It is bad enough that the Angry Left is blaming George Bush for the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. But it is really unseemly for the Governor of Louisiana and the Mayor of New Orleans to be blaming the Federal government. After all, the state and local governments in America are supposed to have the authority and the responsibility to be the first responders to natural disasters in their jurisdictions.
When I heard Mayor Nagin whining, I thought to myself, this sounds positively French. Maybe this lame attitude is part of the French heritage of Louisiana and New Orleans and all that. And then I’m chiding myself for tasteless ethnic stereotyping. And it occurs to me, I think I can recall a certain famous Frenchman who made essentially the same point.
So I go to my shelf and pick up my old friend Alexis de Tocqueville. This French aristocrat wrote his famous book, Democracy in America, after his visit to America in 1831, but his descriptions of the contrasting types of American and European attitudes still ring true. He believes that the participating in the institutions of local self-government have shaped the American character, and created a type of person unlike any that Europeans have ever seen before.
He sets up this contrast by starting with a description of the European attitude toward self-government. In Chapter 5 of Part I of the first volume, he reminds his (mostly French) readers how they view themselves in relationship to their government:
There are European nations where the inhabitant sees himself as a kind of settler, indifferent to the fate of the place he inhabits. Major changes happen there without his cooperation, he is even unaware of what precisely has happened; he is suspicious; he hears about events by chance. Worse still, the condition of his village, the policing of the roads, the fate of the churches and presbyteries scarcely bothers him; he thinks that everything is outside his concern and belongs to a powerful stranger called the government.
Honestly, doesn’t that sound like the entitlement mentality? Down to and including the superstitious attitude toward anything they don’t see for themselves. But it gets better: Tocqueville identifies the righteous indignation of the victim:
This detachment from his own fate becomes so extreme that, if his own safety or that of his children is threatened, instead of trying to ward off the danger, he folds his arms and waits for the entire nation to come to his rescue.
Had Tocqueville time-travelled to meet the current Senator and Governor of Louisiana?
The Americans Tocqueville observed in the nineteenth century were a different kettle of crawfish stew. Tocqueville saw that Americans get up and DO something. We made things happen, even back in the nineteenth century. Tocqueville is quick to defend the American character, against the European charge that we had a certain hubris about us. Yes, they evidently thought that about us, even before we were a world “hyperpower”, strong enough to bail them out of two world wars.
Thus, if he (an American) has an often exalted opinion of himself, it is at least salutary. He fearlessly trusts in his own powers, which appear to be sufficient for every eventuality. Suppose an individual thinks of some enterprise which might have some direct connection with the welfare of society. It does not occur to him to seek support from public authority. He publishes a plan, offers to carry it out, summons the help of other individuals and struggles personally against all obstacles. Doubtless, he often has less success than the state would have enjoyed in his stead, but in the longer term, the combined result of all these individual enterprises exceeds greatly what government could achieve.
And isn’t this exactly what we saw on display in the last few weeks? The Red Cross, initially turned away from New Orleans by governmental officials, has been paying the hotel bills of evacuees. Children all across America are contributing their pennies to help the Red Cross. Internet services large and small, have set up bulletin boards to coordinate volunteer efforts and housing searches. One site is calling for guys with trailers to go down and rescue animals that are trapped in kennels. Another site is calling for tradesmen, carpenters and electricians. And Americans are responding to those calls. Anne Applebaum reported that a group of citizens organized a convoy of 92 relief boats to rescue people trapped on rooftops. It did not occur to them to seek public support. Or permission. These volunteers were ultimately turned away by FEMA, because they didn’t have life jackets.
Prison Fellowship Ministries have brought help for the displaced prison population of New Orleans, temporarily housed near Baton Rouge. Volunteers are bringing toiletry items, socks and blankets from North Carolina to these prisoners. And Angel Tree is already planning ahead for how they will locate the children of prisoners in time to get them their Christmas presents. After all, the volunteers who have spent years developing these ministries to help the children of prisoners aren’t about to let a little thing like Hurricane Katrina disappoint the kids at Christmas.
Meanwhile, our French friends, I mean our Louisiana politicians, are still standing there with their arms folded, tapping their feet and waiting for federal funds to rebuild the city. Whining: it’s un-American. Tocqueville would not have been surprised.