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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Not until my ox is gored

Hurricane Audrey killed between 400 and 500 people in 1957, the majority of whom were in Cameron Parish, Louisiana. Laura, which made landfall last month at just about the same place on the Gulf Coast, killed fewer than 20, none of whom were in Cameron Parish. The difference was evacuation. Few parish residents heeded the warning in advance of Audrey. The lesson was painful, but apparently it stuck with those folks.

I have no way of determining what percentage of us there are for whom events are of no concern — or, in a meaningful sense, real — unless they impinge on us personally. Still, it must be large. And that’s despite the historically unprecedented availability of information about what’s occurring at any given time and place in the world, especially about catastrophic events.

It’s true that the pain of the world seems limitless and our ability to share the pain of others has limits. I confess that I mostly avoid reading about life in refugee camps in Bangladesh or Burundi or even at the U.S.-Mexico border because I find it emotionally overwhelming. Protecting oneself from emotional overload, though, is different than excluding disturbing realities altogether from one’s cognitive universe. After turning off the pain, the acknowledgment it bespoke remains to affect one’s view of the world, one’s politics, even one’s personal choices and allocation of money. Not so, exclusion.

If I thought about climate change continuously, I would be paralyzed by despair. The planet is heating up faster than most predictions a decade ago, and the higher temperatures rise, the more reinforcing events — such as thawing of the permafrost and the resulting release of methane — occur. But in a Pew Research Center poll released Aug. 13, only 42% of registered voters said the issue mattered a lot to them in our upcoming national election. Americans’ concern has increased over time (a majority of those polled did say climate change mattered “somewhat”), but it hasn’t matched the pace of the threat. Too few feel its impact or recognize its connection to the impacts they do feel. Jackson County will go Republican again.

It’s precisely because we individuals can’t be relied upon to take cognizance of realities beyond the sphere of our immediate concerns that we rely on our governments. Their responsibility — be it city-, county-, state-, nation- or world-wide — is inherently broader in scope than ours. We depend on our public servants to attend to concerns remote from as well as near to us, assessing their present and future importance to the general well-being. We may bemoan the way persons become statistics for governments, but that’s necessary if multiple and disparate concerns are to be addressed, relative degrees of importance assigned, and resources properly allocated.

The great failing of our national government during the current plague is that it has been willing to authorize individuals to assess the magnitude of the threat for themselves and act accordingly. By downplaying the collective danger and validating an individual-rights response to public health mandates, it gave political cover to run-of-the-mill carelessness. Many people in “Red States” came to regret their adherence to the Trump line, but the reality is that for most young people and for those who live in less urbanized areas, COVID-19 simply doesn’t pose the threat that it does to the elderly and to people in big cities, especially poor people.

That last group, of course, aren’t Trump voters. I’ll be interested to see how elderly white people vote in November.

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Ashland Tidings every Saturday.