home our amazing 21st Century The Other Culture War

The Other Culture War

by David Brin, Ph.D.

One might argue that the first blow in the "professionalism war" was struck by a clade of super-empowered amateurs: meddlesome ideologues with far more influence than understanding.

The Other Culture War

I have called New Orleans the "anti-9/11" because these two tragedies illustrate diametrically opposite sides of the same lesson: When resilient citizens feel empowered, they can be prodigious assets in a crisis.

When resilient, self-organized citizen action is actively quashed, any crisis will deepen. Moreover, the professionals will not find their jobs getting easier. Rather, by patronizing and restricting citizen action, professionals tend only to see their burdens grow worse.

Take our first example — the resonant tragedy that struck America when a new millennium was just nine months old. For four years, the Professional Protector Caste has been relentless in pushing a false interpretation of what happened on September 11, 2001. Pundits of both left and right speak repeatedly of public "fear and panic." Both the administration and its critics tend to parse the problem relentlessly in terms that bicker over which branch of the protective caste should be given more power over our lives.

But look closer. They offer no real evidence for anything remotely like extensive or systematic panic, either during the terrorist attacks or in the aftermath. Along with Boston Globe correspondent Elaine Scarry, I have tried to show the exact opposite. What the events of 9/11 appear to have shown was a moment when the Age of Amateurs came briefly, gloriously, into the foreground, showing some of its true potential for the 21st Century.

(This phrase was coined in The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Freedom and Privacy?)

In fact, the one truly significant thing that happened on 9/11, other than the attack itself, was a staggering display of citizen courage, autonomy and competence, on a day when all of the paid professional protector castes failed. Almost every major action that worked that day — to limit the harm, evacuate victims, palliate suffering, document the event and fight back against our enemies — was performed by independent citizen amateurs, empowered by modern technologies and an adaptable will to use them. (See: "The value — and empowerment — of common citizens in an age of danger.")


No wonder the Professional Protector Caste have united — despite their superficial political differences — around a single goal: To distract people from what really happened on 9/11. For example, debates over the PATRIOT Act swirl around a devil's dichotomy, choosing between security and freedom. In this debate, the civil libertarians have my loyalty... but ONLY to the extent that I am forced to accept this dismal, narrow and insipidly misleading zero-sum game. (Being asked to choose between my childrens' safety and their freedom? Bah!) While I send folks like the ACLU checks, I am also resentful that they want to "protect" me... instead of helping me protect myself.

And now we have Katrina, another example of the Protector Caste failing utterly to prepare or prevent or palliate harm... only on a vastly worse scale and in a far more worrisome way than 9/11.

After all, on 9/11, their failure came about as an unfortunate confluence of many factors some of which weren't anybody's fault, all uniting to create a sudden Perfect Storm. Isolated acts of incompetence combined with sheer bad luck — plus enemy innovativeness — to make Professional Anticipation fail at all levels when New York was attacked. This did not mean that our paid protectors were systematically incompetent... they have saved us from many other threats, quietly and professionally, all the time, and have continued to do so, even hampered by the Neocons' all-out war on neutral professionalism.

What 9/11 did prove was an age-old adage — that even the best anticipators only succeed some of the time. Inevitably, no matter how skilled, anticipation will fail. And when that happens, we must fall back on the other thing, anticipation's partner, in helping human beings deal with the future.

The other thing is resiliency. The trait that our fellow citizens — (on 9/11, mostly Bostonians and New Yorkers) — demonstrated prodigiously. And the one thing that the Protector Caste has been downplaying — (instinctively and surely not consciously) — ever since.


Alas, resiliency was treated as an enemy, before and during Katrina.

On the Gulf Coast, unlike 9/11, there was plenty of warning. Years in the case of the fragile levees (see my 1990 novel EARTH, which made eerily accurate predictions) and many days in the case of the storm itself. Failure of anticipation now becomes culpable. Especially after a hundred billion dollars supposedly spent on readiness.

But failure to enhance citizen autonomous resiliency can only be seen as criminal.

