Madison, Wisconsin’s winter follies relinquished their national attention to Tuscaloosa’s tornado in April, events along the Mississippi in May, and finally to the most recent twister in Joplin, Missouri, where genuine suffering puts into perspective tenured teachers who are learning that they must actually pay a fraction of their healthcare costs. Fitting substitutions, these last two; call this a progression from decadence to renewal and resilience, in that order. While public-sector unions’ diatribes against Governor Walker don’t exactly bring to mind the turpitude of France’s pre-revolutionary aristocracy, whiffs of decadence radiate from their collective persona.
What is decadence, exactly? An online dictionary describes it in terms of “moral deterioration, decay, turpitude, unrestrained or excessive self-indulgence”—all of which capture the unions’ ethical condition, particularly the “excessive self-indulgence” part. Jacques Barzun devoted a lengthy volume to the subject, From Dawn to Decadence, in which he stated that “when people accept … the absurd as normal, the culture is decadent.” A kinder expression for the word “absurd” is “not sustainable,” especially applied to public-sector union benefits, but both point to the same condition. “We ask government workers to make a 5.8 percent contribution to their pensions and a 12.6 percent contribution to their health-insurance premium, both of which are well below what other workers pay for benefits,” Governor Walker stated in March. For that, he was compared to the KKK and other depraved aspects of American culture.
Indeed, the greatest contribution to our national discourse by Wisconsin’s civil servants was the chanting of an Orwellian, Animal Farm-like equivalent to “four legs good, two legs bad.” This was offered in the relative comfort of the state’s capitol building, and to the plaudits of many in the national press. “Shame, shame, shame,” they hollered, when they actually deserved the “blame, blame, blame” for contemptuous indifference to the public welfare in deference to their own demands. There is a name for such perfervid selfishness—it’s called decadence. In short, don’t seek self-sacrifice for the greater good among public-sector unions in Wisconsin; it’s all about me, me, me.
Leaving the Badger State behind and entering Tuscaloosa’s landscape is a sobering contrast, redeemed by countless tales of Americans from every part of the republic coming forward to rebuild, repair, and restore that stricken city. Indeed, live videos of the tornadoes that devastated the city put to shame the best efforts of the wizards at Industrial Light and Magic; Spielberg and Lucas could not have provided more stunning portrayals. These came with actual costs in terms of lives lost and property destroyed—first in five states including Alabama, and now in Missouri, where the Joplin twister was responsible for the highest death toll from a tornado in more than half a century.
The wake of the cyclones resembles a battleground: “I’ve grown up my entire life here in the city of Tuscaloosa, and today when I went out after the storm there were parts of the city that literally I didn’t recognize from the destruction that came upon from these tornadoes,” Tuscaloosa Mayor Walter Maddox told CNN. But the devastation also spawned scores of websites—do a Google search to find out how many—and dozens of celebrities, all devoted to raising funds, offering assistance, and otherwise helping residents rebuild their shattered homes, neighborhoods, and businesses. Care for a fresh breath of altruism? You’ll find it in Tuscaloosa; you’ll find it in Joplin.
But if sheer mental toughness is your cup of tea, travel to Mississippi and Louisiana. Streaming videos that show inhabitants of the Atchafalaya Basin being inundated by the Mississippi’s floodwaters demonstrate American resilience at its best: determination to prevail in a tragic context that often hints at altruism. ABC News reports that Kate Buchanan, a resident in the path of approaching floodwaters, and who likely will lose her home as well as her business, had this to say: “Everybody is stoic, they understand. People in New Orleans got it a few years ago. There’s a lot fewer people here. These folks are made of much sterner stuff here. We’re not going to whine and cry.” Another resident affirmed that “people are strong here, they are going to rebuild better than ever.”
To which an observer may only say, Wow! After all, it is the farms and homes and small towns of America’s Kate Buchanans that are being sacrificed for the greater good of forestalling potential catastrophes downstream that could obliterate Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The residents who endured these natural disasters grasp this matter, and the rest of America may express admiration and plaudits, while reaching into their hearts, pockets, and workdays to offer assistance. Those hearty and brave souls in the path of Mississippi’s frightening torrents, along with their cousins in Tuscaloosa and Joplin, know the difference between comfort and hardship, between rhetoric and sacrifice—unlike the folks back at Madison, Wisconsin.
All of which leads to the conclusion that the American spirit that embodies altruism, self-sacrifice, and generosity remains alive and well, if you know where to look for it. The best news is that you really don’t have to look very far.