Friday, September 30, 2005
Quote of the Day:
The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness. --Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
Sunday, September 25, 2005
Thin Ice. The best kind of conservative understands how fragile civilization is, that we're all walking through history on a thin sheet of ice which separates us from the barbarism that lies beneath. Occasionally a society breaks through the ice. We saw it in Germany in the thirties and the Balkans in the nineties. We saw it in Rwanda and Somalia. We saw a glimpse of it as parts of our society broke through in New Orleans. The best kind of conservative understands that you have to tread softly. That the ice is composed of religious, political, and economic traditions and institutions that keep barbarism walled out.
The barbarians aren't at the gates; they are us. We are all barbarians once the ice breaks and we plunge into what lies below. We won't think of ourselves that way, of course. We will think of ourselves as doing what it takes to survive, of protecting our property and our family. We're all potential Michael Corleones--idealists until our "interests" are threatened.
Conservatives tend to be pessimists about human nature. They see themselves as attuned to how precarious and insecure our civilized life is. They understand how important it is to shore up those traditions and institutions that prevent the awful rather than promote the good. Since they don't believe that politics can do much good, they are inclined to support only those policies that will do the least harm. Conservatives are profoundly distrustful of any top-down engineering projects. But they are not averse to modestly scaled progams that meet real needs. But they are allergic to an ambitioius Jacobinism that seeks to sweep away the old to make way for the new. This kind of conservatism is healthy and has an important role to play in our social life.
Liberals are more optimistic about human nature and believe in ambitious programs designed to improve the human condition. Liberalism is the spirit of modernity, and as such the spirit of progress. The Liberal spirit can point to amazing things that it accomplished over the past five hundred years. It can rightly claim credit for so many of the benefits we westerners have received and take for granted. It gave us the freedom, individuality, and the idea of universal human rights. It gave us a standard of living unimaginable to medievals. It gave us significant advances in biological sciences and medicine and with it longer, healthier lives. It gave us all manner of conveniences and entertainments with the clever development of new machines.
But we have paid a price. Its materialist cast has made us superficial and spiritually tone deaf. We have become hollow-chested, missing our middles. More and more people are feeling We have lots of choices, but few deep connections. Our lives are fragmented jumble, and sure some people thrive in the chaos, but there are lots and lots of people who just feel disconnected, lonely, and confused. The right wing backlash in this country is in large part an understandable, if futile, attempt to say No to the social forces that are at the root of every thing that they find confusing. The fact is that most people don't like change; they don't like feeling out of control; they don't like having to adapt and grow.
The curious thing about our present situation in America is that the Liberals are the conservatives and the conservatives are the Jacobins. The Liberals in the Democratic party are the stodgy party of stability, and the radicals in the Republican Party are doing everything they can to dismantle the domestic infrastructure established by the coordinated effort of both Democrats and Republicans in the last seventy years. And they are working to destabilize the multilateral international order that had been developing since the fall of the Soviet Union.
So the political choices that are available to us are on the one hand the stodgy conservative/liberalism of the Democrats, and on the other, the unhinged destructiveness of the Republicans who are doing everything they can to jump up and down on the ice so that we will all have the pleasure of a plunge into barbarism. And yet so many frightened, confused Americans vote Republican because they believe Republicans will keep them safe.
So it is to be hoped that Americans will come to their senses and in the Congressional elections vote conservatively for the Democrats. These Republicans are drunken good old boys that have driven the country off road and into the swamp. They are reckless fools, and they need to be reined in. That's the first order of business, but assuming we are able to push these guys out of the pickup truck of state and get the rig back on the highway, then what?
I would say then that the focus shifts from the political sphere to the cultural. I don't mind having stodgy, conservative leaders running the political shop. I'm fine with its having the primary responsibility for keeping us from plunging through the ice or into the swamp. Where the important stuff needs to happen is in the culture, and politics will follow. And my quarrel with Liberalism is not for its role in shaping what happens in the political sphere--it's fine there. I think that it is decadent in the cultural sphere.
Thursday, September 22, 2005
The Redemption of Eros. If you accept the basic thrust of what I wrote yesterday, there are two basic implications. First, what we believe is more important and has a far greater impact on the way we live than what we know with certainty. The fact is that we hardly know anything important with certainty. Most of what we think we know is really provisional and open to revision. Most of what think we know to be true is not significantly different from saying that we believe it to be true. We work with all kinds of clues and circumstantial evidence, but our inferences are only very rarely 100% conclusive. And so we make educated guesses about what we believe to be true, and we are subsequently proven right or wrong by the results or fruits of those decisions.
So it's ok. In a world with so little certainty we usually find a way. And if there is little certainty about so much, that does not mean that there is little that is true. It just means we don't have the perceptual apparatus to recognize it all that well. Because we can't see it all that clearly doesn't mean it isn't there. It points to a need we have to develop a more effective way of discerning it.
That's a big subject, but here's a place to start is very practical. The truth of those matters that matter most to us should be measured by some abstract standard of certainty, but by their fruitfulness in our lives. It's a very simple criteria. Do our beliefs result in a richer, and more deeply lived human life? We can argue what beliefs might work better to achieve desirable ends, or even what ends are desirable, but I hope that you can buy into the basic premise.
The second implication is that our beliefs have social consequences. Our beliefs have a ripple effect on everyone around us, and the social consequences of our individual beliefs are something we all need to be aware of and to take the measure of. We are connected to one another, whether we like it or not. The person who believes that the only sensible way to live is to be completely out for him or herself has a negative impact on the rest of us, even if such a person's behavior technically remains within the law. I'll come back to this second idea another day.
Today, I want to focus the first one. And in doing so I want to lay out some preliminary and somewhat random ideas about the development of an "erotic epistemology." I'm using eros here in the Platonic, not the Freudian sense, the latter being in my opinion an understanding of a fragmented and degraded eros, and it is this degraded eros that needs to be redeemed or reintegrated into a larger understanding.
The argument I want to make is that we don't really know what we don't love, or the reverse, which is that we only know what we love, and the depth of our knowledge correlates with the depth of our love. There is dead knowledge and there is living knowledge. And most our world is filled with the dead kind. Some of it can be interesting, the way junk food is tasty or pornography titillating. But it doesn't nourish and enliven the soul. It weighs down, numbs, enervates. Living knowledge lives by virtue of its participation in a fundamental dynamic life force. A basic premise for any kind of erotic epistemology is that the act of knowing is a participatory sport, so to say. It's not about the objective, disconnected observation that produces dead knowledge.
Kierkegaard somewhere says that Subjective truth is more important than objective truth. This is the reverse of the priority given to truth during the modern era. But it goes back to an older understanding of knowledge. Certain kinds of subjective insights can turn the world upside down. Truth, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder, but some people see more truthfully and deeply than others. And when we encounter such people (face to face or in their thought or art), they often cause a detonation of Subjective truth in us, and the “objective” world no longer looks the same. This detonation is powered by an ennobled Eros. If we are receptive, we are inseminated, and something new begins to grow within. It's not just abut having one's mind changed, but about having ones' soul transformed.
