Hurricanes and Mastery
by Wilfred McClay
From the web log site of Touchstone Magazine
Septermber 5, 2005
A number of friends have asked me to write something about the present condition and future prospects of New Orleans---a city I lived in for twelve years, know fairly well, and for which I still harbor a certain abiding affection. I've refrained so far. There is probably enough being said on that subject already, even though an enormous portion of it is inaccurate, suffering from a strained and self-induced dreaminess that afflicts most of what's written about New Orleans, a suspension of disbelief that recalls Oscar Wilde's famous definition of sentimentality as "the bank holiday of cynicism." It is interesting, and indicative, that there is no sober, scholarly, and clear-eyed book on the history of New Orleans, even though there is material for dozens of them. It is as if there is a national agreement that we will pretend that New Orleans really is what the glossy travel literature says it is. No one really wants the Mardi Gras mask to come off.
Let me add that I write this as one who genuinely loves the city, though more for its gritty, everyday blue-collar virtues than for its celebrated domestic architecture, its Creole pretentiousness, and its rather dull and unspontaneous parading of its putative naughtiness.
But more on New Orleans another time. What has struck me more forcibly has been the near-instantaneous eruption of a hysterically intense version of the blame game in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Much of this, of course, is nakedly partisan, and directed at the President for political purposes. But the litany of complaints is most impressive. The storm itself was caused by global warming, which Bush has failed to address, and by the erosion of the south Louisiana wetlands, which has been caused by the doings of his fat-cat developer friends. The break in the 17th Street Canal levee was caused by inadequate Federal spending, including a cut in the most recent budget for the Army Corps of Engineers. The violence in the streets, as well as the human disasters at the Superdome and Convention Center, and on the rooftops of the submerged Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish, were caused by an inadequate Federal response, stemming from National Guard troops having been deployed in Iraq and from incompetent management of FEMA, not to mention FEMA's having been placed under the Department of Homeland Security, marking the Bush administration's overemphasis upon terrorism, to the exclusion of natural disaster relief. And so on.
Try, for a moment, to set aside the partisan environment in which these charges have arisen. Let me stipulate, for the sake of argument, that it is possible that all or some of these criticisms have some validity. And let me stipulate, too, that it's entirely possible that the same partisan criticisms would have been levelled at Bill Clinton, or some other Democratic president, had he been in office during this disaster. The good or evil of any particular extant party in this is not my point. (For what it is worth, my years in New Orleans incline me to believe that municipal and state officials make more plausible villains than the Feds. But let us leave that aside also.)
What I find interesting, though, has been the instant, reflexive resort to the belief, and accusation, that SOMEONE IS TO BLAME for this. Someone can and must be held accountable for this vast calamity. This, it seems to me, is a powerful confirmation of something that I have argued in the pages of Touchstone before: that the increase in our mastery over the physical terms of our existence will not make us happier or more content, and may even lead to chronic political and social instability and unease, precisely because of the unsatisfiable expectations it generates.
It has often been argued that an individual's attraction to conspiracy theories, far from being a sign of irrationality, is a sign of hyperrationality, of an insistence that great events in the world cannot ever proceed by chance or without human direction. The historian Gordon Wood wrote a brilliant essay a number of years ago, arguing that "the paranoid style" in politics was partly a product of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, with their insistence upon the rational intelligibility and orderliness of events, and upon the human ability to exercise control over them.
It is not so farfetched an idea, though I would place it in a continuum with the practice of magic and other prerational antecedents, including most pagan and animistic religions, which have similar aims. It is quite natural for us humans to wish to control events, and control our world---and natural to believe that, if we are not in control, someone else is. There may even be an element of the scapegoat mechanism, as described by Rene Girard, operating in such matters, reestablishing social order by displacing the sins of the community onto a sacrificial head.
Yet I cannot recall a case quite like this one, in which the tacit assumption was made so widely, so angrily and self-righteously, and so completely implausibly, that the destructive effects of this enormous storm could be, and should have been, prevented---or if not entirely prevented, at least greatly mitigated. If one were today rewriting Candide, the mocked Pangloss figure would be the one who says, "Well, these things happen, and one should learn to accept them gracefully. Although we cannot control our world, we can at least strive to do our best, and understand that there are risks in living below sea level in a hurricane-prone region." And he would be ridden out of town on a rail, by an angry mob. The extension of our power means an extension of our culpability. (Which in practice means that competing groups will be searching for ways to transfer exclusive culpability to one another, one of the reasons why the competition for "victim" status can be so intense in our culture, since being a victim is the surest way to certify one's right to offload one's culpability. We are seeing some of this in the aftermath of Katrina.)
Again, I make no particular judgments about this particular event. We will know more about what really happened in a few weeks or so. But many people will not care about the specifics; the important thing will be that SOMEONE IS TO BLAME. This points to an increasingly familiar pattern of expectation, which only grows as our scientific knowledge and technological wizardry grow. It parallels our society's growing rage at a medical system, including the pharmaceutical industry, that has been remarkably skillful, and more skillful in each passing year, in successfully addressing a range of diseases and conditions that were formerly thought to be untreatable. But modern medicine cannot banish the existence of risk. Which is why the system is all too often a casualty of the very expectations it raises. There is a sense in which, the more things become mastered, the more intolerable are those remaining areas in which our mastery is not yet complete. This parallels very neatly the observation made by Tocqueville that times of revolutionary upheaval occur when social expectations are rising, and that the growth of social equality in America would exacerbate, rather than relieve, Americans' sense of class injury and class resentment. This is less of a paradox than it seems at first glance.
I'm not predicting a revolution. Nor am I counseling fatalism or Gelassenheit. But I do think we would do well to recognize that much of the intense and free-floating anger and unhappiness that pervade so much of our prosperous world may derive precisely from the expectations that our successes in mastering our physical environment have generated. The effects of the hurricane would be much easier to live with, were we not so intent upon convincing ourselves that some human culprits caused it. We might want to pause and reflect upon how little mastery we really have---least of all, of ourselves.
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