Niall Ferguson who is a professor of history here at Harvard University has a nice piece in The Telegraph
- Katrina rains down calamity... so we, of course, look for a scapegoat
in which he asks whether natural disasters can be and should be abused for political, religious, and ideological goals. You may guess what's the answer.
He starts with the earthquake in Lisbon in 1755. Voltaire argued that the earthquake had shown that Nature was powerful and there was no God to defeat it. For Voltaire, disasters were evidence against religion as well as against Leibniz who had claimed that ours was the best world one can imagine; instead, they were a reason to believe natural sciences and natural philosophy. Alexander Pope, on the other hand, stated that the world would be less perfect without such disasters; a pretty deep point.
(Incidentally, tropical cyclones are an important part of the air circulation system, and they often bring rain to very dry regions.)
The main goal of Ferguson's article is, of course, to show how tasteless and rationally unjustifiable it is for various groups to use the natural disasters as an additional tool to support their ideologies and agendas. While it is obvious to Ferguson, me, as well as anyone who has not lost her mind that a hurricane is unpredictable and has nothing to do with our sins, with the religious beliefs of islamic extremists, with the war in Iraq, or with the Kyoto protocol, there are unfortunately many people - including the people in the Academia - who don't get it even 250 years after Voltaire's precious remarks.
The following groups were an obvious choice for Ferguson: the 18th century catholic priests who said that the earthquake was a punishment for our sins; the islamic terrorists who cheer Katrina as a powerful "Private" who was sent by God to join jihad; the so-called environmentalists who cheer the hurricane as a new powerful argument that should help the U.S. to sign the so-called Kyoto protocol; and more generally American "liberals" who believe that most of the tragedy is apparently caused by the war in Iraq and maybe the tax cuts, too.
(I put the word "liberals" into quotation marks because for me, as a European, a person from the continent where these classical ideas got started, the word still represents neo-liberals and libertarians who like freedom - the word itself is derived from "liberty". The U.S. "liberals" today seem to have exactly the opposite tendency. Let me continue to use the adjective "left-wing" and the nouns "socialists", "communists", "feminists", and "environmentalists". Thanks.)
Since 1755, the information technology and theoretical physics have both made a tremendous progress. But when one looks at the opinions of generic professors today, it is hard not to see that the quality of political and philosophical thought has peaked a few centuries ago and deteriorated markedly since the golden days of Enlightenment.
A majority of "intellectuals" today seems to be driven by new kinds of superstitions and irrational and perverted religions - whether or not they call it a "religion" (in some cases, they want to describe their religion as "universally anti-religious" which does not guarantee that the irrational essence is any different from the religions called this way). They are either not willing or not able to separate these superstitions and their political beliefs from natural science and fair and rational thinking in general. Too bad that it apparently includes a large fraction of the U.S. academic world.
In some sense, the public is doing a better job in attributing the hurricane and related problems. One may find it more natural to blame the Democratic LA governer Kathleen Blanco, but a goal of this text is to say that it is not a right idea either. A technical point: some people blame the spending cuts. The non-partisan FactCheck.ORG has just released a report that proves that it is ridiculous. It shows that even if Katrina waited until 2015 - the expected completion of the better levees - it would still flood New Orleans (via hansmast.com). A similar conclusion holds not only for the levees but for hundreds of other aspects of the disaster: certain people simply want to believe that Allah or the Government is and should be omnipotent so that it can easily cool down the whole planet, forbid hurricanes, and make everyone rich and happy. Laws of physics paint a very different picture.