Along with the demise of the false division between faith and reason falls the false division between subject and object. A retrieval of an older epistemology is already arising that realizes that truth is not about subjects and objects but about subjects and subjects, that it is intersubjective. Socrates and Plato (and lots of others) already knew this, but it’s something until recently that we’ve lost sight of because of the modern compulsion for a narrowly defined certainty about “objects.”
So in order for me to assert that some see more deeply than others, I must hold that there is some transsubjective standard which makes it possible to compare the depth or degree of truthfulness any person beholds. I'm not saying that we can completely know the standard, but that it makes a difference that there is one, even if we're not all that clear about it. How to understand this? You can come at it from different angles. Mine is a Greco-Christian angle, so I'm going to use Greco-Christian language to explain it. For me the “transsubjective” is the Logos, the one pointed to in the Prologue to the Gospel of John.
The idea of the Logos goes back at least as far as Heraclitus, is reflected in the Aristotelian idea of the Active Intellect, and was prominent concept in Stoicism during Roman times. For the Greeks and Romans it was cosmic or transcendent principle that gave the world order and coherence and without which the world would be unintelligible. The Christian inspiration was to connect (or recognize that) this rather impersonal cosmic principle was identical with the cosmic Christ. "He [the Logos} was with God in the beginning, and through him all things were made," says St. John. "And all things that were made have their life in him."
This concept was central for the Christian Neoplatonism that dominated Western thought for about a thousand years. I think it's an idea that needs to be retrieved and presented as the the metaphysical substrate for a postmodern Christian metanarrative. For me it's central, and it is essential for an erotic epistemology. Because real knowledge, the best knowledge, the most satisfying and fruitful knowledge, is something developed only through interpersonal relationships. And so therefore a lot depends on who's there for us with whom we can enter into such a relationship. You can't get very far if your world is mostly inhabited by a bunch of Ayn Randians, or if you yourself believe that Ayn Rand has it mostly right.
We therefore know best not in a subject-object sense, but in a subject-subject or intersubjective sense. The goal is not to know objects, but to know "others." And the others we know are subjects, or at the very least have a subjective dimension to them insofar as they inhere or participate in the Absolute Other, which is the Logos. The other is not a thing; he or she or it is a mystery with whom we enter into a relationship, I-Thou style, and as in all relationships, once we admit the Other as mystery, we lose control of the situation, and unexpected things happen. Knowledge is no longer about the technical and the predictable, but about the mysterious and surprising.
Ok. I know it's pretty hard to swallow for people who don't have much familiarity with the Christian neoplatonic tradition (Or the way it played out in Judaism for which provided much of the framework for Kabala. And Buber is obviously a presence in much of what I'm writing here.) If this were more of a philosophic treatise I would try to make a thorough argument, but for now I'm just going to assume that whoever is reading this is interested enough to just go with it for now. For now I just want to lay it out, and I'll argue the fine points with anybody who wants to write me about any of them. I want to go on to what I believe to be the advantages of this particular "belief system."
For one thing, it changes in a fundamental way how we think about truth. We don't know it or possess it; we “hearken” to it. Great souls hearken to ever greater truths, and they use their slippery words in an attempt to evoke for others that to which they hearken so that we may too. And then communities of hearkeners form around the truth to which they hearken, and if it’s real truth, it stands the test of time, and it draws people singly and together into a deeper and deeper hearkening which correlates to the development of a deeper and deeper interiority. Because one's capacity for hearkening obviously has something to do with the disposition of one's soul. Those who have the ears of the soul, let them hear. Those who have the eyes of the soul, let them see.
If you've been in a long-term relationship with anyone you truly love, you understand how it deepens and transforms you. You know it, and maybe can find ways to express it or describe it, but it's not objective knowledge or scientifically verifiable. But it's nevertheless the most important thing you can know.
This is completely contrary to control approach imposed by scientific method. This transpersonal “otherness” cannot be measured, quantified, or subjected to the truth standards developed since the Enlightenment. It can’t be “objectified”; it can only be acknowledged in its mystery by those who have eyes to see or ears to hear. And for Christians, the guarantor of the validity of our experience of upper-case Subjective truth is the ultimate Other, the Logos, through whom all things were made and in which all “others,” if we had the eyes to see them, glow with the radiant beauty of the Logos in whom all things inhere.
This glow is the radiance of the noumenon that Kant said was beyond our cognitive powers. Goethe thought differently, and the medievals like Aquinas understood that knowledge of the truth was linked to the progressive development of one’s subjectivity toward holiness. Seeing clearly is a function of subjective development, and truth cognition is an intersubjective phenomenon--not a subject/object phenomenon. It is, in other words, a cultural project shaped not in accordance with what is objectively true in the Modern sense, but what is subjectively true as cognized by communities of those who are attuned to the numinous mysterious way that Subjects are, i.e., people who have the capacity for deep and abiding love. That is, people who have not just well-developed heads but well-developed souls. And the development of soul is fundamentally an erotic project, a project for the cultural sphere, where two or more are gathered. Eros animates the cultural sphere, the sphere of art, religion, and philosophy (when they are done correctly) and when its rule is vibrant and alive with possibility, the economic and political spheres gladly acquiesce.
Again, this something that Plato and the Neoplatonic Christian tradition from Augustine to Bonaventure to St Francis and St. John of the Cross understood, but it’s something that has been lost to us now in any living way. The Modern degradation of Eros is one of the fundamental reasons for the collapse of the Modern. Right now too much of our art, religion, and philosophy are a bloodless, soulless business for which there is no danger of their having any influence in shaping the economic or political. Is Eros redeemable? That’s a part of my hope.
Our culture suffers not because there are so many greedy, power-hungry people in it. There always have been and there always will be such people. It suffers, first, because it accepts that greed and the will to power are normative, and that our public life together is simply the way those passions play out. And secondly because such a cynical culture provides us so few models of an alternative that would call us to something nobler and, as a result, such a culture makes it extremely difficult for a different kind of human—the saint—to emerge from within it.
There is no longer a trellis for those souls who would aspire to deep, numinous goodness. There are many good people, but extraordinarily few who are great in their goodness. And because there are so few, the rest of us do not encounter them, and so we are deprived the experience of the encounter with the subjects who detonate in us experiences of our own Subjective depths in which Subjective truth lies dormant. And since our experience of subjective truth is so weak, we don’t value it. It becomes a self-reinforcing loop that keeps us trapped in a kind of despair.
All significant human transformation is effected by the power of Eros. Eros is what wakes us up, and awakens us to noble aspirations that we otherwise have no idea about, or at least have forgotten since we were young when it throbbed most vibrantly in our souls, when we longed for those encounters with a great soul who would inspire us to do great deeds. Most of us now are so weak in Eros we have lost all capacity to keep one another awake. Our relationships with friends and lovers are anemic and soulless, and few thrive. We have too many of us become soulless, neurotic, unerotic wraiths, and this is something we owe to the Modern and its materialistic, mechanomorphic imagination of the human which limits our vision and so keeps our aspirations so small in their being circumscribed by the economic and our concerns about physical security and comfort.
