Friday, August 31, 2007

Remembering Katrina: Part I

Remembering Katrina, Part II, Part III

Ask most Americans what is wrong about the federal government’s response to Katrina and the answer will be brief: “Everything.” But to this administration, the answer is, “Nothing.”

Cynical? I don’t think so. Here’s why.

Much has been said about the administration’s stunning incompetence, about crony boys in grown-ups' jobs. But for these people, as W himself epitomizes, qualifications are irrelevant. For him, it’s not about capability or performance. It’s about sinecure. Such priorities are incompatible with genuine concern for the people's wellbeing.

Bush’s Gulf South response was and is scripted by the likes of Grover Norquist. It was and is a demonstration project meant to convince us that big government is inherently unreliable. Some even say that FEMA’s fantastic incompetence was intended to set us up for Bush’s government dismantling strategy, but I haven’t seen much dismantling.

In fact, just as Bush’s Department of Homeland Security is a mammoth, Rovean Republican patronage spigot, Bush’s response to Katrina is a demonstration project in “privatization,” a novel form of wealth redistribution in which your taxes and assets end up in the portfolios of the top 5 percent of America’s richest families.

But wait; there’s more.

In Politics and Vision (expanded edition), Professor Sheldon Wolin said of Nazi totalitarianism that it

represented the precise inversion of the modern conception of revolution. Like Nietzsche it identified with the strong and aimed at the weak—Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, homosexuals, social democrats, communists, trade unionists, the sick, deformed, and mentally ill. (xix)
It seems to me that everything about the administration’s response during those excruciating hours between August 29 and (roughly) September 6, 2005, showcased precisely that: a thoroughly Nietzchean “revolution in reverse.”

Person to person, the President and his Cabinet appalled the world with their indifference. Cheney went fly fishing. Bush and McCain ate birthday cake and W played his air guitar. Rice went Ferragamo hunting. That night, she took in Spamalot, and the next day she played tennis with Monica Seles.

For calculating political pros -- remember, Katrina was before the crucial 2006 elections -- such actions are strategically inconceivable. That's why I conclude that they were meant to signify a new theory of the role of government, the "Stuff Happens" theory.

The strong (the President, his Cabinet, and his patronage chieftains), I believe, are operating the federal response to Katrina exactly as they are operating the Iraq war--from within an ideological framework that tacitly sanctions just what we saw take place. Anyone who thinks this is mere incompetence had better sit down and take a deep breath. This is purposeful. This is looting, officially sanctioned.

The President and his minions know that for that top 5% to get maximum bang for their contribution bucks, as many as possible of the weak must perish and/or be relieved of their real property assets. And that is exactly what happened and what continues to happen even as we speak.

In these case studies, Iraq and the Gulf South, the weak are oil-rich countries abroad unable to withstand an American occupation. At home, they may have the misfortune to be sitting on some prime real estate, or they may simply be people this administration views as drags on the economy, people who can testify to the vapidity of an “Ownership Society.”

That would be folks who are working three jobs but permanently poor, the frail elderly, the single moms, the diabetic, the overweight, the gay, the mentally ill. Most but not all were African Americans, and most whose assets were literally washed away were also Democrats. In Bush’s eyes, that’s a three-fer.

Almost immediately the ideological cover for what I believe to be deliberate federal inaction played out across our televisions. Any “lootin’, shootin’, burnin', and carryin’ on” was magnified out of all semblance to reality, we found out. We know now that most of the looters were looting from dire desperation (and we know that in their place, we’d do the same thing). We know now that the city wasn’t crawling with armed killers after all. We know there was a handful of thieves and armed thugs—all in all, pretty remarkable for a city in extremis, full of frantic, starving, dehydrated, dying, and despairing people.

We later found out that, in truth, there was no baby raping, and we are asked to believe that a few shots kept federal relief at bay, even though they didn’t intimidate news media from around the globe, or the US Coast Guard, or the “Cajun Navy,” that brave flotilla of local lifesavers and out-of-town volunteers.

We learned what Lt. General Russel Honoré already knew: Those people weren’t dangerous. They’re our neighbors: “Put those goddamn weapons down.”

But if we learned later that 80% of the Ninth Ward are home owners, the meme pumped out from dawn to dark was that those gang-bangers and welfare queens deserve exactly what they get. The meme gave the Bushies a little cover because it functioned as intended: to align observers for a while with the President’s perspective. Most folks bought in.

All of this, in my view, is wholly consistent with intent, as are the two events that marked the finale, at least from the administration's vantage.

As a horrified world and a shamed, grief-stricken America watched corpses waiting on main street sidewalks and bloating in mile after mile of disgusting brown sewage, as we watched little African American kids being separated from their families and sent willy-nilly, hither and yon, without escort or explanation or even a tracking system, Bush’s mother shared with us the Administration’s official spin:
What I’m hearing, which is sort of scary, is that they want to stay in Texas. . . . So many of the people in the arenas here were underprivileged anyway, this is working out well for them.
And just as soon as W’s last syllable bounced off a garishly blue-lit Cathedral, the feds shut down his little son et lumière and pulled the plugs again on New Orleans.

Remembering Katrina, Part II