Disasters such as Hurricane Katrina often serve as a kind of "political Rorschach blotter" for a given society. American politicians, pundits, and activists stared at the horrifying images and conjured up explanations that are more a product of their own political psychology than anything existing in actual "reality." Indeed, many succumbed to the almost uncontrollable urge to jump up and shout "Aha! See? Didn’t I tell you this would happen? If everyone would have only listened to me, then this tragedy could have been avoided!"
Thus, as the images from New Orleans flood our collective psyche, one hears liberals claim that the events prove the need for yet more spending on "inner city programs" and the evils of "tax cuts for the rich." The campus PC crowd sees vindication for their belief that America is indistinguishable from apartheid South Africa, and the racialist right sees irrefutable confirmation of their own anthropological theories.
Being a libertarian, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that my political interpretation of the tragedy revolves around the horrific failure of government at all levels. The feds were immersed in bureaucratic torpor, the governor of Louisiana was pathetically vacuous, and the mayor of New Orleans was an incompetent boob. If this incident doesn’t demonstrate to everyone the sheer folly of relying on the government (as opposed to one’s own initiative) in adverse circumstances, then I don’t know what will.
There was so much mindless waffling from our leaders that, in my humble opinion, this storm should be officially renamed "Hurricane Hamlet."
While I admit to my biases, I think that this libertarian interpretation is backed up by more tangible facts than any of the others, but I have steadfastly resisted plunging into the morass of just such an analysis because I think that this tragedy has potentially much greater philosophical and political implications.
As I watched my old neighborhood in New Orleans become a watery death trap, and as I saw footage of former medical colleagues dodging sniper’s bullets and fending off bands of armed looters inside their hospitals, I began to ponder the "big picture."
How can a sophisticated American city suffer a civilizational melt-down so quickly? Would a similar melt-down occur in other societies under the same circumstances? If not, why did it happen in New Orleans?
These are the questions with which all thinking Americans must now struggle.
Although mindful of my own "Rorschachian shortcomings," I contend that this tragedy exposes some of the underlying destabilizing forces that lurk just below the surface of our increasingly polyglot empire. In a stable society comprised of largely contented and self-sufficient citizens, this hurricane would have had a very different outcome indeed. The survivors would have displayed teamwork, discipline, and numerous acts of heroism.
While some of these traits were present in New Orleans, there was also a great deal of looting, rape, and murder. Obviously, there is quite a bit of hatred boiling in various corners of America, and that hatred is directed at rival ethnic groups, at the authorities, and at the norms and customs of our heretofore dominant culture.
Most poignantly, what do these events say about the future of our imperial project? What does the future hold for such a society built on multiculturalism, overseas military conquests, and ever-expanding government expenditures?
Obviously, America has deep and gradually widening divisions which were exposed during the course of Hurricane Katrina. Furthermore, I contend that there are forces afoot in our society that make a repeat of the mayhem very likely
A somewhat more salient question is this: since America apparently lacks the kind of esprit de corps and shared cultural values that would lend succor to a more coherent nation in times of distress, just what is keeping our society glued together in times of relative calm?
The very question of American instability might seem farfetched to most observers. After all, are we not the wealthiest nation in the world? Are we not "the world’s only remaining superpower?"
Who could possibly doubt our political stability?
Nevertheless, the events in New Orleans raise questions that warrant careful examination.
From my perspective, America is steadily losing the amity of shared cultural values that serve as the social glue in other, more normal societies. As a result, we are relying on three alternative forces to maintain stability. Ominously, I contend that these forces are each weakening due to social and technological changes occurring around us every day.
Stabilizing force #1: Material prosperity
The neoconservatives call America a "proposition nation." That is code for a nation in which the citizens do not share culture or kinship, but rather share a belief in certain intellectual and moral principles.
Neocon wishes notwithstanding, it is obvious to me that a large and growing portion of our population does not share traditional "American values" (such as individualism, self-reliance, and a belief in limited, republican government).
In the absence of these values, our citizenry is left with a belief in "the American dream." The power of this dream should not be underestimated, since the promise of material prosperity is glue that can paper over a lot of other societal fault lines. Specifically, so long as everyone shares in the prosperity and has confidence in even more wealth in the future, they may tolerate the presence of other individuals and groups which they might otherwise not.
Undeniably, if the system keeps on delivering it, material prosperity can exert a powerful force for unity.
Stabilizing force #2: The media matrix
In the seminal movie The Matrix, Keanu Reeves learns a horrifying truth about his world. He discovers that everything he sees, hears, and experiences is not really "real." Instead, it is a computer-generated virtual reality maintained by alien forces that have malignant intentions towards humanity. Gradually, as he becomes more cognizant of the matrix, he learns to operate within it so as to lead a liberation movement to free humanity.
