Flashback: “What Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax Can Teach America”

The Late Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax

[Not many people were checking in on Ethics Alarms when I wrote this post in response to yet another example of bystanders choosing to do nothing when a human being was in peril. Some of the comments to the Alameda post, those making excuses for the 75 faint-hearted or apathetic citizens in that city who would rather gawk at a tragedy than try to stop it,  caused me to recall the essay, which explores related issues.  I wrote it, but I had nearly forgotten about the story; when I re-read it today, I got upset all over again.Here, for the second time, is “What Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax Can Teach America.”]

The one with the premium-grade ethics alarms bled to death on the sidewalk. The people who never had theirs installed at all took pictures. Is this the way it’s going to be?

Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax was a Guatemalan immigrant who lived in Queens, New York. His life was a mess; he was destitute, ill, and had no job or likelihood of getting one. When he saw a knife-wielding man apparently assaulting a woman on the street two weeks ago, however, he knew what his ethical obligations were. He rescued her by intervening in the struggle, and got stabbed, badly, for his actions. The attacker ran off, and so did the woman, who didn’t check on Hugo after he fell, and  never contacted the police.

She also neglected to say, “Thanks for saving my life.”

As Tale-Yax lay on the sidewalk in Queens, a pool of blood darkening around him, a security security camera recorded the actions of twenty-five New Yorkers who saw him and walked on. One stopped to take a photo with his cell phone. Another briefly shook Hugo. A couple appeared to actually consider doing something, but decided against it.

Already late for breakfast, perhaps.  Maybe an appointment to make. Things to do. Forget about the bleeding guy.

Eventually someone—perhaps one of the twenty-five, perhaps not—called 911, a full hour after Hugo was stabbed. Whoever it was, he didn’t leave his name, and he gave the wrong address. A half an hour after that, another call reported a wounded man, and the police arrived. By then, Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax bled to death from stab wounds. He was 31.

The inaction of the New Yorkers who let Hugo die is different from the terrible breaches of duty committed by the Brooklyn EMTs who watched a woman and her unborn baby die. It is closer to the conduct of the Mt. Everest climbers in 2006 who marched on to the summit past a fallen companion, but not exactly like that, either. Many of the passers-by may have been illegal immigrants, as was Hugo. Maybe they were afraid of being apprehended by authorities. There was blood on the sidewalk, and blood might carry infection. There is no legal requirement in New York and most other jurisdictions for citizens to render assistance to fellow human in distress . The safe thing is not to get involved. Helping out another human being carries risk.

America used to be about risk, but we are losing our collective nerve. The culture has gradually embraced an alignment of values where avoidance of risk nears the top of the list. We will give up some of our freedom to be secure from attack. We will give up our independence to ensure income, health insurance, and other safety nets. We will let the poor fight for us. The willingness to take great risks for important goals and objectives, which made the existence of the United States possible, is no longer seen as virtuous, logical, or smart.

Where does that leave courage, valor and self-sacrifice? Bleeding to death in Queens, apparently. Officials in New York were not especially surprised at the reactions, or lack of them, from those who saw Hugo as he died. Yes, the decent and responsible thing would be to call 911 (we know at least one of the onlookers had a cell phone) and to stay with Hugo until help arrived. That would have required some risk, though.

Schools don’t teach students about courage any more. Stories about the miserable treatment of Native Americans dominate the story of how the West was won, slighting the undeniable courage of the common people who won it (or, if you prefer, took it.) The wars of the 20th Century are increasingly taught as cautionary tales about imperialism, greed or genocide; nobody graduates from high school today knowing who Alvin York or Audie Murphy was or what they did. The earlier wars? Well, you can’t teach about Pickett’s futile and heroic charge, because he was one of the “bad guys” in the Civil War. Schools rarely teach students about the Alamo outside of Texas: too many slaveholders in that group of 186 (or 220), and they were fighting Mexicans.

It is true that today’s popular culture, Harry Potter and the like,  still celebrate heroism and sacrifice. It doesn’t seem to me that this is enough to maintain bravery and courage as cultural values, when all the other societal messages are  telling Americans to be safe, be secure, and above all, avoid risk.

The fascinating thing is that Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax, the illegal, down-and-out Guatemalan immigrant, would have fit right in at the Alamo. His life wasn’t much, but it was all he had, and he gave it up to help a stranger. His life, a failure, perhaps, up until its final hour, was given meaning and nobility by his courageous, selfless, ethical act.

