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.