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September 14, 2005

At the Eye of the Hurricane


      On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina brought to light the problems in America like no other "incident of national significance" could. It pulled off the scab of ignorance and re-opened deep wounds in our nation's history. With Katrina, the usually invisible people all of a sudden became visible in all their suffering. The faces of children of color appeared not on infomercials for Christian charities in developing countries, but on American soil. The poor, the old, the infirm, the kids and the low-wage workers with no cars, TVs or credit cards, all showed up on America's doorsteps and stayed. The effects of Katrina will be long lasting, and have the power to transform the political landscape of America.

      Largely the media has provided expansive coverage of what Bush labeled an "incident of national significance" three days before Katrina struck. For the most part, they did not stand aside and let Bush get away with such criminal incompetence. Yet it continues to call the victims who lost their homes to floods "refugees" as if they are not American citizens. True, they have been treated like refugees without any regard for their well-being. . This only direct ours attention to the overriding issue, illustrated by statistics from a New York Times story on racial disparity in New Orleans: 35 percent of the city's black residents—almost 110,000 people—lived in poverty, according to the 2000 census. More than half of the impoverished black households in that city did not have an automobile—and thus had little hope of escape from Katrina. .Much of the national media attention has focused on the destruction, the looting, and the inadequate response on the government's part.

      In 1927, floods ravaged the Mississippi River valley and delta, causing a tremendous amount of destruction and loss of life. Similarly to Katrina, the victims of this natural disaster were largely poor and black. The federal government at the time did nothing in response until the American people demanded something be done. Action was taken to rebuild and construct water management systems. Federal money would pour into the area as guided by then secretary of commerce Herbert Hoover, who would oversee the response. This great flood paved the way for a stronger federal government able to provide needed services to its people. The New Deal programs under FDR led to the increased commitment of the government to its people's welfare and an even greater commitment to ending poverty and discrimination through the "Great Society" as professed by LBJ. This philosophy of "big government" was at its peak under the Nixon administration, rapid cuts in spending resulted through Carter and Reagan, until Clinton slowed these cuts. The Bush administration has followed through with trickle down economics such that even as Katrina's wrath continued and the deficits surged, they were asking Congress to end the estate tax on the wealthiest Americans.

      It is this political philosophy that must be condemned in wake of Katrina, a philosophy of small government as professed by noted conservative, Grover Norquist, who spoke eloquently about the possibility of reducing the government to a size that he could DROWN in his bathroom! We see the consequence of this "philosophy" in the drowning of the City that gave America and the world one of its most endearing spiritual resource in the Blues. The Blues carries a message of hope, community, and faith, that is a positive force that has carried people through much suffering as they come together to celebrate life. Blues allows the listener to be filled with empathy for the musician's story.

      As opposed to this vision, the conservative philosophy relies on individual responsibility rather than on empathy and the governmental responsibility to its citizens. This lack of empathy and responsibility accounts for Bush's indifference and the government's delay in response, as well as the failure to plan for the security of the most vulnerable: the poor, the infirm, the aged, the children. This callous philosophy accounts for the demotion of FEMA from cabinet rank, for Michael Brown's view that FEMA was a federal entitlement program to be cut, for the budget cuts in the levee repair, for the placing of more responsibility on state and local government than they could handle, for the failure to fully employ the military, and for the existence of toxic waste dumps contributing to a "toxic stew."

      This was not just incompetence (though there was plenty of it), not just a natural disaster (though nature played its part), not just Bush (though he is accountable). This is a failure of moral and political philosophy—a deadly failure. That is the deep truth behind this human tragedy, humanly caused.

      What one can hope to learn from this tragedy is that the federal government must play a larger role in the protection of all its citizens. The poor are back in the spotlight after a quarter century of neglect. Nearly 35% of New Orleans residents were considered impoverished and lived in terrible slums. Yet it is despicable to hear comments made such as that by Congressman Baker R-LA that while man could not destroy the housing projects, God did. New Orleans was also home to some of the worst kinds of environmental injustices in the country with oil refineries located in densely populated neighborhoods as was notorious "cancer alley."

      While Kanye West gained widespread attention for stating clearly on national prime time television that "George Bush does not care about black people," it would have been better had he said he does not care about poor people. It would have been less divisive and less controversial but the fact remains that blacks are disproportionately below the poverty line. The Republican Party has abandoned citizens who aren't affluent. Its policies have long done so in spirit, and the gap between the haves and the have-nots has grown accordingly. Now Bush has hammered the reality home in fact. Although race, per se, played no role in the Bushies' decision-making process, it's clear that the only thing worse than being poor is being poor and black.

      A new focus on the nation's poor will likely reframe the debate away from adventures in Iraq, a failed social security plan, and the other divisive issues this administration has been pushing. This will hopefully bring in a new strain of economic populism which the Democrats can speak to.

      Thanks to the forces unleashed and exposed by a hurricane's fury—a inundation of bipartisan criticism, a newly emboldened media, and the ugly truth about race and class in this country—Bush will finally have to pay the overdue bill for a legacy of failed policies and costly mistakes. His legacy is a dismal one. We can only hope that his opponents in Washington will capitalize on his now-naked position by stopping him from doing any more damage.

Front Page (September 14, 2005)

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