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As Long as We Remember...

September 15, 2005


Tony Soltero

It is tempting to go on a rant about the specific failures of our governments local, state, and federal in the wake of the Katrina disaster, an event that has blown away the 9/11 terrorist attacks in its scope, impact, death toll, property damage, and potential economic, social, and political consequences for the nation.

It is tempting to vent one's spleen and demand accountability from an administration that seems to be allergic to such a concept, and now occupies its time making excuses and passing the buck.

But as satisfying as it might be to hold specific political leaders' feet to the fire, it is more productive to examine Katrina in the context of political philosophy. Stated differently, has America's hard turn to the right under President Bush made us more vulnerable to catastrophic disasters of this size?

Obviously, right-wing conservatism doesn't cause hurricanes. But the right-wing (the much milder term "conservative" doesn't really do it justice) ideology that under girds our current national government (and many state and local governments) does have an enormous impact upon our approaches to dealing with natural disasters preparations, warning mechanisms, support structures, funding, chains of command, post-disaster recovery, and countless other sub-issues of varying significance.

There are many ideological differences between liberals and conservatives, but one of the largest and most critical ones lies in the attitude towards the concept of community. Simply put, classic liberals value community cohesiveness, mutual help, support for the weakest and poorest, and a significant role for government in sustaining the community.

Classic conservatives place more stock in individualism, self-reliance, and a minimal role for government, largely confined to law enforcement.

The specific implementation of conservatism in this country, of course, isn't particularly faithful to this raw and somewhat sloppy prototype (which is why it's more accurate to call them "right-wingers"), as it greatly expands the role of government, particularly in the field of private personal relationships. But the core values are similar regarding community.

Both worldviews have their strengths and weaknesses. Taken to the extreme, the liberal communitarian worldview can degenerate into a nanny state with ridiculous tax rates and discourage incentive to improve one's standing; the conservative worldview, taken to its extreme, results in the kinds of societies we see in the Third World a tiny cadre of privileged elites running roughshod over seas of impoverished people. For a society to function optimally and succeed, it needs to draw from the best aspects of both worldviews.

For many decades in the 20th century, America appeared to have found that elusive balance, and our nation prospered immensely. We took care of our most vulnerable through Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare while at the same time encouraging the individualism that fueled the ascent of enormously successful enterprises like General Motors and Microsoft.

We reduced poverty dramatically during the 20th century, especially in the decades after World War II, and we did this without compromising economic growth. We provided opportunities to our young through well-funded public education (and universities).

There was a general consensus on the role of government, that it be neither too intrusive nor too aloof. Republicans protected Social Security and took pride in it. Companies paid their employees first-world wages, and took pride in it. And we enjoyed a great ride as a country.

Over the last couple of decades, however, that balance has gotten out of whack as the conservative worldview began to push everything else aside.

Under President Ronald Reagan, the boat began to tilt, and then rock, to the right. Consumer and employee protections were chipped away in the interest of "efficiency." Labor unions were neutered. Americans began to see their jobs sail away overseas first in manufacturing, then in just about everything else. And the role of government as a referee, as a regulatory authority for business, as a watchdog for the public interest was correspondingly weakened if not decimated.

As power concentrated more and more in the hands of a small group of right-wing ideologues, the envelope got pushed closer and closer to the edge. We got a respite under Bill Clinton, where the rightwards march of the government was arrested for awhile; and we enjoyed another period of shared economic growth and prosperity.

But once George W. Bush came into power, all of that collapsed almost overnight; and now we've gotten to the point where even American warhorses like Social Security, and even our proud road and highway networks, are being called into question. The Bush regime has immensely weakened the government when it comes to the classic-liberal worldview, while at the same time tilting it completely to serve the conservative worldview. The boat is now pointing 90 degrees to the right.

And this is what brings us back to Katrina. The Bush administration has been so enraptured by purist far-right ideology that our government has been gutted to the point where it can no longer even fulfill what liberals and conservatives can agree is THE most basic function of the state the protection of the citizenry.

Our national government is no longer capable of protecting us from a natural disaster, as we have seen by the egregious blundering of FEMA in the wake of the hurricane. One suspects that they can no longer protect us from terrorist attacks as well. This is the individualist worldview run amok it is better for people to die than for the government to step in and rescue them, for that would violate the right-wing credo.

It is better for a city to be flooded than for the government to fund the projects that might help protect it. Just listen to the robots that run FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security on the disaster political appointees more concerned with advancing their ideologies than with actually saving people.

The blame-the-victim rhetoric coming from the right (barely hiding the racism and classism behind it) betrays an astonishing callousness, all in the service of right-wing dogma. When political ideology takes precedence over basic human decency, that's a pretty good sign we've taken conservatism too far.

Under Bill Clinton, FEMA was a cabinet-level agency, fully funded and competently managed. And we never experienced horrors on the scale of those Katrina has wrought upon our Gulf Coast. Now we see what it has become, and what the consequences are. Our government's message to us is: You're on your own; even if a hurricane hits. Lots of conservatism; no compassion.

No decent person can reconcile that attitude with what America is about. It is time to remove the ideological blinders and steer America back towards the pragmatism that served it so well in the 20th century. Katrina was a failure of leadership, but more importantly, it was a failure of ideology. Right-wing ideology.

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