I don’t know what it will take to make Americans remember what was once a cherished part of their heritage, that the courage to do what is right in the face of  danger and risk is essential to a healthy society and a meaningful life.

 Remembering a brave Guatemalan named Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax is a good place to start.

19 thoughts on “Flashback: “What Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax Can Teach America”

  1. This reminds me of the Good Samaritan experiment. Theology students were told the needed to give a lecture on the Good Samaritan bible story. On the way to this lecture, the researchers set up a confederate who was injured or sick. Only half the theology students stopped. If they were in a rush to get to the lecture, only something like 10% stopped.

    This isn’t meant to rag on religion, but on people in general. Even when being primed with an ethical tale, people will still violate that exact ethical principle if it would inconvenience them.

    • The researchers were Darley and Batson at Princeton, and it is one of my favorite “ethics alarms” studies. The importance of the grade for the their lecture was enough to push all ethical motivations out of their skulls, a testament to the power of our needs and desires to stop our alarms cold. It isn’t that they choose to ignore ethics, they literally don’t think about it, like most of us, when the powerful non-ethical motivations are in full play.

      That study, which I first read about in “The Tipping Point,” was the inspiration for this blog.

      Imagine my restraint in not mentioning it once in a year and a half! And thanks for doing it now.

  2. Jack,
    Great article. Small point ..
    “Schools don’t teach students about courage any more. Stories about the miserable treatment of Native Americans dominate the story of how the West was won, slighting the undeniable courage of the common people who won it (or, if you prefer, took it.)”

    And it’s a shame so many European history classes focus on the evils of the pogroms while completely ignoring the Czar’s courage in ridding the lands of the unwanted. I fail to see that teaching about the mistreatment (some would say, genocide) of Native Americans instead of more tales of cowboy courage is why so many New Yorkers failed to call 911, nor are the symptomatic of the same problem. (Also, while I’m not as young as I once was, I’m far from an old man and yet I remember learning a great deal about Wild Bill Hickock, Calamity Jane, and Wyatt Earp quite vividly)

    “Well, you can’t teach about Pickett’s futile and heroic charge, because he was one of the “bad guys” in the Civil War.”

    Or, because it was incredibly stupid, irresponsible, and unjustifiable order that resulted in the death or injury of nearly all those involved (especially when you had skilled generals like Longstreet who said as much at the time). Pickett was bold, yes .. and those under his command were undeniably brave for not turning and running, but that’s not the same as heroism. Why not talk about the bravery and courage it takes to strap on a bomb and blow yourself up in a crowded area, or to fly a plane into a warship? These are not examples we want emulated.

    Second of all, while it’s true that it’s overly-simplistic to call the South the “bad guys,” lets not forget that they were nonetheless openly defending an institution which allowed human beings to become property to be owned. I’d write volumes on the courage of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Frederick Douglas before wasting even a single word on Pickett’s Charge

    “.. would have fit right in at the Alamo”
    It is the American dream that immigrants (for example, Davy Crockett) will come to a new land (Mexico), become fully acclimated with it’s people and culture, and then fight AGAINST that land’s legitimate authority so that their home country can acquire more land.

    I’m not suggesting the U.S. return Texas to Mexico, that there weren’t inspiring stories to be learned from the Confederacy, or that the Native Americans don’t have blood on their hands either; only that 1) your examples are bad and 2) education isn’t the problem.

    As far as your assessment of the Tale-Yax situation as a whole, however, your logic is impeccable and I couldn’t agree more.

    -Neil

    • Thanks.
      1) The Alamo’s a bit more complicated. Mexico invited in the Americans, and, surprise, they tried to take over and had problems with a preening dictator
      2) You can’t blame Pickett for the Charge, which was all Robert E. Lee’s doing. (Pickett refused to speak to Lee after the war.) And it is still a great example of bravery for the men Pickett commanded, who also had no say in the tactic. Plus, stupid and risky as it seems, it almost worked, and could have worked had a couple thing broken Lee’s way.
      3) A stone-age nomadic people who don’t own land are doomed when a technologically advanced culture arrives. Always, inevitably. Everyplace. The few places where such societies flourished longer—Mongolia, for example—were sitting ducks for expansionist empires (after their own empire faltered) and are still struggling back from destitution today.

