benevolence only makes things worse — 10/27/15

Today’s selection — from Commodore: The Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt by Edward J. Renehan Jr.  The miraculous gains of the Industrial Revolution in the early 1800s brought untold new wealth to western societies, but simultaneously brought a new type of poverty and disruption among workers — equally unprecedented in its scale.

“The first few decades of the nineteenth century were a largely cynical and callous time in American history — a period of institutionalized harshness. It was in 1817 that a group of prominent New York merchants and professionals (many once having been the principal supports of such institutions as the New York Hospital and other worthy causes) officially and publicly began to rethink their charitable habits. Such previously generous philanthropists as DeWitt Clinton (now governor of the state), Thomas Eddy, and John Griscom took their cue in this from British reformers. In so doing, they succumbed to the rhetoric of several hard-nosed British social thinkers, most notably Thomas Robert Malthus, Jeremy Bentham, and the Scottish conservative Patrick Colquhoun.

“Twenty years earlier, all three of those gentleman had been instrumental in the founding of the London Society for Bettering the Condition and Increasing the Comforts of the Poor. Despite the burden of its long-winded name, the London Society did not distribute charity but specialized in cutting off funds for social welfare. Malthus, Bentham, and Colquhoun believed that a distinct line must be drawn between the ‘deserving poor’ (those facing hard times as a result of unfortunate histories) and ‘undeserving paupers,’ namely, the drunk, the lazy, and the whorish members of society for whom aid was considered a reprehensible act of facilitation. Another key underpinning the London Society’s logic was the presumption (for lack of a more accurate term) that paupers outnumbered the deserving poor by a factor of about nine to one. In reform meetings and from church pulpits, politicians and clerics repeatedly cited this astonishing though unverifiable statistic, which soon became accepted as fact. In time, the public mind became convinced that a mere 10 percent of London’s poor were the crippled and the orphaned, while 90 percent were degenerates. For every one person in London’s slums who genuinely needed aid, popular wisdom said there were nine who required something else entirely: intolerance, punishment, and correction. As a corollary to this line of thinking, logic dictated that 90 percent of the charitable aid previously offered was superfluous. In turn, wallets closed.

A group of children at Crumpsall Workhouse_ 1895_97

“For decades the London Society remained influential in the development and spread of such institutions as workhouses and debtors prisons. It was also influential, through its example, in New York and other American cities. By the end of 1817, Clinton, Eddy, and Griscom, joined by hundreds of other New Yorkers, had formed a clone organization on the banks of the Hudson: the Society for the Prevention of Pauperism (SPP).

“Several months before the founding of the SPP, New York’s Humane Society forlornly announced the startling result of recent research: no less than 15,000 men, women, and children — the equivalent of one-seventh of the city’s population — had been ‘supported by public or private bounty and munificence’ the previous winter. Historians Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace have eloquently described the SPP’s point of view, expressed in response to the above data. In the London Society’s grand tradition, the SPP said it believed that ‘willy-nilly benevolence’ only made things worse. ‘Giving alms to the undeserving poor not only undermined their independence but also drove up taxes and sapped the prosperity of the entire community.’ Thus, ‘for their good as well as everyone else’s … the SPP recommended that all paupers in the city be cut off from all public assistance forthwith.’ Soon the Humane Society itself announced its intention to disband in the wake of its realization that the very act of giving charity had ‘a direct tendency to beget, among [the citizenry] habits of imprudence, indolence, dissipation and consequent pauperism.’

” ‘Tough love’ was in. Cruelty equaled kindness. Frugality equaled generosity. And all three were not only cheap, but easy.”

Author: Edward J. Renehan Jr.
Publisher: Basic Books
Copyright 2007 by Edward J. Renehan Jr.
Pages 48-49
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About Us is a brief daily email with an excerpt or quote we view as interesting or noteworthy, offered with commentary to provide context. There is no theme, except that most excerpts will come from a non-fiction work, mainly works of history, are occasionally controversial, and we hope will have a more universal relevance than simply the subject of the book from which they came.


the myth of mass panic — 7/9/15

Today’s encore selection — from “Crowd Control: How We Avoid Mass Panic” by John Drury and Stephen D. Reicher. The myth of the mass panic. In disasters, rather than descending into disorder and a helpless state, people come together and give one another strength:

 “The image of the panicked crowd is deeply ingrained in the popular imagination. Hardly any self-respecting Hollywood disaster movie would be complete without one scene of people running wildly in all directions and screaming hysterically. Television newscasters perpetuate this stereotype with reports that show shoppers competing for items in what is described as ‘panic buying’ and traders gesticulating frantically as ‘panic’ sweeps through the stock market.

“The idea of mass panic shapes how we plan for, and respond to, emergency events. In Pennsylvania, for example, the very term is inscribed in safety regulations known as the state’s Fire and Panic Code. Many public officials assume that ordinary people will become highly emotional in an emergency, especially in a crowded situation and that providing information about the true nature of the danger is likely to make individuals panic even more. Emergency management plans and policies often intentionally conceal information: for example, event marshals may be instructed to inform one another of a fire using code words, to prevent people from overhearing the news-and overreacting.

“Mathematicians and engineers who model ‘crowd dynamics’ often rely on similar assumptions describing behaviors such as ‘herding,’ ‘flocking’ and, of course, ‘panic.’ As the late Jonathan Sime (an environmental psychologist formerly at the University of Surrey in England) pointed out, efforts to ‘design out disaster’ have typically treated people as unthinking or instinctive rather than as rational, social beings. Therefore, more emphasis is placed on the width of doorways than on communication technologies that might help people make informed decisions about their own safety.

