Natural Disasters

"What Katrina Proves" (Autorefuting Editorials Edition)

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I see that Will Wilkinson is as annoyed as I was by the spate of dim op-eds concluding that Katrina is somehow a refutation of "small government" principles. The latest instance of this—and possibly also the most obtuse, though competition is stiff—was posted today at Harper's.

What's really astonishing here is that the author sounds many of the same points that Jesse and Welch hit earlier this week about the tendency of early reports to emphasize the worst sorts of reactions to the chaos, about people's tendency for cooperative self-organization even during crises when authority has broken down. As she puts it:

But "the authorities" are too few and too centralized to respond to the dispersed and numerous emergencies of a disaster. Instead, the people classified as victims generally do what can be done to save themselves and one another. In doing so, they discover not only the potential power of civil society but also the fragility of existing structures of authority.

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The events of September 11, 2001, though entirely unnatural, shed light on the nature of all disasters. That day saw the near-total failure of centralized authority. The United States has the largest and most technologically advanced military in the world, but the only successful effort to stop the commandeered planes from becoming bombs was staged by the unarmed passengers inside American Airlines Flight 93. They pieced together what was going on by cell-phone conversations with family members and organized themselves to hijack their hijackers, forcing the plane to crash in that Pennsylvania field.

In almost the same breath—not to mention a breathtaking display of equivocation—she blasts "an odd backlash against unions, social safety nets, the New Deal and the Great Society, against the idea that we should take care of one another, against the idea of community." In other words, the author quite effectively reminds us that "the idea that we should take care of one another" need not require chanelling our care through hierarchy or bureaucracy, then makes like the guy in Memento. It's a weirdly frustrating piece: You keep feeling sure that she must be on the verge of seeing what her own argument fairly straightforwardly entails, but nothing.