Monday, September 05, 2005

Government Falls to the Armies of Compassion


Don't worry, guys -- the bloggers are coming!

With his own special brew of libertarian flakery and blogger triumphalism, Hugh Hewitt consoles the destitute victims of God's mighty wrath. Conceding a point that should now be obvious -- that Hurricane Katrina was worse than the attacks of September 11, 2001 -- Hewitt offers the following bit of solace:
Yesterday [September 1] America's emergency relief effort went into high gear and is likely to stay there for weeks, as all across the country citizens open their wallets to help out their fellow countrymen.

Before long, however, the extreme needs will be met and the long-term rebuilding will get underway. At that point it will become much less obvious how ordinary Americans can help. When terrorists struck on September 11, the carnage was huge and the loss of life staggering, but an entire community was not wiped out. With this disaster, America confronts for the first time the daunting reconstruction of complex social and political organizations.

It is a task which may be beyond the ability of the local, state, and federal governments to manage. How, for example, does a government--at any level--presume to assist a shattered church in the reconstruction of its walls and its Sunday School programs, an Alcoholics Anonymous chapter in the care of its members, a community theater in the reconstruction of its playhouse, or scores and scores of high school athletes in the completion of their senior year schedules so that colleges and universities can offer talented kids a chance at a free education?

The only way such a multitude of specialized needs can be met is for the vast, vast numbers of their counterparts across the United States to act--independently of government--to come to their aid in a reconstruction effort.

In other words, smash the state; we live in such a specialized world that only the internet and its innumerable microcommunities can meet our true needs, like reorganizing the New Orleans chess club (which Hewitt actually invokes as example of the complex, a la carte social wounds that can only be met by private citizens with similar interests). More broadly, Hewitt advises that the reconstruction of the social fabric be handed over to blogs like N. Z. Bear, Mark D. Roberts, and others who are more adept than government at directing resources and knowledge where they are needed most.

All this is well and good, but the subtext of Hewitt's argument is rather bizarre. As he musters the privatized armies of compassion, Hewitt introduces the claim that "government" presumes to do all of these things in the first place -- rebuilding community theaters, directing talented but displaced young athletes into collegiate athletic programs, setting up chess boards and brewing coffee for twelve-step programs -- rather than providing the basic protections and services that were so evidently absent during the first five days after the storms. Hewitt doubtless believes, as all conservatives do, that we enlist government to perform tasks that are beyond the reach of individual citizens. But what kind of a society can we envision -- what kind of chess club can we hope reconstruct -- when the state fails to provide the fundamental securities that make civic life, including democracy itself, possible? This was the important question raised by social progressives throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, questions that were to varying degrees addressed from the 1930s through the 1960s, when an activist federal government, prodded by wars of varying kinds (e.g., wars against the depression, against fascism, against communism, against poverty and disease), redistributed wealth, political power, and "security" in ways that (however insufficient they were at the time) seem positively revolutionary in the age of Karl Rove and Bill Frist.

Hewitt and others want to push past this basic confrontation and start speaking the only activist language they can truly understand, offering warm homilies of folksy, can-do Americans who can't be bothered to wait around for government to solve their problems. Sitting on the comfortable side of the digital divide, Hewitt and his readers don't have to wonder any longer if it's government's job to shore up levees, preserve wetlands, evacuate the poor, or prevent people from drowning in their own feculence. Instead, they can count on the blogosphere to soothe the wounded while they themselves trawl the ruins of New Orleans for disconnected, affirmative anecdotes -- weepy applause lines for State of the Union speeches yet to be written -- while nudging away the dead bodies with a broomstick.