The Tragedy of Katrina
I’m not going to talk about race and class in Hurricane Katrina, mostly because I’ve given my students an assignment on the subject. Ok, I’m not going to talk about it very much. But there are other interesting things about the media coverage of the hurricane to look at. The usual spin is there: Bill O’Reiley and the talking heads are trying to deflect criticism of President Bush by blaming local and state authorities, but they have lost the national pulse. Americans are mad right now, and they are mad at the feds. The Whitehouse last night gave up on spin and, for the first time in his administration, President Bush took responsibility for something. Wow.
The most interesting thing I’ve seen is the palpable outrage and sorrow of the news anchors. Usually reporters and anchors show a false sincerity, intoning quietly about and seriously about “such a terrible tragedy,” and then jauntily launching into a himan interest story “and wait till you hear our next story about a man and his hamster….” Not this time. This time there is anger, sorrow, real sadness. Probably the most impassioned has been CNN’s Anderson Cooper, who continues almost two weeks later to broadcast from the streets of New Orleans. He has made it his mission to show the world the suffering that is going on there, to investigate stories of ineptness in the response, to make sure this disaster and the plight of these people does not get ignored, and he has on more then one occasion broken down and cried on camera. Real tears. Conservatives will see this as a combination of a bleeding heart and Bush Bashing, but it’s obviously more then that. This story has shocked the nation as it has shocked the reporters covering it. Cooper is wearing his heart on his sleeve because it is impossible for him not to, and in doing so he is relating directly to all of us Americans who can’t believe what we are seeing. This should not be happening here.
There’s a lot of talk about this disaster “ripping the cover” off the inequities in the American system. Yes, a lot of liberals like Ted Kennedy were yelling about that before Katrina, and yes, nobody was listening and now they are. But inequalities in race and class have always existed in America. It’s the price we pay for an unregulated economy—it concentrates wealth at the top at the expense of folks at the bottom. But we as a nation want the economic opportunities—the low unemployment, availability of investment capital, and the flow of money—that comes from lower taxes. Plus, we want the rich to be super rich, and to keep their wealth, because we all dream of being rich one day ourselves and worry about what it will be like. That’s the thing about the American dream: we favor the rich because we all want to be rich ourselves. It’s not surprising. It is embedded in the deepest parts of our cultural identity. Nearly everybody who came to this country holds these values to some extent or another, because we or our ancestors all came here looking for economic opportunity, hoping to improve our lots in life.
Nearly everybody: the exceptions are native Americans who were here already, and the descendents of slaves who were brought here to facilitate the prosperity of somebody else—those same people who, as we have seen in New Orleans—are still trapped at the bottom of the economic ladder, people whom no tax cut is going to help.
I often complain about over use of the word tragedy, noting that people often use it as synonymous with “disaster” or “sad occurrence,” and this pisses me off because just because somebody dies, even in a plane crash or of a disease, doesn’t make something a tragedy. Tragedy is not about the death it is about causing death. It is about hubris leading to a disaster. On the news they call any car crash, bombing, or natural disaster in which people die “tragic” because they don’t know any better. Katrina, however, can indeed be called a tragedy. It is a national tragedy, but only if we have the courage to recognize that we as a society caused this to happen: not the hurricane itself nor the breaks in the levee (no matter what some conspiracy theorists might say), but the tragedy of structural racism and poverty in America. If it is anybody’s tragedy then, above all, it is George Bush’s tragedy. His hubris has lead to this, which could easily precipitate his fall. He was arrogant, cocky, self assured. He pursued his agenda of an aggressive foreign policy and tax cuts for the rich, honestly believing in them, sure like Creon that he was doing the right thing, while all the while neglecting and ignoring domestic infrastructure and institutional poverty. The inner cities weren’t going to vote for him anyway so why care? Besides, the solutions to those problems are always couched in socialism: welfare, socialized medicine, assistance programs, and unemployment insurance. Those things cost money and, in Bush’s world view, perpetuate a cycle of dependency. He treats them the way he treats all domestic problems—with tax cuts and supply-side platitudes, and as the gap between rich and poor widens and poverty becomes worse he goes off to war in Iraq and Afghanistan sure that he is protecting America. These wars also cost money, and to pay for them (especially since he’s cutting taxes at the same time) and to fight them without instituting a draft (which he knows would create a 60s style backlash among young voters who are only to happy to have somebody else fight their wars for them—how Roman), Bush has done three things: slashed infrastructure spending, called up the national guard, and cut the budget for the Army Core of Engineers, all of which exacerbated the problems caused by Hurricane Katrina. He doesn’t really believe in the mission of either the national guard or the Army core of Engineers anyway. He forgot that his first job is to keep the stoplights working and make sure the trash gets picked up.
The thing about tragedy is that it is never a tragedy just because people die; something is a tragedy only if it was caused by arrogance of hubris or indecision and the person causing it is exposed by their fall from grace. Read your Aristotle. This disaster isn’t ripping the cover off of anything, but there a very good chance this will redefine Bush and his agenda. This is the liberals’ 9/11. Whereas in attacking Bush after 9/11 seemed unpatriotic, it would be unpatriotic to ignore him and give him a free pass now. Katrina gives them their rallying cry, their national tragedy upon which to hang their agenda. This is an issue of American shame. Americans are proud and have big hearts and this has shamed us (no matter what the Conservatives pundits are saying). Americans are embarrassed by the site of such third-world devastation right here in America (the poorest big city in America, most of New Orleans looked like a third world country to begin with, so it shouldn’t be a surprise). What this disaster is going to do is take the focus of attention, both in the media and the national conscious, off of international issues like terrorism and nuclear proliferation where Bush is strong, and direct it toward domestic issues, where he and the republicans are weak. As long as America worries about race, poverty, and infrastructure, the Republicans are in trouble. Honestly, the best thing that could happen for Bush right now would be another major terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
Tragedy is about a self inflicted fall from grace. That is why this is George Bush’s tragedy. The real story of this disaster is not Bush’s response, it is his hubris. It is his not caring about domestic issues. It is his weakening FEMA. It is his creating a huge unwieldy bureaucracy in the Department of Homeland Security. It is his appointing a political crony with no disaster management experience to be head of our national disaster response team. It is hhis under-funding the Army Core of Engineers. It is his taking the National Guard out of the country where they belong and sending them to a country where they don’t (the Governor of Louisiana was right not to let Bush nationalize the guard if for no other reason then the fact that he had already taken so much of the guard away from the states to fight in Iraq). It is his not investing in infrastructure. It is his ignoring the inner cities. It is his favoring the rich over the poor. It is his fighting a war abroad when he should be taking care of things here at home. It is his paying for that war by short changing domestic issues, slashing social welfare programs, and deferring maintenance to the national infrastructure. The tragedy here is Bush’s neglect.