Thursday, September 08, 2005

The price of independence -- the price of chaos

Dontcha just hate it when Americans, good intentions aside, fulfill other people's worst nightmares?

According to many scholars, anti-Americanism from the "Old World" (that's basically Europe, Russia, and their poodle, Canada) is older than the American nation itself. (,

It's galling at the best of times-- wounding, infuriating, laughable. But if there's anything more galling than the contempt, and hostility, and the superiority complex in full flower, it's the presumption that when the Old World looks at America it actually knows and comprehends what it's looking at. It's bad enough to be disdained for aspects of American character or custom that are real-- but it's maddening to be mocked or attacked because our institutions are simply different, and misunderstood.

The events of the past ten days-- that is, the spectacle of New Orleans in chaos -- comprise the second magnificent debacle of the past five years which has given any and all non-Americans reason to shake their heads and throw up their hands in bafflement-- followed closely by disdain, mockery, and contempt, of course.

The first of these two debacles was not, as one might suspect, being caught flat-footed on September 11, nor does it refer to the ups and downs of war in Iraq. (Although the echoes of passivity in the face of looting are fairly striking). It refers, rather, to the 2000 Presidential election, with its butterfly ballot ballet, its chad divining, its duelling lawyers, and its camera-ready partisans wielding their blame-throwers.Both of these bizarre spectacles have fed every stereotype and have buoyed every bigotry in the anti-American arsenal, and we can feel the global smirk as the last great superpower flounders around looking like a badly-run asylum picnic.

Lord knows, the smirk comes not entirely without reason. Just not for the reason most of these foreign persons are thinking. There was genuine chaos on both occasions, but it didn't reside in the most notorious aspects of either event.

The 2000 election will be remembered for the fact that George W. Bush won it even though he fell short of the national popular vote. Some people will remember it because they think he didn't win it at all, that recounts would have changed the Florida results, and that a biased court chose the President through an improper and perverted intrusion into the election-- they will remember these things even though none of them ever happened: the decisions to halt the recount, to appeal the halt, to engage in prolonged litigation, to challenge absentee ballots, and to declare the results final in the nation's highest court, are all actions which have been anticipated and provided for within American constitutional and electoral law, and, although rarely invoked, their operations are actually one of the great marvels of the most successful system of government ever devised by man.

The ultimate compliment to that system was that when the dust had settled, the disputed ballots were openly examined every which way but loose by outside parties, free to reach and to publish whatever result they found, even though there was no prospect of changing the outcome. Though Michael Moore and Paul Krugman are still fabricating from the depths of denial, the media-overseen recounts went solidly in Bush's favor, but had they not done so we all know that riots, insurrection and death squads would not likely have ensued ( isn't big enough to manage it)-- we sometimes forget that most of the world's people could expect nothing like the smoothness with which we do "move on" in these situations (Nixon's resignation was another), and are awed by it.

The genuine chaos of the 2000 Florida election spectacle was predominantly a product of deliberate choices about American electoral politics and the system of governance. This is also precisely the source of the chaos in New Orleans.In its ideal form it is called the "Principle of Subsidiarity," an organizational principle by which a government or other body places decision-making power at the lowest possible level that can manage it. It is one of the pillars of the 1991 Maastricht Treaty which laid out the workings of the European Union (both the principle and the terminology borrowed directly from Catholic social teaching of the late 19th century-- an interesting factoid to contemplate considering Europe's refusal a dozen years later to acknowledge, in the deservedly-failed constitution, any of its primary historical debt to Christianity for the formation of all its most cherished institutions and values).

Americans don't tend to think in terms of this highfalutin' Principle of SubCityDairyQueen, but merely cherish the most local control possible of their personal lives, with the least interference from higher levels of government, especially those Feds. It is for this reason that there were butterfly ballots, and old-style data cards with chads, and part-time county election officers who mostly teach or sell real estate, thrown suddenly into a national spotlight. Some counties have their act together, some don't, and that's nobody's fault but the neighborhood voters, whose demographics vary wildly from place to place. Local control and local decision-making means innumerable small inefficiencies and crevices of incompetence.

Most of the time, in the grand scheme of things, these little failures make no great difference. There were undoubtedly many states that had hundreds or thousands of fouled-up ballots that went into the Dubious drawer and stayed there (in Arizona, for instance, where my parents then lived and voted and forgot about the ballots they had received in the mail-- so that they, like many of their fellow senior citizens, saw their second ballot put aside to be checked for duplication, and probably never counted)-- when the winner's margin is large enough that awarding the loser every single dubious vote wouldn't change anything, nobody ever bothers to sift through the screw-ups. It's a situation we accept, a price we are willing to pay, in return for keeping our affairs safely out of the giant maw of the federal bureaucracy. Outsiders are free to smirk, but these were choices made at the birth of the American experiment, by a people who had endured a brutal fight to shake off the whole world history of monarchical tyranny, and on the whole they were wise.

