“We suffer in this age from an indifference toward criminality and a callousness to catastrophe when it comes to poor and working people.”

The ISHN BlogThat quote comes from retired Princeton professor Dr. Cornel West in a recent interview in the London-based newspaper The Guardian. Dr. West has been called the firebrand of American academia for almost 30 years. He is black, with an old-school afro flecked with steel grey, dresses in immaculate three-piece suits, and refers to people around the world as if they belong to one family, using the old school “brother” and “sister” reference, as in “our sisters in Sweden” and “our brothers in Poland and Bulgaria.”

Dr. West is a rock star in academia, having written 19 books, edited another 13; he is a regular TV pundit and co-star of a popular U.S. public radio show. He has graduated and taught at both Harvard and Princeton, and will expound on just about any topic: race and politics, philosophy, literature, jazz, hip hop, history, current events, etc.

I say “Amen Brother West” to his quote about today’s callousness to catastrophe when it affects the poor and working people. So true.

How’s that?

We have witnessed two horrific catastrophes specifically affecting the poor and working people this spring: the Bangladesh factory collapse that has claimed the lives of at least 1,127 people, and the fire and explosion in the West, Texas, fertilizer plant that blew away half of the town, turning it into a Detroit-like landscape of vacant lots, abandoned homes, and ruins. At least 14 lives were lost and more than 200 were injured.

The Boston Marathon killings received much more immediate and intense media attention due to the sensational terrorism angle to the story. I believe there is also a class aspect to the coverage, to be very politically incorrect. By saying this I want to in no way diminish the pain and suffering of those in Boston injured, some with permanent disabilities, those grievously hurt by the loss of loved ones, and the horror of the entire tragedy.

That said, Boston is much, much more familiar to us than West, Texas or Dahka, Bangladesh. They may as well exist on different planets.

Plus, many of us can relate to marathon running, or running of some sort as exercise.

For most middle class Americans, what is there to relate to when it comes to a tiny rural Texas town or a slum city on the under side of the world?

Do we really care where our brand clothes are stitched together, or where our food comes from? It doesn’t enter our minds. And so it is easy to distance ourselves from the catastrophes in Dahka and West.

We won’t write our congressman urging stricter safety regulations and enforcement, and much more money for OSHA. We won’t pen editorials or march in protest. We won’t stop buying brand clothes from retailers taking advantage of Bangladesh’s average hourly wage for textile workers of 23 cents.

I agree with Dr. West. Our attitude toward the poor and working people is callous. Our empathy lasts for about as long as we watch the visuals on the evening news. “Oh, isn’t that terrible.” Then it’s on to the next story, and our minds turn off to West and Dahka and more than a thousand lives lost.

What’s very sad, pathetic and cruel, is these lives in Texas and Bangladesh have been lost in vain. I don’t expect anything to significantly change. No new laws, regs, policies of substance, or public attitudes. Companies will continue their “race to the bottom” to find the cheapest labor markets. OSHA will forever be a tiny speck in our gargantuan federal government.

“Hey, accidents always happen. Get real. Get over it.” Easy to say when you don’t know someone who has been killed in vain.