Right now, lots of people are thinking about flooding in North Dakota. It is the perfect time to look at the dynamics of water on flat land, the efforts over the last twenty years to prevent flooding through construction of precautionary dams and catch basins, and the history of legislation and ordinances authorizing developments in low-lying areas. Right now, everybody’s looking, taking the time. Six months from now, the re-scheduled rodeo in the Fargo dome will be the big news.
What do we hear about, mostly? Exhausted people pass sandbags down a line, doing the best work they have ever done in their lives. People fear for their houses, are grateful for the support of their friends and neighbors and for the help of outsiders who donate their labor to the effort. This is genuinely something to celebrate, something people need to know about, for the good of their souls. Only a very brave, perhaps a very reckless, journalist would introduce doubt or despair into the story now. And objective, background, big-picture reporting often turns up the evidence for doubt and despair.
Nevertheless, it hit me wrong when, on the Newshour the other night, I saw the exhausted Fargo mayor interviewed about, essentially, physics: what happens to sandbags when they get cold. He didn’t know. Somebody at any one of 50 universities knows. It seems very likely that somebody someplace has been studying the physics of dams and sandbags, the dynamics of the northern rivers, disaster intervention strategies, legislation and lobbying around development projects in endangered areas -- for twenty years already. Imagine a world where journalists mobilized the scholars and scientists at our great institutions right away, when disasters happened, getting them into intense conversation about what is going on. Suppose they then reported that conversation as news. Maybe, in that world, the teachable moments wouldn’t go to waste. But, in that world, scholars would become, to their embarrassment, part of the story. Their pronouncements would affect the morale of the people filling sandbags. That’s indeed a great risk to take, when issues are not clear, when expert opinion has to be tentative, when morale matters.
On the other side, people on the sandbag lines keep saying, ‘We’ve been here before, lots of times.’ Until the heightened attention brought about by crises gets channeled into thought and imagination and reconstruction, the disasters will just keep coming.
When I think about the enormous public investment in university research, and when I reflect on the silence of university people in times of crisis – that is, in those times when new proposals would actually get a hearing, I think of Abraham Lincoln’s request to his general, something like, ‘If you are not going to use your army, may I borrow it?’
The Obama administration faces several challenges all at once. I don’t know what it should do about any of them.
I think I know what devices are needed, to move forward. They don’t have a good common name; let’s call them rhetorics, for now.
Consider a strange fact: Americans would have rioted if the government had ordered that all working people rise one hour earlier, that businesses begin operations an hour earlier, on a specific day. This is intrusion at a level we’re just not ok with. But call it “Daylight Saving Time,” and people go along – some happily, some grumpily, but everybody takes the change as a fact of nature: when the robins return, we adjust our clocks.
Another fact: Americans would have seen government as caving in entirely to Lenin had anyone said, in the Roosevelt years, that a tax should be imposed on working people and businesses to provide a welfare fund for the elderly. But Social Security, an insurance program, was a different thing altogether. (How an insurance program without any mechanism for enforcing payments, essentially revocable at any time, differs from a welfare program, is a matter for philosophers to ponder, after they get done with angels and pins.)
A third fact, perhaps a bit more sinister: the watchdogs of basic civil liberties would have bellowed loudly, had the U.S. government announced that the televisions of the poorest Americans would be rendered useless, forcing them to seek out and install new technology in a time of economic distress. This would be seen as cutting to the heart of people’s right to know, to remain informed, to remain part of the national community. But, call it “digital conversion,” and most people see the move as a benign adjustment to changing technology.
It is too easy to respond to such examples by saying, “It’s all just propaganda – what Goebbels was up to, basically.” It isn’t all just propaganda. There are a variety of possible descriptions of every policy and initiative and course of action. Each illuminates some features and obscures others; each has a different feel, a different motivational power, a different inflection. To live in an uninflected world is like getting all one’s communication from a digital voice reader; meaning requires selection and emphasis. (Intelligence requires that one figure out what trade-offs are behind each selection, each emphasis.)
Politics is largely a matter of finding descriptions that people can live with in the long run. Ethics requires more: that the descriptions not make anything important disappear. What we need from our leaders, and what we can help to shape, in a democratic system, is an ethical politics containing the necessary rhetorics for moving forward from the current crises of meaning.