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Commentary By Theodore Dalrymple

The Veneer of Civilization

Culture, Cities Race

The French socialist philosopher who was much ridiculed by Marx as a sentimental petit-bourgeois moralist, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, is now remembered mainly for his aphorism, so good that he repeated it many times, “Property is theft.” But in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the reverse of this celebrated but preposterous dictum has actually become true: Theft is property.

Pictures of the looting that followed the devastation in New Orleans have been flashed around the world. Everyone is, or at least pretends to be, shocked and horrified, as if the breakdown of law and order couldn’t happen here, wherever here happens to be. Smugness is, after all, one of the most pleasant of feelings; but for myself, I have very little doubt that it could, and would, happen where I live, in Britain, under the same or similar conditions. New Orleans shows us in the starkest possible way the reality of the thin blue line that protects us from barbarism and mob rule.

Of course, an unknown proportion of the looting must have arisen from genuine need and desperation. Who among us would not help himself to food and water if he and his family were hungry and thirsty, and there were no other source of such essentials to hand?

But the pictures that have been printed in the world’s newspapers are not those of people maddened by hunger and thirst, but those of people wading through water clutching boxes of goods that are clearly not for immediate consumption. There are pictures of people standing outside stores, apparently discussing what to take and how to transport it, and of men loading the trunks of cars with a dozen cartons of nonessentials. They are thinking ahead, to when the normal economy reestablishes itself, and the goods that they have stolen will have a monetary value once more.

Moreover, desperation for food and drink hardly explains why rescue helicopters should have been fired at, and a pediatric hospital attacked by a gang on the lookout for whatever it could find. The fact is - or perhaps I should more modestly say that it is likely - that the conditions brought about by Hurricane Katrina actually suit a ruthless element of society that wants to prolong them a little, to protect its unaccustomed power and freedom to extort. In conditions of anarchy, a crude and violent order, based upon brute force and psychopathic ruthlessness, soon establishes itself, which regards philanthropy not as a friend but as an enemy and a threat.

Is it enough just to sit back and sigh that human nature was ever thus, and that what has happened in New Orleans is exactly what any attentive reader of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies would have predicted? In that book, you might remember, a group of English schoolchildren, all from good and civilized homes, is cast ashore on an isolated tropical island without adult supervision. Before long, a kind of savage order exerts itself, with the most ruthless rising to positions of leadership. In other words, take external constraint away from even the most civilized (as the English still prided themselves on being in 1954, when the book was published), and savagery results because raw human nature decrees that it should.

Yet this is perhaps a little too easy and falsely comforting. After all, even in New Orleans, most of the people left in the city after the hurricane had devastated it were not looters, at least not of items carried off wholesale for future sale. The roaming gangs that so complicated the rescue effort, and that preyed on people more unfortunate than they, were a comparatively small proportion of the population. While it is true that all of us who were born with original sin (or whatever you want to call man’s fundamental natural flaws) are capable of savagery in the right circumstances, by no means all of us immediately lose our veneer of civilization in conditions of adversity, however great. A veneer may be thin, but this makes it more, not less, precious, and its upkeep more, not less, important.

Moreover, there is a very uncomfortable question that we have a duty to ask: Is the kind of behavior seen in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina inevitable after a natural disaster of such proportions? If it isn’t, what does this tell us about New Orleans, the United States, and any other place - such as, I believe, Britain - where the same conduct would have made itself evident?

The experience of foreign survivors of the tsunami that caused such fatal damage throughout coastal Southeast Asia, and that of those who survived the hurricane in New Orleans, have been very different, or at least very differently reported. I suspect that the difference in reported experience is real rather than a journalistic artifact.

The survivors of the tsunami reported their terror at the size and destructive force of the wave, of course, but in no instance that I recall did they mention having been robbed by other survivors, let along going in fear of armed gangs. And there were no reports after the recent floods in Bombay, which produced destruction of homes and caused death on a scale not so very different from the hurricane in New Orleans, of looting or other forms of public disorder.

It goes without saying that the population of Bombay is very much poorer than that of New Orleans, incomparably so, in fact. Raw poverty, therefore, cannot explain the disorder in New Orleans and its absence in Bombay. Nor can comparative poverty, that last resort of the liberal who is eager to find an economic explanation of human frailty and wickedness, and who is aware that raw poverty per se will not do the trick. But the gulf between the rich and the poor in Bombay is, if anything, greater than the gulf between them in New Orleans, probably much greater. The ostentatious opulence of the rich in India exceeds that of the rich in America, while anyone who has walked through a Bombay slum will know that nothing remotely comparable exists, or indeed has ever existed, in America. So relative poverty does not explain the disorder in New Orleans, either.

How, then, are we to explain it? What is the underlying social pathology that accounts for it?

Most of the looters look bitter, angry, resentful, and vengeful as they go about what British burglars are inclined (in all seriousness) to call their “work.” The gangs are reported to have used racial taunts during their depredations. In all probability, the looters believe that, in removing as much as they can from stores, they are not so much stealing as performing acts of restitution or compensatory justice for wrongs received. They are not wronging the owners of the stores; on the contrary, the owners of the stores have wronged them over the years by restricting their access to the goods they covet and to which they believe they have a right. The hurricane has thus given them the opportunity to take justice into their own hands and settle old scores.

If this surmise is right, it is a terrible indictment of all the efforts undertaken in recent years by government welfare programs and institutions that practice affirmative action, such as universities, to ameliorate the condition of underclass blacks. It implies that the nihilistic alienation of the looters and gang members is as great as that to be found in Soweto at the height of the apartheid regime. Far from ameliorating the situation, then, the billions spent on welfare programs, and the intellectual ingenuity expended on justifying the unjustifiable in the form of affirmative action, have resulted in a hatred that is bitter and widespread enough among those condescended to in this manner to result in the scenes for which New Orleans will now long be remembered.

If Hurricane Katrina had struck New Orleans in 1950, when the black population could justly have complained of severe oppression and injustice, would we have witnessed what we have witnessed there in recent days? I cannot prove it, but I think the answer is no. And if this is the case, then we must ask ourselves what has lit the fire in the minds of men that they are prepared to shoot at their neighbors’ saviors.