The fuel of rage

Empty private lives can make for inappropriately violent public ones.  I was struck by this comment from David Foster in a comment at his site, Chicago Boyz:
"I believe we have today in America a considerable number of people who expect to have . . . maybe not the *entire* content of their lives, but a significant and emotionally-intense portion . . . delivered by the public sphere. And it is these people who are most likely to commit political violence."
I won't quote the whole comment, which includes fascinating excerpts from Sebastian Haffner’s memoir of life in Germany between the wars.  In that period, when things began to improve, some parts of society seemed even more determined to find something wrong to be volcanically and violently opposed to--and they got their way before long.

Early voting starts tomorrow in my local county race. In trying to find out what my potential constituents want from their county government, I've been confused more than one by people who seem furious that no one is helping them, but even angrier if they are directed to volunteer aid groups, because "they don't want a handout." Others, or maybe the same people (it's slippery, what they're so angry about), are aggrieved because they're able to recover from the storm but the county won't crack down on those other guys, who leave their debris everywhere and didn't obey building codes in the first place.  Everyone wants the government to be more "accountable," but for some that seems to mean "make them cough up the recovery money we're sure they're hiding" while for others it means "punish them for being lax in law enforcement and wasting our tax money on handouts."

It makes me wonder if the key to the contradictions is the meaninglessness of private lives and the consequent need to gin up intense emotion in the public sphere. The people who got together with their neighbors to help the hardest hit and make the best of things seem to be recovering just fine, even though our local economy is still barely functioning and it remains hard to get insurance money or, if you can get the money, any contractors worth their salt who aren't too busy to start work.  The people who are still fuming with anger appear paralyzed and rootless.

The worst-struck neighborhoods have no obvious home-grown structure:  no churches, clubs, or community clean-up parties.  Part of it may be that these neighborhoods have too high a percentage of second homes and, even after six months, absentee owners.  Another part may be that over half of the homes in these areas were badly damaged, and that's too high a percentage for the rest to come together as a healing network.  When these people ask me what I'd do for them as a commissioner, I have no answer.  Can a government ever make up for a lack of local community?  I think governments do well simply to avoid the temptation to disrupt what local communities can do for themselves.


Christopher B said...

This is the fallacy of thinking that government represents what 'we do together'. At best it's what we get other people to do for us, at worst what other people can be forced to do.

Larry said...

Well said, Tex. I wholeheartedly agree. I’m not sure what the solution is, though.

Texan99 said...

I've been worrying about it, too, since I have my last candidates forum tonight and will be taking questions. At the last forum, there was a general question about what the candidates proposed to do about one of the hardest-hit areas. None of us really knew what to say, other than to express a lot of empathy. I read comments later about how inadequate a response that was, and of course I knew it was, I just didn't have anything else to offer, not understanding what in the world they want or why they think they can get it.

I'm thinking now that the right answer has to do with my overall approach, which is that, like all the candidates, I want everyone to recover from the storm and for us all to have our businesses come back, and affordable housing for the workers that the businesses need, and good schools and medical facilities and rebuilt houses and all that. No one disagrees, why would they? But what's different about me is my determination, proved over the last several months, to ensure that the voters get a voice in how all this recovery happens. Recovery takes money and trade-offs. Do people want them announced after they're determined, or do they want input?

I don't know what this completely slammed neighborhood wants. Maybe privately I know that's because they're not quite sure, either, and they sure don't have a consensus. I have to make them see that, before I support something from my position as a Commissioner, I'll find out what their neighborhood can agree it wants and needs. Then I'll have to find out a way, in time, to make the point diplomatically that they'll have a huge role in clarifying what they want and need, or it won't happen.

E Hines said...

One purpose of government, especially at the local level is to foster--via bully pulpit, not diktat--volunteerism: ask not what your [local government] can do for you, but what you can do for your [local community]. And then support volunteerist efforts and groups in their endeavors. Help those who try to help themselves and their neighbors by clearing away, as much as a local Commission can, government impedimenta like excessive regulations (which is nearly all of them IMNSHO) and convoluted permitting processes, etc.

That won't get you elected, though. Too many want their handouts, even as they deny it. They deserve theirs, after all, while those others are just freeloading.

Eric Hines

David Foster said...

Thanks for the link. Haffner also had some relevant observations re his experiences right after the end of WWI. After a period when everything was chaotic and politicized:

"Some days there was no electricity, on other no trams, but it was never clear whether it was because of the Spartacists or the Government that we had to use oil lamps or go on foot."

