Fatalism & Louisiana

Part of Ken’s point is that failings on various levels made Katrina worse, but they did just that: they made Katrina worse. He notes the difference between nature & man. And nature is likely to fight us harder than man. If civilization reaches the point where a category five hurricane aimed at a populous and wide region is just a minor problem – well, that will be good. And technology & planning may indeed reach that point. Even with all the incompetence that we will complain about for years, this was not as bad as 1900 Galveston; it was destroyed and never, not really, came back. The 6000 dead will surely not be topped by Katrina, despite its broader swath and a modern higher population. (The poor, then, in Galveston were the new immigrants; its role as Ellis Island of the south was never regained.) Indeed, apparently New Orleans got a larger percentage of its population out than Ivan would have predicted. And the misery of Mississippi and Alabama appears mitigated by better planning.

But, at the end, the hurricane & flood left death and destruction. A better plan – and most any plan followed in NO would have been better – wouldn’t have been “good,” merely better. We make these distinctions and look to place blame. We do this because we see man as responsible and those in authority as more responsible yet. We don’t often think in terms of “fate” – even those of us who have lived much of our lives on plains where the sweep of a cold front moving across the horizon puts man’s power in perspective and a year’s livelihood ruined by hail is not as uncommon as we would like don’t throw up our hands and say, “It’s God’s will” all that quickly. We know (or at least sense) if we fatalistically accept nature’s force, we are unlikely to build levees and devise plans. We don’t find such a view of fate attractive nor useful, so we turn from it.

And even if we see a certain stoicism as heroic, we expect it to be mixed with pragmatism. Central to our concepts of ourselves and others is our sense that the will is quite important. The parable of the talents emphasizes not what is done wrong but what is not done right. Human failure often comes from “not doing”: If Nagin had spent “quality” time on the plan, if he’d declared evacuation earlier, if the buses had been used. Or, if Blanco had led (at all it would seem), let the Red Cross in, declared an emergency earlier, not worried about her turf in relation to Nagin, in relation to Bush.

So, with Katrina, eventually we will need to balance what could have been done and wasn’t with what was beyond the ability of engineers and politicians, weathermen and aid agencies to “solve.” As Ken observes, we need to be realistic about the power of the weather; we need to accept that any government is likely to have some flawed leaders (a corrupt one only more so).

We have survived, I suspect, because of our refusal to accept fate; we assign blame for good adaptive reasons: it makes us take responsibility, it leads to improvements, it challenges us. We shrug off limitations to what we can control – and then find we can do more than we thought. This moves us toward the “better.” This is good, and if right now it seems partisan and political, it is in the long run a more useful way of approaching nature. Those who accept fate readily imprison themselves, limit their horizons. They don’t use those muscles that responsibility grows. Whether they think that way of hurricanes or terrorist attacks, their passivity scares me more than another’s testoserone.

But, as we have increasingly taken (and probably more often assigned) human responsibility where another time might have seen fate, I suspect we have also become a bit unrealistic. We shouldn’t forget the power of nature: of hurricanes and tsunamis, of blizzards and droughts. Do we think we can stop an ice age or stay free of meteors?

Of course, 9/11 could have been prevented but it wasn’t; Katrina–at least as far as anything we now know–could not have been. In both cases, our ability to predict, to prepare, and to react can be improved. If we merely say, ah, that is fate, we underestimate our abilities and endanger our children. If, however, we think we can, ultimately and finally, control man or nature, well, we have lost our perspective. Sometimes, we think just that: the other side of the “right to die” is the “right to live.” Exactly what do those “rights” mean in any broad sense? Do we honestly think we get to will such a choice in any other than a pretty cosmetic way? (Yes, I would prefer assisted suicide to a long life in some twilight zone, but it bothers me that anyone would put that preference in terms of a “right to die.”)

We immunize ourselves, don’t take those curves too fast, exercise. We make evacuation plans and we appreciate Lex’s analysis & warnings about China: these are grown-up adaptive responses to a world that remains in large part unpredictable and dangerous. It is, however, considerably less dangerous & chaotic because our culture doesn’t say, Ah, such is fate.

4 thoughts on “Fatalism & Louisiana”

  1. Yes, Cromwell’s remark is an excellent quote — if you are dealing with providential enemies like the Spanariads or their Catholic agents on the blessed isle that test your faith on the battlefield — and if this was 17th century England. Frankly, I am sick of reading apolegetics such as the above non-sense and their weepy, yet “clear-eyed assessments” that just chalk up the disaster in New Orleans or the gulf coast area to locals and their incompetence — and nasty mother nature — there is a lot of blame to go around. If you don’t realize how badly your government is failing you, and I mean all of you who are reading this, travel down here — I have been working in a shelter for the last few days that is supposedly “servicing” several thousand refugees.

