Bill Totten's Weblog

Friday, November 11, 2005

Slum clearance

by Lewis H Lapham

Harper's Magazine (November 2005)

The comfort of the rich rests upon an abundance of the poor. (Voltaire)

On Monday, August 29, a category 4 hurricane slammed into New Orleans with winds reaching 140 miles an hour, and by Thursday, September 1, the city looked just about the way a doomed city is supposed to look according to the Book of Revelation. Which, given the faith-based political theory currently in office in Washington, should have surprised nobody. For the last thirty years the scribes and Pharisees allied with the several congregations of both the radical and the reactionary right have been preaching the lesson that government is a sink of iniquity - by definition inefficient, unjust, wasteful, and corrupt, a mess of lies deserving neither the trust nor the affection of true Americans. True Americans place their faith in individual initiative, moral virtue, and personal responsibility, knowing in their hearts that government is the enemy of the people, likely to do more harm than good.

So it proved in New Orleans during the first week of September. At every level of officialdom - city, parish, state, and federal - the tribunes of the people met the standard of bureaucratic futility and criminal negligence imputed to them by two generations of Republican publicists, and within the few days before, during, and after the hurricane's arrival, they managed to facilitate the loss of life, liberty, and property for several hundred thousand of their fellow citizens. The devastation fell somewhat short of the biblical prophecy - no blood in the sea, the floodwaters unsmitten with the bloom of Wormwood, no angels overhead armed with the trumpets of Woe; even so, despite the absence of giant locusts wearing breastplates of iron, about as satisfactory a result as could be hoped for from a government public-works program - the storm warnings ignored or discredited, the levees in a reliably shoddy state of repair, one million people left homeless in the mostly uninsured wreckage scattered across 90,000 square miles in four states, dead animals drifting in the New Orleans sewage and rotting on the beaches of Biloxi, the sick and elderly dying of thirst in the stench and heat of the Superdome, poisonous snakes making the rounds of hospital emergency rooms, rats gnawing at the corpses of the drowned.

Even more impressive than the scale of the calamity was the laissez-faire response of the government officials who understood that it was not their place to question, much less attempt to interfere with, an act of God. When confronted with scenes of anguish that might have tempted overly emotional public servants to ill-considered activisms, the Department of Homeland Security held fast to the policy of principled restraint. Spendthrift liberals rush to help people who refuse to help themselves; prudent conservatives know that such efforts smack of socialism. The residents of New Orleans had been told to evacuate the city before the hurricane came ashore, and if they didn't do so, well, whose fault was that? Government cannot be held responsible for the behavior of people who don't follow instructions, aren't mature enough to carry an American Express card or drive an SUV.

Every now and then, of course, government must show concern for the country's less fortunate citizens - the gesture is deemed polite in societies nominally democratic - and two days after the flooding submerged most of New Orleans under as much as fifteen feet of foul and stagnant water, President George W Bush graciously cut short his Texas vacation to gaze upon the ruined city from the height of 2,500 feet. Air Force One remained overhead for thirty-five whole minutes, which was long enough to impress upon the President the comparison to a big-budget Hollywood disaster movie. To the White House aides-de-camp aboard the plane he was reported to have said, "It's devastating, it's got to be doubly devastating on the ground". A sensitive observation, indicating that he had noticed something seriously amiss - small houses floating in the water, big boats moored in trees. A president crippled by too active an imagination might have made the mistake of wanting to see for himself the devastation on the ground, possibly even going so far as to say a few words to the evacuees in the Superdome. But the newscasts were loud with rumors of armed gangs of unattractive black people looting convenience stores and raping infant girls, and if one or more of the mobs happened to incite a riot, the liberal news media would publish unpleasant photographs and draw unpatriotic conclusions. Better to wait until the army had set up a secure perimeter.

