Monday, August 29, 2011

The Apocalypse Next Time

No one regrets that Hurricane Irene did not live up to her billing. For the most part she spared New York City, but she did do considerable damage to other parts of the nation.

Perhaps, as everyone is saying today, she was over-hyped by a news media avid for ratings, but if she had done more damage or if our political leaders had been less involved in disaster preparation, the media would be hyping a different story.

Now, as Irene passes from the scene, serious thinkers are trying to draw serious lessons from the experience.

Lee Siegel offered this verdict: “we have become a nation of hysterics.” Howard Kurtz seemed to blame for media for making it feel like Armageddon.

Adam Gopnik earns a prize for comparing the media coverage to the hurricane itself.

In his words: “The beautiful or odd thing is that the best metaphor for this process is, well, a hurricane: a slow spiraling build of hot air begins to circulate, gathering in new voices as it grows, until at last it is a spiraling, wheeling, dousing storm which drowns and floods our capacity for reflection.”

Gopnik is implying that America is divided into the dolts who are led around by their emotions and the rational set, who see things more clearly.

I like a good metaphor as much as the next guy, but Gopnik’s exaggerates what was going on in Manhattan.

Yes, people bought some extra candles and flashlights. There were long lines at my neighborhood supermarket. The bread section was stripped bare.

As the old saying goes: better safe than sorry.

I don’t want to ruin anyone’s metaphor, but no one really lost his capacity for reflection. Many people thought the danger was being exaggerated.

New Yorkers were not running down the street screaming: The end is near.

For the most part people behaved rationally, even if more cautiously than they needed to.

To be frank I did not even think that the news coverage was inordinately sensationalistic. For many parts of the Eastern seaboard Irene caused significant damage.

Say what you want about the news coverage, it was not much ado about nothing.

Lee Siegel mines the same hysteria metaphor but uses it to ask whether we as a nation have become too afraid, too sensitive to pending calamity, overcome by feelings of weakness.

He is not asking an impertinent question.

He moves beyond the general public to focus on expect opinion: “You had to wonder, in the midst of all the tumult, why the scientists and meteorologists interviewed by the media agreed that Irene would have an apocalyptic force.”

It’s not very difficult to answer this question.

Why have we become so completely hysterical about nature? Why is it so impossible to find an expert who is willing to go public with any doubts about the worst-case scenarios that are being peddled by the media.

If these are the questions, then there is a two word answer: Al Gore.

I fail to see how Siegel could have ignored the fact that the global warming crowd has been assailing the nation with gloom and doom predictions of environmental apocalypse for years now.

How many prominent scientists have been willing to risk their careers and their grant money to denounce the hype and hysteria?

It’s not crazy to prepare yourself for the arrival of a category 1 or 2 hurricane.

Hysteria enters the picture when you start believing that a threat to the mating habits of a smelt or to the natural habitat of a lizard will, inexorably, lead to environmental Armageddon.

At that point you have lost control of your rational faculties.

Sometimes hysteria manifests itself in the decisions of bureaucrats and judges. When decisions are influenced by the mania of activists, to the point where human livelihoods are easily sacrificed to the apocalyptic hysteria of the environmentalists, you can start talking about irrational mania.

But, Siegel makes some salient points.

As a nation we are in crisis. We are suffering a major financial crisis. Few of us understand what is going on and what should or should not be done to solve it.

In his words: “We long for the clarifying crisis because the response to it is clear and direct. We will know, as a nation, what to do in response to a disaster. In every other area of politics and social issues, we have no idea, as a nation, what to do.”

I’m not sure that no one has any idea. Different people have different ideas, some better, some worse.

Yet, Siegel is correct to add that we are more afraid when we feel leaderless. It’s one thing for the ship of state to go through a storm with a strong hand at the helm. It’s quite another to do it when no one is really in charge.

