“The dramatic weather alone is not sufficient to explain the thinness of the veneer of civilization in the Gulf South.”
Nicholas Lemann’s Talk of the Town Comment In the Ruins in the September 12 issue of The New Yorker offers some considered social commentary on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s assault on New Orleans. Lemann goes beneath the surface to find the roots of the social chaos that overtook that city. Lemann’s lengthy commentary is insightful in many places and backed by factual evidence. His repeated references to novels set in New Orleans give the article—and the disaster—a literary frame of reference.
Lemann goes further than simply rehashing the now familiar laments: The situation is ghastly. Public officials failed. This shouldn’t happen in the United States. He offers an analysis of why social order broke down: It was tenuous to begin with. New Orleans has “one of the highest murder rates in the country” and consistently “ranks near the bottom on practically every measure of civic health.”
Regrettably, Lemann seems to accept certain assumptions without really questioning them, or even acknowledging that they’re questionable. Without even a nod to personal responsibility, Lemann insists, “A society that doesn’t deliver for its many poor people … doesn’t generate a lot of trust and cohesion.” Social breakdown is the fault of society, not of looters.
While providing a commentary refreshingly deeper that most of the last couple of weeks, Lemann has at the same time relied on some of the assumptions that fostered the social decay he condemns, as well as made the prevailing discourse on the tragedy so fatuous.