By Friday, September 2, four days after the hurricane made landfall, enough military units were in place to allow the President to upgrade the demonstration of his concern with the staging of resolute drop-bys in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. But if it was clear from his manner that he wished to convey sympathy and offer encouragement, it was also clear that he was at a loss to relate the words in the air to the "doubly devastating" death and destruction on the ground. Standing tall in shirtsleeves in front of the cameras in Mobile, he acknowledged the misfortune that had befallen his good friend Senator Trent Lott (R, Mississippi): "The good news is, and it's hard for some to see it now - that out of this chaos is going to come a fantastic Gulf Coast, like it was before. Out of the rubbles of Trent Lott's house - he's lost his entire house - there's going to be a fantastic house, and I'm looking forward to sitting on the porch." Later that same day, departing from the airport in New Orleans, the President hit the note of solemnly conservative compassion appropriate to an HBO production of the decline and fall of Rome: "You know, I'm going to fly out of here in a minute, but I want you to know that I'm not going to forget what I've seen".

Most of the other government spokespersons within range of a microphone during the first week in September might as well have been relaying their remarks by satellite from a map room in Bermuda. By Thursday, September 1, reports from the scene at the New Orleans Convention Center had been repeatedly broadcast on every network in the country - several thousand people without food or water, all of them desperate, quite a few of them dying. The news hadn't reached Michael Chertoff, director of the Department of Homeland Security in Washington, who had waited a judicious thirty-six hours after the storm's arrival before declaring it "an incident of national significance". To an interviewer from National Public Radio, Chertoff said, "I've not heard a report of thousands of people in the Convention Center who don't have food and water". The people in question presumably hadn't filled out the necessary forms. Nor had they informed Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who also hadn't heard of any trouble at the Convention Center and who told Wolf Blitzer on September 1, "Considering the dire circumstances that we have in New Orleans, virtually a city that has been destroyed, things are going relatively well". Which was the preferred tone of voice throughout the rest ofthe week on the part of the Washington gentry doing their best to take an interest in people they neither knew nor wished to know.

Former First Lady Barbara Bush on September 5, reviewing the condition of the hurricane flood evacuees in the Houston Astrodome: "What I'm hearing, which is sort of scary, is that they all want to stay in Texas. Everybody is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this (chuckle) is working very well for them."

GOP strategist Jack Burkman, September 7: "I understand there are 10,000 people dead. It's terrible. It's tragic. But in a democracy of 300 million people, over years and years and years, these things happen." September 8, First Lady Laura Bush: "I also want to encourage anybody who was affected by hurricane Corrina [sic] to make sure their children are in school".

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, September 9, bucking up the spirits of three young hurricane evacuees from New Orleans at the Astrodome: "Now tell me the truth, boys, is this kind of fun?"

Earlier in the week Mrs Bush might have been pardoned for mistaking the name of the hurricane - hurricanes come and go in the same way that summer disaster movies come and go, and only a bleeding heart leftist would expect the theatergoers in a Washington screening room to remember which is which but by September 8 the news reports from New Orleans and points east were indicating an even more feckless government response than previously had been supposed - the USS Bataan, fully supplied with medical facilities, held at a safe distance offshore for reasons unexplained, National Guard units delayed in the confusions of bureaucratic move and countermove, the dysfunction of FEMA understood as the result of the nepotistic hiring of its senior management, trucks bringing ice and water rerouted to South Carolina, evacuees herded onto planes without being told where the planes were bound, the order to evacuate New Orleans made impractical by the simultaneous disappearance of the city's public transportation systems.

As it became increasingly evident that the storm had inflicted its heaviest damage on people who were poor, illiterate, and predominantly black, what emerged from the Mississippi mud was the ugly recognition of the United States as a society divided against itself across the frontiers of race and class. Not "one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all" but two nations, divisible by bank account, with liberty and justice for those able to pay the going rate for a government pimp.

The unwelcome sight evoked angry shouts of Woe from all the trumpets of the news media - outraged editorials, harsh questions from television anchorpersons ordinarily as mild as milk, a rising tide of bitter reproach from politicians both Democratic and Republican. The abrupt decline in the President's approval ratings prompted his press agents to send him on a frenzied round of image refurbishment - Mr Bush holding a press conference to accept responsibility for the federal government's storm-related failures, Mr Bush at the National Cathedral in Washington, declaring a "National Day of Prayer and Remembrance", Mr Bush back again on the Gulf Coast, posed in front of the stage-lit St Louis Cathedral in New Orleans, promising to do and spend "what it takes" ($100 billion, maybe $200 billion) to restore "the passionate soul" of the dead city.

