WHAT THE WORLD has witnessed this past week is an image of poverty and social disarray that tears away the affluent mask of the United States.
Instead of the much-celebrated American can-do machine that promises to bring freedom and prosperity to less fortunate people abroad, we have seen a callous official incompetence that puts even Third World rulers to shame. The well-reported litany of mistakes by the Bush administration in failing to prevent and respond to Katrina’s destruction grew longer with each hour’s grim revelation from the streets of an apocalyptic New Orleans.
Yet the problem is much deeper. For half a century, free-market purists have to great effect denigrated the essential role that modern government performs as some terrible liberal plot. Thus, the symbolism of New Orleans’ flooding is tragically apt: Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Louisiana Gov. Huey Long’s ambitious populist reforms in the 1930s eased Louisiana out of feudalism and toward modernity; the Reagan Revolution and the callousness of both Bush administrations have sent them back toward the abyss.
Now we have a president who wastes tax revenues in Iraq instead of protecting us at home. Levee improvements were deferred in recent years even after congressional approval, reportedly prompting EPA staffers to dub flooded New Orleans “Lake George.”
None of this is an oversight, or simple incompetence. It is the result of a campaign by most Republicans and too many Democrats to systematically vilify the role of government in American life. Manipulative politicians have convinced lower- and middle-class whites that their own economic pains were caused by “quasi-socialist” government policies that aid only poor brown and black people -- even as corporate profits and CEO salaries soared.
For decades we have seen social services that benefit everyone -- education, community policing, public health, environmental protections and infrastructure repair, emergency services -- in steady, steep decline in the face of tax cuts and rising military spending. But it is a false savings; it will certainly cost exponentially more to save New Orleans than it would have to protect it in the first place.
And, although the wealthy can soften the blow of this national decline by sending their kids to private school, building walls around their communities and checking into distant hotels in the face of approaching calamities, others, like the 150,000 people living below the poverty line in the Katrina damage area -- one-third of whom are elderly -- are left exposed.
Watching on television the stark vulnerability of a permanent underclass of African Americans living in New Orleans ghettos is terrifying. It should be remembered, however, that even when hurricanes are not threatening their lives and sanity, they live in rotting housing complexes, attend embarrassingly ill-equipped public schools and, lacking adequate police protection, are frequently terrorized by unemployed, uneducated young men.
In fact, rather than an anomaly, the public suffering of these desperate Americans is a symbol for a nation that is becoming progressively poorer under the leadership of the party of Big Business. As Katrina was making its devastating landfall, the U.S. Census Bureau released new figures that show that since 1999, the income of the poorest fifth of Americans has dropped 8.7% in inflation-adjusted dollars. Last year alone, 1.1 million were added to the 36 million already on the poverty rolls.
For those who have trouble with statistics, here’s the shorthand: The rich have been getting richer and the poor have been getting, in the ripe populist language of Louisiana’s legendary Long, the shaft.
These are people who have long since been abandoned to their fate. Despite the deep religiosity of the Gulf States and the United States in general, it is the gods of greed that seem to rule. Case in point: The crucial New Orleans marshland that absorbs excess water during storms has been greatly denuded by rampant commercial development allowed by a deregulation-crazy culture that favors a quick buck over long-term community benefits.
Given all this, it is no surprise that leaders, from the White House on down, haven’t done right by the people of New Orleans and the rest of the region, before and after what insurance companies insultingly call an “act of God.”
Fact is, most of them, and especially our president, just don’t care about the people who can’t afford to attend political fundraisers or pay for high-priced lobbyists. No, these folks are supposed to be cruising on the rising tide of a booming, unregulated economy that “floats all boats.”
They were left floating all right.