Katrina and the End of Illusions

You have to give the neocons credit – through rain, through sleet, and through the stormiest of hurricanes, even so debilitating a one as Katrina, they keep their powder and their talking points dry. And their main talking point, in the wake of what David Brooks is calling “the anti-9/11,” is… Rudy! Rudy! Rudy! Both Brooks and Andrew Sullivan were beating the drums on the Chris Matthews Show Sunday morning, decrying this administration’s pathetic performance and hailing Rudy Giuliani as the neocons’ latest great white hope: “On Sept. 11, Rudy Giuliani took control,” swooned Brooks in his Sunday New York Times column. “The government response was quick and decisive. The rich and poor suffered alike. Americans had been hit, but felt united and strong. Public confidence in institutions surged.” Not so in the aftermath of Katrina. Brooks lists a string of disconnects, including the “failure” to find WMDs in Iraq – as if the failure to find what wasn’t there is somehow shocking – and “incompetence” in planning the occupation of Iraq. He fears we are returning to the 1970s, the decade of “malaise,” in which:

“Each institutional failure and sign of helplessness is another blow to national morale. The sour mood builds on itself, the outraged and defensive reaction to one event serving as the emotional groundwork for the next.”

We are at what Brooks calls “the bursting point,” but what is being burst is not “public confidence” in “institutions” but in the institution of government per se: and not only that, but what is taking its place is a fear and loathing of the government – the federal government, at least – as not only incompetent but downright malevolent. They lied us into war, they tried to shift the blame onto local authorities when a much-predicted and quite foreseeable disaster struck – and now they’re moving into New Orleans, forcing out residents and causing events to take a rather ominous turn:

“The city is starting to feel more secure now. Much larger military and Homeland Security presence and many fewer civilians left. Of course with this added security comes additional dangers like hyper-suspicious, armed authorities. If you watch the cam or walk the streets, you see that almost every civilian is approached, evaluated for threat potential, then either patted down or left alone. The disconcerting thing is that these authorities always have their guns at the ready and look like they’re enjoying intimidating the people. Two of us have already had guns aimed at us by police – Brian by the Federal Cops guarding the Boggs Federal building while we were waiting for the resupply, and me when we were delivering the router to City Hall.

“Don’t get me wrong, some guys are more professional than others. You can tell the ones who took the job because they wanted to [be] bullies and who took the job to protect and serve. That’s one thing a catastrophic situation does – it sifts people’s true personalities out.”

That’s Michael Barnett, a former Special Forces soldier who works for the domain registrar Directnic.com. Holed up on the 10th floor of a building in downtown New Orleans, his efforts to keep the stricken city connected to the Internet – and give the world a bird’s-eye view of the unfolding disaster – have attracted international attention and admiration. I agree with Barnett that human beings are at their best – and their worst – in moments of crisis, and that the various responses to the present crisis are telling. I also agree with Brooks about the political and cultural meaning of the post-Katrina malaise: “People are mad as hell, unwilling to take it anymore.” I think we would disagree, however, on the proper focus of the peoples’ anger: Brooks would place it at the feet of “incompetent” leaders. I, on the other hand, would point to a larger problem: the delegitimization of the system itself, not just its leaders. The post-9/11 era, which has witnessed the puncturing of American hubris on a grand scale, signals the end of our illusions, many of which have been very dear to our hearts.

The myths of American impregnability have been debunked, one by one, first by 9/11, then by the disastrous aftermath of our glorious “victory” in Iraq, and now, with Katrina, by the very forces of Nature. It’s as if, on the road to Benevolent Global Hegemony, a giant Invisible Hand had appeared on the horizon, commanding us to “Stop!”

