All Commentary
Saturday, September 23, 2017

The Greatest Lesson Hurricane Irma Has Taught Us

If we are left free and virtuous, we are likely to continue creating beautiful things for our own and others’ sake

Hurricane season has once again reminded modern America of the limitations of being human. Or, perhaps it has reminded us that, despite our various religious, political, and personal problems, Mother Nature, paired with the flaws of human nature, is the true problem we need to solve.

Did Irma once again show us the folly of man’s knowledge and courage? Is our attempt to civilize Florida just another example of reaching for the forbidden fruit? Should we have told the Army Corps of Engineers, local governments, and private developers, “careful, Icarus,” before they went about taming the Sunshine State’s hellish swamps?

After this storm, will the people once again rebuild there, in spite of mother nature’s most recent rebuke? Will they once again use human ingenuity and technology to fly as close as they can to the sun, whether it’s to sunbathe on the Florida beaches, set sail on floating cities for a pleasure cruise, visit the magical world of an iconic mouse, or continually fire rockets into space?

Altering and Living in the Natural World

As Michael Grunwald, a Florida resident, wrote for Politico in the midst of Irma:

But the fundamental issue is that South Florida is an artificial civilization, engineered and air-conditioned to insulate its residents and tourists from the realities of its natural landscape. We call animal control when alligators wander into our backyards, and it doesn’t occur to us that we’ve wandered into the alligators’ backyard. Most residents of suburban communities carved out of Everglades swampland – Weston, Wellington, Miami Springs, Miami Lakes – are blissfully oblivious to the intricate water diversion strategies that their government officials use to keep them dry every day. Most South Floridians don’t think much about climate change, either, even though it’s creating more intense storms, even though the rising seas around Miami Beach now flood low-lying neighborhoods on sunny days during high tide. People tend not to think too much about existential threats to the places they live. They just live.

And they keep coming. Twenty-five years ago, Hurricane Andrew ripped through Miami’s southern exurbs, but the homes destroyed were quickly replaced, and most of us who live here now weren’t here then. So we weren’t really ready for Irma, even though at some level we knew it was possible. It’s conceivable that Irma will finally shut down our insatiable growth machine, but I wouldn’t bet on that. Our inclination towards collective amnesia is just too strong.

The thing is, it’s really nice here, except when it isn’t. Those Seminole War soldiers would be stunned to see how this worthless hellscape of swarming mosquitoes and sodden marshes has become a high-priced dreamscape of swimming pools and merengue and plastic surgery and Mar-a-Lago. It probably isn’t sustainable. But until it gets wiped out – and maybe even after – there’s still going to be a market for paradise. Most of us came here to escape reality, not to deal with it.”

My bet is we will rebuild. There is too much to be gained in civilizing Florida, whether one wants to call that civilization “artificial” or not.

Tell me, Mr. Grunwald, where in all of modern society isn’t there “an artificial civilization, engineered and air-conditioned to insulate its residents and tourists from the realities of its natural landscape”?

Does Man Reach Beyond His Grasp?

We moderns, especially we Americans, do not long cower in the face of Earth’s wrath like the ancients must have. We may mourn and say “woe is us” for a little while. We may even pray, but eventually, we get back to braving the dangers of building a beautiful civilization. Yes, beautiful.

Does imagination and fortitude allow Man to extend his grasp to heights never before considered possible?

Some say it’s our modern courage, the American dream. Others call it modern hubris, the folly of American consumerism and capitalism. Some say we can rebuild, put brick on top of brick because it’s in our nature to brave Nature’s power through ingenuity and technology, for all our sakes. Others call for us to reexamine our ways and recognize that our actions are to blame, that our technology and consumerist ways allow us to play a dangerous game full of folly.

That is the question of our times – does Man’s reach exceed his grasp or does Man’s imagination and fortitude allow him to extend his reach and grasp to heights never before considered possible?

Both could be plausible in any given situation. Heroes are often considered fools before they succeed because sometimes wannabe heroes fail. Innovators have always been given the evil eye and branded as dangerous people, whether they are innovators of thought or technology because, yes, sometimes they don’t succeed or upset the status quo.

Either way, don’t kid yourself. This question – does Man’s reach exceed his grasp? –  has to do with much more than hurricanes and beachfront properties. It has to do with power; electric power and fossil fuels, as well as elected power in government offices and ordained power in the church houses.