Online, the mystical-libertarians are going ape, claiming that this event shows the inherent incompetence of government — a banal response that is wholly insupportable. Other emergencies have been handled well, within recent memory. Especially when skilled and vigorous officials swiftly engaged all resources, including private, corporate and individual effort.

Government's failure, in this case, arose initially from the fierce campaign against professionalism waged by this administration. A key psychological element that few pundits have pointed out is the incredibly consistent — and apparently compulsive — way that the neoconservatives in power reject or undermine the independent judgement of qualified experts, culminating in what can only be called a savage purge of the US military Officer Corps. This pattern even crosses political lines. The appointment of political hacks to head FEMA and the CIA are only the tip of the iceberg.

One might argue that the first blow in the "professionalism war" was struck by a clade of super-empowered amateurs: meddlesome ideologues with far more influence than understanding.

But this dire situation was thereupon horribly exacerbated by the behavior of the professionals, themselves, who appear to have taken out their frustration upon the millions of dis-empowered amateurs all around them. From state, local and federal officials to FEMA and local police, what we saw was a relentless and nearly uniform reflex to quash autonomous citizen action. Whether those actions were illegal-but-understandable (e.g., looting for food and water) or heroic and impressively innovative (hotwiring school buses to evacuate the poor) the common reaction was to insist that people STOP whatever assertive action they were taking and return to cesspit shelters, to sit with folded hands and wait.

Was this racism, reflexively preventing dark-skinned folks from acting on their own behalf? Perhaps partially. But then, what about all the white folks, doctors, volunteers and NGOs driving trucks and buses toward New Orleans and Biloxi, who were turned away and prevented even from delivering fresh water? Excuses varied, from worries about liability to prickly defense of command procedure. But what we need to be noticing is the common element that underlies every excuse.

All of these measures, whatever the reason given, had the goal of limiting citizen resiliency.

Let there be no mistake. People could have stepped in, replacing the missing National Guard, for example. (Decades ago, a volunteer Civil Defense network existed in every community.) During the Katrina Crisis, thousands tried to do as their countrymen did, four years ago in New York City. Only this time, every barrier was put in place to prevent individual effort.

If 9/11 illustrated citizenship resiliency, New Orleans displayed a new phenomenon: professionals waging outright war against citizen empowerment.


Look, I have every sympathy for our skilled professional protectors. I doubt, at a conscious level, they even knew what they were doing. Reacting to a sense of beleaguered siege mentality, I suppose. Indeed, as I said earlier, they have been suffering horribly at the hands of super-empowered amateurs... the inept ideologues comprising an administration of meddlesome maladroits who think they know more about diplomacy than diplomats, about war than trained officers, about science than scientists... and more about "mandate" than the sovereign voters.

But we will commit a grievous error if we let our appraisal stop there, with a smug, political conclusion. It goes much deeper. Ever since 9/11, we have seen the worst of all possible situations. Professionals have been sabotaged and thwarted from above... and they, in turn, have reflexively defended their turf by quashing citizen empowerment. Both anticipation and resiliency have fallen into dark times, exactly when we need both traits to become super-enhanced, in order to cope with a world transforming before our eyes.

I believe the real problem lies in a "culture war" between the professional castes who made the last fifty years such a roaring success and citizens who represent approaching age of empowered amateurs. Citizens who must be included, for us to have a chance in the complex and dangerous 21st Century.

THE END


The Other Culture War

about this article

Copyright © 2005 by David Brin. All rights reserved.


I have called New Orleans the 'anti-9/11' because these two tragedies illustrate diametrically opposite sides of the same lesson. When resilient citizens feel empowered, they can be prodigious assets in a crisis. When resilient, self-organized citizen action is actively quashed, any crisis will deepen. Moreover, the professionals will not find their jobs getting easier. Rather, by patronizing and restricting citizen action, professionals tend only to see their burdens grow worse.

