How Bad Will Things Have to Get Before We Make Them Better?

Hope like hell: Two experiences over the weekend have given Buzz hope. One was watching a documentary on the catastrophic 1911 Triangle Waist Factory Fire in New York and the other was a seminar on the state budget crisis.

Maybe it's perverse of Buzz to find optimism in disasters, but the weekend made us think that debacles can be good for us.

The documentary made an argument that the sheer horror of the Triangle Fire, in which 146 human beings perished in 18 minutes, may have been the spark that eventually gave us labor reform and the New Deal.

The lecture was given by F. Scott McCown, executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin. Buzz was there but wasn't taking notes, so we don't want to attribute anything too specific to McCown. In broad terms, he painted a picture of potential catastrophe if the Rick Perry Republicans get their way on the state budget.

One aspect of it—Medicaid—has the potential to create scenes of suffering and despair this country hasn't seen since the Great Depression. McCown pointed out that the cuts in Medicaid under discussion in Austin will shut down a substantial portion of the nursing home industry, meaning nursing homes will put people out on the street and close their doors.

Many of those people are helpless—chair-bound, deep in dementia, incontinent and unable to feed themselves. As McCown pointed out, many have outlived their families and have no homes to return to.

And Medicaid is only a part of the picture. Many other forms of support and sustenance for the least among us are on the chopping block.

McCown hopes Texans will rally somehow before it's too late and stop this cataclysm from engulfing us. Buzz does too. Of course.

But we can also see that there are moments in history when only a cataclysm can turn the tide. This may be one. And maybe the obverse is true too: Perhaps social programs like Medicaid become victims of their own successes. Once a successful program removes suffering that caused them to be created, we forget why they're necessary. Or maybe we've all become heartless, red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalists.

Hopefully, that's not the case. Maybe when public education is ruined and we see wheelchairs behind the Dumpsters, maybe then the tide will turn. And turn hard.

Short of that, we don't know what it would take to get the message across. Perhaps social conscience will only rise again when it gets some help from horror and wrath.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze