- Siding being ripped off buildings.
- Scientists complaining that the whole thing was “a perfect storm of hype.”
- Rising casualty reports.
- Skeptical headlines linking video of passersby dancing and grinning during news reports.
I had to go to Facebook to figure it out. My friends on the East Coast were describing life without power, thanking God they were safe, and counting the downed limbs in their yards.
A major storm had hit the East Coast; thankfully it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. So why did so many people want Hurricane Irene either to be the storm of the century or the gaffe of the century? I think three modern tendencies account for it.
1. The hunger for drama. In 2011 we can celebrate 20 years since the Gulf War first made 24/7 news a major force and 15 years since Monica Lewinsky made the Drudge Report a must-read. It seems the public’s appetite for sensationalism has grown with each new media journalists add to their toolkit. Now, our media has a “sensationalize or perish” mentality that makes an L.A. traffic story become “carmageddon” Casey Anthony’s day in court “the trial of the century” and a creeper Congressman’s perv pictures “Weinergate.”
Irene couldn’t just be a bad storm: She had to deliver either epic destruction or epic hype.
2. Ideological Worldview. Other cultures have used economic class, trade, or religion as the prism through which they saw the world. We use political power. That means that when disasters strike, it is important to Republicans that Obama “heard about the earthquake on the golf course,” and to Democrats that he “took charge at the hurricane command center.”
Thus, Irene had to mean something politically: She either had to be Obama’s Katrina or his desperate attempt to divert attention from the economy.
3. The culture of deconstructionism. Turbo-charging all of this is the absurd place we have reached in the culture of relativism: A place where reality is beside the point. “At the heart of liberty,” the Supreme Court famously decided in Planned Parenthood v Casey, “is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
Irene had to mean something. And we each got to supply the meaning.
I think all of this is why the phrase “It is what it is” has become so popular. It is a wholly unnecessary phrase, the definition of tautology. But it is absolutely necessary in our day, because we need an extra step to reference reality. We use it to call us to our senses amid the expectations, misconceptions and misunderstandings muddling our minds. A project that wasn’t done on time is just a screw-up, not something personal; the football game that ended badly was simply a series of bad plays, not a sign of incompetence; the relationship which is workable but not wonderful is just the way things are: It is what it is.
And St. Thomas Aquinas would approve, says G.K. Chesterton.
“The philosophy of St. Thomas stands founded on the universal common conviction that eggs are eggs,” he wrote. “Eggs are not hens or dreams or mere practical assumptions; but things attested by the Authority of the Senses, which is from God.”
No, Irene was not an epic unprecedented storm. But when a storm kills people and leaves millions without power, calling it “The Perfect Storm of Hype” comes across as lacking both information and tact.
Irene was what it was. Let us pray for those who lost loved ones and be grateful the damage wasn’t worse.
Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., where he teaches in the Journalism and Mass Communications department and edits the college’s Catholic identity speech digest, The Gregorian.