These failures, enumerated above, are all the failures of government – and, in spite of a concerted effort by the liberal-left and the neocon right to cast these events as pointing to the need for more governmental authority, the observant empiricist will insist quite the contrary. It is, after all, the federal authorities who have kept the Red Cross and the Salvation Army out of New Orleans, and, as the [UK] Independent pointed out:

“Yet, it is the testimony of those who did as they were told and responded to government appeals to take refuge in the New Orleans Superdome and the convention center who are now coming forth, here and in other evacuee shelters, with stories of deprivation and danger almost too awful to fathom.”

It’s odd that the talking heads and the liberal-left always talk about “market failure” when something like Enron shows up on the national radar screen, but never about “government failure” when the feds make a massive botch of things such as we are seeing in the late, great city of New Orleans. During instances of alleged “market failure,” so-called, the response is to call in the feds. However, when we experience a government meltdown such as occurred with Katrina, we hear no corresponding call to bring in the private sector – indeed, as in the case of the Red Cross and the Salvation Army, the authorities are determined to keep them out.

People are mad as hell, far too mad to take seriously the liberal – and neoconservative – guff about how Katrina shows we need more government, symbolized by a strong Giuliani-esque leader who can restore “faith” in our “institutions.” The age of faith in government – and leaders – is over, and a new era of skepticism is well underway. As the headline over Jack Shafer’s recent piece at Slate put it: “Newscasters, sick of official lies and stonewalling, finally start snarling.” After dutifully wearing American flag lapel buttons during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, and serving as the government’s megaphone since 9/11, the American media is rebelling – and, as usual, they are reacting to a general sense of alienation from authority bubbling just beneath of the surface of American society.

Ross Douthat, a reporter-researcher at The Atlantic Monthly and the author of Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class, saliently framed the response to Katrina and the lessons therein in a unique way that was picked up by Brooks. Writing on his blog The American Scene, Douthat averred:

“In a sense – and I don’t mean to be flip about this at all – 9/11 was a tragedy well-suited to the neoconservative vision, and Katrina is better suited to a paleoconservative view of the world. The fall of the twin towers was a nightmare, but the lessons of that dreadful day felt bracing – that America was still a great and united country; that we had been too long asleep while threats gathered; that the time had come to put aside irony and drift and experience a new birth of resolve and martial vigor. 9/11 allowed people, and especially writers (myself included), to strike quasi-Churchillian poses, tell ‘hard truths’ and talk tough about what needed to be done to defeat our enemies. It made us feel awful, but it also made us good about ourselves.

“Whereas the only lessons of Katrina are that life is dark and death is everywhere, that nature isn’t our friend and that Americans, too, can behave like savages under duress, and that all the blessings of liberalism and democracy and capitalism can’t protect us from the worst. There’s nothing we can do, except
give money and pray, and there’s no lesson to be learned – except, perhaps, be careful where and how you build your cities.”

Douthat is right about the perfect suitability of the 9/11 attacks to the neoconservative vision of perpetual war and imperial domination, but wrong – not surprisingly – about the paleoconservative implications. Yes, the implosion of the federal response underscores the limitations – and essential feebleness – of government action in the presence of the majestic destructive power of Nature, yet there is a substantive lesson to be learned, and it is an old one: pride goeth before a fall.

The world’s last remaining “superpower” stands astride the globe, sending its armies hither and yon, decreeing that Iraq shall have a constitution by such-and-such a date and that Syria must obey the latest diktat from Washington – or else. We are the protectors of all the world’s freedom and welfare – but our own.

There is a lesson to be learned from Katrina, and Douthat is right that it is derived from what is called the “paleoconservative” – or paleo-libertarian – view of history, which is shorthand for those conservative critics of empire, such as Pat Buchanan, Claes Ryn [.pdf], and Paul Craig Roberts, who lament the rise of what Professor Ryn calls “the imperialistic personality“:

“But 9/11 changed everything, the neo-Jacobins cry. Well, not quite everything. The human condition has not changed. Terrible events do not cancel the need for those personal qualities and social and political structures without which the will to power becomes arbitrary and tyrannical. Unfortunately, 9/11 gave the imperialistic personality another pretext for throwing off restraint.”

