DAVID BRIN's world of ideas

The Other Culture War: Beleaguered Professionals vs. Disempowered Citizens

By David Brin, Ph.D.

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 (PPC) 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").

[image from Callahan's Corner]

No wonder the PPC 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.

[image from The Cool Mag]

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 super-empowered amateurs. By 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 disempowered 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 effect 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.

[image from Green Diary]

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.