06. The Phoenix Syndrome: Natural Catastrophes in American History and Culture

The Phoenix Syndrome: Natural Catastrophes in American History and Culture

 

Christof Mauch

 

Since the colonial period Americans have seen themselves as the “chosen people” and their nation as the “promised land.” Given this background, preachers of the seventeenth century were already confronted with the challenge of explaining why a people that was led by the invisible hand of God should suffer under natural catastrophes. Indeed, nowhere in the world are the costs incurred by natural disasters so high as they are in the USA. There is no disaster, it seems, which does not occur somewhere in the country: on the West Coast it is earthquakes; in the South, droughts, in the West wildfires, in the Mid-West tornados, and in the South-East and on the East Coast tropical storms and hurricanes. All sweep across the continent with regularity and bring with them great destructive power. How can the ideology of progress and the belief in a special destiny be harmonized with the recurrent destruction by natural disasters? This paper will argue the theory that the horrors of past catastrophes are often quickly and systematically suppressed, while the chances for a new beginning are euphorically embraced instead.

 

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