A democratic hurricaneby Ian Buruma*

November 05, 2012, Monday/ 15:57:00

Nothing concentrates the mind like a full-blown crisis. Like millions of other people in New York City, I heard Hurricane Sandy rattling my windows and battering my doors. I was luckier than many. Rattling is all it did.

For many years, experts have been warning that such storms would overwhelm the city's antiquated urban infrastructure. Salt water came streaming into open subways. Damage to the power supply reduced a third of Manhattan to a pre-modern state of darkness. And that was just New York. In parts of New Jersey, many people fortunate enough still to have a house are cut off by rivers of raw sewage lapping at their doors.

No one can say with certainty that this particular storm was caused by global warming, but almost all experts agree that the effects of polar-ice melt and sea-level rise will make future storms worse. And yet neither candidate in the United States' presidential campaign bothered to mention the potentially catastrophic consequences of climate change.

In this sense, Hurricane Sandy was like gun violence. Throughout the campaign season -- and despite several highly publicized mass shootings in this period -- neither President Barack Obama nor his challenger, Mitt Romney, wished to discuss the problem of laws in many states that allow almost anyone to carry lethal weapons and spray death around at random.

The reason, of course, is that there are not enough votes to be gained in addressing these matters. Even if a majority of Americans agree that climate change is real, future disasters seem a long way off, or might happen somewhere else, so why worry about them now? Perhaps more should be done to protect New York, among many other places, against future flooding, but, as a former city official told an interviewer: “Until things happen, people aren't willing to pay for it.”

Does this point to a serious weakness in the democratic system? Most voters, after all, think about their immediate interests -- less taxation, more jobs, lower gasoline prices, and so on -- and not about planning for the future, which is, in any case, unpredictable. We want to feel good right now. And that is precisely the sentiment to which democratically elected politicians will cater. The future will take care of itself.

There is something to be said for this attitude. The kind of politics that imposes sacrifices for the sake of future utopias has caused immense human suffering in the service of a variety of impossible ideals. Better, then, to stick to the here and now.

Yet postponing, for the sake of immediate gratification, a certain degree of planning for the future collective good can be as disastrous as indulging in utopian schemes. Perhaps there are some non-utopian ways of transcending selfish interests and doing what is necessary. For example, in various countries, voters have been tempted to elect business tycoons: enough with politicians bickering over selfish interests -- let the can-do strongmen take charge and run countries like corporations.

Silvio Berlusconi was one such figure. Mitt Romney, in a milder, less flamboyant manner, has appealed to these sentiments as well: he knew how to run an investment company, so why not the US federal government?

In practice, however, such tycoon politicians have their own interests and gratifications to pursue. Berlusconi did indeed run Italy the way he runs his companies: like a private fiefdom, promoting cronies, intimidating critics, and paying people vast sums of money in exchange for their slavish devotion. And, two years after the earthquake in L'Aquila in 2009, which killed hundreds of people, nothing much had been done to reconstruct the city, despite an initial flurry of publicity stunts showing Berlusconi, posing in a fireman's hat, personally taking charge.

What about the more serious-minded technocrats who run the Leninist-capitalist People's Republic of China? The “Chinese model,” combining a capitalist economy with authoritarian government, has frequently been hailed as superior to the messy, dithering, compromising ways of liberal democracies. With no need to concern themselves about elections, China's leaders can afford to plan for the longer term and do what is necessary without being impeded by petty selfish interests or a carping press.

These arrangements have indeed made it possible for China to build entire cities in a matter of years, as well as high-speed railways, opera houses, stadiums, industrial parks, massive dams, and whatnot. Many people have been lifted out of poverty, and those with the right political connections have become enormously rich.

But the lack of transparency in this type of autocracy has also led to massive corruption and huge blunders, not to mention the growing signs of ecological ruin. Chinese critics of the government, or even those who simply wish to report mistakes or wrongdoing, are silenced with a heavy hand: beatings in police stations, draconian jail sentences, or even murder.

That is what happened to the parents who openly expressed their anger about the ill-constructed school buildings that collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, killing their children. The children died because corrupt local officials had allowed developers to enrich themselves by using inferior building materials.

Despite its flaws, a system in which elected officials are held publicly accountable and can be voted out of office is still preferable to rule by tycoons or technocrats. And, sometimes, radical changes are made, even in democracies, though a severe crisis often is required to mobilize voters behind a collective push for essential reform, as was true of the Great Depression in the 1930's, which led to Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.

Perhaps Hurricane Sandy will spur US citizens and politicians to take climate change seriously -- and to implement public policies aimed at protecting America's cities and coastlines. If so, we can only hope that this crisis will not have come too late.


*Ian Buruma is professor of democracy, human rights, and journalism at Bard College, and the author of “Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents.”

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