Bill Totten's Weblog

Thursday, August 31, 2006

After the storm

by Gary Younge

The Guardian (August 29 2006)

The sight of American politicians descending on New Orleans for the anniversary of Katrina is a curious one. You would have thought they would all have wanted to stay away, as most of them have all year. For Katrina signalled the failure of America's entire political class and the dysfunction of its political culture. The political class would not adequately protect people before the storm nor adequately support them afterwards. The political culture failed to even push to create a viable alternative to the political class but instead lost interest once the cameras went away.

The principal problem in the political class was, without doubt, George Bush. His callous indifference in this moment of crisis is now legendary and he is still paying for it. His approval ratings for handling the crisis have even fallen from this time last year when shots of the poor and the black stranded on screen flooded the airwaves.

Katrina has become a signifier for an administration that was callous and out of touch led by an MBA president who was clearly not taking care of business. When New Orleans had been flooded during hurricane Betsy in 1965 Lyndon Johnson came to town, shone his flashlight in the face of a survivor and said: "This is your president". Bush was too scared to set foot in New Orleans in that first week at all.

But if the storm highlighted Bush's failings it also blew the lid on the deep-seated flaws in American society, like racism and poverty that preceded Bush's presidency. Katrina provided a rare opportunity to talk about race and class in America. The fact that Bush did not seize it is predictable; the fact that the Democrats would not is criminal. Even as their electoral base in Louisiana was dispersed and displaced they provided many criticisms but not one substantial alternative to the administration's agenda.

For those who were left to fend for themselves were those who need government most - the old, the poor, the sick. Even in a majority black city African Americans were overrepresented among them. Yet there was little in the way of government to start with and those who ran it from the New Orleans City Hall right up to the White House did not really believe in it anyway. What New Orleans needed was more government that was democratic, transparent and responsive. What they got was less of everything.

Within two weeks of the storm touching shore right wing Heritage Foundation had produced a list of 32 "pro-market ideas for responding to Hurricane Katrina and high gas prices", with the help of more than 100 republican legislators. Between them Bush, Congress and local legislatures ensured that the city was transformed from one of the nation's most culturally rich landscapes into an economically lawless area that simply favoured the rich.

Over the past year its public schools have been changed to charter schools, much of the public housing that is left has been changed to 'mixed-income' communities and its one public hospital remains closed. So one year on Bush is wounded yet, in the absence of any real political opposition, the system that made New Orleans possible not only remains, but is reinforced.

Bill Totten


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