Our public culture now aspires to nothing greater than the economic, and our politics is structured to achieve little more than to moderate our economic passions in such a way that we don’t step on one another too badly as we rush out to get what’s ours. The best argument I can make for American culture is that it gives us the freedom to be as good or bad as we want to be, but its models for the bad are so much more interesting and compelling than any models it proposes for the good. Eros means something naughty in American culture, and that’s why only the bad guys seem interesting in our film and fiction—at least they’re alive, especially when contrasted to the wraithlike or overly sentimental characters who typically image for us the good and decent.
Goodness, real goodness, is erotically powerful and beautiful and luminous in its overwhelming truthfulness. But in our culture even those who aspire to goodness find that the scope of what is possible severely limited because goodness is not something that can be achieved alone; it is intersubjective process. It’s born out of a tradition, for we need the help of others to awaken us to our own depths, and if for nothing else but to model the possibilities for us, and right now there is no vigorous tradition, and there are no vibrant models, and there are few encounters with great goodness possible for us, and so we are diminished as a people.
P.S. If you want more, check out my essay entitled, "Missing Middle Syndrome." It tries to lay out my take on degraded eros as a symptom of a kind of genital/cerebral loop that leaves out the most important thing, which is the middle part, the soul part, the heart part.
P.P.S. A book that I found to be very in tune with what I'm talking about here is Ewert Cousins' Christ of the 21st Century. I'll probably have more to say about it another time.
Wednesday, September 21, 2005
Believing. We have a special opportunity and responsibility to frame something new at this point in our cultural history. One of the main consequences of the shift from matter to mind consequent to the fall of the Modern rationalist narrative is that “believing” no longer has the pejorative connotations it once had. It’s possible now to entertain metaphysical questions in a way that it was not even fifteen years ago.
Metaphysics since Kant was thought by most people who thought about such things to be about believing something rather than really knowing it, and “believing” until recently was considered a weakness of mind. I say until recently, because one of the pillars of the postmodern critique of Modern rationality has been that most of what we think we know is really only what we believe. Our truths—even scientific truths—are just provisional metaphors that have meaning only insofar as they fit into a larger metanarrative which we have assimilated unconsciously or which we have chosen in a kind of leap of faith.
We might take the leap of faith into scientism, communism, feminism, positivism, or any number of other isms if we think it provides the most effective narrative to organize our experience and or longings. But there is no objective, rational grounding for accepting any of these narratives. The postmodern thinkers recognize this, so what we find ourselves living in a remarkably diverse marketplace of narratives all of which are founded in belief.
And the result has been that believing has become rehabilitated. It’s one of the best things we can do. “You gotta believe” is a commonplace in our sports and pop psychological worlds. We are constantly admonished to believe in ourselves and to believe in one another . And the assumption that lies beneath these admonitions is that our believing it’s so will make it so if we have enough faith.
Now I don’t want to equate this popular idea of believing with the deeper and more mysterious phenomenon we recognize as religious faith, but it bears a family relationship to it. The practical benefits of belief have a long heritage from St. Augustine’s De utilitate credendi, to Pascal’s “wager,” to the pragmatism of William James, to the prescriptions of our current health care professionals who have noticed that people who have religious practices live happier, healthier lives.
This is just another way of saying that the metanarrative precedes the ethical. What we believe shapes how we live, whether our beliefs are superficial or profound. Whatever narrative we ultimately choose opens up certain possibilities and closes off others; it shapes what we can see and what we are blind to.But most important, the narrative we choose points to and defines that which we most deeply long for. Every narrative is shaped in one way or another by hope. Even nihilism. If you live with a materialistic narrative, your longing focuses on materialistic goals; if a spiritual narrative, spiritual goals.
So the subjective dimension of our experience is critical to any understanding we have about the meaning of faith. During the modern era, mainly due to the influence of Protestantism, this subjective experience of faith became a far more important element in Christian piety than it had been for the more public, communal Catholic piety during the medieval era. This was an important development. The importance of conscience and interiority, of course, was not unknown to the medievals (particularly those in the monasteries), but it was not something that really influenced common practice. Protestantism did for conscience what it did for the Bible—made its use more widespread.
I have the deepest respect for the a grace-awakened conscience. I understand it as a cognitive faculty essential for knowing the good, and I would also say that as such it either grows or diminishes according to how effectively one uses it. But the individual and his or her conscience is not enough. The idea of a conscience-centered morality is a tool developed out of necessity in a world darkened by the Modern materialist spirit, and it’s scope is very limited in answering the Big Questions because it can see, like lantern light, only as far forward or backward as its beams can shine. And it’s useful hardly at all in shaping any public imagination in response to the Big Questions. But the power of many lanterns working together might shine light on things that we are now incapable of seeing in this dark time.
The tricky part comes when one turns his conscience to concerns about one’s responsibilities in the social or public sphere. It is fine to have developed a personal answer to the questions one might have about his life’s meaning and purpose. But sooner or later each of us needs to ask: In what sense is my meaning and purpose connected to everyone else’s? That’s another question that most Americans don’t feel comfortable with nowadays, because we’re all only supposed to have our own private meanings. In America, what you believe is your own business, and it’s bad manners to bring it into the public sphere.
But surely we are all in this together. So what is it that we are in? What do we have to hope for, not in some individualistic sense, but as a world, a creation, a cosmos? And what is our responsibility—now—to do our part in working toward its realization?
So it comes back to Why are we here? and How should we live? But not just I alone but all of us. I don’t see any common understandings out there that I find adequate to the profound challenge which confronts us and the generations that follow us. There are fragments of hope to be found everywhere, but who is trying to put them together? Certainly not the mainstream academy or church. Both of these are riven with the contradictions of Modernity. Both have for all practical purposes abandoned any pretence that there is a compelling answer to the Big Questions. The first simply says it can’t know or develops its own limited narrative, like sociobiology, and the second indulges in predictable platitudes that have no bite and thus no significant impact in the public sphere except to annoy non-believers. How do we connect our individual moral subjectivities with one another. What’s the glue that will hold it together in a way that enhances our life together? What must happen if we are to give up our lives alone in order to become part of something larger?
Next Post: The Redemption of Eros.
Tuesday, September 20, 2005
Done with NYT. I'm finished with the New York Times. Reading it used to be one of my great pleasures, but I have come to despise most everything it stands for. Sulzberger is like one of these sports franchise owners who takes something great, runs it into the ground, then blames the fans for not showing up. Kind of like the guy in the White House.
P.S. You can get your Krugman here.
Monday, September 19, 2005
Crony capitalism" or "crapitalism" is a pejorative term describing a capitalist economy in which success in business depends on an extremely close relationship between the businessman and the state institutions of politics and government, rather than by the espoused "equitable" concepts of the free market, open competition, and economic liberalism. It may be exhibited by favoritism in the distribution of legal permits, government grants, special tax breaks, and so forth. . . .