If the performances weren't as uplifting as the President might have hoped, the fault possibly was to be found in his inability to hide the fact of his genuine and irritated surprise. What was everybody complaining about, for God's sake? Who didn't know that America was divided into a nation of the rich and a nation of the poor? What else had every self-respecting Republican politician been doing for the last thirty years if not bending his or her best efforts to achieve that very purpose? Didn't anybody remember the words of the immortal Ronald Reagan's first inaugural address: "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem"? Had everybody forgotten the noble question asked and answered in 1987 by Margaret Thatcher, that great and good British prime minister: "Who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women; there are families". Some families make it to higher ground; others don't. Such is the way of the world and the natural order of things, visible every day in the pictures from Africa on CNN. Why else was the Republican Party so popular - elected to the White House, put in charge of the Congress and the Supreme Court - if not to give to the haves and take from the have-nots? It wasn't as if anybody, least of all President Bush, had made any secret of the project. All the major legislation passed by Congress over the last five years - the transportation bill, the Medicare prescription bill, the tax bills favoring corporations and wealthy individuals, the bankruptcy bill, et cetera - strengthens the power of money to limit and control the freedom of individuals. During the early weeks of September, when countless thousands of people on the Gulf Coast were sorely in need of rescue, Senator Bill Frist (R, Tennessee), the Republican majority leader in the Senate, never once lost sight of the more urgent rescue mission, which was to press forward the legislation intended to privatize Social Security and eliminate the estate tax. Senator Frist is a doctor but first and foremost a loyal Republican and a man who knows how to order his priorities - before the hand on the heart, the thumb on the coin.

As surprised as the President by the grumbling noises in the suddenly and uncharacteristically conscience-stricken media, a heavenly host of Republican preachers and politicians was quick to shift the story into the True American context of individual initiative, moral virtue, and personal responsibility. Thus Senator Rick Santorum (R, Pennsylvania): "I mean, you have people who don't heed those warnings and then put people at risk as a result of not heeding those warnings. There may be a need to look at tougher penalties on those who decide to ride it out and understand that there are consequences to not leaving."

Consequences also for not leading one's life in accordance with the instructions given in the Bible, the point made in the seconding of Senator Santorum's motion by numerous spokesmen for Christ. Thus the pastor of the New Covenant Fellowship of New Orleans: "New Orleans now is free of Southern Decadence, the sodomites, the witchcraft workers, false religion - it's free of all these things now". Or again, more subtly, by the Columbia Christians for Life. The organization correlates storm tracks with cities harboring abortion clinics and supplemented its press release referring to the five such establishments in New Orleans with a satellite photograph that "looks like a fetus facing to the left (west) in the womb, in the early weeks of gestation".

Not a natural disaster, the hurricane, but a blessing in disguise, so seen and much appreciated by the forward-thinking parties of enlightened Republicanism. To the readers of the Wall Street Journal on September 9, Congressman Richard Baker (R, Louisiana), brought the good news of a divinely inspired slum-clearance project. "We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans", he said. "We couldn't do it, but God did".

As is well known and understood in the elevated circles of Republican political thought, God helps those who help themselves, and on September 13 Time magazine quoted an unnamed White House source confirming the miracle of the loaves and fishes soon to be visited upon the well-connected servants of the Lord in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. "Nothing can salve the wounds like money ... you'll see a much more aggressively engaged President, traveling to the Gulf Coast a lot and sending a lot of people down there".

By the time it comes to writing next month's Notebook, I expect that we'll have had the chance to count the ways in which the master chefs of our indolent but nevertheless ravenous government can carve the body of Christ into the sweetmeats of swindle and the drumsticks of fraud.

Bill Totten


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