Last weekend American politics reached a bizarre point: in order to justify their existence, government leaders decided to do something about what human beings have always agreed you can't do anything about: the weather. So we had their frenetic reactions to Hurricane Irene.
U.S. politicians have spent 30 years saying government is the enemy, Washington is broken, get them off the backs of the people. It had to eventually raise doubts about the whole enterprise; why not ditch public life entirely? They backed themselves into a corner. They needed an out. Hence Irene and the calls for evacuation, transit shutdowns, etc. When the hurricane looked like it might underperform you could see them trying to talk up the danger, as if offering it encouragement as it lost force. They finally seemed to be doing something.
It's true President Obama and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg flubbed some recent weather challenges and might have wanted to take the makeup test. But what about New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, among the brightest and rightest leaders, who told people to get the hell off the Jersey shore? He said government's main job is saving human life, putting himself on the spot. He wasn't going to call for a pullout from Afghanistan, where U.S. forces had just taken their worst fatalities yet. He had to back it up somehow.
I grant there was hypocrisy. They didn't take on weather in the form of global warming, which would have meant conflict with the oil industry and junk science lobby. They took on a hurricane. It seemed more manly. And it happened that most damage was done by power outages and failure to restore them, due to deterioration in public infrastructure. No one talked about that. I heard from a friend in D.C. just as his power went. He said it might last days, unlike Pune, in India, where he also has a home. They fix it quickly there, he said. "First World conditions" has now clearly become a negative.
But I think there was also something sincere in their will to roll up their sleeves (literally, it's the common trope) and act. No one wants to be a total fake in their public role and self-image. If you spend your life as a leader, it must be nice to occasionally try some leading, rather than denouncing action or tearing down what others have built.
And let me say something nice concerning weather. Weather obsesses people not just because it affects them, but because it also adds a certain majesty to their lives. It frames private experience in a larger context. It offers us an element of transcendence, you could say. You feel this when you sit on the dock at the end of a summer and watch a storm form, as I did on the night Irene was approaching New York. In the city you feel these moments less frequently and so people look for other things to inject extended meanings into their lives. That may involve historic moments like next week's commemoration of 9/11, or elections, or even an iconic concert tour. Don't knock it, it comes from a need for something larger.
If Canadians felt less engrossed than Americans in Irene last weekend, I think it's because we had our own transcendent event: Jack Layton's funeral. People have asked if it was overdone, if "they" made it more than it was, and I think the answer is Yes. For some it was personally meaningful but for others it was one more Event with a little grandeur to it. Stephen Lewis said, "Never... have we seen such an outpouring," but I disagree. It happened when Trudeau died, when Diana died, even when Barbara Frum died.
In earlier times such outpourings clustered reliably around seasonal agricultural festivals and related religious ceremonies like sacrifice and prayer. We live in another context so we find other pretexts. When I began writing this column, I didn't mean to say anything kind about the Weather Channel and, believe me, it irks. But there you go, even TV and cheap politics can't totally diminish the power of nature.
This column was first published in the Toronto Star.
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