Melville Describes Nagin’s Town

During the last few years, I’ve felt myself buoyed time and again when I turn to blogs—ours and others. Many are free market; they have a more tragic view of man than pure libertarians do (and much wiser), but are generally resilient and more likely to see the glass half-full. The “open marketplace” is optimistic – it may take us a while to sort out the best ideas, the best beliefs, the best products, but in the end we do. This attitude trusts man—his heart & his reason.

One of my favorite metaphors was Glenn Reynolds’ “not a herd but a pack.” It seemed to bode well: it describes 9/11, when the first plane loads in New York had one perspective on high-jacking but the one in Pennsylvania, with a new paradigm, coordinated and acted. It is Victor Davis Hanson’s perspective on war. It is a bracing and attractive meme. And in the great tragedy of this week some took action. The New Orleans news is full of charity and the beauty of a country that opens its arms, pocketbooks and even homes to others. Hours away from Houston, our community is filling centers and churches; my daughter talks of the girl from New Orleans new to her class.

Michael Barone e-mails Instapundit with the positive and useful responses of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Joe Leonard, Jr. of the Black Leadership Forum and Melanie Campbell of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation referred to the press conference as an initial step toward providing support and bringing awareness to appropriate strategies. Such support includes an upcoming telethon hosted on BET on September 9th. In a statement issued by CBCF, President and CEO Dr. Don Tharpe observed, “In recent days, hundreds of thousands of Americans have lost heir homes, their possessions, and, in some tragic cases, their loved ones to Hurricane Katrina… Here at CBCF, our hearts go out to the victims of this unimaginable tragedy. Now is the time for us to open our hearts…and volunteer our time and money to the relief efforts.”

In New Orleans, we see heroism but also those who are worn down: their only response the unconsciousness of the herd. For some this comes quicker than for others. A survivor complains that for three days she has had no hot food, only army rations that were, she declared, unattractive and inedible. I’m sure I, too, would be an unhappy camper by now. But clearly, expectations that some vague “government” is all-responsible just isn’t “pack” mentality. The National Guard is met with cries of “Lord, I thank you for getting us out of here,” from some but from others “’They should have been here days ago. I ain’t glad to see ’em’” _ words that brought shouts of “Hell, yeah!” from those around him. He added: ‘We’ve been sleeping on the … ground like rats. I say burn this whole … city down.”’

While this response seems about on the level of Pap’s world view in Huck Finn, we see it treated with some seriousness.

This is echoed in Nagin’s speech. He appeals to our sentiment for the beauty of New Orleans and then applies the booster argument of its role as port and refinery—the argument arises from his love for the city, I’m sure. But these are appeals to us – they aren’t to his people, it isn’t a leader’s encouragement but a supplicant’s plea. He betrays little sense that Giuliani and Pataki took a different tact, that, indeed, they led. Tonight, I listen to Washington Week in Review and am struck by how they see this in political terms, how much they want Bush to say, as he did, that it was “unacceptable” and to continue saying it throughout the day. They seem to have a meager sense of leadership—sure, it is honesty but it is also “bucking up” the troops, offering succor and encouragement. His role is not, at this point, to point his finger nor to offer a mea culpa. Bush probably should have moved faster; of course, declaring it a disaster area even before the hurricane struck, certainly before the levee broke, was the first act. Why didn’t the city government order evacuation earlier (herd) or citizens organize an exodus (pack)?

Sometimes, in our soft lives with air conditioning and flush toilets, we (and we includes commentators) forget the ferocity of nature as well as human nature. Some commentators ask, “How could this have been avoided?” I’m sure if pressed they’d say, well the disaster in the Superdome, the people stranded. But “this” seems in its breadth to be nature itself. How could we not have had a hurricane?

But we have also forgotten human nature. The news reporters described circumstances so dire we have trouble imagining them-– corpses by the side of the road, struggles to selflessly save children—and others that we have trouble imagining morally – snipers besieging firemen, rapes in the Superdome. Even the non-violent property thefts seem abstract – where did they intend to plug in that plasma television? How did they expect to be hauled out of New Orleans with it – perhaps packed on top of the bus? It seemed to be, indeed, like greeting the National Guard with catcalls, the “I say. . . burn the whole city down.” “I can” (or is it “I am uncomfortable”) so I’ll smash and destroy.

