Special Report

A Civilizational Vacuum

The appalling lack of self-government in New Orleans is the one area of government that a vapid media won't scrutinize in their post-mortems on the city's collapse.

By 9.8.05

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A republican form of government presupposes self-government -- the capacity of citizens to govern themselves according to reason -- and does not, if it intends to survive, champion them as "victims" when they don't. But the shocking lack of self-government demonstrated by New Orleanians is the one area of government that our republic's vapid media won't scrutinize in their post-mortems on the city's collapse.

Reporters keep shaking their fists at "the government," as if America were not a republic but a statist autocracy in which remote rulers can snap their fingers and make problems vanish for their subjects. Reporters also keep saying that the government's response last week was "embarrassing." What I find more embarrassing is the media's infantilizing of New Orleans citizens who chose not to evacuate despite loud and obvious warnings. Does personal responsibility mean nothing at this point? Aren't citizens "the government" too? What's disgraceful, and positively dangerous, in a republic that depends on self-reliance is a media that encourages a culture of victimization.

An honest media in a republic not wobbling toward statism would -- while acknowledging that some citizens couldn't evacuate for reasons beyond their control and showing compassion for those who could but foolishly didn't -- stop infantilizing and romanticizing these citizens as "victims" of government indifference.

An honest media would acknowledge that the civilizational vacuum into which New Orleans evaporated last week began with a breakdown of self-government and the absence of civilization's first government -- the family. The absence of fathers, not FEMA, explains the images of women and children stranded in the storm. The absence of culture transmitted through stable families, not the absence of government money (gobs of which have been poured into New Orleans for decades to no effect), explains the Lord of the Flies scenario that took shape not after days of desperate privation but immediately once opportunities for looting presented themselves.

In their scattershot criticism of the federal government's response, the media have demonstrated a childish petulance -- a juvenile demand born of the expectation of instant gratification that the government wave a wand and solve all problems -- while ignoring the most obvious causes contributing to the crisis. Causes that have nothing to do with the structures of this or that government agency. Causes that no faked-up commission in Washington, D.C. can solve. Causes that will produce fresh crises long after the media have pressured the government into the most bogus and superficial fixes.

All of these problems require changes in self-government, not the federal government. But a liberal ideology that refuses to call pathologies by their proper name circumscribes the whole discussion, guaranteeing that these problems will never be solved. Indeed, judging by the frequency of the Jesse Jacksons and Al Sharptons on television this week, those who excused and advanced these pathologies will get new "leadership" chances to compound them.

"We have gotten our media back," Bill Maher and others have burbled, slapping the Anderson Coopers on the back for holding the government "accountable." Actually, the media will hold nobody, save for a few political figures they detest, accountable. They aren't holding looters accountable but giving Al Sharpton a platform to justify the looting. They aren't holding citizens who were told repeatedly to evacuate and didn't evacuate accountable, though their recklessness put a lot of Coast Guardsmen and rescuers at serious risk. Yes, government agencies owe citizens help. But citizens who through their own heedlessness put government rescuers into a near-impossible spot are in no position to gainsay the help.

The storyline of New Orleanians as victims and government responders as villains is just one more outrageous item in the media's voluminous catalogue of victimization. No reasonable calculus of accountability is ever brought to bear in these tales. Whether it's needle-using, promiscuous AIDS patients or cigarette smokers or litigants in some self-propelled accident, the media will absolve the person who contributed most directly to the problem of responsibility while searching frantically for some nebulously malign force external to the person to villainize. Yet by their own standards of indulgence -- if they can rationalize the decisionmaking of citizens who are told to evacuate but don't, why aren't they similarly tolerant of inadequate planning by FEMA? -- their ferocious appetite for blame appears utterly capricious.

But worse than that, it is destructive to the life of a republic, rendering individuals passive and derelict at the very moment its survival requires more not less self-government.

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About the Author
George Neumayr, a contributing editor to The American Spectator, is co-author, with Phyllis Schlafly, of the new book, No Higher Power: Obama's War on Religious Freedom.