The Long View 2005-09-29: Urban Legends; Theopathology; 1914+


A lot of the worst rumors following hurricane Katrina in New Orleans were not true. At least some of the examples of police brutality in the aftermath were true.

Urban Legends; Theopathology; 1914+

No one doubts the Katrina disaster was mismanaged, but even while it was going on, it was apparent that some of the stories coming out of Louisiana were imaginary. As the New York Times reports in a frontpage piece, Fear Exceeded Crime's Reality in New Orleans. Rumors and misreporting hampered attempts to maintain order:

"It's part of human nature," General Mason said. "When you get one or two reports, it echoes around the community."

Faced with reports that 400 to 500 armed looters were advancing on the town of Westwego, two police officers quit on the spot. The looters never appeared, said the Westwego police chief, Dwayne Munch.

"Rumors could tear down an entire army," Chief Munch said.

During six days when the Superdome was used as a shelter, the head of the New Orleans Police Department's sex crimes unit, Lt. David Benelli, said he and his officers lived inside the dome and ran down every rumor of rape or atrocity. In the end, they made two arrests for attempted sexual assault, and concluded that the other attacks had not happened.

Rumor, misinformation, urban legend: these are all technically different things, but certainly events like Katrina produce a great deal of them all at once. There are many sources online for tracking this sort of thing. A good place to start might be Barbara and David Mikkelson's Urban Legends Reference Pages, where we find that several of the most popular current rumors deal with Katrina. There is a great deal more to the site, however. Do not neglect the Language section.

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Religion promotes social pathology, if you believe a study by Gregory Paul that appears in the online Journal of Religion and Society. The Times of London summarizes the findings of the paper, which purports to compare levels of religiosity in advanced countries with various forms of bad behaviour: "Religious belief can cause damage to a society, contributing towards high murder rates, abortion, sexual promiscuity and suicide..." The journal article says:

“The non-religious, proevolution democracies contradict the dictum that a society cannot enjoy good conditions unless most citizens ardently believe in a moral creator.

The paper in question is yet more spinoff from the Intelligent Design controversy. That is, frankly, one of those things like Madonna or rap music that I never saw the point of but that other people go on and on about. The paper itself, of course, is nonsense: you could use this kind of analysis to show that high rates of car ownership cause STDs; or, to flip the argument, that the high incidence of doctoral degrees in the relatively secular northeastern United States contributes to car theft. The most meaningful comparison would be historical. A study of that sort would suggest, probably, that religious revivals correspond to declining levels of social pathology. See, for instance, the historical argument in Gertrude Himmelfarb's The Demoralization of Society.

The bogus analysis a shame, really. There is a genuine question here. Kant said that even a nation of devils could maintain a liberal republic, provided they had understanding. I am pretty sure he was wrong, but it's not a trivial argument

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Meanwhile, in the Far East, Spengler tells us that China must wait for democracy:

[T]he great urban migration will nullify the recurring tragic cycle of Chinese history, in which the backward countryside overwhelms the progressive metropolis. Inference from the patterns of Chinese history has been the main prop for a pessimistic evaluation of China's long-term prospects, but it is specious. This time the countryside will atrophy and the metro pole will burgeon. Whether by chance or design, China's one-child policy, which by Western standards is cruel, has eroded the countryside's traditional source of power, namely its bottomless well of people...

As long as China's economic growth continues to produce jobs, guiding the country through this great migration will command the undivided attention of the Chinese government. Except for securing supplies of energy and raw materials, nothing that China might undertake in the sphere of strategic policy will mar or bless this, its principal endeavor.

[I]t is pointless to expect new arrivals in Shanghai or Guangzhou to master the political skills that Anglo-Saxons learned over centuries.

That leaves a terrible responsibility in the hands of a very few to lead China through a great transition. It cannot be otherwise. America would be better advised to offer practical suggestions, such as how to develop internal capital markets, rather than grandiose and self-serving advice.

Spengler, too, thinks that Kant was wrong. He suggests that China's chief problem is to find a metaphysical basis for a new civil society. In any case, I might note that Spengler may be unique in assuming that urbanization will increase stability.

Mark Steyn, writing in National Review (but reprinted in full in full here) has his own thoughts about China. Noting that continuity is a a bad bet in geopolitics:

[I]t would seem to me more likely that something sudden and convulsive will have rearranged the geopolitical order long before China completes its stately rise to global hegemon. Will the something sudden convulse China? Beats me. We might be in for a nuclear catastrophe in the Indian subcontinent or complete societal breakdown in AIDS-riddled southern Africa. But, on the other hand, if one were looking for a likely candidate for unexpected disaster, a totalitarian state of 1.3 billion people trying to manage an historically unprecedented transformation into the world’s only economically viable form of Communism and with ever-widening disparities between the glittering coastal megalopolises and an impoverished rural backwater — well, that sounds a likely candidate for something goofy...Think of America’s frontier problem with Mexico multiplied a hundredfold and you’ll get a sense of Moscow’s dilemma as 2020 approaches. It signed a temporary agreement with Beijing because it simply can’t afford to enforce that border. In the ever-emptier Russian east there are 16 million people and falling. In China, there are one-and-a-half billion and they need lebensraum.

To that, one might remark that Lebensraum will be little on the minds of people who chief desire is to move to Shanghai as soon as may be. Does that mean there will be no 1914-sized discontinuity? By no means.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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