So, let’s return to Glenn Reynolds’ empowering notion of the herd and the pack. Early on, when it was the people of Biloxi that were being interviewed, Gwen Ifill (on Lehrer) asked if they blamed the government for slow intervention. No, they said, they were angry at themselves for not heeding the warnings. That’s pack mentality – conscious, responsible, moving into action.

How much greater the warnings were to those in New Orleans. (Not soon enough, not “official” enough, Instapundit argues, but nonetheless real.) And we see the pathos of the herd – the voices that ask, what’s going to be done for us? Our government has deserted us, they cry. But then, far away, we have the understandably emotional, perhaps understandably angry response on Huffington of Randall Robinson. But does he respect his own? He contends the response is racist; indeed, it has reduced the people of New Orleans to cannibalism. (A cannibalism, fortunately, that may well be only a figment of his fevered imagination.) If Ralph Ellison were alive and heard such a comment! A man who thinks the worst of his people and yet argues he wants the best for them, a man who doesn’t expect leadership from his own but berates others for not bearing responsibility for them.

But the triumph of the primitive has become, for many stories, today’s Big Easy: the snipers, the mobs taking over the convention center, the mobs outside hospitals, commandeering ambulances and drugs. These are not “packs” of self-conscious adults, taking action & responsibiity, taking charge of their lives. These are herds without leaders, packs without responsibilities. We forget human nature; we read Lord of the Flies and nod. We may, indeed, accept the depravity of man in the abstract, but few of us think our world could so easily become the hell of that Superdome. (Yes, James remarks, he wasn’t surprised. Experience should have taught us all that, perhaps.).

Of course, it seemed to happen quickly; New Orleans & the hurricane seemed a “perfect storm.” [This link is thanks to WF’s comment; the linked article from City Journal desribes why New Orleans was vulnerable, who were the most vulnerable, and how rescue operations were compromised early.] We all find the cocoon of the herd attractive and I suspect we can all, in some circumstance, transcend that mentality by self-conscious, thoughtful action as part of a pack. Unfortunately, we can also become a feral pack. [Nicole Gelinas’ argument that “New Orleans’ vicious looters aren’t the real face of the city’s poor—their victims are” is also a description of the feral packs that preyed before the hurricane and certainly before the flood.] The very notion of the “feral” is of the unconscious, immature, indeed, unaware. This is a pack without conscience. Such ferocity, however, has much (perhaps more) in common with a leaderless herd. Internal safeguards against such temptations may be buried farther in some than in others. As Tennyson describes the difference between Ulysses and Telemachus, we see how we need to slowly be brought to the point where we internalize our civilization. For all of us, this is difficult. Our job is to civilize our passions and desires – and our civilization’s is to help us do just that.

Nor is it always going to succeed. David Brooks talks of the responses to the Johnstown flood, the great hurricane of 1900 Galveston, and, closer to our topic, the 1927 Mississippi flood that “rumbled down upon New Orleans.” In that New Orleans “blacks were rounded up into work camps and held by armed guards. They were prevented from leaving as the waters rose.” He observes:

We’d like to think that the stories of hurricanes and floods are always stories of people rallying together to give aid and comfort. And, indeed, each of America’s great floods has prompted a popular response both generous and inspiring. But floods are also civic examinations. Amid all the stories that recur with every disaster – tales of sudden death and miraculous survival, the displacement and the disease – there is also the testing.

Civic arrangements work or they fail. Leaders are found worthy or wanting. What’s happening in New Orleans and Mississippi today is a human tragedy. But take a close look at the people you see wandering, devastated, around New Orleans: they are predominantly black and poor. The political disturbances are still to come.

I’ve long admired Bush’s speeches, even when they didn’t seem to touch others – a not unimportant consideration in a national leader. This week Bush needed to speak – to offer succor but also to prod the victims (and the rest of us as well) to become what we could become. He didn’t. Of course, the speeches should have come first from the mayor (or any other Louisiana bureaucrat) – it is their presence and their experience and their accents that New Orleans would recognize – we want one of our own to stand beside us at times like these, to give us heart as only one we know knows us can. But we suspect their speeches would be unlikely to encourage.