While that is obviously an extreme example, it is nevertheless interesting and applicable. Since the early part of the 20th Century, the rise of electronic media has allowed the political elites in America to create a media-driven consensus. Several generations of Americans have been exposed to non-stop media saturation for almost all their lives, and those media outlets were few in number and were concentrated in the hands of centralizing forces. For most of this period, there were only three TV networks, a couple of news wires, and three news magazines. Each of these outlets was owned by organizations with extensive interconnections with the governing elite. They were relentlessly establishment-oriented and almost unbearably uniform in their editorial positions.
Since all Americans perceived their world through the veil of this matrix, it tended to forge a rough political consensus.
Stabilizing force #3: The government security apparatus
As every good libertarian knows, government is, at the end of the day, merely an agent of force. The government has been steadily increasing its powers throughout its 200-plus years of existence. Given the effectiveness of the above two stabilizing forces, the government has generally been able to keep the fist of force carefully concealed behind a velvet glove. From the elite’s perspective, brute force is the most uncouth stabilizing force and is best used only when absolutely necessary (at least on our own citizens…overseas is another matter altogether).
When examining our society using this paradigm, I contend that America may be entering a period of political instability
The events in New Orleans reveal obvious, deep divisions within our society. The first whiff of a natural disaster resulted in the sacking of a city and running gun battles with authorities. Citizens here and abroad watched in utter amazement.
Increasingly lacking a natural base of shared cultural values (which is, after all, the stated purpose of the multiculturalism that now dominates academia and our popular culture), America is growing increasingly dependent on the above three forces to maintain political and social stability.
Regrettably, as noted previously, each of these forces is beginning to falter.
For example, what would happen if our society entered a long period of serious economic distress which imperiled the dream of economic prosperity for all? During the Great Depression, America was an entirely different society. We were, essentially, a nation of The Waltons. Americans were generally self-sufficient; most still lived on farms, and most shared a stern, Protestant moral code.
Increasingly, Americans are dependent on government largess, steeped in debt, immersed in a psychology of entitlement, and awash in moral relativism. Our polity is now little more than a variety of political tribes, each staking a claim to one or more redistributive cash streams from the government.
Unfortunately, the government is hurtling towards bankruptcy. If one examines the actuarial projections for Medicare, Social Security, and Bush’s new prescription drug plan, it is clear that each of these programs is really nothing more than an unstable Ponzi scheme living on borrowed time.
To make matters worse, these gargantuan costs are being incurred in the backdrop of a government that has promised bread and circuses to ever-expanding numbers of "underprivileged" citizens and is dedicated to maintaining military forces in over 120 nations across the globe.
When you "do the math," the government’s balance sheet makes Enron look like Warren Buffett.
What does this imply for the future effectiveness of material prosperity as a force of social stability?
That is a very scary question. However unhappy those brigands and looters may have been after the hurricane, my hunch is that they are going to be a whole lot unhappier when the teat runs dry.
As for the media matrix, it is collapsing before our very eyes on a daily basis. Starting in the early 1990’s, there has been an explosion of media outlets that are much less easily controlled by the establishment. We have seen the emergence of talk radio, satellite radio, a myriad of cable and satellite TV services with hundreds of channels, and, of course, the internet.
People can now tailor their news sources to their own personal tastes and can effectively program their own matrix. People living next door to each other now may perceive their world through entirely distinct media outlets.
Given the erosion of these cohesive societal forces, it should come as no surprise that the government is increasingly leaning on the third leg of the stability stool. Sometime in the 1990s, I began to detect an increasing paranoia on the part of our government directed at its own citizens. It appeared briefly at Ruby Ridge, and poured out into the open at Waco. I first noticed the overt militarization of our police forces during the anti-globalization riots in Seattle and again during the 2000 political conventions. Now, in the aftermath of 9/11, the militarization is complete. Since those terror attacks, the government security apparatus has launched a frontal assault on our constitutional liberties (especially with the Patriot Act) and is rapidly merging military and law-enforcement organizations.
But ultimately, a society cannot survive by mere force alone. Even totalitarian regimes collapse when the people finally withdraw their consent and their alliance to the system.
Other, more coherent societies (such as South Korea or Iceland, for example) may be able to weather the storms of economic distress and media fragmentation without undue trouble, but America’s ability to do so is up for question. The events in Louisiana cast serious doubt.
While watching the drama unfold in New Orleans, I kept thinking about the sheer "alien-ness" of it all. The images did not appear to be "American." Surely, I thought, this was not my country, and these were not my countrymen.
The flood disaster, along with our government’s increasingly unstable finances and our endless Iraqi quagmire, may herald the twilight of the three governing paradigms that have dominated our society since World War II. We may be observing the simultaneous death throes of Keynesian economic liberalism, politically correct multiculturalism, and Wilsonian/neoconservative internationalism.
How chaotic this twilight will be and what ideology will rise to take their place are the major questions looming on our collective political horizon.
Steven LaTulippe [send him mail] is a physician currently practicing in Ohio. He was an officer in the United States Air Force for 13 years.