Monday, September 05, 2005

"Help Yourself"

The idea of helping oneself is deeply ingrained in American traditions and idioms. God is reported to help those that do.

And this week people in New Orleans needed God’s help because the federal government ensured that there was little else available.

The expression "help yourself"—the quintessential American expression of hospitality—would be the height of rudeness elsewhere in the world. Take Japan, for example. In a land where drinking companions routinely refill each other’s glasses, no host or hostess would ever utter the expression "help yourself." There is no Japanese equivalent.

But here in bootstrapping America, helping oneself is applauded. Except when those who are helping themselves are poor black Americans.

Much has been written and said about the racially charged captions of black and white refugees wading through chest-deep floodwaters with necessities salvaged from local stores. The white flood survivors, we were told, had found food. The black survivors had looted them.

But let’s take it a step farther. I liked what Jesse Jackson said—If you look at $6 a gallon for gasoline in Atlanta, that’s looting too.* And when the Gulf Coast clean-up contracts are awarded to Vice President Dick Cheney's pals at Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown, and Root, I think we can call that looting, too.

Note: Jackson made the remark during a television interview on his arrival in New Orleans that has not emerged online.