Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Anarchy is Just A Day Away

The most compelling lesson to learn from the disaster in New Orleans after its rendezvous with Hurricane Katrina is that for years a major American city was one natural disaster away from collapse into barbarism. Think about what has happened. A cruel body blow from Nature kills thousands and destroys a city's technological support system, and in a matter of hours it becomes something out of Joseph Conrad. For all the tourists, the colorful politicians for which Louisana is justly famous, the wonderful food and the eccentric culture, the city was apparently for years a mere 24 hours from utter anarchy. All that time the astonishing fragility of its civilization was hiding in plain sight, requiring only the right impetus to become obvious to everyone.

Let us stipulate that the hurricane was a disaster of unexpected scope. It is almost as if a series of Tunguska meteors had exploded along the length of the Gulf Coast. It is not at all surprising that it might take several days to set up a supply chain to ferry in food, water, and other essentials, and that in the meantime people who stayed would be in dire straits.

Let us also concede that despite being therefore able to stake a claim to some forbearance, no politician in this episode at any level of government has emerged from it drenched in glory. The readiness to blame somebody elsewhere in the federal chain, the quickness with which politicians slipped into the roles anointed for them by our current partisan divides, these things are disappointing. In the end I do not find "Whose fault was it?" to be a very interesting question.

And yet whatever the quality of governance or the magnitude of the disaster, the state of nature did not have to assert itself so quickly. None of those things mandates that civilization's fragile structure must fall apart so matter-of-factly. What has happened is that New Orleans (like, one supposes, most American cities) has a disturbingly large number of people who respond to mass tragedy by beginning wholesale looting within hours, assaulting hospitals and police substations, and shooting at convoys of mercy bringing in relief supplies and rescue boats, forcing them to turn back. These things do not happen in a healthy society no matter what the challenges it faces are. That they could happen in New Orleans, or Detroit, or Los Angeles, when they did not happen, for example, in Kobe after the 1995 earthquake is a lesson we ignore at our peril. It matters not that the ransackers were a minority, that they were vastly outnumbered by those who engaged in heroic measures to save others, and that their victims were mostly those who suffered most from the hurricane. It is still true, and of incredible importance, that they were able to largely take over the city after the waters rushed in, and were able to hold the salvation of civilization at bay for days.

The American conservative is prone to believe that man's nature is unchanging and generally not to be trusted. His mindset does not admit of the possibility of moral progress. To be sure, we are surrounded by spectacular material and scientific progress, but progress in the moral fiber of man is a fantasy. This is perhaps why the odd kinship ties of American conservatism - evangelicals cognizant of original sin and the need for redemption on one hand, economic conservatives fearful of the ultimate predatory nature of Big Government intent on doing good on the other - have held together so well. Both believe ultimately that while man is capable of greatness, he is also capable with only the merest push of utmost savagery. The trick is to construct social institutions to take advantage of his healthy instincts and to restrain his dangerous ones. And those institutions, which we might call our common culture, are in constant need of reinforcement. The failure to do so causes them to break as surely as any levee.

To the left, on the other hand, progress is the natural order of things, and so it is no wonder that as the word "liberal" has fallen into disrepute it has been replaced by "progressive." To the left human history is a tale of continuous moral improvement, led by those who can see the moral future more clearly than the timid conservative who refuses to abandon an unjust status quo because of fear of justice's ultimate reordering of society. It is to the bold progressive then that the task of leading humanity to a better future is given.

But the fruits of progress on display in New Orleans (and in Belfast, too) are disquieting to say the least. The collapse into savagery was simply waiting for some external event to pull the trigger, and any one of sufficient size would have done. For some time several seemingly independent aspects of American cultural capital have been simultaneously decaying. As in much of the rest of the West, the nuclear family - the bedrock of most civilizations for thousands of years - is rapidly falling apart. The effects of that are hard to predict, but if one believes in the implicit wisdom encoded in social tradition, they can't be good. The popular culture, cranked out now by a massively intrusive and influential technology of entertainment, is completing the transformation it has been going through since at least the early twentieth century, with contempt for lives ordinarily lived and even the celebration of antisocial behavior now common. The rise of the suffocating nanny state has promoted the culture of What You Owe Me at the expense of the culture of creation. The coalescence of these trends means that we are essentially eating our cultural seed corn, in the manner of rebellious young dons at Oxford or Cambridge ransacking the wine cellars in a night of drunken orgy.

Is that what brought us to the just-add-water-and-watch-civilization-collapse environment that was apparently lurking just under the surface as Katrina churned into the Gulf? Reasonable people can disagree on that. Perhaps it is the erosion of cultural stores that took centuries to construct, or perhaps it is, as the left would argue, the tendency of the successful in America to want to hermetically seal off the poor so as to forget their inconvenient presence. They can thus build cities where those with means survive and those without are left behind to fend for themselves. But whatever the reason, we had better pay attention to the instant decay of the social fabric in New Orleans, because it is a sign that society's sinews have severely deteriorated. New Orleans just before Katrina was a civilizational house of cards ready to collapse. Any big city, and by extension much of our society, may revert to the Hobbesian jungle at the slightest provocation. The marauders of the Crescent City, however they got that way, are bearers of the message that the ramparts must be shored up while there is still time. If not let no one say that we were not duly warned.


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