The Men Who Would Be Ruled

A line I’ve heard tossed around a lot is that the blowout and oil flow into the Gulf of Mexico is “Obama’s Katrina.” I’m inclined to agree, but not in the direction in which those folks are going.

Actually, I tend more towards Yuval Levin’s position. I believe both Katrina and the oil spill are disasters for which the federal government has received unwarranted grief:

[Disasters] happen, and sometimes they happen on a scale that is just too great to be easily addressed. It is totally unreasonable to expect the government to be able to easily address them—and the kind of government that would be capable of that is not the kind of government that we should want.

I’m a medievalist, so I tend to think of the story of England’s 11th-century King Cnut, whom a chronicler reported once commanded the tide not to come in. While these days people think of this as an example of arrogance, it was in fact an example of humility — Cnut knew (cnew?) that some things were beyond the power of the king. It’s a lesson that bears repeating from time to time.

And it’s a lesson citizens need to learn, as well as rulers. More and more Americans seem to expect their government to “take care of them,” as represented by Denton Walthall:

A domestic mediator who worked with children, Walthall scolded President George H.W. Bush for running a mudslinging, character-based campaign against Bill Clinton in 1992. Referring to voters as “symbolically the children of the future president,” he asked how voters could expect the candidates “to meet our needs, the needs in housing and in crime and you name it, as opposed to the wants of your political spin doctors and your political parties. … Could we cross our hearts? It sounds silly here but could we make a commitment? You know, we’re not under oath at this point, but could you make a commitment to the citizens of the U.S. to meet our needs—and we have many—and not yours again?”

When we see ourselves as children of the government, there is a tendency to react with Chris Matthews’ childish petulance when Mommy and Daddy can’t kiss it and make it better. I’m not doubting Matthews’ sincerity here, but I think his anger is misplaced. Some problems can’t be fixed quickly or easily, and others can’t be fixed at all. Expecting the government to fix things instantly is foolish for everyone concerned.

It’s dangerous for everyone concerned as well, ruler as well as ruled. Once again, we turn to Kipling, this time in his short story, “The Man Who Would Be King.” Set near what we now call Afghanistan, two British adventurers set themselves up as kings with divine powers (manifested by their rifles and knowledge of Freemasonry). Things go pear-shaped, however, when one of them is bitten by a terrified potential wife. The adventurer bleeds, at which point the local priests declare their rulers to be neither god nor devil — merely men. They promptly behead one and crucify the other.

We should not be quick to declare our governors to be gods — nor should we crucify them when we (and they) are shown to be merely human. There are faults all around, both hubris and misplaced faith.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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4 Responses to The Men Who Would Be Ruled

  1. Pingback: The Anchoress | A First Things Blog

  2. majormaddog says:

    I’m a partisan, so let me chime in, even though I’m upsetting some sort of uneasy truce where the Professor defends (kind of) the President. Here’s a link to Kevin Drum, who also cites Levin. I tend to agree with Drum’s point…

    “This conflates two very different things. Katrina was an example of the type of disaster that the federal government is specifically tasked with handling. And for most of the 90s, it was very good at handling them. But when George Bush became president and Joe Allbaugh became director of FEMA, everything changed. Allbaugh neither knew nor cared about disaster preparedness. For ideological reasons, FEMA was downsized and much of its work outsourced. When Allbaugh left after less than two years on the job, he was replaced by the hapless Michael Brown and the agency was downgraded and broken up yet again. By the time Katrina hit, the upper levels of FEMA were populated largely with political appointees with no disaster preparedness experience and the agency was simply not up to the job of dealing with a huge storm anymore.

    The Deepwater Horizon explosion is almost the exact opposite. There is no federal expertise in capping oil blowouts. There is no federal agency tasked specifically with repairing broken well pipes. There is no expectation that the federal government should be able to respond instantly to a disaster like this. There never has been. For better or worse, it’s simply not something that’s ever been considered the responsibility of the federal government.”

    I also find the description of “Obama’s Katrina” to be interesting and satisfying in a way. The idea of “Obama’s Katrina” pretty clearly came from those on the Right who are always on the lookout to bring the President down a notch or three in the political game. So it’s satisfying to me that they’ve adopted the implicit idea that Bush screwed up the handling of Katrina. Otherwise, why is “Obama’s Katrina” an idea that would bring the President down some notches? It’s also interesting because these same people that are using the “Obama’s Katrina” as a negative are the ones who worked quite hard to defend, explicitly and implicitly, Bush’s performance after Katrina. So the story goes, Bush did as much as was humanly possible during Katrina – no fault there…oh, but wait the government (Jedi mind trick used here to have people forget that it was a GOP/Bush government) screwed up after Katrina and here’s Obama doing at least as bad, if not worse on this current disaster.

  3. majormaddog says:

    sorry for the omission – here’s the link

  4. profmondo says:

    Major — first off, I’m glad to see you’ve got a bit of down time.

    Secondly, I don’t think any of the sources I used in my first sentence are sources on the right (granted, compared to Mother Jones they might be, but then, so is Pravda). Neither is Chris Matthews a member of the RNC.

    If anything, I think Drum supports my overall point — it is foolish of us to see either of these as “the responsibility of the federal government,” at least in any exclusive sense (remember the parked buses in NoLa? The police quitting en masse? There were breakdowns at every level on Katrina, not least the individual level (e.g., looters)). More to Drum’s point, he argues that because the Feds had responded effectively to hurricanes at some earlier point (although I think issues of scope come into play here), they should always be able to fix hurricanes. That’s like saying someone who can apply a band-aid can treat a decapitation. He puts his faith in princes, and is destined to be disappointed. After that, it’s just a question of whether he lets partisanship trump honesty.

    Be safe.

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