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The Bursting Point

09/04/05 "New York Times" -- -- As Ross Douthat observed on his blog, The American Scene, Katrina was the anti-9/11.

On Sept. 11, Rudy Giuliani took control. The government response was quick and decisive. The rich and poor suffered alike. Americans had been hit, but felt united and strong. Public confidence in institutions surged.

Last week in New Orleans, by contrast, nobody took control. Authority was diffuse and action was ineffective. The rich escaped while the poor were abandoned. Leaders spun while looters rampaged. Partisans squabbled while the nation was ashamed.

The first rule of the social fabric - that in times of crisis you protect the vulnerable - was trampled. Leaving the poor in New Orleans was the moral equivalent of leaving the injured on the battlefield. No wonder confidence in civic institutions is plummeting.

And the key fact to understanding why this is such a huge cultural moment is this: Last week's national humiliation comes at the end of a string of confidence-shaking institutional failures that have cumulatively changed the nation's psyche.

Over the past few years, we have seen intelligence failures in the inability to prevent Sept. 11 and find W.M.D.'s in Iraq. We have seen incompetent postwar planning. We have seen the collapse of Enron and corruption scandals on Wall Street. We have seen scandals at our leading magazines and newspapers, steroids in baseball, the horror of Abu Ghraib.

Public confidence has been shaken too by the steady rain of suicide bombings, the grisly horror of Beslan and the world's inability to do anything about rising oil prices.

Each institutional failure and sign of helplessness is another blow to national morale. The sour mood builds on itself, the outraged and defensive reaction to one event serving as the emotional groundwork for the next.

The scrapbook of history accords but a few pages to each decade, and it is already clear that the pages devoted to this one will be grisly. There will be pictures of bodies falling from the twin towers, beheaded kidnapping victims in Iraq and corpses still floating in the waterways of New Orleans five days after the disaster that caused them.

It's already clear this will be known as the grueling decade, the Hobbesian decade. Americans have had to acknowledge dark realities that it is not in our nature to readily acknowledge: the thin veneer of civilization, the elemental violence in human nature, the lurking ferocity of the environment, the limitations on what we can plan and know, the cumbersome reactions of bureaucracies, the uncertain progress good makes over evil.

As a result, it is beginning to feel a bit like the 1970's, another decade in which people lost faith in their institutions and lost a sense of confidence about the future.

"Rats on the West Side, bedbugs uptown/What a mess! This town's in tatters/I've been shattered," Mick Jagger sang in 1978.

Midge Decter woke up the morning after the night of looting during the New York blackout of 1977 feeling as if she had "been given a sudden glimpse into the foundations of one's house and seen, with horror, that it was utterly infested and rotting away."

Americans in 2005 are not quite in that bad a shape, since the fundamental realities of everyday life are good. The economy and the moral culture are strong. But there is a loss of confidence in institutions. In case after case there has been a failure of administration, of sheer competence. Hence, polls show a widespread feeling the country is headed in the wrong direction.

Katrina means that the political culture, already sour and bloody-minded in many quarters, will shift. There will be a reaction. There will be more impatience for something new. There is going to be some sort of big bang as people respond to the cumulative blows of bad events and try to fundamentally change the way things are.

Reaganite conservatism was the response to the pessimism and feebleness of the 1970's. Maybe this time there will be a progressive resurgence. Maybe we are entering an age of hardheaded law and order. (Rudy Giuliani, an unlikely G.O.P. nominee a few months ago, could now win in a walk.) Maybe there will be call for McCainist patriotism and nonpartisan independence. All we can be sure of is that the political culture is about to undergo some big change.

We're not really at a tipping point as much as a bursting point. People are mad as hell, unwilling to take it anymore.

E-mail: dabrooks@nytimes.com

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