Like every natural disaster before it, Hurricane Harvey was appointment viewing.
Our love for disaster porn dates to Noah’s Flood, after all, or the Epic of Gilgamesh for the secular among us. Whichever ancient story you choose, our history of disaster tale consumption dates back millennia. Of course every media outlet in the country (and then some) launched their journalists, camera crews, and waterlogged microphones directly into Harvey’s furious eye. Disaster Story is a ratings bonanza.
What did they expect to find there, or perhaps more appropriately: What did their producers think that we expected to find there? For some it’s a moral along the lines of “man’s hubris leads to his downfall,” as in the Titanic tale. For others it’s proof that our only hope is the guiding hand of the wrathful god who started this whole mess in the first place, as in the Noah story. Many viewers of Disaster Story are simply looking for evidence that they remain safe. Any third world earthquake story leads to a rash of articles in California about our superior building codes, for example. Others seek proof that their friends or loved ones in the impacted region are okay.
Mostly we watch for the people, though — the inspiring stories of compassion and heroism, and the infuriating tales of opportunists. We can’t get enough of Cajuns in bass boats rescuing strangers’ drenched puppies from waterlogged roofs, nor can we peel ourselves away from the looters and the price gougers. Disaster Story is a cowboy movie, a morality play where white hats and black hats duke it out while the townsfolk tremble and we slump in our La-Z-Boys munching popcorn.
Unlikely heroes are essential to this story template. The Bible codified this when, at 600 years old, Noah qualified as the top draft pick for repopulating the planet. Every episode of Disaster Story since has starred at least one unlikely hero, but most feature many. Harvey brought us a citizen brigade of fishing boats and monster trucks whose drivers rescued both civilians and professional responders. We applauded the employees trapped in a Mexican bakery who put their skills to work cooking for their fellow flood victims. Mosques opened their doors and foreign governments offered aid, including our neighbor directly to the south who we want to blot out with millions of cinder blocks stacked high and wide. Even Anheuser-Busch grabbed a few “unlikely hero” headlines by canning water rather than watery beer. Good for them, by the way. Good for all of them.
The unlikely hero who resonated most with Disaster Story viewers was Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale, a Houston area furniture salesman who opened two of his showrooms as makeshift shelters. He didn’t stop there, though: Mattress Mack sent his delivery trucks into the flooded streets to rescue stranded Houstonians and drive them safely to his furniture showrooms. In a story overflowing with heroes, the mattress king took the crown.
Every story needs a villain, though, and the looters and price gougers are too anonymous to fill the bill. They are bit players in Disaster Story. Even Don and Melania, with their $40 ball caps and (in Melania’s case) high heels, weren’t really sinister enough to play foil to Mattress Mack’s feel good story. To counter a salesman with a heart bigger than his square footage, only someone untainted by commerce but with plenty of square footage of his own would do. This episode of Disaster Story needed a weaselly preacher.
People of faith responded in droves to Harvey’s aftermath. The aforementioned mosques threw open their doors, which was newsworthy because it was unexpected, apparently. Not so newsworthy bit players in the story of Harvey (but important figures in the reality of Harvey) included tens of thousands of priests, rabbis, preachers, deacons, nuns, choir directors, Sunday school teachers, youth pastors, monks, and congregation members. I bet even a few Scientologists dropped their e-meters and picked up canoe paddles. Without a doubt, people of faith stepped up precisely as one would expect, but none of these folks fit the “weaselly preacher” archetype.
And then there’s Mr. Megamurch, Joel Osteen, he of the “prosperity gospel.” While the imams fed people who days earlier cursed them and the mattress king watched his great deals at low low prices turn to muddy sponges, Osteen’s 16,800 seat basketball-arena-turned-church sat empty. The Internet went to town. Tweets and memes joined the flurry of articles and essays about Lakewood Church’s apparent lack of responsiveness to the disaster. The millionaire preacher and his organization fired back with explanations ranging from “we were flooded” to “nobody asked us to help” to “hey, we are open as a shelter, what are you talking about?”
How we reacted to these narratives reveals more about us than it does the humans reduced to stock characters in the episode of Disaster Story entitled Hurricane Harvey. On my social media feed, for example, Osteen was both villain and vilified, while the mosques ranged from unworthy of mention to certifiable proof that you’re all a bunch of racists for thinking they wouldn’t help. Trump and Melania also split the vote, with some arguing that the show’s special guest celebrities were unfairly scorned while others thought no amount of scorn worthy enough. Only the heroic Mattress Mack enjoyed consensus on my timelines, but the internet is a big, wild space. I’m sure plenty of cynics and trolls questioned McGinvale’s motives.
We all saw the same things and for the most part read the same stories, but how we responded to each of Harvey’s subplots differed because we viewed those stories through the lenses of our own personal bias. Set aside the connotation of “bias” as a bad thing for a moment and instead focus on the word’s denotation, its definition as “a preconceived notion.” We all harbor preconceived notions. “Beach” conjures “warm and sandy” or “cold and rocky” depending on one’s experience, for example, yet beaches are both of these and then some. We’re disappointed when our sun-and-sand trip to the beach turns out to be rocks and chilly breezes (or vice versa) simply because our expectations for a day at the beach have not been met. We are at a beach, just not the beach our preconceived notions led us to believe we were visiting.
The same is true for people, or in this case categories of people. Gallup performs an “Honesty/Ethics In Professions” survey annually, which provides useful insight into our collective bias as it applies to Mattress Mack and Brother Joel. While the question Gallup asks is, “Please tell me how you would rate the honesty and ethical standards of people in these fields,” for our purposes we’re going to articulate that as “Who do you trust?” While that conclusion is imprecise, it’s close enough for government work which, by the way, ranks low on Gallup’s results.
