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Belmont Club

De Plague, De Plague

January 10th, 2012 - 10:20 am

Annie Gowen of the Washington Post says that “the rat population around the two Occupy D.C. camps at McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza has ‘exploded’ since protesters began” according to  the director of the District’s Department of Health.  Gowen noted that city health inspectors had seen “rats running openly through both camps and spotted numerous new burrows and nests underneath hay-stuffed pallets occupiers are using for beds.”

It would be ironic, but not unusual, if something — in this case Occupy — which imagined itself a solution turned out to be the genesis of another problem.  As Michael Crichton described in his classic speech on complexity, Park Service attempts to manage Yellowstone Park for the good had created a new situation, but not the one they imagined.

It was his third visit. Roosevelt saw a thousand antelope, plentiful cougar, mountain sheep, deer, coyote, and many thousands of elk. He wrote, “Our people should see to it that this rich heritage is preserved for their children and their children’s children forever, with its majestic beauty all unmarred.”

But Yellowstone was not preserved. On the contrary, it was altered beyond repair in a matter of years. By 1934, the park service acknowledged that “white-tailed deer, cougar, lynx, wolf, and possibly wolverine and fisher are gone from the Yellowstone.”

What they didn’t say was that the park service was solely responsible for the disappearances. Park rangers had been shooting animals for decades, even though that was illegal under the Lacey Act of 1894. But they thought they knew better. They thought their environmental concerns trumped any mere law.

Nature never stands still, but man often wants to compel circumstances into some imagined ideal. For many people, the world consists of problems that need solutions; but as detective novelist Dorothy Sayers observed, the human tendency to view things in these terms has created endless difficulties.

What is obvious here is the firmly implanted notion that all human situations are “problems” like detective problems, capable of a single, necessary, and categorical solution, which must be wholly right, while all others are wholly wrong. But this they cannot be, since human situations are subject to the law of human nature, whose evil is at all times rooted in its good, and whose good can only redeem, but not abolish, its evil …

I do not say that it is impossible to view all human activity, even the activity of the artist, in terms of “problem and solution”. But I say that, however we use the words, they are wholly inadequate to the reality they are meant to express …

It is here that we begin to see how the careless use of the words “problem” and “solution” can betray us into habits of thought that are not merely inadequate but false. It leads us to consider all vital activities in terms of a particular kind of problem, namely the kind we associate with elementary mathematics and detective fiction. These latter are “problems” which really can be “solved” in a very strict and limited sense, and I think the words “problem” and “solution” should be reserved for these special cases. Applied indiscriminately, they are fast becoming a deadly danger.

The chief difficulty with regarding the world as a detective problem where a culprit only has to be tracked down in order to solve it, is it assumes things can be subjected to human will. That given enough power one can ‘fix’ things for good; a process which the President feels is well within his grasp. As he recently told an interviewer, his accomplishments in the first two years have already made him at least the fourth greatest President in American history.

The issue here is not gonna be a list of accomplishments. As you said yourself, Steve, you know, I would put our legislative and foreign policy accomplishments in our first two years against any president – with the possible exceptions of Johnson, FDR, and Lincoln – just in terms of what we’ve gotten done in modern history. But, you know, but when it comes to the economy, we’ve got a lot more work to do. And we’re gonna keep on at it.

So the world can be fixed. We can fixed. All President Obama needs is enough authority to do it. He said, “I refuse to take ‘No’ for an answer” as he asserted the power to make recess appointments even over the objections of Congress, which is Constitutionally charged to review them.

And why not? What is the value of what one pundit called ‘a hundred year old document that nobody understands’ when set against the need to solve a problem? It is nothing surely.

But President Obama may find, like the Park Service and like Occupy Wall Street before him, that things aren’t quite that simple and that every one of our ‘solutions’ simply gives birth to a new problem. What is worse, many of those new problems will come as a complete surprise and may be orders of magnitude greater than anticipated.  Faced with that eventuality, an Obama-like ‘solution’ will be as predictable as it will be futile: a demand for more power and still ever more power.

But the essential difficulty is the nature of the Obama-like control system itself. A linear, bureaucratic management system can never adequately ‘fix’ a complex and chaotic world. It wasn’t always like this. As Sayers pointed out, not everyone regarded the human condition as a problem that needed to be solved and fixed, like a thermostat superglued into a final setting. There was a time when men felt they were exploring an enormous riddle; moving through a beautiful and frightening place that was at once greater and more worthwhile than mere politician’s schemes; where the new was to be sought and not feared.

No man can die more than once; but great disasters, great pestilences, and above all great wars, cram our eyes and ears with the detested knowledge that life intends to kill us.

Because of that, we would not risk war, for right or justice, or even in the hope of preserving peace. We threw down our arms, crying, “No More War!”, and so delivered up Europe.

Yet we know perfectly well that the paradox “he that will lose his life shall save it” is a plain and practical fact. Unless we are willing to risk death by jumping from a burning house, we shall most certainly be burnt to death. Indeed, had not the will of our physical nature been ready to accept death, we could never have been born.

The “problem of death” is not susceptible of detective story solution. The only two things we can do with death are, first: to postpone it, which is only partial solution, and, secondly, to transfer the whole set of values connected with death to another sphere of action-that is, from time to eternity.

There is, in Sayer’s metaphysical observation, something of Crichton’s argument that complex systems are not susceptible to linear management. They are governed by a logic we can’t fully understand, at least as yet. Any attempts to subject them to a Five Year Plan will result in unexpected consequences. Therefore any wise governance should allow for other processes — other wills — to operate besides those of bureaucrats in the capital city.

One of the greatest advantages of America till now was its foundation of on the idea governance should be contingent; based upon the chaos of freedom and individual choice rather than upon the smooth workings and false calculation of a Chinese politburo-style plan. The Founding Fathers didn’t see the world as a problem. They perceived it as an opportunity.

If Occupy and President Obama are solutions, then what is the problem? Perhaps it is the notion that there is a privileged point of view; a correct perspective from which teaching moments can be delivered, from which answers can be handed down. In that world, in which some are more equal than others, there will be the rulers and the ruled.

But that would be a mistake if nature had other ideas.


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