States often said to exhibit crony capitalism are China, Japan, Indonesia, Russia, and most other ex-Soviet states. Critics claim that government connections are almost indispensable to business success in these countries. Some allege that the same is true for certain industries in the United States, especially the so-called "military-industrial complex". Wikipedia
Fascism is the subordination of the economy to the state. Crony capitalism is the subordination of the state to certain economic interests. Crony capitalism is inevitable in a political society in which money drives policy. This isn't just a tendency in American politics; it's the reality. And it's pretty ugly. Perhaps too ugly for most Americans to be able to look at and fully comprehend.
So perhaps looking at it as something other countries do is easier. You can see how it works in the fable created by John le Carré's The Constant Gardener. The film version is not easy to watch, but I think it captures something of the complexity and the mixed motives that drive this system. The kind of horror that is the final result is the cumulative effect of several small decisions lots of different people make, none of which when taken in isolation seemed all that morally repugnant. But then, there you are. There are always good reasons for doing the wrong thing, and we can justify anything when we have a mind to. But the film points to the system perpetuated by all those decisions and to our willing or unwilling, conscious or unconscious participation in it.
I've not read the book, and so I don't know how faithfully the film represents the point of view of the novelist. But le Carré said in a Salon interview, "I guess you could say that, at 65, when you've seen the world shape up as I have, there are only two things you can do: laugh or kill yourself. " I've got a ways to go before I hit 65, but I understand the sentiment. So apparently did Justin, the character played by Ralph Fiennes, who, good-natured bloke that he was, still for the life of him could not find anything to laugh about.
Friday, September 16, 2005
Too Much Too Late? Bush's speech last night raises some questions. It's one thing to say it, and another to pay for it. $200 Billion?!!! Where's it coming from? Who is going to pay for this and for the continuing cost of the war. Anybody getting nervous about inflation? Something's gotta give.
Roberts Confirmation. After all the crony appointments that seem typical of the Bush mentality, I suppose we should be grateful that at least we have somebody in Roberts who is so qualified for the job. Maybe it's another sign of Bush's incompetence that he mistakenly nominated someone who is not the guy he thinks he is. You have to wonder. The conservative blogs certainly have their shorts in a knot about Roberts' presentation of himself as a moderate.
He may or may not be. His claim that he aspires to be a judge whose role is only to call balls and strikes is somewhat reassuring, but also misleading. The real question is how he defines his strike zone, and he gave us only a few hints about that. He wants to present himself as someone who gives the constitution a broader, common-sense and less fundamentalist reading than Clarence Thomas, and he does not want to be perceived as an ideologue like Antonin Scalia. That, too, is reassuring, but how much of that is tactical and how much sincere is hard to judge. So I agree with Biden--it's a crap shoot, and we just don't know what we're getting.
Nevertheless, I found everything he said to be what I would have hoped he would say. My concerns lie mainly with the company he has kept. He seems to be, or have been, rather too comfortable in the righter wings of the political spectrum. He says he's not an ideologue, but how do we know that? Since when are public officials' descriptions of themselves believable? Bush, after all, described himself as a compassionate conservative. Roberts' memos from twenty-five years ago seem to be pretty ideological. It might seem unfair to judge him by what he thought so long ago, but what else do we have to go on? The Bush administration would not release more recent memos. So what do we really know? Not much.
But if I were a senator, I would vote for him. Bottom line is that the president, whom the American people elected, gets to choose his judge. We Americans elected Bush, and we have to live with the consequences. I could be wrong about Roberts, but there's good reason to hope he might be ok. My b.s. detector alarm doesn't go off the way it does when I listen to most public officials these days. That's not an infallible guide, but it's usually pretty accurate.
Leo Bosner on FEMA Response. There will be a lot of analysis about what went wrong in the response to Katrina. A report this morning on NPR interviews Leo Bosner, an emergency management specialist with FEMA, where he has worked since 1979. It's one man's opinion, but he's a long-time insider, and he was shocked at the Chertoff/Brown slow response to warnings that started on Friday. He said that the level of preparation was that typical for a category 1 hurricane, not for the level of storm that the administration was warned was coming. The NPR site also has the daily FEMA National Situational Update emails that went out to Chertoff and Brown as the storm strengthened through the weekend.
The point is that nobody can control when and where hurricanes hit, but people can control the emergency response, and there is a level of neglect here that is criminal.
Monday, September 12, 2005
In Praise of Wobblies (Not). Did you catch this morning's "This I Believe" on NPR. Here's the blurb:
For years, journalist Ted Gup wasn't sure what he believed, and he felt uncomfortable in the company of people who freely shared their firm beliefs. Now he accepts his own uncertainty as a good thing.
I'm sure Ted Gup would be the first to say that he doesn't hold himself up to be a model. He sounds like a nice man. He sounds like so many of the "nice" people I know here in Seattle, who always think there are two sides to every issue. That's a fallacy of course. There are not two sides to every issue, but multiple sides and multiple levels. Every issue of importance these days is unfathomably complex, and more often than not it's impossible to know enough to form a certain opinion. Nevertheless, you have to take a stand.
And so when I listen to a guy like Gup, I have to wonder if he is someone who who has any interior conviction. He doesn't buy what the left says, but he's willing to listen. He doesn't buy what the right says, but he's willing to listen. And the great thing is both sides invite him to dinner. How nice. But being a good listener isn't enough. You have to take a stand, even if it's one quite different from either that taken by those on the left or right.
Is his point simply to reject the glib, predictable idiocy of the Crossfire mentality that has infected our political discourse? Well then he should say he rejects that, and then tell us what he believes instead. He says he has his own compass and convictions now, well then tell us something about them.
Just telling me that he believes in listening to both sides tells me nothing. Of course you should listen carefully to those who differ with you. Of course you should have a certain humility about knowing what you don't know. Of course you should change your mind when the evidence shows you to be wrong. But you can never know enough ever to feel completely certain about most things of importance. We are most of the time in the business of making educated guesses, but one hopes as he gets older that you get better at getting it right. But, one way or another, you have to take a stand. If there isn't an off-the-shelf position that makes sense to you, then you have to figure it out for yourself.
The problem with open-ended open mindedness is that such people get run over when the fascists or Leninists roll into town. People with extreme agendas usually find a way to be rhetorically smooth. They usually have the most reasonable justification for what they propose. They keep hidden what might offend. They always give the wobblies reason to doubt their doubts about them and to wonder if they really are as bad as their opponents say they are.
It's easy to be against the parties responsible for atrocities when you read about them in history books. It's not so easy to be against them when you're having dinner with one and you are committed to be open minded about them. They will only tell you what you want to hear. It's not the reasonableness of their rhetoric that you should pay attention to, but the odd smell they emit. You have to catch the odor of the wolf hiding in the sheepskin. And you have to trust your instincts, not your ability to defeat them in debate. They could win, and they could still be wrong.
The Bubble President.
How this could be—how the president of the United States could have even less "situational awareness," as they say in the military, than the average American about the worst natural disaster in a century—is one of the more perplexing and troubling chapters in a story that, despite moments of heroism and acts of great generosity, ranks as a national disgrace.--Evan Thomas, Newsweek.
