoods that remained cut off by the persistent floodwaters.

That such a massive civilian response is needed is vexing. I lament that government has been so shrunken and so populated with rogues ranging from the merely inept (Heck of a job, Brownie!) to straight up grifters (Scott Pruitt and even Donald Trump himself) that we have to fulfill a primary government function (provide for the common defense) through ad hoc volunteer networks.

At the same time, that such networks of volunteers DO come together is a wonderful affirmation of the compassion and empathy that unite all that is good in humanity. I will admit to a bit of trepidation in choosing to work with OBR. After all, it’s barbecue in the South. I wondered if I would be surrounded by people in MAGA hats. But I chose OBR over WCK because I know barbecue and I’m not a professional chef, so I felt I had more to offer there. I also chose to go there because I realized that it would be likely I would be working alongside many conservatives (I saw no MAGA hats there, by the way), but wondered if they would experience a bit of cognitive dissonance if they realized the empathy they were showing for the flood victims was mostly lacking in the policies they choose to endorse.

While I of course did not find out if any of the volunteers had an epiphany and chose to support more generally empathetic policies, I did feel that a genuine breaking of normal barriers occurred during the busy times producing so many meals.  Working the production lines, simple backyard barbecue enthusiasts like me worked shoulder to shoulder with successful barbecue competition team leaders and owners of barbecue restaurants. They shared information and tips freely, so I learned a huge amount. It turns out that a couple of the leaders for our work also lecture in the BBQ Boot Camps offered by the North Carolina Barbecue Society, and I’ve added attending one of those to my bucket list.

The clear high point of my time there was on Monday, September 24 when we paused our work to commemorate the 2,000,000th meal prepared by OBR since its inception in 2011 following the massive tornado in Joplin, MO. The person chosen to receive that special meal is described in the video OBR posted here (the heart of the story begins around the 4 minute mark if you want to skip ahead). There were very few dry eyes under the tent by the end of the story even though the smokers surrounding us were finished cooking for the day. There was a magical feeling of compassion in the air, along with a sense of awe for what people working together could accomplish. With any luck, that feeling will creep into other aspects of life for some of those who were there.

I did come away with a feeling that perhaps for a few folks, doing volunteer work of this sort may well be a case of “walking the walk” that goes along with talk of very limited government. I still don’t see how that could mesh with the utter lack of empathy displayed by the gentleman behind the check-in desk one morning who wore a shirt proclaiming “Stand for the flag, kneel for the cross” or the lack of empathy for victims of sexual assault that it takes to continue to support Brett Kavanaugh. But at least on the front of caring for one another when disaster strikes, our country is still infused with a compassion that overcomes all barriers. If only we can find a way for it to spread to other fronts.


22 replies
  1. Peterr says:

    Re the lack of empathy you mention in the last paragraph . . .

    My experiences with disaster relief have been following major flooding and tornadoes. In conversations with some of the relief workers, we got to talking about offering help to our neighbors in need. Someone observed the same thing you did about the breaking down of barriers for the sake of folks in need. I offered the thought that it’s too bad that this kind of effort only seems to come out in times like tornadoes and floods, as opposed to dealing with poverty and homelessness. Immediately, three people chimed in with some version of “tornadoes are random and people hit by them are just unlucky, but most people in poverty are lazy and simply need to lift themselves up by their bootstraps.”


    Three is a small sample size, but it fits the kind of thinking I see all over the place on the conservative end of our political spectrum. In their eyes, there is no such thing as a human-caused disaster that calls for empathy and communal effort (private or governmental or both) to address. See also “climate change.”

    • Anon says:

      I somewhat second your experience, I think to a great extent it is about what people believe.

      My own, admittedly anecdotal, experience jibes with yours. What I have encountered is people who are happy to help. Indeed people who do see it as the government’s job to do this sort of thing but they believe that the government is incompetent, so they elect people who promise to “run it like a business” or “drain the swamp” who instead make it fail and then cut taxes, and so the belief becomes self reinforcing. It is not that they have no empathy for helping others, more that they have such an inherent assumption that government will fail at it that they wind up making it so.

      The other thing I think is that in general that disaster response is more popular than prevention. Driving around rescuing people is good, but restricting home construction and preserving wetlands to prevent them from drowning… not so much.

      A lot of the communities that flooded in the Carolinas have been at risk for some time but the states have cut funding for preparation (to pay for tax cuts) and in North Carolina’s case actually banned discussion of global warming for property planning. All of which makes disasters like these that much more likely.