"The Other Culture War" (published in full here) was one of a series posted in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Another essay discusses Proxy Activism, a convenient way modern folks can hire others to save the world for them. Finally, there's a notion (cribbed from my novel Earth) about how it might be time to let the Mississippi take its natural path to the sea. (Note: these articles grew from discussions on Contrary Brin and elsewhere. Thanks to all the fans who participated.)"


articles, films & books cited here

David Brin, EarthEarth (book)

David Brin, The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us To Choose Between Privacy And Freedom?The Transparent Society (book)

David Brin, "The value — and empowerment — of common citizens in an age of danger"

Elaine Scarry, "Citizenship in Emergency"


to engage these issues

David Brin blogs at Contrary Brin and comments on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and Quora specifically to discuss the political and scientific issues he raises in these articles. If you come to argue rationally, you're voting, implicitly, for a civilization that values open minds and discussions among equals.


also worth a look


a brief intro to author David Brin

DAVID BRIN scientist

novels

David Brin's science fiction novels have been New York Times Bestsellers, winning multiple Hugo, Nebula and other awards. At least a dozen have been translated into more than twenty languages. They range from bold and prophetic explorations of our near-future to Brin's Uplift series, envisioning galactic issues of sapience and destiny (and star-faring dolphins!).
Learn More


shorter fiction

Short stories and novellas have different rhythms and artistic flavor, and Brin's short stories and novellas, several of which earned Hugo and other awards, exploit that difference to explore a wider range of real and vividly speculative ideas. Many have been selected for anthologies and reprints, and most have been published in anthology form.
Learn More


Contrary Brin blog

Since 2004, David Brin has maintained a blog about science, technology, science fiction, books, and the future — themes his science fiction and nonfiction writings continue to explore.
Learn More


social media influencer

Who could've predicted that social media — indeed, all of our online society — would play such an important role in the 21st Century — restoring the voices of advisors and influencers! Lively and intelligent comments spill over onto Brin's social media pages.
Learn More


scientist

David Brin's Ph.D in Physics from the University of California at San Diego (the lab of nobelist Hannes Alfven) followed a masters in optics and an undergraduate degree in astrophysics from Caltech. Every science show that depicts a comet now portrays the model developed in Brin's PhD research.
Learn More


transparency expert

Brin's non-fiction book, The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Freedom and Privacy?, continues to receive acclaim for its accuracy in predicting 21st Century concerns about online security, secrecy, accountability and privacy.
Learn More


speaker & consultant

Brin speaks plausibly and entertainingly about trends in technology and society to audiences willing to confront the challenges that our rambunctious civilization will face in the decades ahead. He also talks about the field of science fiction, especially in relation to his own novels and stories. To date he has presented at more than 200 meetings, conferences, corporate retreats and other gatherings.
Learn More


future/tech advisor

Brin advises corporations and governmental and private defense- and security-related agencies about information-age issues, scientific trends, future social and political trends, and education. Urban Developer Magazine named him one of four World's Best Futurists, and he was cited as one of the top 10 writers the AI elite follow. Past consultations include Google, Microsoft, Procter & Gamble, and many others.
Learn More


an ornery, contrary blog, and other insightful rants!

Do not enter if you want a standard "Party" line! Contrary Brin's community pokes at too-rigid orthodoxies, proposing ideas and topics that fascinate and infuriate.

wormholes

A few spacetime anomalies and side-trips, for your entertainment.

Questions? Concerns? Email Me

amazon author page

Amazon

  join me on Amazon

facebook author page

David Brin

Promote Your Page Too

goodreads author page

Goodreads

  join me on Goodreads


0

Google+ followers

  follow me on Google+

0

twitter followers

  join me on Twitter

0

quora followers

  join me on Quora


scoop.it!

curated topics at Scoop.it!

pinterest boards

share pins from these Pinterest boards


other points of departure

visit other pages on this website

pages about science fiction

  • Brin's novels and books
  • Brin's short stories and novellas
  • all about Brin's uplift universe
  • a selection of book reviews
  • Brin's advice for new writers
  • Brin reviews sci fi films — including The Postman
  • a compilation of great sf books to read
  • recommended sf films
  • science fiction that teaches
  • nonfiction explorations

  • The Transparent Society
  • privacy, security, accountability and transparency
  • designing and crafting our amazing 21st Century
  • predicting and projecting our near and far future
  • leading and following our politics and economy
  • keeping track of changes in science and technology
  • scanning our sky for habitable (inhabited?) worlds