David Brooks on "Meet the Press" Sunday said he thought Katrina had given rise to a greater public desire for "authority" and "order." I found what he was saying typically thoughtful, but I differ with him. That difference gives rise to this piece.
I don't think Americans are or have been, by nature, lovers of authority. When we think of the old America we think of house-raisings on the prairie and teeming cities full of immigrants, but a big part of the American nature can also be found in the story of Jeremiah Johnson, the mountain man who just wanted to live off by himself, unbothered and unmolested by people and their churches and clubs and rules. He didn't like authority. He wanted to be left alone.
We live in the age of emergency, however, and in that age we hunger for someone to take responsibility. Not authority, but a sense of "I'll lead you out of this." On 9/11 the firemen took responsibility: I will go into the fire. So did the mayor: This is how we'll get through, this is how we'll triumph.
In New Orleans, by contrast, the mayor seemed panicked, the governor seemed medicated, and the airborne wasn't there until it was there and peace was restored. Until then no one took responsibility. There was a vacuum. But nature abhors a vacuum, so rumors and chaos came in to fill it. Which made things worse.
No one took charge. Thus the postgame commentary in which everyone blamed someone else: The mayor fumbled the ball, the governor didn't call the play, the president didn't have a ground game.
Thursday, September 29, 2005