Still, I’ll admit, this isn’t much of a solution. I value this more highly, perhaps, because I spend my life “selling” the importance of words. But words can only do so much. For one thing, in this dark zone, how could they have been communicated? Even the cell phone towers are out. And are words enough against the most primitive of our passions? But we do have words that give us another proportion from another time. This is a Civil War poem I’ve mentioned before. (I don’t know much poetry, but I’ve always found this powerful.) In a sense, Reynolds’ pack/herd is a celebration of Emersonian “self-reliance.” Emerson (and I believe Reynolds, too) has a more nuanced view than Herman Melville was willing to credit. But Melville’s bleak counter to that optimism, a sense of man’s brutality to match man’s nobility describes a feral mob of another day. And the world he describes makes us hesitate before blithely following that “voice within.” Here, he describes the brutality of the 1863 race riots in New York City. The Irish rampaged through the African-American section of town – apparently trying to burn down the orphanage from which the children had been fortunately evacuated, stringing men up on street lights where women later castrated the bodies. We, of course, do not need to go back a century and a half to see such evil, sometimes it was clothed in white sheets and sometimes in the impulsive violence of crack addicts, sometimes in police brutality and sometimes in marauding mobs; not so long ago, it appeared in the 1927 New Orleans Brooks describes.

Melville understands the ferocity of feral packs and makes us pause; as the more cheerful last commentors and as James’ post might observe, the pack Reynolds celebrates exists. It is part of who we are. But Melville (and this last week) cast a shadow over that sunny meme, for this is who we are as well.

“The House-Top”
Herman Melville
A Night Piece
(July, 1863)
No sleep. The sultriness pervades the air
And binds the brain -a dense oppression, such
As tawny tigers feel in matted shades,
Vexing their blood and making apt for ravage.
Beneath the stars the roofy desert spreads
Vacant as Libya. All is hushed near by.
Yet fitfully from far breaks a mixed surf
Of muffled sound, the atheist roar of riot.
Yonder, where parching Sirius set in drought
Balefully glares red Arson -there -and there.
The town is taken by its rats -ship-rats
And rats of the wharves. All civil charms
And priestly spells which late held hearts in awe –
Fear-bound, subjected to a better sway
Than sway of self; these like a dream dissolve,
And man rebounds whole aeons back in nature.

Hail to the low dull rumble, dull and dead,
And ponderous drag that shakes the wall.
Wise Draco comes, deep in the midnight roll
Of black artillery; he comes, though late;
In code corroborating Calvin’s creed
And cynic tyrannies of honest kings;
He comes, nor parleys; and the town, redeemed,
Gives thanks devout; nor, being thankful, heeds
The grimy slur on the Republic’s faith implied,
Which holds that Man is naturally good,
And -more -is Nature’s Roman, never to be scourged

Note: When checking the links, I found that the story describing reactions to the National Guard had changed – I guess it was updated and the quotes I used have disappeared. The theme continues, however:

In a city too bruised to know what to feel, many of the famished survivors applauded the arrival of the relief trucks, though others, enraged at how long their wait has been, showered them with profanities.

More than 15,000 were estimated to be holed up at the four-story convention center, which at some points apparently attracted as many victims as the Superdome but was ignored much longer by rescue operations. Conditions there were even more ghastly than at the Superdome, with armed thugs seizing control and at various points, the authorities said, repulsing squads of police officers sent to retake it.

  1. Ginny, that was a wonderful post. It describes well the mixed feelings I have had watching this unfold in the news. For the most part, I am heartened by the generocity and helpfulness of the victims and volunteers. It supercedes the actions of malefactors and those who can only complain, blame, and malign.

    I cannot know whether good character will win over bad here, but I think it will. Your writing is more valuable than you portray, for words matter. Words shape events, and then record them. And here, done beautifully.

  2. Thanks Kevin – and thanks WF. Your link gives us all a perspective we need on the Big Easy. I inserted it in the text as well. The link warns us of how close anarchy can be at the best of times.

  3. I value this more highly, perhaps, because I spend my life “selling” the importance of words. But words can only do so much. For one thing, in this dark zone, how could they have been communicated? Even the cell phone towers are out. And are words enough against the most primitive of our passions?

    More than 600 students have passed through the self defense course that I have for violent crime victims, and the one thing their experiences have shown me is that the life most of us take for granted is artificial. It’s constructed, like landscaping compared to a jungle.

    You asked if words are enough against primitive passions. I think this is an unrealistic question. Words might mean something, but if they do its only in this constructed bubble. By themselves they’re nothing, just a waste of time, unless they’re backed up by steel. The steel is what I work with.

    Pity you can’t make any money at it.


  4. WF linked the excellent Nicole Gelinas piece from City Journal.

    I think that it is important to understand that municipal cultures can be changed by enlightened government.

    I was in New York during the 1976 blackout. It was a scary place. Apparently, by 2003, everything had changed.

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