Bill Totten's Weblog

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Hurricane Exposes a Nation's Poverty

by Bill Totten

Nihonkai Shimbun and Osaka Nichinichi Shimbun

(October 13 2005)

(I've written a weekly column for two Japanese newspapers for the past three years. Patrick Heaton prepared this English version from the Japanese original.)

When reading about the recent hurricanes, I noticed an article that to my knowledge was not taken up by Japan's mainstream media. The article compared the consequences of the recent hurricane Katrina that struck the US Gulf coast with earlier hurricanes that hit Cuba.

In September 2004, Hurricane Ivan hit several Caribbean islands, including Grenada, Jamaica, and Cuba. With a wind-speed of 160 miles per hour, it was the biggest hurricane in that area of the Caribbean in fifty years. Before Ivan reached Cuba, a warning had been issued and over 15,000,000 people in the path of the hurricane were evacuated to high ground. Even though 20,000 homes were destroyed in the hurricane, not a single life was lost. There was no looting, no violence, and no martial law declared, as happened in New Orleans.

The difference between Cuba and America probably lies in the fact that Cuba does not have the disparity of wealth that is becoming more prominent in the United States.

According to United States census figures, the poverty rate in the US in 2004 was 12.7 percent, meaning that 37,000,000 people live under the poverty line. During the last four years of the Bush administration, the poverty rate has jumped by about 5,900,000 individuals. The percentage of Americans without health insurance is now at 15.7 percent, or about 45,800,000 people. This number reflects an increase of 800,000 people over last year.

Mississippi and Louisiana, the states most affected by Hurricane Katrina, are among the ten states with the worst poverty rates in the country. Moreover, the areas of those states receiving the most damage were the areas where the poorest strata of society lived. As we've come to expect from the huge conglomerate-owned US media, rather than focusing on the tragedy of the terrible losses suffered by those already at the bottom of the social hierarchy, US media reporting focused on a few African-Americans who resorted to looting during the chaos.

In contrast to America's chaotic emergency system, Cuba has implemented a disaster warning system with detailed planning, including clear directions about who should help out when local residents must evacuate an area. Cuban doctors are assigned to evacuation shelters near the disaster area. Critical information, such as which citizens in the shelters will need insulin, is distributed to the doctors beforehand. Importantly, just before the hurricane hits, Cuban doctors do not drive away to distant hotels to save themselves; they evacuate to pre-prepared shelters with all other citizens.

Idolizing Everything American

Although individuals can do very little in the face of natural disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes, for Japan the examples of America and Cuba are instructive. Should Japan, a land of natural disasters, choose the American free-market model that leads to a large number of deaths when disasters occur? Or should we choose a system more like that of Cuba, which takes care of all its citizens? Impressively, Cuba has repeatedly demonstrated it is able to care for itself during disasters - even while under economic blockade by the United States for the last fifty years.

It wasn't that long ago that Japanese, like Cubans, collectively believed they were in the same boat with their fellow citizens who shared traditions and enduring cultural patterns. Japanese towns shared many similarities; market streets lay in close proximity to train stations, and residential areas fanned out from there. A wide variety of merchants lived in similar-looking housing in their neighborhoods. Even within higher-class residential areas people greeted each other. There were no gated communities like those seen increasingly in the US. Agricultural peoples have always used communal water supplies, watched over each other's fields, and helped each other during autumn harvests.

Westerners might say this description of community sounds quaint. But what is wrong with this goal of community? During typhoons and earthquakes the desire to help others besides your own family, especially the elderly and disadvantaged, is not a cultural practice that can be instituted in a day or two. I think previous generations used to be instilled with a sense of mutual help and protection because they watched their parents and grandparents. Nowdays Japanese often denigrate their traditions with labels like "insularity" and praise everything coming out of America. But the reality is that by unquestionably worshipping everything American, they are overlooking the good aspects of their own traditions while being blind to the awful parts of America.

America's Mantra: Don't waste money on the defenseless

Hurricane Katrina exposed how some in America's powerful wealthy class manipulate US politicians for their own gains. They do not want to use tax money to support average citizens. This is why they strive to minimize social investment. The wealthy have money and believe they can protect themselves without the help of government. They also believe that other people should protect themselves. That is why they see no need for infrastructure such as mass transportation.