Siegel explains: “Remember when Obama was presented as an elemental form of hope, like a jubilant earthquake that would topple and smash our rotten politics? Now, however, he approaches public life the way he approaches hurricanes and swine flu: cautious, fearful, and appeasing, with a kind of repressed hysteria.”

I am convinced that by now Siegel is embarrassed at his “jubilant earthquake” metaphor so I will not belabor it. No matter how you look at it, it does not connote leadership.

Siegel’s most intriguing idea is that the reaction to the hurricane has something to do with 9/11.

He writes: “As we gear ourselves up for the 10th anniversary of 9/11, during which we will self-indulgently reenact the events and the emotions of that terrible day ad nauseam, far beyond the boundaries of necessary remembrance, it’s clear that we have become a nation of hysterics.”

Obviously, these remarks are appalling for their insensitivity. If you had ever been tempted to think that liberals maintain a superior capacity for empathy, this sentence will dispel your illusion.

The notion that we ought not to commemorate the terrorist attack or that we ought not to mourn those who lost their lives is frankly obscene.

Siegel does allow us to focus on the role New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg played in the hurricane preparations and in the commemoration ceremonies.

Bloomberg was front and center during the preparations for Irene, very much the man in charge.

Yet, when it comes to 9/11 Bloomberg has not been a profile in courage.

We recall, with chagrin, that Bloomberg was willing to fight vigorously to defend the right of Muslims to build a mosque at Ground Zero.

We also know that the same Mayor Bloomberg declared at a recent Ramadan dinner that: “We are all Muslims.”

Speak for yourself, Mayor Mike.

And the mayor who is so sensitive to the delicate feelings of Muslims, has banned all Christian and Jewish clergy from the commemoration ceremony.

Who would be offended by seeing a memorial service being led by religious leaders? Is there any group that would find it especially galling to see an ecumenical ceremony? Is there one religious group that is especially hostile to ecumenism?

In addition, Bloomberg has refused to allow first responders-- those police officers, firefighters, and rescue workers-- to participate.

Is there any group that would take offense to the presence the best of American civil servants? Why would anyone even imagine excluding these brave men and women, many of whose colleagues gave their lives trying to save people from the ravages of Islamic terrorism?

Don’t these people deserve a place of honor at the ceremony?

One senses that Bloomberg is more worried about offending Muslim sensibilities than he is to mourn our losses and to celebrate our strengths on the tenth anniversary of 9/11.

If anything represents fear and terror, it is Bloomberg’s public attitude. If the word were used to mean what it means, he would be manifesting Islamophobia-- fear of Islam, the kind that spells appeasement.

Then again, how did it happen that the Mayor of New York has the final say in what should be a national ceremony?


Malcolm said...

I hate that saying "better safe than sorry" it is a catch all phrase, you can never be wrong. Bloomberg blew it on the snow storm in New York last year. Maybe he was compensating.

I think the news and Government were spreading panic so they could say they saved us.

I listened to this scientist, who seemed be be right on the mark.

Deadman said...

On a not completely unrelated note, a song, “What Shall We Do with the Missing Data?”, by Mann and Jones et Al., is available here.

Soon your power must be dearer;
Armageddon is much nearer;
evidence, we say, is clearer
for that global warming.

Now it seems the weather’s cooling;
numbers drop of those we’re fooling;
people whom we should be ruling
must fear global warming. ...

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I had the same impression as Malcolm, that is, that many government officials were posturing in order to be able to say that they were competent leaders.

While the storm was not even close to Katrina, it did do a lot of damage in some places.

I also think that the politicians are trying anything they can not to look like Bush during Katrina.

LordSomber said...

It's not just hysteria about nature. It's the news media's nature to want to scare people:

Anonymous said...

What I read, saw, & heard was Irene was immense. It was impossible to predict how she would veer by tens of miles, or how strong she would be as she moved north.

Smug Monday-morning quarterbacks like George Will made waggish comments.

At least, that was predictable. -- Rich

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