      There was no other possible result for the Indians, given the values of the two disparate cultures. One can and should have complete sympathy and compassion for the losers in these cultural showdowns, and there were definitely genocidal elements from Jackson, Sheridan and others. But acting as if the conquering of the American West was the equivalent of Hitler’s policies is just warped history, warped logic and unfair to the incredible achievements of several generations.

      • Say that other people do the same. Blame the victim. Claim that hurting the victim is best for them. Who has warped logic here?

        I also don’t see any comparison to Hitler. Not all genocides are created equal, but that doesn’t mean that one of them is not genocide.

        • Who said “hurting the victim is best for them”? I just said that the failure of Native American society to compete with the new arrivals inevitable, which it was, over many generations, despite both good and bad intentions for all concerned. There is no reading of anthropology or history that suggests that Native Americans were anything but doomed once the Europeans arrived. And it makes no more sense to reduce it to ‘victims” and “oppressors” than it does to call meat-eaters murderers.

          • You implied it. “The few places where such societies flourished longer—Mongolia, for example—were sitting ducks for expansionist empires (after their own empire faltered) and are still struggling back from destitution today.”

            Sounds like you think it would better for Mongolia if they had been taken apart sooner. If you didn’t intend such, I have no idea what this has to do with anything. I assume you don’t write non sequitors.

            The Native Americans were only doomed because the Europeans had plans to take over their land. By the same logic, the Jews were doomed in Germany in the 1930s. You can’t say that because certain behavior is historically common, that behavior is not bad.

            • That was not my intent. My point with Mongolia is that it persisted in a horse and tent nomadic system long after it was reasonable, and now the country is trying to catch up, and suffering for its persistence. They certainly would tell you that they prefer giving up their way of life on their own terms rather than at bayonet-point.

              I think everyone BUT the Indians benefited from the Europeans taking over, not certainly not the Native Americans themselves.

              Still, you can’t explain how the Europeans wouldn’t have ultimately moved the NA’s out, with their Protestant values, the agricultural tradition, and the addiction to property, or any scenario where the US, with all its resources, wasn’t occupied by a population bent on fully using them.

              • That was not my intent. My point with Mongolia is that it persisted in a horse and tent nomadic system long after it was reasonable, and now the country is trying to catch up, and suffering for its persistence. They certainly would tell you that they prefer giving up their way of life on their own terms rather tan at bayonet-point.

                So you were attempting to undermine your own point? Ok.

                Still, you can’t explain how the Europeans wouldn’t have ultimately moved the NA’s out, with their Protestant values, the agricultural tradition, and the addiction to property, or any scenario where the US, with all its resources, wasn’t occupied by a population bent on fully using them.

                Again, so as long as the Europeans behaved badly, this was going to happen. I’m not arguing with that. I’m arguing with your rationalizing the bad behavior on the likelihood of it occurring.

                • Not rationalizing, and I think you are being intentionally obtuse. If giants come to earth, we will be squashed. There is no way giants can come here and not squash people, even stipulating that squashing wasn’t their intent. Right and wrong do not apply. Should the Europeans have not come to America? No. There was nothing wrong with that. Should they have not stayed, if there was plenty of land and nobody purported to won it? Nothing wrong with staying. Indians drove each other out of territory by deals and warfare. Should the settlers have been expected to forge a new moral order to benefit primitive people they regarded as savages? No, that would be unimaginable. Calling what happened “wrong” is simplistic and retroactive cultural judgment. So is saying the Europeans acted badly. If there was no other way to act within human experience, then it cannot be bad—-a bad act requires the rejection of a choice you can reasonably recognize as good.

                  I will agree that the conduct of the Spanish in the New world was objectively immoral and wrong, and they did have other natural options.

                  • If the giants knew this planet was populated, then it would of course be immoral. If the giants didn’t know, and then found out after they got here, it would be immoral not to leave as soon as possible. You, again, are rationalizing.

                    Should the settlers have been expected to forge a new moral order to benefit primitive people they regarded as savages? No, that would be unimaginable.

                    Unimaginable does not mean incorrect.

                    No, that would be unimaginable. Calling what happened “wrong” is simplistic and retroactive cultural judgment. So is saying the Europeans acted badly.

                    Slavery was always wrong; it was always immoral. I don’t care if it was common practice, and neither should any ethicist. Yes, this is retroactive cultural judgement, but so what? You can say they were following the cultural norms, but those norms were immoral.