Perplexing only to those callow media types whose callowness mirrors that of the president. Perplexing only to those Americans who believed the media-manipulated image of him choreographed by Karl Rove. The really perplexing thing for me is how something so obvious was so invisible to so many. We're going to be paying for years and years for his fatuousness and for the gullibility of the electorate who put him in office.
See Krugman this morning for more on how he has chased out competent public servants and replaced them with incompetent cronies. It's similar to the mentality that drove cultural revolution in China in the sixties. I'm not saying they're identiical, but it's as if in the Bush mentality if someone is smart and good at what they do, they are a danger to the regime. More valued is ideology and unthinking loyalty.
Sunday, September 11, 2005
We Cannot Go It Alone. One of the sanest bits of commentary from abroad that I have read comes from Timothy Garton Ash in The Guardian. First he compares the U.S. in 2005 to Britain in 1905:
If you want to know what London was like in 1905, come to Washington in 2005. Imperial gravitas and massive self-importance. That sense of being the centre of the world, and of needing to know what happens in every corner of the world because you might be called on - or at least feel called upon - to intervene there. Hyperpower. Top dog. And yet, gnawing away beneath the surface, the nagging fear that your global supremacy is not half so secure as you would wish. As Joseph Chamberlain, the British colonial secretary, put it in 1902: "The weary Titan staggers under the too vast orb of his fate." . . .
China and India are to the United States today what Germany and America were to Britain a hundred years ago. China is now the world's second largest energy consumer, after the United States. It also has the world's second largest foreign currency reserves, after Japan and followed by Taiwan, South Korea and India. In the foreign reserve stakes, the US comes only ninth, after Singapore and just before Malaysia. According to some economists, the US has an effective net savings rate - taking account of all public spending and debt - of zero.
He ends with this important warning to others who might be gloating about America's troubles:
If you are, by any chance, of that persuasion that would instinctively find this a cause for rejoicing, pause for a moment to consider two things: first, that major shifts of power between rising and falling great powers have usually been accompanied by major wars; and second, that the next top dog could be a lot worse.
So this is no time for schadenfreude. It's a time for critical solidarity. A few far-sighted people in Washington are beginning to formulate a long-term American strategy of trying to create an international order that would protect the interests of liberal democracies even when American hyperpower has faded; and to encourage rising powers such as India and China to sign up to such an order. That is exactly what today's weary Titan should be doing, and we should help him do it.
Some kind of viable international order is the only hope long-term . The neocon "clash of civilizations" scenario becomes a self-fullfilling prophecy if we allow it to control our foreign policy. Clinton/Gore/Kerry represented the alternative. For all of their shortcomings, they are cosmopolitans who understand that we're all in this together, i.e., with everybody else on the globe. They understand that the best American future requires that American power, prestige, and influence be brought to bear on developing a coherent international world order.
This "in-this-together" concept is one that Bush and his cronies simply do not get. This has been demonstrated in the twin disasters of Iraq and New Orleans. They are working with a nineteenth-century mentality domestically, and the the power-infatuated grandiosity of the neocon mentality, even if it were competent in the execution of its ideas, is suicide in a complex, globalizing world. The idea of national greatness should have been retired for good after the disasters of WWII and the absurdity of the Cold War. True greatness now lies in finding the energy, imagination, and tenacity to make some kind of world system workable.
People who are afraid of a "one-world " government and a loss of national sovereignty have legitimate concerns. Along these lines, I have problems with the way that the WTO works, especially when it requires the destruction of local economies which preserve elements of a region's cultural identity. Some of that is inevitable and unavoidable, I know. But at least people on the local level should be given the latitude they need to make the adjustments they understand to be in their own best interest if the principle of subsidiarity is honored in the new world system. The point is not for locals to surrender their freedom and autonomy, but for the higher levels of government, right up to the highest international level, to support the flourishing of economies and cultures on the local level where people can live connected, well-integrated lives.
I don't think this is the way the elites shaping international trade policies are thinking, and that's where I feel uncomfortable with the approach that is embraced by the DLC-type Democrats like Clinton. This is all terribly complicated, but we can't leave this to the elites. Some kind of international order is inevitable, and it is essential that it be developed in a just way that grasps the fundamental truth that we are all in this together and nobody gets left behind. And that the best way to do that always keeps in view the promotion of vibrant local cultures where people live their lives. Homogenization is ok in the political sphere (the secular, rights-centered political system developed in the West should provide the basis for the world system); diversity needs to be promoted in the cultural sphere.
Saturday, September 10, 2005
There are grounds for both optimism and pessimism. The extensions of man's consciousness induced by the electric media could conceivably usher in the millennium, but it also holds the potential to realize the Antichrist--Yeats' rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouching toward Bethlehem to be born. . . Personally I have great faith in the resiliency and adaptability of man, and I tend to look to our tomorrows with a surge of excitement and hope. I feel that we're standing on the threshold of a liberating and exhilarating world in which the human tribe can become truly one family and man's consciousness can be freed from the shackles of mechanical culture and enabled to roam the cosmos. I have a deep and abiding belief in man's potential to grow and learn, to plumb the depths of his own being and to learn the secret songs that orchestrate the universe. We live in a transitional era of profound pain and tragic identity quest, but the agony of our age is the labor pain of rebirth. --Marshall McLuhan in his 1969 interview in Playboy Magazine.
Last week the Yankees were in town here in Seattle, and I thought I’d take in a game. The Ms took a four run lead and seemed to be cruising on a better than usual performance by journeyman pitcher Ryan Franklin, and then around the fifth inning Jason Giambi comes up to the plate. He hits a ball that looked like it was on a line to drop right in my lap where I was sitting in right field. But it never dropped. It hit the wall about forty feet above my head, and for all I know it was still on an upward trajectory.
I sit in those seats all the time because a lot of balls get hit there, but I never saw a ball hit that hard and that far. It didn’t take long for me to see another one. Two innings later Giambi hit the same wall above my head giving the Yankees the lead. That dude is strong, and I had to wonder, is he still juiced? If not, why on earth did he ever feel the need to use steroids?
And this summer doping controversies erupted all over from Lance Armstrong to Mr. 3000, Rafael Palmeiro. Should we have been so surprised that the sports world’s most visible spokesperson for Viagra should have little compunction about other forms of chemically enhancing his performance? And all this controversy perhaps should challenge some assumptions we have about the use of thes drugs by athletes. We use chemicals all the time to improve our health, appearance, and productivity. Why shouldn’t athletes use them to improve their performance? Are League officials concerned about the health of the athletes? There’s not much evidence to support that idea. And would sportswriters and fans feel any differently about the use of these drugs if they were proved to be absolutely safe?
People say they are concerned about the integrity of the game, but what does that mean exactly? Is it about the records? Already in baseball we have the dead-ball era and the live-ball era. Why not have a juiced era? Why not just open it up, let people do whatever they want? Is there any demand to restrict enhancements on the equipment golfers use to improve distance and accuracy? Not really. If golfers can use better equipment to enhance performance, why can’t other athletes use drugs to enhance theirs?
