The Katrina anniversary; Who's for free speech?

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The Katrina anniversary

I'm not proud of my blogging during and just after Hurricane Katrina last year. So I'll start by linking to bloggers who did then and are doing now a much better job. Here is the retrospective by Brendan Loy, the Notre Dame law student and weather buff who did such a splendid job on Katrina last year. One chilling point: Katrina could have devastated New Orleans much more horribly than it did but for the fact that against likelihood it diminished in strength and headed eastward, to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, in its last hours over the Gulf of Mexico:

There are two reasons New Orleans was not destroyed (but merely devastated), two reasons this was not an apocalyptic lost-city-of-Atlantis scenario (but merely a really bad flood). Those reasons are: 1) a last-minute northward turn, and 2) a last-minute sudden weakening the likes of which I have rarely seen before. (Yes, several recent hurricanes have weakened as they approached the Gulf coast, but this one really weakened FAST, particularly the left-hand side of the eyewall. And look at all the damage it still did!!) I watched both things happen in the wee hours of this morning, and believe me, neither of them were pre-ordained to happen. Both of them happened in the final 6-9 hours before landfall, and if either one of them had not happened, we'd be looking at a very different situation right now. We wouldn't be rescuing people from their rooftops because the rooftops would be submerged, along with the rest of the city up to 20-30 feet. This is not a hypothetical scenario. IT ALMOST HAPPENED.

"Because the rooftops would be submerged." We Americans tend to assume we can tame nature. But it's still a very powerful and dangerous force. We should have been reminded of that the other day when the space shuttle launch had to be delayed because lightning hit the launching pad in Florida. Lightning: We can get to the moon, but we're still vulnerable to lightning.

Brendan Loy links to two other posts, which I'll highlight here:

  • One is from retired Newsday reporter Lou Dolinar on what really happened during Katrina. Turns out there was a lot more rescue work going on than we thought at the time. The Coast Guard deployed its boats and helicopters and rescued many thousands; so did the Louisiana Fish and Wildlife Department; so did the Louisiana National Guard.

    Why didn't we learn more about this at the time? Because there wasn't room in their boats and helicopters for reporters and camera crews. Mayor Ray Nagin's estimate that there would be 10,000 dead was not crazy; there would have been that many or many more but for the personnel of these agencies.

  • The other is from Paul at Wizbang, in which he cites video footage shot by New Orleans Fire Department personnel (who did a lot of good rescue work too) and argues that the levee walls constructed and/or approved by the Army Corps of Engineers failed-and that they were so weak they could have failed in far less dire circumstances than Katrina. In which case there would have been no evacuation and therefore far more deaths. Here's part of his indictment:

    The reason the Corps finally had to admit responsibility was that the floodwall that failed --flooding 70% of the city-basically collapsed under its own weight. It was undeniable. The Corps tried for months to claim the water came over the top of the floodwall and washed it away from the backside. (Which would make it Congress's fault) Everyone who has seen the break or looked at the surge data knew this was a lie; that the wall suffered a catastrophic failure before the water reached the top. Almost a year later, the Corps admitted that the floodwall suffered from multiple fatal design flaws and failed prematurely.

    Paul's account includes links to the videos.

    If Paul's account is right, it says terrible things about the institutional culture of the Army Corps-and of its congressional overseers. We assume a certain level of competence and honor in such institutions. If Paul is right, Katrina showed that this assumption was misplaced in the case of the Army Corps-with devastating results. Very disturbing.

    Who's for free speech?

    Increasingly, it's not the left of the political spectrum. Leftist university presidents write speech codes and persecute students for political incorrectness; a good place to keep track of this is the website of the invaluable F.I.R.E. (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education). Liberal politicians, and some conservatives too, enact laws that restrict political speech. One of their critics is Democratic campaign finance lawyer Bob Bauer. I've interviewed Bauer in the past and have found him to be honest, candid, and thoughtful. In this post, he begins by citing an article in the New Republic by Ian Buruma, then examines the situation more broadly. He notes that there are proposals to ban candidates from criticizing in ads their opponents' character-which is one of the things they should actually be talking about. Here's his conclusion:

    Progressives have associated too much with speech restrictions imposed by elites in the declared interest of the people. They have given away a fair amount of populist ground. In doing so, they have aligned themselves with organized interests that will never want for influence-that speak in approved ways, through establishment channels.

    I think Bauer is old enough, as I am, to remember the days when most of the principled advocates of free speech and opponents of restriction on free speech were found in the left half of the political spectrum. This was true in this country for most of the 20th century. In large part this was because it was in the interest of labor unions to champion free speech; they portrayed picketing and strikes as exercises of free speech and opposed judicial limitations on such activity (resulting in the Norris-LaGuardia Act of 1932, signed by Herbert Hoover).

    But it wasn't just self-interest. Some union leaders and many liberal politicians were genuine and idealistic advocates of free speech. Of course some on the political right were, too, notably Col. Robert McCormick, proprietor of the Chicago Tribune, in his time the highest-circulation broadsheet newspaper in the nation; Richard Norton Smith's biography is the invaluable source for his life and times.

    Today's political left seems wholly unaware of, if not contemptuous of, the work of their political forebears in defending and advancing freedom of speech. They're all too ready to restrict freedom of speech in the pursuit of other goals that are far from universally held-to restrict negative campaigning (as Bob Bauer illustrates) or to prevent university administrators from being criticized for employing racial quotas and preferences. For shame.