                    If there was no other way to act within human experience, then it cannot be bad—-a bad act requires the rejection of a choice you can reasonably recognize as good.

                    Bull. I am not prepared to say that raping men, women, and children was every moral. I hope you aren’t either.

                    Morality does not derive from culture. Morality is. It’s like math and physics. Just because people did it wrong doesn’t mean doing it wrong was right. The actors can be forgiven their trespasses, but they still trespassed.

                    I don’t see how my Mongolian example undermines any point at all.

                    Your Mongolian example shows that there was harm done to the Native Americans and that the harm didn’t necessarily have to be done.

                    • Nonsense. It didn’t happen to Mongolia becaues there’s nothing IN Mongolia. I’m not saying that what happened to the natives in America was fair (to them) or good (for them)…I’m saying that there was no other way it could have happened…it was Darwin at its most brutal.Put a nation of ten-year-olds incharge of the world’s gold and oil reserves, and argue that “it didn’t have to be taken from them.” An impossible outcome cannot be the model, which is what you are arguing.

                      Giants don’t have any reason to regard it wrong to take over a planet they believe is occupied by insignificant, tiny organisms, any more than we worry about the fild mice when we build an apartment complex where there was an open field. Individual acts and decisions that were part of the process whereby the European culture crushed the native culture were unethical and wrong, but they were not essential to the final result, which was—I’d say obviously, but you prove otherwise—unavoidable.

                    • …it was Darwin at its most brutal.

                      Social Darwinism doesn’t come from Darwin. He specifically rebuked such. End pet peeve.

                      Put a nation of ten-year-olds incharge of the world’s gold and oil reserves, and argue that “it didn’t have to be taken from them.” An impossible outcome cannot be the model, which is what you are arguing.

                      There is no part of this comparison that works. Children are not like adults. Part of a resource is not like an entire resource.

                      Giants don’t have any reason to regard it wrong to take over a planet they believe is occupied by insignificant, tiny organisms, any more than we worry about the fild mice when we build an apartment complex where there was an open field.

                      Combining the above with your previous comparison says that Native Americans were insignificant. Somehow lesser than the Europeans. Whether the Europeans thought such doesn’t make it so.

                    • My pet peeve is that because social Darwinism was used to bolster master race and eugenics theories, people act like cultures with superior resources, more practical values and other advantages won’t prevail over cultures not similarly constructed. Political correctness, as always, conquers common sense. Similarly, it is much in vogue to argue that there is no skill, character and intelligence differences between the successful and the unsuccessful in America…that it’s all just luck of the draw, who you know, and the effects of various kinds of oppression.

                      A large number of the American Indian tribes decided that humans should play by the same rules as all the other biological life forms, but with more consideration and respect. Their theories were admirable and ethical, but antithetical to political and economic development, a fatal handicap. It was a culture as unsuited to long term success as the dinosaurs were unsuited to dealing with Ice Age. If you don’t want to call it survival of the fittest, swell: come up with a better name.

                      More later: off to tell a bunch of academics to stop harassing women.

          • What do you mean when you say that the Native Americans were “doomed”? If you mean that their traditional way of life could not continue, then you are correct. If you mean that many of them were likely to die of diseases like smallpox, then you are also correct. Whether they were inevitably doomed to suffer tragedies like the Trail of Tears is by no means certain.

            • I mean their way of life was doomed.

              Perhaps you know that George Washington, as he left office, wrote a letter to one of the most influential chiefs urging him to lead his people to work toward joining the US and adapting to its culture, because, he said, their choice was to assimilate or be wiped out. Washington said that this wasn’t right or fair, but inevitable. It would have taken a very long-sighted chief to accept this, but of course GW had the situation well-assessed.

              Absent the Trail of Tears, and Wounded Knee, the racism, and all the rest of the atrocities, the end result would have been similar, just longer in coming. That doesn’t mean that the US shouldn’t recognize its debt to Native Americans and the terrible harm it has done. My point is that nobody, and I’ve read a lot on the topic, has ever explained a plausible alternative to what happened. A plausible alternative to the WAY it happened, yes.

              • Right, yes, I agree with you. The natives’ traditional way of life could not be preserved. The way you said that the natives were doomed made it sound like the natives were doomed to suffer everything that happened to them because they were technologically inferior. Glad we cleared that up.

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