Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Age of the Individual (In FEMA Terms)

We really are entering the age of the individual.

Back in college, I did my junior year thesis project on Catch-22, Joseph Heller’s postmodern masterpiece and a biting satire of huge, overarching bureaucratic institutions. Heller’s Air Force bureaucrats prioritized the written word over the evidence of their eyes, trapped airmen and soldiers in inescapable logical loops treated Yossarian and his compatriots as little more than pawns in an increasingly complex game. Yes, satire is exaggeration, but Heller had a point: in the early 1960s, with military and industrial bureaucracies mushrooming, they seemed a perfect villain for the postmodern age. Huge, impersonal and concerned only with their ends, the bureaucrats played hell with the lives of those under their thumb. The idea of blind, unfeeling, corporate authority has bounced around pop culture ever since.

I don’t know if my FEMA overlords have ever read Catch-22 (also, hi overlords! Thanks for reading!), but if they had, they might recognize Catch-22’s monstrous bureaucratic edifice as precisely what they’re trying not to be. In FEMA Corps’s first full day of genuine FEMA training, the emphasis was clearly on making disaster survivors feel included, not excluded; welcomed, not managed; part of the recovery, not a problem to be solved. We were reminded that survivors with disabilities should be housed in the same shelters as everyone else, so as not to set them apart. We were introduced to the “Whole Community” concept, in which everyone—regardless of class, race, creed, financial status, pregnancy and a dozen other things—was supposed to be included in the planning and recovery process following a disaster. In short, we were told that the people we were saving mattered. They are the entire point of all our efforts and should be treated as such. Big and complicated as it is—and any bureaucracy is—FEMA is trying to be a feeling bureaucracy, governing with as much personal interaction and attention as possible. That’s laudable.

This fits nicely into another concept on a somewhat larger scale, which I remember dimly from a political science class of a year and a half ago. For hundreds of years, individuals served the state. In the age of monarchy and long into the age of democracies, nationalism was the dominant ideology and individuals were expected to serve the State, whatever the political philosophy was in any given country. You gave your property, your taxes, your service in the army and even your life (if it came to that) because you were fighting for a Cause. You gave to the state; that’s how it worked. Your reward was being a part of the great machine, which hopefully won its battles.

Now, for maybe the first time ever, liberal democracies are coming around to the idea that it’s up to the state to serve the individual. I mean “now” in terms of the last fifty or sixty years, but it’s a relatively recent development when you consider the length of human history. The concept of universal human rights is a very new one. So is the idea that the government should provide basic necessities for its citizens, because that’s what government is there for. In the new world, it’s about providing individuals the tools they need to be successful, not individuals necessarily serving the state to make it stronger. The parallels to FEMA’s efforts to respect and elevate the individual, to include and help literally everyone affected by a disaster, are strong.
And individuals have their own responsibilities to go with all that freedom and power and advantage. Close to the last hour of today’s FEMA sessions was about actions that you as an individual can take to make you and your family safer. They hammered home the idea of an individual responsibility to prepare oneself and one’s home against future calamities. Yes, the government can and will help you in your time of need, but the best thing is for you to prepare so you won’t need it. It’s a different kind of individualism, but the same general result: they’re trying to make sure that you as a person are respected and treated in the way that you want, and preparedness helps you towards that goal.

A whole community, full of individuals, all of whom are having their own needs filled by an organization that cares about them as unique human beings. I can get behind that kind of an effort. Especially, as I suspect, if that transition over the decades—from Heller-style impersonality to individual assistance—is part of a larger society-wide movement towards greater recognition of and power of the individual. FEMA appears to be at the forefront of that movement, as much as any large bureaucracy can be, and I'm on board with that.


A.Taylor said...

Let's hope FEMA can continue this humanized thinking and not derail when crisis hits.

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Andy said...

A. Taylor, I certainly hope so. This week is all about learning about FEMA disaster policy and how it's tailored, at least in theory, to each individual applicant. Hope it holds up.

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