It has to do with information, true or false, and how that information is spread in the schoolhouse or university, in our workplaces or town squares, in our halls of government, over the radio, the TV, the Internet, or the smartphone. It has to do with who we are as moral beings. It has to do with living the good life.

A Visual Culture and a World of Sound

I once had a teacher at Auburn, a communitarian named Murray Jardine, who said something similar about the question of our times. He asked the question this way: how do we solve the crisis of our inability to make moral sense of our scientific and technological capabilities?

He does not think liberalism – classical, reformed, libertarian, or otherwise – can answer this question. I think he is quite mistaken, part of a foolish group who finds modern liberal democratic capitalism to be full of hubris, corrupting to the soul, and lacking in virtue.

He claims in his book that the answer to this crisis was for us to rediscover “a sense of the moral limitations inherent in our capacity for speech.” He goes on to write:

…Thanks to literacy and modern inventions…we live in a culture that is extremely visually oriented and relatively closed to the sound-dimension of human experience. Thus it is essential, if we are to develop a moral sense that can enable us to deal with technology, that we recapture a much richer sense of what we are doing when we speak and listen to other human beings.”

I find this funny, because though we are a largely visual culture – and yes, though I am as much a fan of television, movies, and YouTube videos as anyone else – I live in a world of sound. I prefer a vinyl record these days over a Blu-ray disc. I love to close my eyes, lean back on my radio, and listen to some rock’n’roll and a lot of soul, letting the sounds enrich my spirit  –  even if I had to pony up $20 for the latest vinyl pressing of David Bowie’s “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.”

In fact, without some online merchant or streaming service, I wouldn’t be able to find such enrichments so easily. I also love to listen to people in passionate conversation on a podcast or on the radio. Even if they may run an advertisement to make some money, I know that money allows them to continue to speak to me over the airwaves or the Internet.

These are testaments to our virtues as a modern people and they can help us make moral sense of our modern capabilities.

Such consumer products aren’t simply an escape. This is a way for me to find my center – a way to be reminded of what we can do when we put in the hard work and trade the fruits of our labor, be it creating something beautiful in song or creating civilization by draining the swamplands of Florida in search of paradise.

Our modern rock’n’roll poets are more than just consumer eye-candy to sell the latest corporate fad. Our beachfront properties are more than just an investment opportunity or a luxury for corrupted consumers. They are testaments to our virtues as a modern people and, if properly understood, they can help us make moral sense of our modern capabilities – more so than many of our preachers, intellectuals, and political leaders ever could.

Let All the Children Boogie

Yes, our modern capitalist culture is very visual but sound is what turns me on, whether it be a ethereal guitar solo, a deep booming bass, a rising melody, a great conversation, an epic speech, or a humble whisper. In this world of visuals, I have found a way to live in sound. I live in a world behind headphones to stay as informed and entertained as to inform and entertain people myself while, yes, also making a little money that allows me to live.

I speak for a living without being seen by most who hear me. Every day, I speak to thousands I cannot see or touch or smell. But I can hear them. I can hear you. And as I have said before, I have built relationships only through the sound of voices carried over the airwaves. I have done the same online through the Internet and writing articles, finding people I have never met in person who I still consider friends. I hope to meet more of you. I hope more of you will reach out, that we all will look to help answer the big questions of our – or any – age, but more importantly, I am here to make my little plot on this earth – whether it be a sound space or a dive bar or my living room – a place to have fun and find friendship despite our usual divides: political, religious or otherwise. As the Bowie song says, “Let all the children boogie.”

Modern capitalist society doesn’t need to be saved from itself.

Modern capitalist society doesn’t need to be saved from itself. It needs to merely find its center again, its faith in what it has done for our material well-being and spirit, as well as its hope in what it can do. As Deirdre McCloskey might say, if we “keep our wits” and understand the virtue of our bourgeois projects – prudence, courage, temperance, justice, faith, hope, and love – we will be able recognize that living the good life doesn’t mean imposing a certain form of living on one another or giving up our “insatiable growth machine.”

No, living the good life is more like crafting a song or a painting. We have the notes. We have the colors. And if we are left free and virtuous, we are likely to continue creating beautiful things for our own and others’ sake, surprised by how far we can, in fact, extend our grasp to meet the reach of our imagination.