After Disaster, People Help People while Government Hurts Them

I have a love/hate relationship with Harper’s Magazine. I love Harper’s “Readings” section, which makes me feel like a boy standing on tip-toes looking through the holes in the fence around a big construction site. But I hate Lewis Lapham’s inevitable pompous multi-page editorial about the bemusing hypocrisies of those members of the ruling class who invited him to dinner just the other night.

Their short stories are almost never ones I feel much richer for having read, and their popular “Index” is the information equivalent of junk food — empty calories of factoids without context. Their feature articles are more hit-or-miss. Occasionally, they’re pretty darned good, other times they’re tone-deaf liberal choir-preaching or an insecure mocking of cretinous stereotypes from the fly-over states.

This month’s issue has an interesting article by Rebecca Solnit called “The Uses of Disaster” that, according to the Harper’s web site, “went to press ” — which is pretty good shooting for a monthly magazine, since the article predicts very well what happened after the Hurricane. (The on-line version of the article, which differs from the print version that I’m quoting from here, has a postscript written by Solnit that addresses Katrina and its aftermath directly.)

Solnit notices that frequently after disasters, even terrible ones like the San Francisco earthquake of , there have been ironic feelings of elation and displays of a carnival-like atmosphere among the displaced people. Her hypothesis is that disaster, like carnival, causes us (or forces us) to drop certain parts of the status quo and to create new identities and take up new responsibilities and that this is liberating and thrilling:

Again and again, we see a latent civil society — a community — arising from the ruins of some disaster and becoming the grounds for connection and joy. Moreover, for those who are not overwhelmed, for those who participate in rescues, who improvise substitutes for the electricity or the heat or the house itself, disaster can give them a sense of potency and purpose that everyday life lacks.

Although this version of disaster aftermaths has happened again and again — people coming together spontaneously, strangers helping strangers, and furthermore people feeling genuine joy in voluntary community even amid the sorrowful results of disaster — official preparedness programs see these victims and volunteers as if they were escaped lunatics from a burst asylum who mostly need to be confined and condescended to:

Many official disaster-preparedness scenarios nonetheless presume that human beings are prone to panic and in need of policing. A sort of Hobbesian true human nature emerges, according to this version, and people trample one another to flee, or loot and pillage, or they haplessly await rescue. In the movie version, this is the necessary precondition for John Wayne, Harrison Ford, or one of their shovel-jawed brethren to save the day and focus the narrative. In the government version, this is why we need the government.… 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. And perhaps this, too, is grounds for joy.

was one example of this:

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 United 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.

The police and fire departments responded valiantly to the bombings of the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, but most of the people there who survived did so because they rescued themselves and one another. An armada of sailboats, barges, and ferries arrived in lower Manhattan to see who needed rescuing, and hundreds of thousands were evacuated by these volunteers, whose self-interest, it is reasonable to assume, would have steered them away from, not toward, a disaster.…

This is the other face of : tens of thousands of people peacefully evacuating Manhattan by way of a pedestrianized Brooklyn Bridge; Union Square turned into a public forum in which people gathered to reach a common understanding of the event; volunteers converging from around the city and the country, donating blood and food and caring for emergency workers.… Astra Taylor, a young publicist living in Brooklyn and working in Tribeca, told me about the first few days of aftermath: “Nobody went to work and everybody talked to strangers” — the most succinct description of an anarchic paradise I’ve ever heard.

But here is where the article begins to go awry. Having just sung pæans to anarchic paradise, having told us that perhaps the joy of the survivors working together comes partly from the knowledge of the fragility of the authorities and from realizing their own power and usefulness, having contrasted the useless and distrustful government response to disaster with the inventive and productive and uplifting spontaneous voluntary community that develops naturally in disaster’s aftermath — how does Solnit conclude the piece? By bemoaning the decline of big government safety net programs:

Americans work more hours now than anyone else in the industrialized world. They also work far more than they themselves did as recently as a few decades ago. This shift is economic — call it Reaganomics or Chicago-style “liberalism” or “globalization” — but it is cultural too, part of 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. The proponents of this shift celebrate the frontier ideals of “independence” and the Protestant work ethic and the Horatio Alger notion that it’s all up to you.

Solnit’s essay demonstrates that when the chips are really down, and when the government is broken in its fragility and helplessness, people will naturally, without prompting and certainly without guns at their backs, come together in spontaneous community to take care of each other — and that this gives them joy — and that part of this joy comes from discovering in their own power to be useful and helpful a “sense of potency and purpose that everyday life lacks.”

How can she then go on to say that there has been a shift “against the idea that we should take care of one another [and] against the idea of community” (one that is typified by a backlash against the big government rescue programs that made up the New Deal and the Great Society)? Those “ideas” are there and have been there all along and are just waiting for some “disaster” to shake off the wet blanket of government so that they can joyfully erupt.