    Only today did FEMA set up an office; and they sat there with their thumbs up their ****** until we asked them the simple questions 1) does anybody know you are here? 2) What are you prepared to do for these people? I do not know what sort of dulcet toned, sweet utopia you live in where everybody “maximizes” their own utility, owns guns that only shoot bad guys when the occasion arises, and scoffs at government except at those times when things are peaceful, the roads run true, and the garbage is collected every tuesday, but I put servicing in quotation marks, because long after Laura Bush departed, it is still an open question who is in charge — and who is doing the minimum — and what is being done. One of the people working with me said, since I lost my house and my job, “I might as well volunteer to help everybody else. But I’m not sure what I’m supposed to tell them.” It is managed chaos for the short term and probably the long term, to put it lightly. The buck stops at the top — I voted for a president who said he was a CEO when it came to management style — I have waited and waited for him to fire anybody let alone kick some serious ass, let alone demostrate any leadership. I am very afraid that we are seeing the real skills, or lack thereof, displayed by our top leadershipb — if this is how he manages a “domestic problem” — how the hell is he realy “managing” the war on terror? A good friend of mine reassured me, as a good joke, that this is simply part of the wonderful conundrum that Republicans are good at foreign affairs, but bad at demonstrating compassion domestically — to which I said bullshit. You don’t need to pretend you are Bill Clinton and “feel everyone’s pain”; you need to be a real American — get things done, kick ass, take names and numbers and deliver results. Worry about the fall out after the job is done. Hasn’t happened yet. Or I should say, when it is happening, it is despite, not because of any federal or national leadership.

    To the point — on a more minor and local level, when we have encountered problems ranging from violence to peeping toms (after all, when you lose everything, you are suddenly taking your daily shower in the equivalent of an open locker room), despite being surrounded by local cops, sherrifs and national guard MP units, no one is really sure who is in charge of law keeping — I saw a sign that read “report child abuse to the sherriff’s office” — except, there was no such office established; let alone a ‘help desk’ that might direct such concerns to the proper authorties — of course, we could all take the law into our own hands. If it were not for volunteers, alot of questions would go unanswered; god bless ’em, the cops, sherrifs deputies and nat guard are there — but their assigned roles and jurisdiciton are 1) screening; 2) riot prevention — while I am sure this is an argument for good self-organization, it is a poor substitute for good governance — which is the minimum — Thomas Barnett is very right — blame does lie with the federal government; or again, at the minimum, it is antiquated to wait until local and state govs have exhausted their resources; at the max — the buck stops at the top. I cannot believe how utterly clueless federal officials continue to be — I am not surprised at the paucity of local and state leadership — what is the only saving grace has been the wellspring of local individuals who have stepped up. If there is a common refrain, it is “I would never have thought I would be doing this, except…”

    The long and the short of it is, a major and economically important American city has ceased to exist — and so far, for far too many bloggers and policy wonks, the entire calamity seems to only be a partisan test and exercise whether or not we excuse the current administration for its foresight or lack thereof or defend them “rigorously” in cyberspace — frankly, you should all be ashamed of yourselves. The current admin is a joke that has failed alot of people in their time of need — which, by the way, is the only time that government really counts — short of a nuclear blast or overwhelming military attack.

    If Katrina was a test of our govs capabilities, let’s hope that it “forgot” there was a test that morning. I would never let a student get by with that kind of a pathetic excuse — why should we ever believe or trust anybody who claims they have a right to govern, even if by our consent, if they fail such a basic test?

  2. And, yes, read Becker and Posner’s blog if you are a long term insurer or econ. concerned. Good stuff. But don’t try to float this “Bush isn’t responsible, everybody else is” meme down my stream. I will torpedo it.

  3. Of course federal officials are clueless about local issues. That’s a consequence of having a federal system. It may be that a federal system is not optimal for responding to local disasters. However, in the long run, making it easier for the federal government to override state and local officials is likely to have significant costs, which advocates of having the feds “do something” are ignoring. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to be skeptical that the benefits of increased centralized authority will exceed those costs. I think Barnett is wrong. Our system is what it is for good reason and we should not change it lightly.

    Everyone notices that government at all levels has feet of clay and that private citizens acting on their own initiative are doing great things. Why is this reason to increase the power of the federal government?

    Who, among plausible alternative presidents, would have handled the situation better? Why wasn’t he/she elected? The bigger the government is, and the more money it controls, the less likely it will be to handle particular problems competently, and the more likely it will be to put the wrong people in charge. (Of course FEMA is a patronage scheme. It’s been that way for years. Why does anyone expect different?) BTW, do the people of Louisiana deserve some of the blame, for electing buffoons like Blanco and Nagin?

    I think Bush has handled the war pretty well. He’s screwed up other things, as I have not hesitated to point out on this blog over the past several years. What does it mean that he has done some things well and others poorly? I don’t know. Bush isn’t a narrative that has to be logically consistent in order to be valid. He is an imperfect person, like everyone else. I am grateful that he got the war mainly right. Some of his other behaviors disappoint me, but I’ll take what I can get. Things could be worse. It would be nice if we could expect him to anticipate failures of local government and to intervene in emergencies at just the right time, but it’s unrealistic to do so. Even in the modern USA, there are limits to what government can do successfully. We ignore these limits, to make short-term exceptions to the rules, only at our long-term peril.

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