The Tenuous Thread
Americans tend to believe in God and to disbelieve in government. Time will tell how many are moved to rethink one or both of those tendencies in the aftermath of Katrina. It is, however, likely that the storm's lingering reverberations will alter the nation's mind far more than 9/11 did.
He was right in more ways than he knew. It was Katrina that lost this election for Republicans. It was Katrina, more than 9-11, that changed the landscape of American politics--probably permanently. Most importantly, it was Katrina that, while confirming some of George Will's most fundamental beliefs about human nature and the underlying essence of conservative thought, dashed and discredited for a generation the practices and principles of conservative government.
"Conservatism," you see, is a strange yet simple beast when properly understood. It is fundamentally distinct from its ugly red-headed stepchildren known as NeoConservatism or Free-Market Republicanism, and it claims as its ideological forbears names far greater than Goldwater or Buckley: Cato, Cicero, Hume, Hobbes, Adams, Hamilton and others. The dictionary entry for "conservatism" is disarmingly straightforward:
Conservatism: the disposition to preserve or restore what is established and traditional and to limit change.
Unfortunately, while this definition does capture the end of the conservative vision, it fails to capture its beginnings: the worldview that gives rise to the ideology. It fails to answer the great Why. Why limit change? Why cling to established orders and orthodoxies, even when those orthodoxies are shown to have caused enormous pain, torment and injustice? Why undermine the hope and promise of progress, when it is progressives who have been responsible for every important advance in our civilization?
The answer is most elegantly expressed in the works of Hume: Conservatives cling to orthodoxy because they believe that mankind's grasp on civilization is tenuous at best: that Man is fundamentally evil--a sinner--and that society exists only as that necessary bond between essentially self-interested parties. That Authority and Law are to be respected for its own sake, regardless of any individual authority's or law's inherent moral legitimacy. Because, in the conservative mind, on the other side of disrespect for authority--even if cloaked in the best of liberal intentions--lies Chaos.
As Will says:
In the dystopia that is New Orleans as this is written, martial law is a utopian aspiration. Granted, countless acts, recorded and unrecorded, of selflessness and heroism attest to the human capacity for nobility. But this, too, is true: The swiftness of New Orleans' descent from chaos into barbarism must compound the nation's nagging anxiety that more irrationality is rampant in the world just now than this nation has the power to subdue or even keep at bay....
In 1651, in "Leviathan," Hobbes said that in "the state of nature," meaning in the absence of a civil society sustained by government, mankind's natural sociability, if any, is so tenuous that life is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." Thoughtful conservatives—meaning those whose conservatism arises from reflections deeper than an aversion to high marginal tax rates—are conservative because they understand how thin and perishable is the crust of civilization, and hence how always near society's surface are the molten passions that must be checked by force when they cannot be tamed by socialization.
George Will was right about one thing: the thread that weaves together the social fabric is tenuous at best. The line that divides civilization from social catastrophe is thin and perishable. Katrina proved that postulate with undeniable potency.
But he and his friends are right for all the wrong reasons. Painfully so. Obviously so. So obvious was the discrepancy that Conservatives were resoundingly defeated in the elections that followed by an American electorate that could plainly see what was blind to them.
For the lesson of Katrina was not that civilization will be destroyed by barbarous hoi polloi who behave like selfish animals in the absence of authority, but that a barbarous government of self-interested, conservative plutocrats can destroy civilization in the absence of a liberal belief in the common good. The lesson was, in short, that the line between civilization and social dysfunction is indeed a tenuous one--and "Conservative" government will erase that line every time.
And it was not just in New Orleans that taught us this lesson. The lesson of Katrina was learned in Iraq as well, where both the American and Iraqi nations saw what damage could be done to civilization by a Conservative Government run on behalf of self-interested ideologues and oil magnates.
It was learned in Afghanistan, where the American and Afghan people's saw what havoc could be wreaked by corrupt, self-interested officials more interested in serving the needs of Exxon and Unocal than in stopping poppy production, furthering human needs, or catching the world's #1 criminal.
It was learned by the watchers of our harried Constitution, who have seen the most vital protections of our Democracy stripped away in the Quixotic Conservative quest to grasp at the shimmering rainbow mirage called "Security."
It was learned by our middle class, who saw their economic fortunes fall and their families torn asunder through longer work hours and higher costs of living, in the name of "free markets" and self-interested corporate greed.
It was learned by our family farmers and ranchers, who saw their tax dollars pay for corporate welfare for their Big Ag competitors who slowly squeezed them out of business, while watching the Conservative politicians they put into office pretend to protect them by eliminating an Estate Tax that touched them not at all.
It was learned in our nation's pocketbook, where the politics of venal self-interest have placed our entire nation in hock to its ideological adversaries in China and Saudi Arabia.
It was learned by our energy watchers, who have seen that Conservative failure to act toward progress on this front have put us one revolution in Saudi Arabia and one Gulf Coast hurricane away from a Second Dark Age.
All of these are the lessons of Katrina. The lessons of the tenuous thread; the lessons of the vanishing line.
Americans have seen the same vision that Conservatives see: the effacing of that line and the fraying of that thread; the dissipation of civilization into social disorder. Katrina and her horrid sisters in Iraq, Afghanistan, our heartland, our middle class, our Constitution, our energy supplies and our collective pocketbook have forced that vision into our minds, like an endless series of bad mushrooms too quickly ingested. We have seen that George Will was RIGHT.
And we, as Americans, know whom to blame now. We blame George Will. We blame all his friends. We blame his horrific ideology, and his fundamental misinterpretation of even more fundamental truths.
Nor are we are likely to forget the lessons we have learned.