According to the polling company’s 2016 results, four of the five most trustworthy professions are in the health care field. Nurses top the list, followed by pharmacists, medical doctors, engineers, and dentists. In any episode of Disaster Story, individuals in these fields become special guest stars only if they violate our trust. “Nurse steals water, supplies for own family” grabs headlines while “Nurse works 20 hour shift aiding flood victims” rarely earns a mention. As for those engineers: They’ll be first under the media bus’s tires should the levees break; otherwise, they’ll have no lines in our morality play.
The clergy rank eighth on Gallup’s survey–top ten with a bullet. At least superficially, this is Joel Osteen’s gig. His corporate title is “pastor” and his business office is “church.” If that doesn’t qualify as “clergy” I’m not sure what does, so by profession we consider Osteen more trustworthy than psychiatrists, journalists, lawyers, state governors, bankers, and members of congress. The latter isn’t saying much: Congress ranks at the very bottom of Gallup’s 2016 survey.
Just above members of congress sit car salespeople, with their pinky rings and their Scaramucci hairdos. Given that profession’s history with the hustle, the only surprise here is that they don’t rank at the very bottom. Car salespeople and mattress salespeople share a lot in common–the “we must be crazy” advertisements, the endless mark-ups and markdowns, the three day weekend super sales. Enough similarity exists that we can assume that if Gallup asked about Mattress Mack’s gig, it would probably share space in the cellar with the car guys.
And so our response to Mattress Mack’s role in the Hurricane Harvey story is related to his ranking on the Gallup survey. Granted, it’s an inverse relationship: There is no expectation that a furniture salesman should be trusted to step up during a disaster. If anything, we expect the Mattress Macks of the world to tent their hands Mr. Burns-style while figuring out how to profit from the crisis. When they do the exact opposite, we are delighted. Another cold day on a rocky beach has turned to sun and fun in Malibu. Hooray!
Back up there at #8, though, we have high expectations for the clergy. That trust has deep roots, too, perhaps the deepest of any on the survey. As long as humans have been organizing themselves into communities, churches of some sort have stood at their centers. Historically speaking, the church has been community center, entertainment complex, soup kitchen, charity shop, therapist’s office, and sanctuary. As a young boy frightened by pretty much everything, I used to imagine that if I were running from boogeymen I would run to the nearest church, where the bad guys would magically stop at the door. Implicit in the word “church” was the promise “I will protect you.”
That’s a very childish notion, and one that I eventually grew out of. My years of watching my mother drop hard-earned cash into indifferent collection plates coincided with a decade of high profile televangelist scandals. Soon implicit in the word “church” was the warning “I will cheat you.” That conclusion, reached during my teens, is unfair to the large number of sincere churches led by sincere pastors filled with sincere intentions, but that long-calcified bias remains. If the Gallup people were to ask me about honesty/ethics in professions, the clergy would not make my top ten. They’d be down in the basement with the congressmen and the car salesmen.
Many share that opinion, and they were quick to call out Osteen for not behaving like a number 8. Some seemed furious that a pastor would ride out the biggest disaster in his community’s history from atop his Scrooge McDuck money pile, others simply shrugged at what seemed like more confirmation of their long held bias toward the clergy. I remained indifferent, which is much the same as the latter. It’s hard to be mad at a snake for being a snake, after all.
Others rushed to Osteen’s defense, or seemed to. More likely they were defending the institution, the notion that “church” means “I will protect you” rather than “I will cheat you.” They are right about that, even if they don’t see the corollary there: If I will cheat you, then I must not be a church. It may be hard to be mad at a snake for being a snake, but it’s easy to spot a snake pretending to be a preacher.
Our reactions to Joel Osteen parallel our reactions to Mattress Mack. If we mistook Osteen for “clergy” in the Gallup sense, we were disappointed–even angered–by Lakewood’s lack of responsiveness. Whether they actually were slow to respond is irrelevant. If you are a number 8 in any given episode of Disaster Story, the public expects you to step up. Inherent to the clergy business is the expectation that when the flood waters rise you will protect us. You, Brother Joel, will be out there in a canoe alongside the Cajun Navy, saving puppies and delivering bottled water. At the other end of the spectrum, nobody expects the Mattress Macks of the world to be the heroes of Disaster Story, and yet they are.
I don’t know anything about Joel Osteen or Mattress Mack beyond what I’ve read about them, nor do I know anything about the employees of that Mexican bakery or the congregations of the mosques who welcomed refugees to come in and dry off. I don’t know whether Mexico or Venezuela harbored ulterior motives, either.
But I know about me. I know that I’m not surprised that Hurricane Harvey washed so many unlikely heroes from their hiding places. Not only do I find that unsurprising because it is inherent to the structure of Disaster Story, but also because I believe that most people are decent. Muslim, Mexican, or mattress salesman–we’re all just trying to help out where we can. The operative words here are most people. There will always be grifters out there, be they price gouging gas station operators or multimillionaires selling the illusion of piety.
Another episode of Disaster Story will air soon enough. Before you get suckered into the heroes and villains subplots, take a moment to consider why those story lines evoke certain emotions for you, especially if a heroic congressman is paddling around saving puppies. You can bet that asshole learned a lot from Mattress Mack and the Gallup Survey.
And next time, Brother Joel, have an assistant splash a little mud on your Armani suit. You know, for the cameras.