They seek to privatize as much as possible, limiting social investment and public funding helpful to the growing underclass. For example, they advocate cutting funding for public education because they can afford to send their children to private schools and don't want their tax money used for public schools. They want to eliminate or minimize public-funding for Medicare benefits, which they don't need because they can afford membership in private health care organizations. They also want to decrease the number of policemen because they can afford to hire private guards for their properties, thus obviating the need for publicly-funded policemen.

The attitude of the wealthy in the US seems to be that anyone who cannot afford to pay for whatever is needed deserves the problems he or she gets. This could be seen with the hurricane Katrina debacle. Once the government issued the evacuation order, it was assumed that all residents could afford to get out of the area. No provisions were made for people too poor to secure transportation. When these people died or lost everything, they were thought to have deserved the misery they suffered because they could not take responsibility for themselves.

As if this situation isn't enough, the Bush administration is now scheming to have its cronies profit further through the suffering of the hurricane victims by granting corporations like Halliburton no-bid contracts to rebuild the area.

Underlying these schemes are the concepts of eliminating government services, increased privatization and greater individual responsibility. They should sound familiar: Prime minister Koizumi, aping America's failures and worst tendencies, is dragging Japan down the same path that America's elites have taken. Do we really want to duplicate in Japan the same consequences of disparity of income and wealth that are happening in the US? Isn't it about time to rethink the idolatry of the "American Way"?

Bill Totten


  • Are you really sure you want to progressive ideology to mean, scorn for an entire nation and all its cultural output?

    The tendency for people to advertize their progressive credentials by demonizing the USA as representing nothing more than an utterly degraded society, has disserved progressive causes in many ways:

    (1) It tries to recruit loathing of US foreign policies to serve domestic agenda in other countries; this, of course, means resentment of the "other's" foreign presence, and condescension for its social malaise, reinforce each other into a fashionable bigotry

    (2) It convincingly validates the claim of Movement Conservatives that progressives "hate America," since they must validate every point by comparing the USA unfavorably to another country.

    (3) It is patronizing to Japanese readers, who are likely to believe any questioning of their own traditional institutions is a sell-out to "idolatry" of something foreign--and crass.

    (4) It elevates bigotry against another culture to a virtue. An anti-US bigot, in the future, will hereby "prove" he is too "spiritual" to be seduced by US consumerism

    Likewise, anti-US rhetoric has been used for decades by the entire spectrum of political discourse in countries like Greece in order to reassure voters the speaker will never implement social policies such as the one you decry. Yet the policies get implemented anyway. This merely spawns a subsequent wave of more-extreme rhetoric

    5. The speaker invariably defends himself/herself by saying, "but I am only criticizing the government." Even if this were true, you are still using "the American way" as if the US government were the only element that mattered. Perhaps you really do think US society is uniquely degraded, and its population unworthy of any sort of respect. But if you don't think that, then you cannot fail to notice that people don't really make that distinction in practice.

    6. Finally, you are promoting the idea that bad ideas propagate because of evil people. This reminds me of when I was growing up with members of the John Birch Society. They would write editorials for the community paper, claiming that Darwin's research on evolution, Dewey's research on education, Freud's study of psychology, Carson's book of ecological degradation, and Keynes' general theory, were of no merit; they had become widely accepted and respected, the JBS members claimed, as the result of a sinister cabal of liberals. These liberals were incapable of independent judgment; they merely propagated the "Communististical" ideas of Dewey, Keynes, Darwin, and whomever. Likewise, people in favor of social democratic measures now seem addicted to claiming that all invidious ideas originate in the same God-forsaken place, and are transmitted by the mere presence of human idea-disease-vectors.
    It disturbs me greatly that anyone who so much as challenges this tendency is of course denounced as an emissary of the Bush White House (as if the Bushites would be desperate to jettison their illusory monopoly on patriotism).

    Incidentally, Cuba's population is very close to 15 million. Are you claiming the ENTIRE population of the island was evacuated? Is it really necessary to depend on a historical episode that is so difficult to authenticate to prove your point?

    By Blogger James R MacLean, at 6:11 PM, November 06, 2005  

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