Monday, September 12, 2005

The Shaming of America

The Economist calls it "The Shaming of America." The cover picture tells it all. And yet the opening paragraphs of the article focus on the spin, not the response. And it is going to become clear, in all the stories of compassion and aid that have been offered, that this, too, was the response:

Eventually a few men from the neighborhood began showing up in stolen boats and trucks. The elderly and small children were the first to be evacuated. JoAnn, Nicole and the dogs were bundled into a milk truck crowded with people. Once again they thought the worst of their ordeal was over, and once again they were wrong.

Packed with hot and filthy evacuees (and crates of rapidly souring milk), the truck crossed a bridge from New Orleans to Jefferson Parish, where the desperate occupants were promptly and grotesquely humiliated by several heavily armed plainclothes officers.

There were dozens of men, women and children in the truck when it was stopped. They were hungry, thirsty and frightened. It should have been obvious to any sentient being that they were fleeing the flood. Nevertheless, said Nicole, they were ordered out of the truck at gunpoint, with their hands up. One young man was thrown to the ground. The others were ordered to get on the ground, face down.

The occupants of the milk truck were black, and they were in dire need of assistance. But in the midst of one of the greatest emergencies in the nation's history, the opportunity to gratuitously humiliate them proved irresistible.
Two-thirds of African-Americans think racism was involved in the response to New Orleans. 77% of whites don't. Is it any wonder why? Does anyone doubt the race of the police officers in that story?

The political stories about the Bush response to this horror all include spending lots of money, and staging lots of positive photo ops. I woke up this morning thinking we'd seen this movie before, and it was called "Social Security Reform." Ironically, it was Medicare refom that Bush was touting in the West when floodwaters were rising in New Orleans in the South, and people were looking for any signs of their neighborhoods in Mississippi. "Social Security reform" followed much the same rationale as the White House has outlined for recovery from Katrina: throw a lot of money at it, or claim to, and expect everyone to follow the money, instead of their humanity.

But oddly enough, retirees with families, with children and grandchildren, were actually concerned about what Social Security would do for those generations, not just their own. They weren't as venal and selfish as Karl Rove had supposed. And while a long legacy of racism won't suddenly evaporate because of Katrina, neither will we suddenly turn away from it as a nation, and try to dismiss such allegations as "disgusting." The issues of Katrina, like the issues raised by Cindy Sheehan, are clearly completely off Karl Rove's moral radar screen. He has no response to them because he seemingly has no conception of them. Throwing money at cronies and their companies won't make us all forget the last two weeks. Blaming the victims, be they poor or local government officials, won't make us forget, either. This morning people in Mississippi reminded us, on NPR, that they went 5 days without federal help, too.

This is only going to get worse, before it starts to get better. Shame is a very powerful motivator, even more powerful than greed or selfishness. Apparently Karl Rove doesn't understand that.

More fool him.

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