After the Deluge

Scott McLemee takes a quick look at commentary on Hurricane Katrina ... muttering audibly, the whole time.

September 6, 2005

By now, you may have have read and watched, and wept and yelled, quite enough on the topic of Hurrican Katrina and its aftermath -- and in that case, probably, can take no more. If so, please come back on Thursday, when Intellectual Affairs will begin its weekly coverage of new books.

My plan had been to devote today's column to Astra Taylor's Zizek!, due to be  be screened during the Toronto International Film Festival (September 8-17). It's a smart and wry film, and worthy of the attention -- but given the other images I've had to process over the last week, this does not seem like the moment. And Taylor herself agrees, so we'll count on revisiting Zizek!

But for now, a brief roundup of some recent, or otherwise pertinent, discussions of Katrina. This survey won't try to be exhaustive. If you've come across something brilliant, provocative, profoundly chowderheaded, etc. that ought to have been linked here -- well, please use the comments section to let the world know.

For a good selection of commentary from around the world, by all means start out with the digest   prepared by the staff of Open Democracy. And as ever, Alfredo Perez provides a running log of recent articles at Political Theory Daily Review, where for now the coverage of Katrina is linked in the middle column, "Town Square." No doubt more and more essays will be appear in the "Ivory Tower" section in the months ahead.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that our president is not a hard-reading man. The difficult of imagining him with a book is integral to the aura of wholesome folksiness, otherwise so difficult to project for a millionaire Yalie scion of the WASP establishment. No one can seriously doubt that he is telling the non-reality-based truth (as he sees it) in stating that it was impossible to anticipate the impact of Katrina.

And yet, and yet.... An astonishing account of the destruction of New Orleans by a hurricane appeared in National Geographic -- last October. We're not talking about some boring old memo, either! It's National Geographic, people, the magazine with the bright and vivid pictures. Surely someone in a position of responsibility might have shown him that?

He might also have benefitted from a look at Chris Mooney's article at the Web site of The American Prospect from late May. But that is probably pushing it.

"In a parliamentary democracy," as Henry Farrell wrote over the weekend, "George W. Bush would almost certainly either have resigned by now or be on the point of resigning." The point has not been lost even on the likes of David Brooks -- in normal circumstances, one of the G.O.P.'s reliably feisty attack poodles (to borrow the expression coined by James Wolcott.

Urging us to keep things in perspective, though, we have Niall Ferguson,  the most celebrated historian of (and in) that globalizing project known as the growth of Empire. On Sunday, he reminded us that the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 was pretty awful, too, and that the tendency back then was to attach moral significance to natural disaster. Now, a quarter millennium later, that temptation is being indulged again -- but by a motley crew of leftists, environmentalists, and those opposed to the Iraq war, all of them looking for scapegoats. (Also, the jihadists, who are glad to think of the boost in oil prices.)

It is difficult to take the measure of such chutzpah. Not so long ago, Ferguson was the most serious, and certainly the most prominent, contemporary champion of counterfactual history: that is, the use of the alternative scenarios as a took for thinking about the possible outcomes of events. ("What if Hitler had been killed in 1918?" etc.) The strongest claim for the value of counterfactual history is that it undercuts determinism -- which, in turn, makes us more aware of possibility, of decision-making, of individual responsibility.

Well, how's this for an exercise in the counterfactual rewriting of history? Suppose that most members of the National Guard were, you know, inside the national borders. Imagine that there were old copies of National Geographic on Air Force One. Daydream about accountability.

Of course, there are other ways of looking at the situation. For example, the case of New Orleans could be revisted from a strictly free-market perspective -- as proof of the failure that naturally follows from obliging the government to take on responsibilities better left to private initiative.

"So who should own the public levees?" asks Will Baude, of the Federalist Society at Yale Law School. "The standard analysis certainly labels them as the classic domain of the government, and if we can design an institution that can do an effective job, I am all for it. But I do think there are structural reasons to suppose that we might be able to come up with alternative, perhaps non-governmental, institutions that would do a better job of holding back le deluge�?

Worse even than the creeping socialism of public utilities is the moral rot that we have seen manifested in the streets, according to Robert Tracinski. "What Hurricane Katrina exposed," he writes, "was the psychological consequences of the welfare state.... People with values respond to a disaster by fighting against it and doing whatever it takes to overcome the difficulties they face. They don't sit around and complain that the government hasn't taken care of them. And they don't use the chaos of a disaster as an opportunity to prey on their fellow men."

Clearly not! The solution is obvious. Somebody needs to get the collected works of Ayn Rand down to New Orleans right away, preferably in a waterproof edition.

On the future of New Orleans, check out comments by Randall Parker at Parapundit, David Sucher at City Comforts and Nathaniel Robinson at Cliopatria.

It seems a matter of time before there is a large body of analysis concerning how race and class have been addressed (or ignored) in the wake of Katrina. But so far, not so good. An exception has been Rachel Sullivan's two-parter ( here and here ) followed by her quick list of some relevant information on social inequality. But things have been relatively quiet, so far, on the H-Net African-American Studies list.

Then again, my eyes are now rather blurry.... If you've come across anything having major consequences for how we should understand the past week -- or the future it has opened -- then please share that information in the space below.

UPDATE: How could I have overlooked the page of links at the History News Network? Well worth a look.


Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Suggestions and ideas for future columns are welcome.


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