And here:

Only great conceit could inspire a dream of armed world hegemony. The ideology of benevolent American empire and global democracy dresses up a voracious appetite for power. It signifies the ascent to power of a new kind of American, one profoundly at odds with that older type who aspired to modesty and self-restraint.”

Americans, in their millions, are finding that they don’t like this new kind of American very much: indeed, we are beginning to find them – our rulers – quite hateful. That is one of the lessons of Hurricane Katrina. Here’s another: it’s time to start putting America, and Americans, first. To heck with “liberating” the rest of the world: the absurd conceit of the idea is all too apparent in light of the devastation wrought by Katrina. Our foreign policy of self-righteous aggression in pursuit of a policy of exportingdemocracy” to the darkest corners of the globe acquires a surrealistic comic edge as we contemplate the apparent indifference of the authorities to the fate of Louisiana and Mississippi. As the Iraqis complain that we haven’t installed working electricity in Baghdad, the lack of even more basic amenities in New Orleans makes a mockery of U.S. pretensions.

The neocons are hoping they can use this “malaise” analysis to rally the nation behind yet another “leader,” someone like Giuliani – or maybe John McCain – and sustain the level of hubris that has infused the American psyche with an overweening arrogance. They’re hoping we’ll listen to the Andrew Sullivans and the Bill Kristols, who tell us that we can and must fix both Louisiana’s broken levees and the broken-down nation of Iraq, that we are superhuman beings fated to rule the earth and the heavens and that nothing – certainly not a lack of “will” – should deter us from our glorious destiny. “When we desperately need more troops in Iraq, they won’t send enough,” Sullivan complains. “When we desperately need troops in New Orleans, they won’t send enough. Do we really have to wait three years for a president Giuliani to actually run the country?” To Sullivan, both New Orleans and Baghdad are equally deserving of American rescue efforts and largess, but most Americans will not agree, and rightly so. Another myth smashed by Katrina: that all we have to do is call in the 82nd Airborne and our problem is solved.

The essential similarity of conventional “liberal” and “conservative” ideologies is underscored by their common complaint that federal and state authorities haven’t done enough to ameliorate the awful consequences of one of the biggest natural disasters of modern times. Yet government – a blunt instrument, not a scalpel – is, in its essence, nothing more nor less than naked coercion, and its nakedness has never been more apparent than at this moment. In New Orleans, government – as Michael Barnett noted above – is doing what it does best: bullying people. They are now going door-to-door, demanding that the remaining inhabitants leave the city. The authorities have apparently decided that The Big Easy is now history, all too easily abandoning all hope of reclaiming it and allowing people to reclaim their own property and their sense of allegiance to locality. Instead, they have settled on a policy of dispersing the inhabitants in a nationwide diaspora.

However, as many as 10,000 are resisting, refusing to leave, and in this resistance we see the beginnings of trouble – potentially some very big trouble. If the U.S. government is currently worried about the resistance to the occupation of Iraq, they will soon be alerted to a new source of subversion, this time from within: the insurgents in Louisiana who are fighting the occupation of their lost Atlantis, the denizens of the French Quarter who are keeping the bars open, the local patriots whose strong sense of place rebels at the mere suggestion that New Orleans is necessarily lost.

My advice to our rulers: forget that other insurgency in the Middle East, and attend to the one germinating in your own backyard – before it overtakes you.


While I nearly always receive a fair amount of feedback in the form of e-mails, rarely have I experienced such a flood of responses as occasioned by the recent death threat directed at me by one Michael Calderon of Frontpagemag.com. Thanks for your support, and, yes, we know that the e-mail address for the administration of Rockville High School, where Mr. Calderon teaches, is not reliable and often doesn’t work: all three e-mail addresses we have, which are posted on the Rockville High School Web site, are problematic. This is, after all, a government Web site we’re talking about. To those who couldn’t get through, I would suggest calling instead: 301-517-8105.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of Antiwar.com, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].