07 September 2005

Gnostic governance and the New Orleans tragedy

Überblogger Joe Carter cites my discussion of idolatry and gnosticism in Political Visions and Illusions to support his warning against finger-pointing in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. To be sure, one needs to be exceedingly careful in assessing responsibility for what looks likely to be a loss of lives numbering in the thousands. Some are already blaming the US federal government, and, at least in part, this may indeed be motivated by a "gnostic deification of governance," although this is not an expression I myself would use.

It is true, of course, that we do not have it within our power to ensure absolute security against natural or human-made disasters. We will never ultimately succeed in ending violence against women, smoking, shoplifting, volcanoes, earthquakes, the common cold, or a host of other evils that might beset us. Yet when efforts to address a tragedy everyone knew would come sooner or later are so spectacularly mishandled, it is only natural that people in general, and especially those most immediately affected, should ask why. Is it reasonable to expect some co-ordinative rescue effort from our governments (note the plural form here), even if we recognize that they cannot by themselves altogether prevent or resolve such a tragedy? Is this part of their task of doing public justice? I think so, yes. Contrast the efforts of New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and the city's fire and police departments four years ago to the catastrophic ineffectiveness of the municipal government of New Orleans. Lives were lost in both cities, but the crisis was handled more skilfully by the former than by the latter.

My own sense of the matter is that contingency planning for such an eventuality should have been spearheaded by the state of Louisiana, with the co-operation of the other affected governments. Because local government in the United States is such a fractious affair, the state government is simply in a better position to co-ordinate an emergency response for a disaster crossing municipal boundaries. As for the federal government in Washington, DC, it certainly has an interest in ensuring that a seaport crucial to the inflow of the nation's energy resources remain open and functioning, and that, if this should become impossible, alternatives be put in place. Yet in my view Washington should probably be limited to a supportive role. None of this is a matter of seeking salvation in an ultimate sense. It's simply a matter of good planning, which in this case seems not to have been undertaken.

By the way, Carter's quotation of my description of gnosticism is not precisely my own view of this phenomenon; it's my account of Eric Voegelin's description of gnosticism. I think there's much to be said for Voegelin's view, but it's too heavily coloured by his platonic predispositions to be an entirely useful guide to an ancient heresy. In fact, as I indicate in my book (pp. 29-31), due to this platonic influence, even Voegelin has not entirely succeeded in eluding the grasp of gnosticism.

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can be contacted at: dtkoyzis@gmail.com