That’s basically the argument that Jose Canseco makes in his recent book, Juiced : Wild Times, Rampant 'Roids, Smash Hits, and How Baseball Got Big. He unapologetically talked about his own use of steroids, and he narc’ed on several of his former teammates to suggest how widespread the practice is. The underlying point of the book, besides making a lot of money for its author, was to pose a challenge the hypocritical priggishness of sports authorities when it comes to performance-enhancing drugs. He thinks that eventually everybody will be using them, and it’s rather pointless to ban them.
Maybe he’s right. The new genetic and biotechnologies that will be developed in the next decade or two have the potential to redefine what it means to be human. Maybe our discomfort with athletes’ use of performance-enhancing drugs is rooted in a more fundamental discomfort we all feel about how they threaten our comfortable assumptions about what is required to be an authentic, normal human being. Maybe what we’re witnessing is the beginning of the end of the human being as we have know him and her.
So far we think of these technologies as relatively minor enhancements to compensate for perceived or real deficiencies, like breast implants or better athletic performance. But what about new genetic technologies that will enable future children to have genius-level IQs or robotic technologies that can be implanted to give us superhuman, memory, strength and speed. What if humans gradually replace their hard-to-find wetware organs for repeatedly replaceable hardware facsimiles? Some scientists say that the first humans to live 150 years have already been born. What if human beings simply find a way to live for hundreds of years—or simply not to die. The implications are mind boggling. These kinds of enhancements are in the works, and they are not that far off. In the future it’s not just athletes who will be tempted to use drugs and other technologies to enhance their performance, we all will be.
What does it mean to be authentically human? It’s a big question, and while there are many characteristics that anthropologists and philosophers can point to that distinguish humans from other animal species, the idea of the human is still a very fluid and open-ended concept. For me the most interesting characteristic that distinguishes humans from other species is their ability to imagine a different future and to transcend their current limitations. That restless longing for "more" is hardwired into the human spirit, and there’s no restraining it.
For the first time in history, humans have the capability to control their own evolution, and I don’t think there’s any question that all kinds of unimagined possibilities will be realized for expanding human capabilities in the coming century. The big question is not whether it will happen, but who will benefit--the few or the many. There are also other important questions about the desirability of some of these "enhancements," and that will have to be hashed out, but the important point for now is simply to recognize that things are going to change significantly, for better or worse.
Two points: First, surely some minority of human beings with the financial means will want to be among the first to seize upon these technological advantages to secure an advantage for themselves and their children. But how will the rest of us feel about that? Will it be perceived as fair that some have access to these advantage while others don’t? Will they be perceived as cheaters? Or worse, an uncontrollable threat? It would be a disaster if some went ahead leaving others behind.
That’s what Canseco doesn’t understand. It’s not about the drugs; it’s about the cheating. It's about some players having advantages that others don't. At some point Major League Baseball might change the rules, but until it does, using performance enhancing drugs is cheating. And anybody in the future who uses bio-technical enhancements to give him or her unfair advantages should likewise be perceived as an anti-social cheater.
The second point is when push comes to shove, most human beings don’t want to become immortal soulless machines; they want to experience a greater intensity of life, in other words to become more soulful. What makes us human has more to do with our longings than with our physical makeup. And humans long most deeply for connection—to other human beings, to the natural world, to some larger spiritual reality. The measure of our humanity is found in the depth of our connections and our commitments. That has always been true and always will be. And it’s safe to say that any technologies that enhance the human capacity for inter-connectedness will be and should be embraced.
As Joel Garreau puts it in his book Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies -- and What It Means to Be Human,
If some sort of transcendence is achieved beyond today’s understanding of human nature, it will not be through some individual becoming superman. . . . transcendence is social, not solitary. The measure is the extent to which many transform together.
Because we’re all in this together. There are those who get this, and there will always be others, like Canseco, who just don’t. It's important for the first group to be in the cultural and political driver's seat. Right now, the cheaters are driving things. And the big question for the rest of us is whether we understand what's at stake and whether we are going to allow the current modus operandi to continue.
Local Officials to Blame? I'm sure lots of stories about how the lower levels of officialdom failed or how they aggravated the horrors in NOLA. Read this article about the police in Gretna, a NOLA suburb, for a particularly chilling example. Hat tip to Kevin Drum. For a discussion link here. This shows precisely why the Feds or at the very least the National Guard had to come in not just to prevent this kind of vigilantism, but to reassure residents that there was no need for it because they had things under control.
Thursday, September 8, 2005
And Now for Something Completely Ridiculous. . .
FEMA for Kidz Rap:
Disaster . . . it can happen anywhere,
But we've got a few tips, so you can be prepared
For floods, tornadoes, or even a 'quake,
You've got to be ready - so your heart don't break.
Disaster prep is your responsibility
And mitigation is important to our agency.
People helping people is what we do
And FEMA is there to help see you through
When disaster strikes, we are at our best
But we're ready all the time, 'cause disasters don't rest.
Your disaster tax dollars at work. How kyoot! They should have made it into a huge singalong in the Superdome. If you want to hear it performed go to the link above. Hat tip to TAPPED.
The Principle of Subsidiarity
On Sept. 1, Brown stated: "Considering the dire circumstances that we have in New Orleans, virtually a city that has been destroyed, things are going relatively well." Brown was unintentionally Swiftian in his savage irony. The next day, President Bush patted him on the back: "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job." Brown exemplifies the Bush approach to government, a blend of cynicism, cronyism, and incompetence presented with faux innocence as well-meaning service and utter surprise at things going wrong.
Sidney Blumenthal has a good piece in today's Salon documenting how what went wrong in NOLA can be directly attributable to the underlying GOP philosophy that seeks to kill big government. But as has been often pointed out, the government has gotten bigger under Bush. And this points to the obvious, which is that it's not a question of the size of government for the Bushies, but rather what constituencies government serves. The GOP is all about reducing government when it means reducing services that help ordinary American citizens. On the other hand, it's fine when increasing government serves the interests of cronies, such as those who represent the interests of the military industrial complex:
The Bush administration's mishandling of Hurricane Katrina stands as the pluperfect case study of the Republican Party's theory and practice of government. For decades conservatives have funded think tanks, filled libraries and conducted political campaigns to promote the idea of limited government. Now, in New Orleans, the theory has been tested. The floodwaters have rolled over the rhetoric.
Under Bush, government has been "limited" only in certain weak spots, like levees, while in other spots it has vastly expanded into a behemoth subsisting on the greatest deficit spending in our history. State and local governments have not been empowered, but rendered impotent, in the face of circumstances beyond their means in which they have desperately requested federal intervention. Experienced professionals in government have been forced out, tried-and-true policies discarded, expert research ignored, and cronies elevated to senior management.
Blumenthal goes on to describe some of the recent history of FEMA. I'm excerpting generously here since Salon is available only on a paid subscription basis:
After its creation in 1979, FEMA became "a political dumping ground," according to a former FEMA advisory board member. Its ineffective performance after Hurricane Hugo hit South Carolina in 1989 and Hurricane Andrew struck Florida in 1992 exposed the agency's shortcomings. Then Sen. Fritz Hollings of South Carolina called it "the sorriest bunch of bureaucratic jackasses." President George H.W. Bush's loss of Florida in the 1992 election is partly attributable to FEMA's mishandling of Hurricane Andrew. President Clinton appointed James Lee Witt as the new director, the first one ever to have had experience in the field. Witt reinvented the agency, setting high professional standards and efficiently dealing with disasters.