When, as in Florida 2000, the winner's margin is small and shifting, every small incompetency shows itself huge and all the scuzziest rocks are turned over in search of the last grain of truth. In that instance, the price of independence-- the lack of uniform standards, the power-plays and turf-tiffs among minor officials-- seemed too high. Some level of standardization is much easier to achieve now than it was when these systems were first put in place. So reforms have been enacted-- but even these have been according to the choices made at the local level, and despite much hue and cry from the lovers of putting the federal finger in every pie, the Principle of Subsidiarity continued to operate.

In New Orleans, 2005, the subsidiarity most fundamental to the American system-- that of the conditions wherein the jurisdiction of the several states trumps the power of the federal government-- was played out according to the very worst case scenario. There seems to be general agreement that federal response was somewhat sluggish, but history will probably show that this was most true on the level of symbolism-- the apparent disengagement of the President for a day or so (who nevertheless made all the right moves in the few days preceding the storm)-- rather than in the particulars of placing personnel and materiel at the ready.

As the days pass, however, it becomes ever clearer that state and city officials failed their citizens completely, needlessly, and persistently, both before and after the storm. Disaster scenarios and emergency planning had been developed in abundance, but were forgotten or ignored when the crunch came-- quite literally, the rubber never hit the road.

The purpose of the Principle of Subsidiarity is that we want important decisions about our lives to be made by those who live among us, and know us and our needs. Statistics that have been floating around this past week-- that New Orleans has a crime rate 4 times the national average, a murder rate 10 times the national average, 50,000 households (representing probably 100 to 200 thousand people) with no personal means of transportation, and a quarter of the city's population living in poverty -- are first and foremost the business of the mayor and the governor.

Even if the President had some general knowledge of life in New Orleans, these facts could not possibly be as real to him as they are to the people who govern locally. We have learned that part of the reason the Superdome was underequipped was to discourage people from staying in the city-- a condescending and imperious attitude to take about those, especially the disadvanged, whose security and well-being are the immediate charge of their city and state officials. Like the sludge through which the guard and police are now wading, at great personal risk, to bring out the stubborn living and the rotting dead, the stink of local incompetence is only going to get worse as the story is told, no matter how devotedly the Pelosi Brigade tries to splash it on the President.

It may be-- it's hard to imagine not-- that some federal heads should roll, especially because of the wider implications for homeland security brought into focus by this worst case scenario. Unfortunately, the Bush White House has demonstrated a consistent unwillingness to even find a few fall guys, much less to initiate major purges. But the American public appears to be exercising its customary common sense in the wake of this mess. Despite the Democrats' best efforts, very few people blame the President for the toll of human misery that has filled the TV screens for more than a week.

The forces of the left have done everything they can to paint presidential adviser Karl Rove as the all-powerful anti-Christ, and they have been remarkably successful. But it was an odd strategy for them to then try and paint the President as Christ himself-- "What manner of man is this, for he commandeth even the winds and water, and they obey him!" (Luke 8:25) They aimed a little high trying to tell us that Bush more or less caused the hurricane, and nobody bought it. Now they are trying to tell us that this magnificent rescue effort being carried out by more than 50,000 military personnel we just happened to have lying around not in Iraq, is the product of confusion and indifference at the federal level-- and we're not buying that hogwash either.

True to our American traditions, when heads start rolling it will probably be the work of the ballot box at the local level. The political future of Mayor Nagin is probably in doubt, especially because those who do come back to New Orleans will be the entrepreneurs and self-starters who have no time for short-sighted air-bags with no management talent. The mayor appears to have merely been overwhelmed by circumstance, whereas Governor Blanco appears to have been playing some kind of partisan Calvin-ball, whose rules and objectives are a mystery to the rest of the universe. Subsidiarity, among other things, exacted a heavy toll on the people of New Orleans, but it will probably be the most important ingredient in the coming corrective measures.

Memo to the smirkers: Thanks for your (somewhat sluggish) offers of assistance. For our next "American Civics for Foreigners" lesson we will try to explain the ELECTORAL COLLEGE system. (!) The essay question for the test will be: "How would a similar system empower the all-but-disenfranchised residents of the Canadian prairie provinces, so that the country would not continue to be run entirely by the population-heavy urban regions of southern Ontario?"

Night-time on the City of New Orleans... and all the towns and people seem to fade into a bad dream... Good mornin', America-- how are ya?