7 September 2005

God blew and they were scattered

Letters from Voltaire, 24 November 1755, describing the great Lisbon earthquake
This is indeed a cruel piece of natural philosophy! We shall find it difficult to discover how the laws of movement operate in such fearful disasters in the best of all possible worlds-- where a hundred thousand ants, our neighbours, are crushed in a second on our ant-heaps, half, dying undoubtedly in inexpressible agonies, beneath d├ębris from which it was impossible to extricate them, families all over Europe reduced to beggary, and the fortunes of a hundred merchants -- Swiss, like yourself -- swallowed up in the ruins of Lisbon. What a game of chance human life is! What will the preachers say -- especially if the Palace of the Inquisition is left standing! I flatter myself that those reverend fathers, the Inquisitors, will have been crushed just like other people. That ought to teach men not to persecute men: for, while a few sanctimonious humbugs are burning a few fanatics, the earth opens and swallows up all alike. I believe it is our mountains which save us from earthquakes.


Personally, I suspect God wanted to encourage the Enlightenment so he flattened Lisbon in order to seed Europe with disbelief.

Boiling Over
Apart from what it revealed of human depravity, Mr. Barry says, the flood of 1927 changed America. It put Herbert Hoover in the White House, even while his duplicity in dealing with blacks helped begin the shift of black voters from the Republicans to the Democrats. It inspired Congress to pass a law putting responsibility for the Mississippi in Federal hands, making it easier for both Congress and the public to accept an even larger Federal presence during the New Deal years. And the pressures the flood brought to bear on the delicate racial fabric of the Deep South caused tears that could never be mended.

Altogether, then, ''Rising Tide'' stands not only as a powerful story of disaster but as an accomplished and important social history, magisterial in its scope and fiercely dedicated to unearthing truth. What the book doesn't do, doesn't intend to do, is to give us much reason to think that humans are ever going to control the river for any length of time (as the floods of 1993 demonstrated once again). The river's power is too great and our dreaming too small (and perhaps too ignoble) seriously to impede the course of what Mark Twain called ''the great Mississippi, the majestic, the magnificent Mississippi rolling its mile-wide tide along.


Octavio Paz on the politics of the 1985 Mexico City earthquake
One of the most significant results of the [1085] earthquake was autonomous action outside of the PRI and the government.

We are in the process of a transformation that began in 1968 with the student revolt. While the student revolt was a leftist revolt, its main demand was welcomed by the Mexican public: democratization.

That revolt instigated the Echeverria 'apertura,' the Lopez-Portillo political reforms and now De La Madrid's proposed changes for more seats in the legislature for the opposition parties. I wrote in 1968 that either we are going to have serious upheavals or we are going to move toward a more modern democracy. Although the effort is too slow for me, I am happy to say that democratization is happening, little by little. We are on the verge of change.

One of the great obstacles to democratic progress in the past has been the weakness of the opposition parties. Now we have
a new phenomenon in Mexico: the democratic right is more powerful than ever before, mainly in the north.


Apocalypse in the USA
The rest of America has rallied. Despite the Lone Ranger rhetoric of freedom, amazing reserves of solidarity bind US society. It starts with neighbourliness, swells into civic pride, and becomes patriotism. My university opened its classes to students displaced from the Gulf Coast, helping to lead a similar movement around the nation. Schools where refugees have taken shelter have done the same. Disaster relief has become a national, rather than a federal, effort. The government is outdone, engulfed and isolated by a wave of sympathy for fellow citizens in distress.

Regional authorities in the Mississippi Delta who failed to foresee the tragedy are, for the moment, escaping most of the resentment. Governor Hailey Barber of Mississippi disarmingly confesses failure while wanting to make up for it. His popular touch comes naturally, where the President's always seems scripted. People believe Mr Barber when he promises that "we're gonna hitch up our britches". Mr Bush, meanwhile, keeps promising a better future, when what the victims want is present relief. His uneasy optimism seems reflected in the gleaming eyes of fat-cat friends, already prowling around for prospective reconstruction contracts.

When the terrorists struck on 9/11, Mr Bush could make any number of mistakes, and still gain in popularity, because there were aliens on hand to hate. He could launch and mismanage wars with impunity, counting on the electorate's fidelity in the face of the foe.

This time Mr Bush cannot rail against God or, with his environmental record, make an enemy of nature. He cannot bomb the sea or invade the wind. God and nature are on the same side; and they no longer look like America's coalition partners. Even in the context of a natural occurrence, where there is no real enemy, people still need to hate and long for vengeance. Slowly, inexorably, with a chilling uniformity, the accusing gazes are focusing on the White House.


Bush could lie his way into Iraq because it is far away and little understood. When he brought the big lie home and tried to privatise social security he was arguing against his own supporters' direct experience and the spin did not work so well. When Spin does not sway the Fox network, the Bush administration, in his father's immortal phrase, is in deep doodoo. Historical crises destroy, they do not strengthen, rulers. Historical crises where the relief effort is a manifest failure can bring down entire elites. Robert Frost said it a lot better than I'm ever going to:

The Flood
Blood has been harder to dam back than water.
Just when we think we have it impounded safe
Behind new barrier walls (and let it chafe!),
It breaks away in some new kind of slaughter.
We choose to say it is let loose by the devil;
But power of blood itself releases blood.
It goes by might of being such a flood
Held high at so unnatural a level.
It will have outlet, brave and not so brave.
weapons of war and implements of peace
Are but the points at which it finds release.
And now it is once more the tidal wave
That when it has swept by leaves summits stained.
Oh, blood will out. It cannot be contained.


The death toll will be horrendous and there is not going to be any way to prevent comparison with other hurricanes and other disasters unnecessarily. In particular, the death toll of those who died unnecessarily, because the relief effort moved so slowly, will take more than cute word tricks like Bush condemning an effort he headed and directed. Blood will out.

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