FEMA's success as a showcase federal agency made it an inviting target for the incoming Bush team. Allbaugh, Bush's former campaign manager, became the new director, and he immediately began to dismantle the professional staff, privatize many functions and degrade its operations. In his testimony before the Senate, Allbaugh attacked the agency he headed as an example of unresponsive bureaucracy: "Many are concerned that Federal disaster assistance may have evolved into both an oversized entitlement program and a disincentive to effective State and local risk management. Expectations of when the Federal Government should be involved and the degree of involvement may have ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level. We must restore the predominant role of State and local response to most disasters."
After Sept. 11, 2001, FEMA was subsumed into the new Department of Homeland Security and lost its Cabinet rank. The staff was cut by more than 10 percent, and the budget has been cut every year since and most of its disaster relief efforts disbanded. "Three out of every four dollars the agency provides in local preparedness and first-responder grants go to terrorism-related activities, even though a recent Government Accountability Office report quotes local officials as saying what they really need is money to prepare for natural disasters and accidents," the Los Angeles Times reported.
After Allbaugh retired from FEMA in 2003, handing over the agency to his deputy and college roommate, Brown, he set up a lucrative lobbying firm, the Allbaugh Co., which mounts "legislative and regulatory campaigns" for its corporate clients, according its Web site. After the Iraq war, Allbaugh established New Bridge Strategies to facilitate business for contractors there. He also created Diligence, a firm to provide security to private companies operating in Iraq. Haley Barbour, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee and now governor of Mississippi, helped Allbaugh start all his ventures through his lobbying and law firm, Barbour Griffith and Rogers. Indeed, the entire Allbaugh complex is housed at Barbour Griffith and Rogers. Ed Rogers, Barbour's partner, has become a vice president of Diligence. Diane Allbaugh, Allbaugh's wife, went to work at Barbour Griffith and Rogers. And Neil Bush, the president's brother, received $60,000 as a consultant to New Bridge Strategies.
On Sept. 1, the Pentagon announced the award of a major contract for repair of damaged naval facilities on the Gulf Coast to Halliburton, the firm whose former CEO is Vice President Dick Cheney and whose chief lobbyist is Joe Allbaugh.
Hurricane Katrina is the anti-9/11 in its divisive political effect, its unearthing of underlying domestic problems, and its disorienting impact on the president and his administration. Yet, in other ways, the failure of government before the hurricane struck is reminiscent of the failures leading into 9/11. The demotion of FEMA resembles the demotion of counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke. In both cases, the administration ignored clear warnings.
In a conversation with a former diplomat with decades of experience, I raised these parallels. But the Bush administration response evoked something else for him. "It reminds me of Africa," he said. "Governments that prey on their people."
The one thing the Democrats are good at is setting up social infrastructure systems. They may overdo it in some instances, but because they believe that government has a role to play in promoting the welfare of its citizens, they do a better job of running the government. I'm not saying flawless, but better.
I’m no fan of bigness. In my ideal world we’d all be hobbits and the most important elected officials would be mayor and PTA president, but we’re living in an enormously complex world with huge systems that need competent management.The small government argument is steeped in nostalgia. It’s no longer relevant in giving us the tools to deal with the the size and complexity of the kinds of problems that we are now confronting, the least of which are natural disasters.
The result is that people like Bush who really believe that big systems don’t work, don’t even try to make them work, and the kind of failures we’re seeing now in NOLA become self-fulfilling prophecies. If you don’t believe big government can work, you virtually insure that it won’t. We need more energy, imagination, and resources committed to making it work more effectively rather than giving up on it.
This post is already long, but I wanted to give a plug for the ‘principle of subsidiarity’, which comes out of Catholic social thought. It was developed in the 19th Century to define a middle way between the top/down command economies typical of socialist states and laisser faire states typical of the robber baron era in the U.S. The idea is that higher levels of government are subsidiary to lower, the opposite of what we ordinarily think, which is that the higher levels rule the lower level. Higher levels have their legitimacy insofar as they effectively serve the needs of the lower levels.
This is the way it should be. Real life happens at the bottom, and people should be allowed to organize and manage their own affairs with as little interference from higher levels as possible. But there are occasions when the lower level has neither the natural competency or the resources to handle certain large-scale needs or projects, and so must be supported by organization at a higher level. The system values what people do at the lowest levels, and is designed to intevene only when the lower level asks for help.
I like that subsidiarity gives us a conceptual framework that strikes the right balance between, on the one hand, the freedom of the individual and of smaller communities to shift for themselves, and on the other, the need for higher levels of support and coordination to deal with successively higher levels of 'trans-local' problems and projects. It affims the truth that the most important stuff happens on the bottom, but that some problems can’t be adequately handled at that level, and that systems have to be developed on the next level to compensate in whatever way.
The biggest problem with this kind of reverse hierarchical thinking, of course, is that social systems don't usually operate according to this principle of service but according to the principle of power. "Importance" correlates with one's altitude in the hierarchy, and this creates a psychology that distorts the whole system. In a school hierarchy, for instance, who’s more important—the principal or the teacher? The teacher is, of course, because he or she is doing the work the whole system is designed to perform, namely educate students. The principal and the superintendent above him have importance only insofar as they help teachers to do their jobs by playing their support and coordination roles effectively.
In a republican form of government, who's more important, the citizens taken as a whole or those they hire/elect to do the work of support and coordination at various levels of government? Again, it's obvious. Elected representatives are "public servants," a phrase which though it has become a meaninless cliche pays homage to the basic ideal of subsiarity, whether we call it by that name or not.
Bush is indeed a public servant, but the office of the presidency has become so deeply associated with power, that we find it hard to really think of him as something less than a king. The POTUS is often referred to as the most powerful man on earth, and I guess that's true, but should he be? Should anybody be? He isn't an elected king or emperor. He's a president. He doesn't "rule"; he presides. He's someone whose chief role is to preside over the system of support and coordination that serves the people at the bottom of the hierarchy--the citizens who hired him. His job is to make sure the system works as best it can so the people at the bottom are served.
The founders didn't think of the President as having a role in initiating legislation--that was the role primarily of the House. The executive branch is supposed to execute what the Congress has passed into law; his role is very much one of a servant executing the will of his master, which is the Congress representing the will of the citizens who elected it. That's the way it's supposed to be; I know that's not the way it is. It's supposed to be a very bottom/up process, but it has become very top/down. Bottom/up is a far healthier way to operate, but it requires an informed, vigilant, involved citizenry. Our failure in vigilance has allowed the current corporatist state to develop.
