Tuesday, September 20, 2005

"What Keeps Mankind Alive?"

The question is: will this be enough?

Hurricane Katrina showed us faces the Republicans never wanted us to see -- the elderly, the infirm, the poor. The ones with no car to get them out of the city before the storm hit, the ones unable to pay for hotel rooms until the waters receded. The ones with no health insurance to recover from the ravages of insulin shock, kidney failure or dehydration. The ones lying face down in the cesspool or dying of heatstroke in the Superdome.

These are the people the Republicans have been teaching us to disdain, if not hate, since President Reagan decried the moral laxness of the Welfare Mom.

And for the past 25 years, they've been successful. As long as the poor remained out of sight, they could be described in whatever undeserving light the Republicans chose, and the rest of us would be unwilling to challenge them.

This second Bush administration was to be the conservatives' crowning glory. They would finish slicing government to the bone, sacrificing environmental protections, critical infrastructure investments, health and human services, all to massive tax cuts. Yes, the long climb back from the precipice of the New Deal was within reach.

That is, until the poor came out of hiding and shamed us into seeing them.
Houston absorbed 27,000+ "evacuees." Someone this morning told me that the police he'd talked to at the 'Dome indicated 30-40% of the people in "Dome City" were drug addicts and thugs. Are these things right, or wrong? Does it matter if it is proved wrong?

Gretna, Louisiana turned away Canadian tourists out of fear of bringing the problems of the Superdome across the river into their community. Apparently the people of New Orleans were not American citizens, or even neighbors, nor even human beings. The concern, of course, was to protect property: "If we had opened the bridge, our city would have looked like New Orleans does now: looted, burned and pillaged." Arthur Lawson, Chief of Police, Gretna Police Department.

New Orleans, of course, is neither looted, burned, nor pillaged. At least not by the residents of the city. The major damage to the Superdome and New Orlean Arena, in fact, was done by the floodwaters, not the people trapped there. No one in Gretna, of course, could have known this at the time. But after 5000 people, Gretna had had enough, and wouldn't even let people pass through.

On one level, this might be attributed to the poor planning of New Orleans officials, or Louisiana state officials. Certainly a town the size of Gretna can't be expected to take on the refugee problems of a metropolis like New Orleans. On the other hand, Gretna surely benefits from being next to New Orleans, rather than off deep in the bayous of southern Louisiana, and while it's facilities may, or may not, have reached capacity, they surely could have been more humane, and a bit less....human, in their response.

But will this be the response for the country? Even my family members from Oklahoma, who have been helping people relocated there, were not wholly sympathetic to the discomfort of people moved to an abandoned military base with no air conditioning, nothing to do but watch TV all day and eat food in barracks-style mess halls, and no clothes but what had been donated. At what point will we start deciding that "these people" are to blame for their situation? At what point will the rubber band snap back, in other words, and we start wondering why these people want to be poor, and want to live in such conditions, and want to be miserable?

The Dust Bowl was a time of great devastation and mass migration, too. But the "Okies" were not welcomed in California, after a very short time. And the sympathy for people in hard times, wore out very quickly. All the attitudes described in that last sentence just above, are expressed by characters in California about the characters from Oklahoma, in Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. I'm going from memory, here, so probably the sentiments are much worse, and much harsher.

We don't have a good history in this country of caring for each other. After a short burst of compassion, we turn back to our own affairs, and tell the victims to "get over it!" This much is surely just human nature; but we provide no "safety net" for those beleagured victims. Our American version of the "social contract" seems to end with a few handouts and the donation of some already unwanted items. When I was talking to the Deacon at my church, our joint concern was already, at the beginning, how well the compassion and donations and volunteerism would hold up over the long haul.

That's still true.

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