  2. Lee says:

    With the exception of a small percentage, my belief is that most people wearing MAGA hats (literally or figuratively) are generally good folks who have just been duped. The human brain didn’t evolve a natural immunity to the types of organized disinformation campaigns it’s being exposed to via Fox, Facebook, Twitter and the like. These people have been taught that liberals and democrats are the enemy, and anything that breaks down that belief is (to that extent) a good thing. They don’t understand that it’s the people who flatter and inflame their hatreds that are the enemy, that the people they distrust are the very ones trying to help them, for the most part.

    I often try to remind myself that homo sapiens is basically a large-brained ape that appeared on the plains of Africa not very long ago in evolutionary terms, and that it’s not fair to judge them for falling prey to biases that served them so well for millions of years.

    Just my 2 cents. I’m always deeply moved by stories like today’s essay. Thank you.

    • Doctor My Eyes says:

      Yep. Shorter version: propaganda works. And I will add that liberals scorning Trump supporters is one half of the polarization that Russia and others work so hard to create.  It’s best not to play the game.  I’ve seen plenty of instances of people saying things like they wouldn’t allow Trump supporters in their homes.  This is not helpful.  I personally know two Trump supporters, and I know both of them to be personable, selfless, decent people.  I assume that it’s primarily because of where they get their information and secondarily that they are weak on reading people.

      • Geoff says:

        Exactly. There has to be a way to say “we forgive you,” come back to the sane side, without appearing condescending. It has to be something that latches on to the good parts in them, which are on display when you see the compassionate side in such instances as disaster relief. The trick is to get them to understand how the base assumptions they have ingrained in themselves are not logical, factual or of their own making, and that are being stuck in their head so that they come to these fallacious conclusions that lead them to things that are not even in their own interests.

        Somehow we have to be able to say it’s ok to make mistakes, and appeal to what is left of their better natures. Sure, some are deplorable, unredeemable, what have you…but I’ve met quite a few who, up until the point they reveal the uninformed part of their politics, they appear to be perfectly fine people. In these instances, when I’m going along happily in a conversation, and then one of the Fox “news” talking points comes up, I hear that brake screeching car accident sound in my head, but then I try to slow things down, calm the anger which seems to instantly rise up in me as I see the hate or bitterness start to form in them, and try to step back and start breaking down their argument so that they understand where their thinking went wrong. Usually I start with, yes, that y makes sense, if you believe x and z, but where the issue of z is much more complicated. Often times, this leads back to the issue of unfair advantage, of which BK would be one extreme, born to wealth and all advantages, and the lazy shiftless types being railed against being the other. The type who grew up with inadequate schools, parents with no time to give to their kids as they work three jobs to survive, etc. The unlevel playing field is something that many people don’t quite understand, partly, because it is a huge country and many people never see that much of it aside from their tiny slice.

        Anyway, my point is that we can’t just turn our back on those on the other side if we are ever to heal the wounds that are dividing this society. A good starting point would be to get rid of the “leadership” that acts in ways which are antithetical to this notion. Having four years to reinforce the worst in us may take a generation to work past.

      • Bruce Olsen says:

        I read a piece about toxic masculinity not long ago that seemed to strike the right balance. Fits this thread as well as BK:

        — Every man who insults, assaults, rapes, etc makes that choice.

        — But: society clears the path, lights the way, puts up signs, and excuses it when it happens.

        So even though Fox (etc) and the GOPworld are training them to do it, Trump supporters own this. It continues to be their choice. It’s up to them to change.

        I don’t have any Trump supporters as friends (some of my best friends aren’t Trumpers, I guess) but if I did I would have no difficulty in telling them they need to come to their senses before we get together again.

  3. hester says:

    Please someone (anyone) explain to me all the laughter last night when the so-called POTUS mocked Christine Blasey Ford and thousands of people at the Mississippi rally laughed…. at her expense.  Herd mentality?  I mean come on

  4. Jim White says:

    Thanks for the insightful comments. Yes, the real conundrum is how we break through the constant stream of misinformation that is leading people away from their innate compassion.

    During one break, a group of us were talking and someone eventually got around to mentioning how horrible Trump has been for the country. Most joined in, but there was one “But the economy” person putting a bit of a chill on the conversation.  I merely chimed in with how just in that same hour we were talking, Trump had been openly laughed at at the UN.

    As I recall, the fellow had said he was retired from the postal system, so I really wanted to get into whether the Trump “booming economy” had benefited him personally. I’m betting that he has held even, at best, and most likely gone backwards over the last few years of the “economic recovery” and that he of course has gotten nothing from Trump’s tax cuts. I chose not to go that route, though, because it was clear he wasn’t ready to change his mind on that front. I merely hoped that by doing more work to help others, and having some fun while doing so, he might have a seed of hope still within him.

  5. dd says:

    There is nothing like the feeling that we are all in this together. When we see each other as human beings and not some subset of that things  happen.

