Published on Friday, September 2, 2005 by the Globe & Mail (Canada)
Nasty, Brutish -- Society's Net Snaps
Every-man-for-himself ethos serves Americans poorly in times of crisis when people must pull together
by Doug Saunders
|At one point yesterday, as a helicopter-mounted camera showed a teeming swell of furious, gun-toting Louisiana residents mobbing a busload of supplies, a stunned British TV anchor spoke his mind on the air: "I'm having trouble believing that we're watching the continental United States of America. I mean, it looks like Rwanda."
A complete societal breakdown: Nobody expected that from hurricane Katrina, but that is what seems to have engulfed the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico. The threads that hold society together have unraveled, leaving destruction, looting, violence and desperation.
Americans, who rely on faith and fortune for so many of their most successful endeavors, are beginning to ask how those qualities have failed them so badly. Why is it that in some places struck by catastrophes of similar magnitude, entire societies pull together in enriching acts of mutual assistance, while other societies collapse into self-annihilation?
"Philosophers like John Locke and Thomas Hobbes tried to imagine what a 'state of nature' looked like -- we're now seeing it inside the United States and it's really brutal," says Alan Wolfe, a political scientist at Boston University who has written widely on the fragile foundations of U.S. society. "We're going to have to ask: 'How did we allow this to happen?' ''
In much poorer societies, such as Indonesia and Sri Lanka after the Boxing Day tsunami, or in more polarized societies like Montreal during the 1998 ice storm, scenes of looting, violence and selfish desperation did not occur. But the large U.S. cities of the South have a very different sort of group psychology, in which faith in individual fortune replaces the fixed social roles that keep other places aloft during crises.
In U.S. cities like New Orleans, in the analysis of the American-British organizational psychologist Cary Cooper, social cohesion depends on a shared belief that individual hard work, good luck and God's grace will bring a person out of poverty and into prosperity. But those very qualities can destroy the safety net of mutual support that might otherwise help people in an emergency.
"Fear itself motivates people in the U.S. -- the fear that you could lose everything," Prof. Cooper said in an interview yesterday from his office at the University of Lancaster. "That creates the best in American society, the inventiveness, but the moment the net is pulled out, it becomes a terrible jungle."
Observers have long recognized this tendency to societal breakdown concealed within the mass psychology of U.S. success.
"The moral mandate to achieve success exerts pressure to succeed by fair means, if possible, and by foul means, if necessary," the sociologist Robert Merton wrote in the 1960s. In times of crisis, fair means are too often replaced by foul.
There are exceptions: The extraordinary mass acts of mutual support that followed the Sept. 11 attacks in Lower Manhattan or the floods in the Dakotas, for instance, or the charitable activity that has all but ended the AIDS crisis in the United States.
But historians point to a constant threat of self-destructive breakdowns that seem to dot U.S. history, belying the thin veneer of civility that sits between entrepreneurial prosperity and mass chaos. The individualistic, egalitarian, anti-authoritarian values that have made the United States succeed have always been accompanied by an every-man-for-himself ethos that can destroy the system itself.
"America's egalitarian and meritocratic foundations tend to undercut just those institutions that sustain the values that so concern us," the American sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset wrote in his book American Exceptionalism.
The U.S. historian Steven Mintz says that the Americans of the early 19th century were constantly haunted by "the specter of social breakdown . . . rising lawlessness, poverty, prostitution, irreligion and violence, which, if not stopped, threatened to destroy the new nation's democratic experiment."
He quotes Sidney George Fisher, a well-off Philadelphian of 1844 whose reaction to the events of the day -- riots between anti-immigration Nativists and recent Irish Catholic immigrants, chiefly over education -- seem to echo the responses of many educated Americans to this week's scenes from New Orleans.
Witnessing the crazed, starved mobs bent on violence who overtook the cities in those days, he said the country seemed "destined to be destroyed by the eruption of the dark masses of ignorance and brutality which lie beneath it, like the fires of a volcano."
In seeking parallels to the current shocking breakdown of basic social functioning in Louisiana and Mississippi, a number of U.S. thinkers said they have been forced to go back to the Lisbon earthquake of 1755.
That disaster, which utterly destroyed one of the most pious cities of the old Roman Catholic empire at the peak of its success, revealed to people across Europe that faith in God's good grace was not enough to keep a society aloft.
The earthquake provoked the leading philosophers and politicians of the age to seek answers outside the confines of the church, and led to the creation of secular thought and the modern nation-state.
This search for a new faith, in something less magical and more likely to save our cities, was the direct motivation for the concept of the 'state of nature,' in which life is 'nasty, brutish and short,' against which the philosophers described a new, secular order -- the same one that gave rise to the American Revolution.
© 2005 Globe and Mail