What we have witnessed in the criminal non-response of the federal government to the horrific aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is the logical consequence of the unseen devastation that has been eroding this country for decades. America has been a Potemkin village of security, strength, prosperity, and competence for a long time now, and finally a strong wind has literally blown it all away, leaving us to face what the storm and the last twenty-five years of actively nurtured institutional disintegration has wrought. We face the results of a decades-long effort by right-wing and libertarian movements to sell the public on the dogma of small government and snake oil theories of the infallibility and superiority of the private sector, the so-called free market.
Regardless of your position on the proper size and role of the federal government, the reality is that it is the only entity with the resources and capability to have effectively handled Katrina’s aftermath, and if there is one basic service that nearly all people can agree a federal government should provide, it is the protection of its citizens. For all their talk about the ineffectiveness of “big government,” I did not notice bands of Young Republicans searching for survivors, or rescue teams spontaneously dispatched to New Orleans from the Cato Institute. For fuck’s sake, the Red Cross, a poster child for right wing notions of a charity-driven social welfare system, didn’t even make it down there until it was already days too late. While we have all seen amazing examples of voluntary acts of kindness, heroism, and compassion on the part of many individuals and groups, all of their efforts are dwarfed by the assistance the federal government could have offered if agencies like FEMA had not been utterly ransacked by the Bush regime and transformed into patronage mills where loyal party operatives, and their college roommates, could reap the rewards of prestigious high-level government jobs.
It may surprise some readers to know, after my seemingly spirited defense of the ominous FEMA and “big government” in general, that I am a leftist who is more opposed to the idea of centralized government than the most extreme libertarian. I would say that the difference with me is that I understand the world is a complex place that often obstinately refuses to fit into the parameters of my personal ideology. The size of the federal government had nothing to do with what happened in New Orleans. Blaming big government for the failure of FEMA and the white house to effectively respond to the Katrina disaster is a little like pulling the spark plugs from a car and blaming the inherent wrongness of the internal combustion engine for the fact that the car won’t run.
It doesn’t take a PhD to figure out that when you weaken an institution’s ability to perform its intended functions by defunding it and appointing unqualified people to leadership positions within it, you create a disaster waiting to happen. It takes no genius to grasp that when you cripple the ability of a government to protect its citizens from exploitation and disaster, when you eliminate the ability of government institutions to internally monitor and punish corruption, you lay the groundwork for a kleptocracy and you create the perfect conditions for a New Orleans to happen. The only thing surprising about all this is that it has been allowed to go on for so long, that we all have allowed things to descend to this level. It is something for which all Americans should share a certain level of collective responsibility and shame.
What’s worse is that the Bush administration represents a whole new paradigm in government corruption and malfeasance. Even the most corrupt politicians of the past understood that they had to maintain a reasonably functioning government apparatus to remain in power and reap the benefits that power brings. But this administration views government funds and institutions as little more than victor’s spoils, to be divvyed up and used to whatever end it pleases. The resulting disasters of all kinds are seen as mere inconveniences, which can be remedied with the proper application of public relations, political intimidation, and flat out lies. They understand something that we don’t: the public’s capacity for outrage is no match for its susceptibility to demoralization.
Far from being a failure and an embarrassment, for those who pulled the strings to make him a two-term president, George Bush’s administration is the crowning achievement of over thirty years of right-wing and libertarian activism—aided and abetted by the craven, moribund, and nearly equally corrupt Democratic party. (In the case of the libertarians, the Bush regime may be more of a “be careful what you wish for” disappointment, but that’s due more to how profoundly divorced from reality the libertarian belief system is and their lack—or denial—of even a basic understanding of the real-world consequences of their own policies.)
Don’t you get it? This is how things are supposed to work. There is nothing accidental about what has happened on the Gulf Coast. Bush and the people in his cabinet who really run the country are not incompetent or out of touch, they simply do not care. To the Bush administration, all of this is an inconvenience, nothing more, and if their past record is any guide they will get away with it. With the boldness of a daylight thief, they will wait this out. They will stymie every attempt at substantive investigation, and they will spin and lie about this until over half of the country denies what we all saw with our own eyes.
In a just world, Bush’s apologists should be a bunch of ideological dead-enders at this point, as creepy and pathetic as a serial killer groupie or a hardcore Nazi loyalist spending his last years alone in some senior citizens home in Dusseldorf still waxing romantic about der Fuhrer. In a just world, these criminals would be hooded and bound at Guantanamo Bay. But this is not a just world, not even close.
This is a time that demands of people to unabashedly take sides. If you are angry about what you’ve seen over the last few weeks then, goddamn it, you’d better stay angry, because if there is anything that Hurricane Katrina should have taught you it’s that no one is coming to save you. We can’t wait for the Democrats or anyone else; only our anger as citizens will save this country. It’s the only thing that ever has.
Angry, angry, angry ... but still, any day above ground is a good day.