    The us and them view is a game stopper. We are not separate from one another.

  6. Ed Walker says:

    I think part of the solution is to get people to look at the way the system affects us all. People are convinced that we live in the best economic system in the world. But no one wants to talk about the costs that system imposes on all of us, from the long hours, the long commutes, the petty indignities of work life, to anxiety and fear about our economic status. The wage and salary structures here are grotesquely unfair. Our elected representatives feel free to overturn actual democratic processes, as the Democratic City Council is doing in overturning the referendum on tipped workers. Every effort to restrain the accumulation of more wealth is met by litigation and propaganda attacks.

    My new motto: the point of capitalism is to produce returns to capital, whatever the cost to the rest of us.

    • Bruce Olsen says:

      “Capitalism: it feeds itself before it feeds you.”

      Not there quite yet… how about

      “Capitalism: it doesn’t feed you; it feeds on you.”

  7. Wm. Boyce says:

    Yes, thank you to Mr. White for his (and others) good works in the face of disaster.

    Politics has become something I simply don’t talk about with most of my family. The Trump supporters are either propagandized, as noted above, or simply unable to reason a chain of thought to its logical conclusion, i.e., “You’ve been Taken!”

    Luckily, there are many other things to talk about, and if we stray into forbidden territory, I won’t go farther, unless it’s a subject, such as universal health care, about which I simply cannot let misinformation pass undiscussed. Personal experience seems to be the only way in which some of these folks change their minds about many political issues.

  8. Bruce Olsen says:

    Yes, personal experience is what led to the rapid legalization of gay marriage, for example.

    Once enough people realized that friends and family were gay, and maybe not three-eyed monsters, resistance collapsed.

    Misogyny, though, is especially puzzling to me. Don’t we all have Moms?

    • Rayne says:

      Yeah, but mother’s voice is the first one tuned out because she’s omnipresent before birth. She’s like air, taken for granted that first several years of life, the person from which children run from as part of growing up. Still need mom? Not mature.

      Seriously think this is a fundamental part of misogyny — a refusal to identify with the mother figure because for some males it poses a threat to differentiated masculine identity and establishment of maturity.

      • Bruce Olsen says:

        Interesting, because I ended up tuning out my Dad first.

        Hmmm… I’ll ask my shrink tomorrow.

        For a friend, of course.

        • Rayne says:

          LOL so many other relationship and environmental factors involved, too. I’ve also thought for a long time that the absence of a national military draft has affected a couple generations of men. They don’t have an outward unified focus for their aggression, particularly if they aren’t athletic and invested in a sport or two. Not that men who were subject to draft or served in the military haven’t been/aren’t misogynist — there’s a different mindset, though, about belonging and appropriate behavior shaped by belonging to a group. We can see how the group membership dynamic shaped Kavanaugh; his in-group saw treating women as sport and public office as an entitlement.

  9. Bruce Olsen says:

    @Jim White Thanks for your efforts.
    I agree we don’t have enough connection to our society in a non-political way. Lots of reasons for that, of course.

    What do you think about mandatory national service (non-mlitary unless you wanted that)? Require everyone to take a year off after HS and before college.

    Absorbing 3-4 million teens each year wouldn’t be easy, but we could put something together over 5-10 years that could easily handle the volume (which is only 1-2% of the population). Include a class in “Civic Responsibility”, with some internships involved so they’re somewhat prepared.

  10. Tommy D Cosmology says:

    Bruce—I like your idea about a year of service, maybe as a way to pay for college or training. This builds a sense of citizenship, which is distinct from nationalism. Obama talked about this distinction.

    Jim—I work in agriculture and know a lot of people in Joplin. Kind people. But it kills me when I see a coffee can with a cancer-stricken kid’s face on it, asking for donations, from people who think Obamacare is from commies.

    • Anon says:

      During the original debates over Obamacare I read an article about it. I don’t recall off the top of my head the author’s name but one part of it stuck with me was this. The author noted that he had just stopped in a bathroom in a random gas station and had seen, as I have every time I stop, a plea for help, a picture and a donation envelope seeking help for parents, spouses, and children.

      They then proposed what may be called the coffee can test. The bill would be a success if it ensured that people on the ground no longer had to beg random strangers to keep them alive. Ultimately that is the true ground truth of health care policy.

      While I support Obamacare as a step in the right direction unfortunately it does seem to be failing that very test. Perhaps if we were not forced to adopt “market solutions” we might actually solve our problems.

    • Jim White says:

      Hi Tommy,

      My mother lived in Joplin and passed away just a few months before the tornado. My sister still lives close by. Yes, the folks there are nice. And yes, many are very misled, as is that same sister who is an ardent Trump supporter-but otherwise a caring person.

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