Saturday, September 03, 2005

September dispatches, 4: some words on Katrina

UP THIS MORNING LATE, to log on to Tom's marvelous high speed connection wirelessly, and read the news, oh boy.

In Le Figaro two or three things quickly catch my eye. An account of Les Américains consternés par la fragilité de leur puissance, America in consternation at the fragility of her power.

Another account, L'administration Bush aurait ignoré les prédictions des experts, discusses the Bush administration's having ignored expert predictions of the New Orleans disaster.

Somewhere, I've already lost track of the URL, there was a fine round-up of the world press response to the crisis.

And in Corriere della Sera an editorial, Il mercato non ci salverà, suggests that optimism won't "correct" the market's disruption following this disaster, and a market recovery won't resolve the real crisis, because it extends far beyond the state of the dollar.

The financial fallout will be bad enough, as L'économie américaine déstabilisée points out. According to this article the grain market, for example, is collapsing, at least for the moment, because the barge traffic between wheat storage in the midwest and freighters in the Gulf of Mexico is interrupted.

And warehouses are affected. Do you drink coffee? According to Le Figaro, a quarter of the stock of coffee in the United States is rotting in a Procter & Gamble warehouse in New Orleans.

But this is only to discuss the economic fallout from Katrina. The real meaning of the disaster goes farther, much farther. I think the Katrina disaster will quickly prove to be much more influential on the course of social and political American history than was even 9/11. For one thing, it will be very hard indeed on the incumbent Administration. The President, poor man, is never terribly expressive of his emotions, and this was clearly not a moment to hide them. He was elected for two reasons: He's a the kind of guy you'd like to have a beer with, and he's the kind of guy you want to keep the steady course. What we needed in New Orleans was another kind of man, someone closer to Mister Rogers. No one has ever confused George W. Bush with Mister Rogers.

Second, the American penchant for gambling. We've been betting badly lately. In Iraq we bet on hidden WMDs, on quick military victory, on easy democratization of the Iraquis: we lost each bet in turn. And like so many compulsive gamblers when confronted by a loss we redoubled our investment, throwing good money — not to mention less replaceable capital in the form of friendships and credibility — after bad.

Similarly, we bet the levees wouldn't fail. Preventive maintenance is boring and expensive and frequently its payoff is a long time coming: we're an impatient nation. We bet the levees would hold, and we bet wrong.

Finally, worst of all it seems to me, a very ugly side of the American mentality has been revealed, the side that is callous, even contemptuous, of losers, of victims, of the poor and downtrodden. I know: it's axiomatic that Americans stick up for the little guy. But they stick up for him when he's still got some spunk: nobody loves you when you're down and out.

A few months ago a taxi-driver in Madrid asked me about the American health system. Is it true, he wanted to know, that there are many people without any medical coverage?

When I explained the situation he shook his head sadly. "A nation that doesn't provide for its poor is like a father who refuses to care for his children," he said — a phrase that's stuck in my mind ever since.

The citizens of New Orleans were told they must evacuate. Those with cars drove away. Others got out in rental cars, or other transportation.

But thousands were left for a number of reasons. They didn't have transportation. They didn't have money for transportation. They were too sick or frail or old to leave. They simply didn't understand the gravity of the situation. Or they were simply to skeptical of a government announcement to heed.

The whole world is looking at the faces and the bodies of these people, listening to their outcry. They are almost invariably poor. And like all the poor in our country they are for the most part sick, frail, old, children, and/or illiterate. They get their information from pictures, not the printed word. Their dietary advice comes from advertisements for sodas, potato chips, and fast-food restaurants. Their health advice is little beyond pharmaceutical advertisements.

America has turned her back on a large percentage of her children, and they have grown resentful. New Orleans is perhaps only the beginning of their outrage. It is an outrage that transcends race. It is an outrage that just might have a profound influence on the future of American politics. At least I hope so.

1 comment:

demabloggery said...

When I explained the situation he shook his head sadly. "A nation that doesn't provide for its poor is like a father who refuses to care for his children," he said — a phrase that's stuck in my mind ever since.
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Of course the Europeans don't understand that what uninsured people are denied is long-term health care, which is of course probably more important the emergency care. Anyone can walk into an American hospital and get help but they are then financially ruined assuming they had any money to begin with. I'm not sure the European model is all that great, but your point is well-taken. People WITH health insurance end up ruined.
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The citizens of New Orleans were told they must evacuate. Those with cars drove away. Others got out in rental cars, or other transportation.

But thousands were left for a number of reasons. They didn't have transportation. They didn't have money for transportation. They were too sick or frail or old to leave. They simply didn't understand the gravity of the situation. Or they were simply to skeptical of a government announcement to heed.
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I'm actually surprised at how many people DID understand the gravity of the situation, and left.
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The whole world is looking at the faces and the bodies of these people, listening to their outcry. They are almost invariably poor. And like all the poor in our country they are for the most part sick, frail, old, children, and/or illiterate. They get their information from pictures, not the printed word. Their dietary advice comes from advertisements for sodas, potato chips, and fast-food restaurants. Their health advice is little beyond pharmaceutical advertisements.
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There is always a healthy balance between what we owe them as members of our society and what they owe themselves. We have failed them, and they have failed themselves.
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America has turned her back on a large percentage of her children, and they have grown resentful. New Orleans is perhaps only the beginning of their outrage. It is an outrage that transcends race. It is an outrage that just might have a profound influence on the future of American politics. At least I hope so.
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The parents of those children were the first to turn their backs; they made decisions like the ones I saw daily when I taught in Vallejo; to have three children before the age of seventeen with no way to care for them, to avoid education and to fall back on government aid with a sense of entitlement that transcends generations; the republicans are wrong when they blame the poor for being poor. The democrats are wrong when they believe the poor bear no responsibility for the decisions they make that perpetuate the cycle.