Natural disasters are awful in every way. They upend cities, disrupt people’s livelihoods, and often take life in senseless ways. These disasters, or “acts of God,” as insurance adjusters and transactional lawyers call them, also reveal us at our most weak, stripped bare of all possessions before the world.
I also think these events reveal something else: the essential need for the human community—a commodity more extraordinary than anything created in our technological era.
I live near Nashville, Tennesse, and many of the communities nearby were brutally savaged by a monster supercell thunderstorm that dropped, at one point, an EF-3 tornado, with winds topping out at 165 mph, that tore a path over 50 miles long. They tell us that a second tornado, an EF-4 with winds hitting 175 mph, is responsible for the destruction in Putnam County — though it’s hard to see them as separate events.
Fortunately, my family and I were spared. Others were less fortunate. In the process, I’ve watched Nashville and the Middle Tennessee area (not “central Tennessee,” as the national outlets wrongly report) come together. It’s the Tennessee spirit. We are called the Volunteer State for a reason, harkening back to the vast army of volunteers we sent to help free Texas during the Mexican-American war.
Thomas Hobbes, the dour and pessimistic English philosopher, famously observed that if you removed all forms of civil society from man, and reduced him to a “state of nature,” that his life would be “‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” One of the primary objects of the modern philosophers of Hobbes’ time was reducing a person down to a “state of nature.” They intended to reveal what lurked in human nature, and what other behaviors expressed themselves as a result of civil society instilling it.
What philosophers like Hobbes saw as a rhetorical device to explore the depths of human nature and our relationship to political society, Marx and his communist followers saw as an opportunity. If you rebuilt community, entirely from the ground up, reducing every part of that culture to the state of nature, and replaced it with an all-new project, you could achieve a communist utopia. Commenting on this in his book exploring community, Robert Nisbett said:
Marxism, like all other totalitarian movements in our century, must be seen as kind of secular pattern of redemption, designed to bring hope and fulfillment to those who have come to feel alienated, frustrated, and excluded from what they regard as their rightful place in a community. In its promise of unity and belonging lies much of the magic of totalitarian mistery, miracle, and authority. Bertrand Russell has not exaggerated in summing up the present significance of Marxism somewhat as follows: dialectical materialism is God; Marx the Messiah; Lenin and Stalin the apostles; the proletariat the elect; the Communist party the Church; Moscow the seat of Church; the Revolution the second coming; the punishment of capitalismo hell; Trotsky the devil; and the communist commonwealth kingdom come.
While Marx derided religion as the “opiate of the masses,” all he did was build a faith unto himself. And in the process, that Marxist theology-as-the-state destroyed any form of individuality, replacing it with standard-issue communist creations.
Hobbes saw brutality without civil society, and Marx saw an opportunity. Watching the aftermath of a tornado, when all forms of civil society break down, I see a real community shine in its place. We, humans, are social beings, and when our civic structure starts crumbling, our desire and need for social connection reappear.
When people lost their homes in the extreme tornado event, shelters immediately opened. Companies like Airbnb stepped in and offered free temporary housing for anyone affected by the storm. In the few hours after requests went out for volunteers and donations, $2.1 million was raised immediately, not including countless other fundraisers, and 10,000 people jumped up to help cleanup efforts in Nashville alone.
In short, when Nashville’s civil society experienced a massive disruption in essential services, neighbors and communities stood in the gap. When people needed a hot meal, you saw everything from restaurants offering up free lunches to churches opening their doors to people just cooking on the side of the street. It was the very essence of community emerging without government help.
Avi Woolf wrote a piece at The Dispatch, arguing that true conservatism means focusing on ways to boost community; his article was titled “Think Local. Act Local.” I think this is exactly right. Conservatism has long understood that the importance of keeping government small was so that communities could flourish. Charles Krauthammer said, “The greatest threat to a robust, autonomous civil society is the ever-growing Leviathan state…”
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is arguing that what we really need is a government takeover of many different industries. Leviathan is the only thing that saves us. But history has taught us this is a fools’ errand for socialists; they always end up destroying the things they claim to protect. The same must be said of community. As I watch a community band together, despite having been stripped down to its bare essence, the spark of communitarianism is more precious than any government service.
Sure, we need certain government services, and it’s why we pay taxes. But we need our community more. Part of being a conservative is recognizing and conserving that part of our culture.