Ik Is Us: The Every-Person-for-Themselves Society
Not helping other people is systemic in the United States. It’s not a question of immorality as much as amorality: we aren’t raised with an ideology, or even a consciousness, in which the other person counts. I remember, when I was fifteen years old, some boy in my school whom I knew only vaguely–Tom, I think his name was–was walking around on crutches after knee surgery. Much to my surprise, he asked me if I would carry his books for him from his home room to his first class, as he couldn’t manage to do this while on crutches. I did it for two weeks, and didn’t think twice about it. About a week into this routine, Tom’s mother called mine. “You know,” she said, “Tom asked about a dozen students, including good friends of his, and they all said that they couldn’t do it because they didn’t want to be late for their first class. Your son is a saint.” “My son is not a saint,” my mother fairly snorted, stating the obvious; “he’s just doing what he’s supposed to be doing.”
Fast-forward forty-five years, and I am returning home, on crutches, from knee surgery. As I approach the side door of my building, someone who also lives in the building is coming down the walk, busily talking on a cell phone. He looks at me briefly, then takes out his plastic pass key, swipes it in the little magnetic coding box, opens the door and goes in. The door shuts behind him; I’m standing outside of it, now fumbling in my wallet to find my own plastic entry card. Suddenly, the man–apparently seized by a rare moment of human fellow-feeling–pushes the door open from the inside. He doesn’t come out and hold it open for me, mind you; he just pushes it open, so I can sort of squeeze myself through the doorway on my crutches. He then hurries down the hall to the elevator, leaving me in the dust, as it were. Not a word is exchanged.
A few months later–the end of August 2005, to be more precise–I have an appointment at the University of Maryland Hospital in Baltimore, and need to check out the men’s room before I take the elevator upstairs. I walk in on a scene in which a man has collapsed on the floor, and someone else is trying to get him up on his feet. “Hold on,” I say; “I’ll go get help.” The first person I see outside the men’s room, about six feet away, is a police officer sitting on a bench. “Can you help?” I ask him; “some guy just collapsed on the floor of the bathroom.” “I don’t work here,” he replies; “go to the Inpatient Desk.” Given the possible emergency nature of the situation, I don’t bother to argue with him about the irrelevance of his nonemployment for helping another human being, but take off for the Inpatient Desk. “Can you help?” I ask the woman at the desk; “a man has collapsed on the floor of the bathroom down the hall.” “You’ll have to talk to Security, over there,” she gestures. I run over to the Security officer, repeat the story for the third time. “I’ll call the Fire Department,” he says. What relevance the Fire Department has to somebody passing out in the bathroom I have no idea, but I just say, “It’s this way.” He is already walking ahead of me, and when he reaches the men’s room, keeps on going. “Here!” I shout; “it’s right here.” He just keeps on walking down the hall.
A few days after this incident, hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. As we all know, the response of the federal government was very slow: for several days, people were left to fend for themselves, and vast numbers were without food or water. During this time, a friend of mine, a lawyer, sent me an online video that was made by MSNBC the day after Katrina hit the city, showing people looting a Wal-Mart store. This in itself was not that shocking; basically, it’s what I and probably a lot of other Americans would expect. The kicker was that the police were there, wheeling shopping carts, and looting right along with the looters. When Martin Savidge of NBC News asked one policewoman what she was doing, she replied, “Jus’ doin’ mah job.”
Is the reader beginning to notice a pattern here? In one form or another, this is America in microcosm, and it is disturbingly reminiscent of the worldview of the Ik of Uganda as described by the anthropologist Colin Turnbull in The Mountain People. The Ik had been reduced to a condition of savage self-interest due to economic hardship. Turnbull describes how, when someone in the tribe died, neighbors (as well as children and siblings) would fight over the person's few belongings, and abandon the corpse. Turnbull comments that in this system of mutual exploitation, affection and trust were actually dysfunctional. "Does that sound so very different from our own society?" he asks at the end of the book. These words were written in 1972; one can only wonder what Turnbull would have thought of American life thirty-three years later, were he still alive. What, after all, can be the fate or the future of a country in which the police join the looters in their looting while all around them people are dying by the thousands?