You can tell that conservatives are heartless, because they’re so skeptical about government programs designed to help people in need. Who else besides government bureaucrats can help the needy?
Well, perhaps citizens – even conservative ones – could help each other. At least, that’s what has happened around Tuscaloosa, Alabama, after the worst tornadoes in decades left the region with hundreds killed and thousands homeless.
As always, local and national stalwarts of civil society have poured assistance into the area. One of the most impressive stories involves Clear Channel, a large radio conglomerate noted for beaming Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and the like into 1,200-odd stations across the country.
The best account of the story comes from David Beito, a University of Alabama history professor. He tells how all four Clear Channel stations in Tuscaloosa pre-empted their standard shows entirely and turned themselves into “a relief clearinghouse.” Typically, “someone calls in to express a need for a particular area or group. Fifteen minutes later, the same listener relates that 10 people showed up and offered their services.”
The local market manager for the company, Gigi South, made the decision to turn the stations into a temporary not-for-profit enterprise, but Clear Channel’s top brass supported this local initiative and “provided generators and engineers to keep the stations on round the clock.” Nor is Clear Channel the only business to join nonprofits in relief efforts. For instance, “Wal-Mart and other businesses call in to offer free prescriptions, charging stations for cell phones, and trucks to remove debris upon request.”
Beito’s story highlights how this citizen-to-citizen aid makes nonsense of the claim that foes of government “aid” are uncaring bigots. Take the case of “a worn-out relief coordinator for an outlying trailer park” who broadcast a desperate appeal:
She had been cooking meals for several undocumented Hispanics living in tents who were afraid to go to the authorities. She was heartbroken because she wanted to visit her mother in Mississippi who had suffered a stroke, but she feared leaving her neighbors unaided. Within minutes, two nurses, translators, and other volunteers were on the scene. The simulcast now includes brief Spanish language announcements. And listeners, even if they are normally angered about illegal immigration, show no hesitation in lending a hand in such cases.
Alabama churches, known to coastal elites as breeding grounds for fundamentalism and right-wing prejudices, have naturally played a powerful role: “Local churches have assembled armies of volunteers and vast stores of goods, ranging from dog food to child car seats, and are dispersing them with no questions asked at ‘free department stores.’” Beito dryly adds, “it is doubtful that a more secular city could have fared as well.”
Indeed, just try to imagine Tuscaloosa’s spontaneous mutual aid happening among Manhattanites, or the denizens of San Francisco’s Pacific Heights neighborhood, or the sophisticated Parisians in the seizième arrondissement.
The deep roots in American history for this neighborly assistance – and the welfare state’s endangerment of it – are sketched in Beito’s valuable study From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social Services, 1890-1967. And of course, Arthur Brooks’ Who Really Cares? documents the way many Americans who strongly oppose governmental “charity,” which hands out other people’s money, are quite charitable when it comes to giving away their own money; by contrast, many Americans who advocate more governmental aid to the poor provide little charity from their own pockets.
The Tuscaloosa story also sheds light on another dispute, namely, the argument that Big Media is a threat to communities’ local life. That’s a popular claim with activists like Robert McChesney, co-founder of FreePress.org, the leading advocacy group for “media reform” (including “net neutrality”) which enjoys generous support from the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Ford and MacArthur Foundations, George Soros, and the like (see previous critique here.)
Clear Channel, which owns so many stations and broadcasts so many conservative talk shows, is a favorite whipping boy for these folks, who never tire of insisting how much nobler are our “public” (read: government-funded) radio stations. You’ll find over 100 criticisms of Clear Channel at FreePress.org, and McChesney is on record sneering at the idea of persuading “the person who owns ViaCom or Clear Channel to be better, to be nicer, to try to have some civic consciousness.” That’s a “complete waste of time,” you see.
Contrast the professor’s certainty with Beito’s report from Alabama:
Although Tuscaloosa Clear Channel normally caters to a white, conservative audience, grateful listeners often make tearful calls from predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods like Alberta that bore the brunt of the tornado. No other radio or television stations in the community, public or private, have come close to matching this effort.
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