Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Celebrating catastrophe and failure

It looks as if we are going to have annual celebrations for some time to come of the disaster of Katrina and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. They may become, for a time unofficial national holidays. I use the word "celebration" advisedly, although I know there will be emphasis on the human tragedies, the unfortunate failure to bring New Orleans back to what it was, the way 9/11 "changed everything" and alerted us to dangers we had overlooked before. But as much as they might say all the right things, there is an unmistakable air that comes very close to outright celebration in these commemorations. It's not quite that our superiors in the media and the political class think we deserved these human tragedies, though there's a faint whiff of that. No, while there will be emphasis on the capacity to survive devastation and come back from it determined, there is something very close to celebration in the refusal to let us forget.

Unless I am mistaken, this is a big change in the way America operates. Our official national holidays, most of them instituted before America became the "indispensable nation," celebrated things worth celebrating: the end of wars, the Declaration of Independence, acknowledgment of sacrifices in unavoidable wars, Flag Day, Law Day, birthdays of important leaders. Now we seem to want to remember the fact that we were attacked, the fact that our institutions failed to take preventive measures that might have avoided catastrophic damage. If these remembrances were accompanied or preceded by concrete steps to prevent future catastrophes it might be one thing. But the levees in New Orleans haven't been rebuilt to the point that they would hold back another storm just like Katrina, and instead of going after the perpetrators or those who led them and diagnosing the real problems associated with Islamist terrorism, we plunged into a war in Iraq that has strengthened rather than weakened the terrorists.

At a superficial level there are reasons to celebrate that few will admit openly. The neoconservatives who were itching for a reason to go to war with Iraq and certain elements of the Bush administration (still, I think) have reason to celebrate 9/11. It gave them the opportunity for the war they craved and license to go about it with few checks or balances. And for those who despise Bush, for whatever combination of reasons, Katrina is a constant reminder to the American people of his administration's failure and indifference and ineffectuality, cutting him down to size just when he was looking to be a popular wartime president. For certain groups of Americans, then, these catastyrophes are the gifts that keep on giving.

There may be another set of reason, outlined by the New Republic's John Judis in the August 27 issue. A Democrat partisan, he claims to have been baffled by working-class support for President Bush's ability to keep us feeling safe from threats like gay marriage and terrorists. He thinks he's found part of the answer in the emerging field of political psychology -- see Drew Westen's recent book, "The Political Brain," and research conducted by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski, who have conducted experiemnts dealing with how we "cope with the terrifying and potentially paralyzing realization that, as human beings, we are destined to die." They have buiilt on the work of anthropologist Ernest Becker and his 1974 book "Denial of Death."

As Judis puts it, "Becker described how human beings defend themselves against this fundamental anxiety [knowledge of death] by constructing cultures that promise symbolic or literal immortality to those who live up to established standards. Among other things, we practice religions that promise immortality; produce children and works of art that we hope will outlive us; seek to submerge our own individualism in a larger, enduring community of race or nation; and look to heroic leaders not only to fend off death, but to endow us with the courage to defy it. We also react with hostility toward individuals and rival cultures that threaten to undermine the integrity of our own."

The three political psychologists conducted experiments that seem to show the only thing that brings out this primal, tribal, turn-to-the-leader-and-reject-alien-cultures response is the fear of death, not less fundamental fears. There is little question that the neocons and the Bush administration have exploited the fears aroused by 9/11, but Judis suspects they didn't know just how primal were the emotions into which they tapped. He also thinks that 9/11 is now far enough in the past that -- barring another attack -- that it doesn't have the same primal power it once did.

There's food for thought there. I think another possibility is at play. We are reaching what may well be the end of America's imperial moment, the effective end of what Henry Luce dubbed the American Century -- a time when imperial overstretch and the inherent inefficiencies of governmental structures that have become not just overbearing but too muscle-bound and clumsy to operate effectively are making it clear to Americans that our time as competent leader of the world is petering out. We no longer believe in our competence or our special mission to set an example of freedom without bullying others into following our example. So we celebrate the fact that we were attacked -- that must make us special -- but we even want to celebrate our failures, because, just perhaps, many Americans no longer expect success and competence and ability in our leaders -- and perhaps, just perhaps, in ourselves.

Whatever the reasons, there is something perverse in the determination of our elites to engage in what seems to me more like celebration than simple commemoration of recent catastrophes and failures.


daveg said...

If you can achieve victim status, you are entitled to all sorts of goodies and privileges.

There is no greater example of this than Abe Foxman's opposition to official recognition of the Armenian Holocaust. He can't share the status that comes with have the one and only "Holocaust," which BTW has become one of the tools used to keep us in the war.

Iran is cooking up another "Holocaust(TM)"!

BTW, did you see this from David Bromwich on Huffington Post?

Wish the main stream media would come out on this.

Anonymous said...

Alan, the attempt to divest the state pension from companies doing business in Iran is something the OC Register could take a position on.

The state government has a fiduciary duty to manage the state pension fund in a manner that provides the greatest return and security to the future pensioners.

Playing world politics with the pension fund goes directly against this fiduciary duty. The pension managers should be free to invest as they wish with consideration of political issues.

Additionally, neither the pension fund managers nor the state representatives have the competense , expertise or access to information gathering tools needed to make informed decisions on matters such as these. It is completely iresponsible for the state legistalture to step into this political mine field.

The state of California does not have a CIA, DIA or other information gathering entity to determine the real activities of Iran, the internal politics therein, or the ability of the IAEA to monitor Iran's activities.

Nor does the state representative understand the foreign implications of such activities on our relationships with other nations.

Nor is it even clear that a neuclear armed Iran posses a real threat to the United States.

Divestment with state pension funds is a very blunt tool for asserting international political influence. It should be used only in the most extreme and particularly obvious situations, if at all.

The Federal is the proper entity for making such decision and has already passed a host of laws in this area.

The Federal government has virtually unlimited resources gather information, work with other nations and to in general deal with this issue in an informed and thoughtful manner. Additionally, the Federal government has the mandate to do so. The government of the state of California does not.

We should not put our state pension in jeopardy this way nor should we get involved with something as delicate as our negotiations with Iran.