Nevertheless, human nature seems to think being principal, superintendent, or president carries with it more importance because such positions have more power. And regardless of the ideal, the system is oriented toward power acquisition rather than to supporting the important work at the bottom where real life happens. The problem isn’t the size of the system; it’s the power mentality of the people who tend to rise into the higher levels of the hierarchy. They misunderstand their role. It's human nature to do so, and it's up to us to hold them to account.
Tuesday, September 6, 2005
Love in the Ruins
Is it that God has removed his blessing from the U.S.A.and what we feel now is just the clank of the old historical machinery, the sudden jerking ahead of the roller coaster cars as the chain catches hold and carries us back into history with its ordinary catastrophes, carries us out and up toward the brink from that felicitous and privileged siding where even unbelievers admitted that if it was not God who blessed the U.S. A., then at least some great good luck had befallen us, and that now the blessing or the luck is over, the machinery clanks, the chain catches hold, and the cars jerk forward. --Walker Percy, Love in the Ruins.
If you've never read Walker Percy, now's the time to. Ordinarily I'd advise you to start with The Moviegoer, his first novel, and my favorite, which won the 1962 National Book Award. But the times seem to call for a reading, or a rereading as the case might be, of his classic satire, Love in the Ruins. It's the story about the U.S. at some indeterminate time in the future when American culture has imploded. Or has just run out of luck. He lived most of his adult life in New Orleans, where he wrote his novels, many of which were set there.
What we're witnessing in New Orleans this past week is Percy's nightmare come true. And we have to ask ourselves if history is finally catching up to us Americans and whether our luck is finally running out. It's not the natural disaster I'm talking about, but the social disaster, the political disaster, the shocking failure of the American system to respond quickly and effectively to a well-anticipated natural catastrophe. It was ferocious to be sure, but not something beyond our capability to deal with it. And NOLA didn't even take the full brunt of it. It was the man-made levees that failed, and in New Orleans, human nature is to blame more than mother nature.
I'm trying to grasp the meaning of this event. What does this event tell us about ourselves? To me it's far more significant than 9/11. This was like 9/11 in slow motion. It was like watching with horror and helplessness as one of those wretched people jumped from the flaming tower to his death, but in NOLA the dive takes not a few seconds but several days before the diver finally smashes to the ground. And the full horror of it has not yet settled in. It will become worse as we learn more about what happened, about what people went through where the cameras didn't reach, and when the list of the dead is toted.
9/11 was shocking for its surprise and novelty. For its awakening Americans from their delusions of security to an unprecedented feeling of vulnerability to the hostility of Muslim fanatics. But Hurricanes are a yearly event. They are a powerful and uncontrollably destructive force of nature, but we are on familiar terms with these beasts. We've learned how to take the blow, pick ourselves up, clean up the mess, and get on with our lives. But this. This is a whole order of magnitude different from anything we have ever experienced in the media age. This is an event to cast us back into the deepest depths of the premodern. This was shipwreck and Lord of the Flies, but with a cast of tens of thousands.
I think we were all shocked to hear of the savage behavior or some marauding gangs and individual predators. Certainly most of the people trapped in New Orleans were good, decent Americans before the flood and they remained so after. And so of course those who were predators before the flood remained predators after. The problem lies in that when civilization breaks down, the predators see their opportunity and are not shy to seize it. And who is there to stop them? It doesn't matter what the majority wants. The minority has the power and it sets the tone; there are compelling forces that drive almost everyone to operate at the level of the least common denominator. Everyone feels the tug to revert to an eat-or-be-eaten mentality.
Is New Orleans a metaphor for what is happening to the rest of our country? I think there is a structural similarity between the predators on display in NOLA and the predators in suits at the opposite end of the economic spectrum. The suits in the crony capitalist world gaming the system are just as much predators as anything we're seeing or reading about on the streets of NOLA. They compose a wolf minority who have learned well how to present themselves in sheep's clothing. The difference is that these wolves are in charge of the hen house in Washington with our electoral approval.
Take a look at New Orleans, for this is what the rest of the country could look like if the Grover Norquist types driving the GOP domestic agenda continue to get their tax cuts and deregulation. It's going to be the war of all against all. Isn't that the real basis of our foreign policy?--The U.S. has the most power, so the U.S. gets to do what it wants until someone stops us. What makes us different from the thugs on the streets of NOLA? We convince ourselves that we're doing it for the greater good. But the nations of the world do not look to us in hope; they perceive us as bullies and are scared to death of us.
In any event, buy some stock in whichever are the hot gun manufacturers these days. Everybody's gonna need one when we revert to the wild west. That's what these Norquist types want. Their dream is to create a Hobbesian nightmare world in which everyone's out for himself, where it's eat or be eaten. Dominate or submit. Submit or be killed. It's Pat Robertson in his call for the assassination of Hugo Chavez. Theirs is the attitude of those who think that the poor people who stayed behind deserved what they got. If you're poor, you deserve to be. If you're stupid, better to have you out of the gene pool.
It's not the Muslim terrorists we need fear. If I were a terrorist leader, I wouldn't waste my explosives on American targets. I'd just be patient and watch America as it implodes. Maybe we didn't really win the Cold War, it's just taking us a little longer than it took the Soviet Union to collapse.
Friday, September 2, 2005
I'm going to take some time off to absorb the enormity of what is transpiring in the Gulf. Don't much feel like writing about the stuff I write about. And I want to restrain my urge to flail out at these clueless Beltway Marie Atoinettes until a clearer picture emerges about exactly what went wrong here. I'm sure the local Democrats deserve their share of the blame, but I think that the picture that will eventually emerge is that this is a result of your federal tax cuts at work, certainly of the mentality that finds them so desirable.
Thursday, September 1, 2005
Third World Disaster Preparedness. It has always struck me about the disasters that strike the U.S. that no matter how severe, relatively few people lose their lives. Even in the huge quake that San Francisco suffered in '89, fewer that one hundred people were killed. Quakes with the same intensity have killed thousands in China or Mexico.The difference lies in the quality of the infrastructure, both in terms of the physical structures engineered to withstand an expected disaster and in terms of the social systems in place to deal with the chaos that follows.
Nobody can prevent a natural disaster from happening, but one of the great things about living in this country has always been the confidence we all rightly felt that when such disasters strike, there would be systems in place to prevent the kind of aftermath horrors that are so commonplace in the Third World. I don't know about you, but the events in New Orleans this week have shaken my confidence in that assumption.
The hurricane could not have been prevented, but the flooding in New Orleans should have been. What disturbs me most about what has happened in New Orleans is that lots of people knew beforehand that the levees might break. And it seems that the extent of the plan to prevent such a disaster was to have everyone cross his fingers and hope that it wouldn't.
I know that the below-sea level siting of the city creates an extraordinary engineering challenge, but that levee should never have been breached, and once it broke there should have been some second line of defense, some contingency strategy for emergency containment. Does it not astonish you that this man-made structure was so vulnerable with so much at stake? Is it not shameful that a country with our wealth and our engineering prowess could allow such a thing to happen?
Somebody has to be held accountable for this monumental failure. I'm not pointing any fingers yet, but this event doesn't ease my fears that we are slowly devolving into a banana republic. We used to be better at this kind of thing.