You Need the Civil Society

The American Spectator

When Disaster hits, the lessons we ought to know as a civilization come home with a vengeance.

Baton Rouge

Tuesday, President Barack Obama landed in Baton Rouge to tour the devastation of the historic flood in South Louisiana. In his remarks to the media during his visit, the president noted, after saluting the various local, state and federal muckety-mucks with him on the riser, the extraordinary efforts of ordinary people in response to the floodwaters.

What Obama was talking about were the exploits of the “Cajun Navy,” as it’s been nicknamed; that’s nothing more than a large, unorganized collection of small boat owners who raced into the affected areas to conduct house-to-house rescues of people whose homes were inundated. He was also talking about the tens of thousands of people in South Louisiana and elsewhere who took up collections of food, clothing, supplies, and money to aid those affected by the waters. And he was also talking about the churches and businesses — the oft-mentioned story of Celtic Media being a prime example — which opened their doors as shelters for flood refugees without any place else to go.

Taken as a whole, yes — those efforts are extraordinary. But as my friend Dustin Clouatre, who as an unofficial, unrecruited and unsupervised “member” of the Cajun Navy who took his bass boat to flooded areas and rescued nearly 150 people from those murky, pungent waters, said to an interviewer from New Orleans’ WWL-TV Tuesday, “It’s just people helping people.”

Meaning on an individual basis there is nothing extraordinary at all to what the Cajun Navy, or Celtic Media, or the churches, or the volunteers, did in rendering aid to those who needed it. Those were ordinary people of goodwill doing what ordinary people of goodwill do.

But the result is what’s extraordinary.

Three times the rainfall doused South Louisiana during that flood event as fell during Katrina. And while the flooding isn’t the same — flooding from heavy rains will ruin your day, but flooding from a storm surge is more likely to knock your house off its foundation and high winds from a hurricane can blow it apart, and the latter two weren’t present this time — the number of homes affected easily rivals that of Katrina. The Baton Rouge Area Chamber’s most recent estimate of flood damage just in the area of the capital city is that some 42 percent of the region’s homes were affected, or as many as 145,000 homes. Given that number, and given the floodwaters were as high as five or six feet, and given that this was not a named storm complete with evacuation notices and the usual preparations in advance of a hurricane brewing offshore, you would expect casualty figures not dissimilar to the 1,800 or so people who died during Katrina.

The actual death toll from the current floods was 13, as of this writing. It might go higher, but not greatly so by current appearances.

Every death is a tragedy, let’s not forget that obvious fact. But in an event like this with as little warning as was available here, before the floodwaters began to recede a week ago there was speculation of hundreds of fatalities. To only lose 13 souls thus far is something just short of a miracle.

And it’s a miracle pulled off by those ordinary people of goodwill doing things which, at the end of the day, were not all that extraordinary. If it weren’t for the Cajun Navy pulling people off their rooftops and balconies, if those people had to wait for the Coast Guard, the cops, the game wardens or the National Guard, that death toll would have been a lot higher. As it was in Katrina.

That’s not a slur against those government agencies, mind you. It’s the dependence on the government as the sole provider of aid to those who need it which produces the bad effect. As we saw during Katrina.

There’s a term for what all those volunteers have been up to here. That term is “civil society.” It describes the sum of positive human interactions arising from free people using their abilities to cooperate with one another in enlightened self-interest. Nobody had to pay these people to help their neighbors; a lot of people are taking time out of their lives to help friends, neighbors, and even strangers pull sheetrock and flooring from flooded houses (and that is not a fun job, believe me) without demanding a paycheck. We’re doing it because we want to live in the kind of community where people help each other without being forced to, and this is how that’s done.

Conservatism has been given a bad name over the years, seemingly from all sides, but one reason conservatism is the most honorable political philosophy of them all is that at its heart conservatism celebrates the civil society. It is conservatives who recognize people helping people is always the best solution. It’s conservatives who try to defend the voluntary associations, the “little platoons” in Edmund Burke’s phrasing, which make up the framework of so many of those good deeds. It’s conservatives who tout the church, the bowling league, the Kiwanis Club, the Garden Club and even the labor union local where people find fellowship and the structure, even the incentive, to be better citizens.

It takes good citizens to make a good society. It takes a healthy civil society to produce those good citizens.

We’ve seen that in South Louisiana. Even Obama, whose presidency has been an all-out assault on voluntary associations, has had to recognize it.

The problem is, as I noted at my site earlier Tuesday in referencing Rod Dreher’s outstanding writing on the subject in a couple of posts at the American Conservative, the success of the assault on civil society in the Obama era.

Those voluntary associations don’t seem to have much defense against the grievance industry, and sochurches more than happy to feed gay flood victims are nevertheless targeted as the enemy for being resistant to hosting gay weddings.

The Baton Rouge Police Department, which was serving jambalaya to black flood victims amid the waters, was only a few weeks earlier targeted for murder by a black nationalist who spouted Black Lives Matter rhetoric on his YouTube page and has been labeled racist for having made mass arrests of Deray Mckesson and other social justice tourists who thought they’d block an interstate highway. It ought to be no surprise that Black Lives Matter is nowhere to be found amid the floodwaters. Sure, a police department is a government institution. Few people embody the spirit of the civil society more than cops interacting voluntarily with ordinary folks — like when those cops cook for folks who have lost everything.

You’d better fight for the civil society against the social justice warriors targeting it nonstop, and you’d better make sure to save the role it plays in our everyday lives.

Because not only will DeRay Mckesson and the Human Rights Campaign not be around in a bass boat to rescue you from the flood — they won’t be around to do the heavy lifting a civilization needs day to day, either.

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