In 1919, Haffner joined a sports club called the Old Prussia Athletics Club. This was a *right-wing* sports club–so far had the politicization of daily life already progressed.

But after a time, the political situation calmed down–temporarily, as we now know. The Old Prussia Athletic Club was dissolved:

"Many of us sought new interests: stamp-collecting, for example, piano-playing, or the theatre. Only a few remained true to politics, and it struck me for the first time that, strangely enough, those were the more stupid, coarse and unpleasant among my schoolfellows."

Haffner's memoir is important and very readable; review here:

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I recall reading online comments in a post for preppers (perhaps at Instapundit a few years ago) from a man who had been in a government meltdown in a South American country. His family had been prominent in one of the factions that had been kicked out, either in that revolution or the one before. Whichever, they could not be very public, and despite marketable skills they were on the run a lot.

His lesson was that the best thing you can have in a catastrophe is a network of trusted people. It's too late to tell your voters that now, but if you get elected, using that bully pulpit to encourage community connections - not for this emergency but for the next one - might be an excellent thing to do.

Texan99 said...

My own neighborhood did well after the storm, because it's only a few hundred people, somewhat cut off from the rest of the county and therefore accustomed to taking care of ourselves. There's the volunteer fire department, and the Woman's Club, which between them are a pretty good network. Most people here have either a church or a very tight local social group. The few exceptions were in dire straits until we went door to door and figured out what they needed. It worked because the connected people outnumbered the ones who were holed up in their damaged homes without friends or family.

The amazing network of pastors that caused volunteer workers to get funneled here from as far away as Wisconsin brought home to me how important the connected web of people is. I shake my head in wonder at the idea that anyone can do without being plugged into some kind of network, unless their luck, their bank account, and their health are 100% intact.

Grim said...


1) Those who have non-governmental networks do not need much from government, but are best suited to accept whatever they get (or, I infer, to resist unreasonable asks).

2) Those who lack non-governmental networks are most in need of governmental aid, but most resentful of it, and least helped by it. (Also, I infer, most subject to outrageous domination.)

3) Government is least suited to those who need it most, and most suited to those who need it least. For the former it is an evil, and for the latter a minor good.

Texan99 said...

For this particular function of government--direct aid to people in their most intimate lives--I couldn't agree more.

That's not to say that I don't acknowledge an extremely useful role for governments, even in the closely associated context of recovery from a disaster. Informal local and out-of-state private networks brought in relatively small amounts of aid needed, first, to help us clean out the fallen trees with chainsaws and bobcats, particularly for residents without the money and physical strength to do so on their own quickly. Distant private networks then rather slowly began to bring in help to reroof and rebuild homes of more people who lacked insurance, savings, constructions skills, or family or churches willing or able to step in. At this point, it started to be more helpful to get the help and cooperation of local government, at least.

For larger-scale coordination, what we needed first was tremendously able and nimble and intelligent people running huge corporations, our grocery chain HEB being an excellent example, though our power company also did a fine job. The power company is example of help that was starting to be quasi-governmental, being a monopoly.

Quite soon after the storm, within days, a combination of the volunteer fire departments, county departments, and the power company got the roads clear and safe. For some months thereafter, we had a lot of help from visiting law enforcement, who kept us safer while so many people were still evacuated and trying to get back in damaged homes.

Also almost immediately, the county's subcontractor began clearing what turned out to be over 3 million cubic yards of debris, 100% funded by federal and state government. The price tag is about $40MM. Our county's annual budget is $8MM. We could not have accomplished that critical task without outside government funding, in all likelihood.

Over the next few years, federal and state money will be flooding in to achieve several more things we likely could not have achieved on our own. There will be community loans, probably to be converted to grants, to make up the shortfall in ad valorem and sales tax revenues until our property values and our local businesses recover. That will mean we can continue to operate the Sheriff's department, repairs roads, operate the courthouse, etc. Many tens of millions of dollars of outside government money will come here to build affordable housing for workers, repair bulkheads, repair roads, upgrade communications systems, and generally make the county more resilient for the next disaster.

For large-scale relief of this kind, I see a wonderful role for government. FEMA and the state are set up to provide aid through local governments, and don't do a bad job of it, really. They're just awful when it comes to personal aid. Personal aid needs to be administered personally.