“These ideas about crowd behavior permeate the academic world, too. For many years, influential psychology textbooks have illustrated mass panic by citing supposed examples such as the Iroquois Theater fire of 1903 in Chicago in which some 600 people perished and the Cocoanut Grove Theater fire of 1942 in Boston in which 492 people died. In the textbook explanations, theatergoers burned to death as a result of their foolish overreaction to danger. But Jerome M. Chertkoff and Russell H. Kushigian of Indiana University, the first social psychologists to analyze the Cocoanut Grove fire in depth, found that the nightclub managers had jeopardized public safety in ways that are shocking today. In a 1999 book on the psychology of emergency egress and ingress, Chertkoff and Kushigian concluded that physical obstructions, not mass panic, were responsible for the loss of life in the infamous fire.

“A more recent example tells a similar story. Kathleen Tierney and her co-workers at the University of Colorado at Boulder investigated accusations of panicking, criminality, brutality and mayhem in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. They concluded that these tales were ‘disaster myths.’ What was branded as ‘looting’ was actually collective survival behavior: people took food for their families and neighbors when store payment systems were not working and rescue services were nowhere in sight. In fact, the population showed a surprising ability to self-organize in the absence of authorities, according to Tierney and her colleagues.

“Such work builds on earlier research by two innovative sociologists in the 1950s. Enrico Quarantelli — who founded the Disaster Research Center at Ohio State University in 1985 and later moved with it to the University of Delaware — examined many instances of emergency evacuations and concluded that people often flee from dangerous events such as fires and bombings, because usually that is the sensible thing to do. A fleeing crowd is not necessarily a panicked, irrational crowd.

“The second pioneering sociologist, Charles Fritz, was influenced by his experiences as a soldier in the U.K. during the World War II bombings known as the Blitz. ‘The Blitz spirit’ has become a cliché for communities pulling together in times of adversity. In the 1950s, as a researcher at the University of Chicago, Fritz made a comprehensive inventory of 144 peacetime disaster studies that confirmed the truth of the cliché. He concluded that rather than descending into disorder and a helpless state, human beings in disasters come together and give one another strength. Our research suggests that if there is such a thing as panic, it probably better describes the fear and helplessness of lone individuals than the responses of a crowd in the midst of an emergency.”

Author: John Drury and Stephen D. Reicher
Publisher: Scientific America Mind
Date: November/December 2010
Pages: 60-61
About Us is a brief daily email with an excerpt or quote we view as interesting or noteworthy, offered with commentary to provide context. There is no theme, except that most excerpts will come from a non-fiction work, mainly works of history, are occasionally controversial, and we hope will have a more universal relevance than simply the subject of the book from which they came.

a few word origins – 1/30/15

Today’s selection — from Why Do We Say It? by Castle Books. A few word origins:

Corn. Why does the word ‘corn’ mean so many different grains?

Because ‘corn’ originally meant any small particle — even sand or salt. That is why beef preserved by the use of salt is called ‘corned beef.’ When ‘com’ finally came to mean a certain type of grain it was used to refer to the grain that was the leading crop of the locality. In England, therefore, ‘corn’ is wheat; in Scotland and Ireland, ‘corn’ is oats; and in the United States, it’s maize.

Gargoyle.  Does the word ‘gargoyle’ refer to the appearance of these images?

No. ‘Gargoyle’ is an Old French word and literally means ‘throat.’ Gargoyles were originally used as projections from the gutter of a building to carry the rainwater clear of the walls, and they spurted this drain water through their ‘throats.’

Kid.  What is the reason we call a child a ‘kid’?

The Anglo-Saxon word for ‘child’ is cild. In ancient times — just as today — folks often failed to pronounce the letter ‘l.’ The similarity of sound between this name for a child and that for a young goat, and the similarity of antics, led to the use of ‘kid’ as a synonym for ‘child.’

Necking.  From what did the word ‘necking’ get its current meaning?

From the neck’s being an added object of the affection and the theoretical lower limit of action. The word ‘neck’ itself has its origin in the Dutch nekken, meaning ‘to kill.’ Our neck acquired its name from the fact that you pull or twist the neck of a chicken to kill it. But there’s no implied allusion to this origin in the current meaning of ‘necking.’
Salary.  Where did we get the word ‘salary”?

From the ancient Romans. The word literally means ‘salt money.’ The Roman soldier was once given an allowance of salt; then he was given an allowance of money for the purchase of salt. This was called a salarium — from sal, meaning ‘salt.’
Umpire.  Where does the word ‘umpire’ come from?

From the Old French word nompair, meaning ‘not paired.’ The ‘umpire’ is the third or ‘not paired’ person called upon to decide between two contestants.”

Why Do We Say It?: The Stories Behind the Words, Expressions and Cliches We Use

Publisher: Castle Books
Copyright 1985 Book Sales, Inc.
Pages: 64-65, 103, 141, 173, 213, 249

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About Us is a brief daily email with an excerpt or quote we view as interesting or noteworthy, offered with commentary to provide context.  There is no theme, except that most excerpts will come from a non-fiction work, mainly works of history, are occasionally controversial, and we hope will have a more universal relevance than simply the subject of the book from which they came.