As the floodwaters rose in New Orleans last week, a group called Columbia Christians for Life announced that it had discerned God's purpose in the storm: the destruction of the five abortion clinics in the city. The proof was a radar photograph showing that the hurricane "looks like a fetus facing to the left (west) in the womb, in the early weeks of gestation." A photo of a 6-week fetus was helpfully provided for comparison. At the other end of the political spectrum, environmental activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. was blaming the hurricane on ... Haley Barbour, the Governor of Mississippi, who played a "central role ... derailing the Kyoto Protocol" on global warming. Kennedy's larger point was defensibleglobal warming may well cause extreme weather patternsbut the implication that one man and one (flawed) treaty might have prevented this storm seemed a bit much.
Foolish reactions are inevitable in moments of disaster. But in the primal enormity of the Gulf Coast tragedy, these two risible and annoying responses almost seemed to have a purpose. They were a reminder of our vestigial selves, of how humankind has rationalized catastrophe through most of its history. The whims of nature were either God's will or our fault. Happily, the two institutions that arose from these explanationsreligion and governmentproved to be civilizing impulses. Religion provided the moral basis for human interaction; government provided the forum for common action against external threats.
The aftermath of the hurricane brought these rudiments of humanity to mind. It was a case study in why societies existwhich may be the one good thing to emerge from this mess. We have grown accustomed to best-case scenarios in the U.S.; we have come to assume that we will always have electricity and fresh water and an endless pipeline of goods and services. We assume that we can always control our fate, that we are exempt from chaos, and that governance is a necessary evil rather than an essential good, the ultimate civilized defense against the rudeness of nature.
The Chinese believe that natural disasters signal the fall of empires, a shift in the "Mandate of Heaven." The 1976 Tangshan earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people, for example, was said to portend the end of Mao's reign. This may be akin to seeing a fetus in the shape of a hurricane, but the Chinese do have a point: we have had two catastrophes in the past four years9/11 and Katrinaand taken together, they send a signal that America's remarkable late-20th century run may not be perpetual. Modifications in the way we live may be necessary. Certainly, the terrorist attacks have changed little things, like the way we ride airplanes, and profound things, like the basic assumptions of American foreign policy. And now there is New Orleans, which, at the very least, should spark a reconsideration of what has become a casual disdain for the essentials of governance and our common public life.
There was, last week, an immediate and furious debate about the racial implications of the tragedy, since most of the victims we saw on television were poor and black. There were recriminations about the lack of preparedness for the disaster, the corroded infrastructure, the mind-boggling swiftness of a city's collapse into anarchy. But those arguments can be neatly folded into a larger discussion about the radical turn toward what is inaccurately described as "conservatism" that American politics took in the late 20th century. There were good reasons for the turn: a new understanding of the inefficiencies of socialism and initiative-stifling government bureaucracies. But there were terrible reasons as well. Starting in the 1960s, Republicans exploited Southern opposition to integration, as the G.O.P. National Committee chairman, Ken Mehlman, recently admitted. This implicit racism evolved into a tacit unwillingness to rethink problems of poverty and racean unwillingness shared by Democrats, who clung to old bureaucratic solutions and cosmetic remedies like affirmative actionand worse, to the denigration of a basic governmental role: the need to plan for the future, to anticipate crises. The new philosophy of governance was stated most crudely in 1987 by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher: "There is no such thing as society ... There are individual men and women, and there are families."