Why America can't cope
Source News for Social Justice Action
Date 05/09/11/02:06


"But nobody, as far as I can see, has dared to suggest that there are
deeper explanations for so disconcerting a shambles, explanations that
transcend political parties or individuals. The self-image of America, now
largely adopted in Britain, too, is that of a nation of uniquely hardy and
resilient people predestined by God to be omnipotent in the world, be it
against the forces of nature or of bogeyman dictators."

Why America can't cope

There are deeper explanations for the New Orleans catastrophe than anyone
has dared suggest, writes Andrew Stephen. The roots lie in America's
deluded self-image

By Andrew Stephen

09/09/05 "New Statesman" -- WE KNOW, NOW, THAT there was not even a
Prescott in charge in Washington. President Bush was exorcising
heaven-knows-what demons by furiously riding his mountain bike in Texas -
nobody, not even the Secret Service or a visiting Lance Armstrong, is
allowed to pass him - while Vice-President Cheney was fly-fishing in
Wyoming. Condoleezza Rice, next in charge, was shopping for shoes at
Ferragamo's and watching Spamalot on Broadway and catching the US Open in
New York; while Andy Card, the White House chief of staff, who is supposed
to keep it all together, was taking in the sea breeze with much of the rest
of the Bush crowd in Maine.

Rats gnawing at corpses floating down the streets three days after Katrina
struck, bodies left to decompose in the stairwells of New Orleans's main
hospital because its basement mortuary was flooded, tens of thousands still
trapped, hungry and thirsty: only then did the inquests into what the Los
Angeles Times called the "surreal foreignness" of it all start. But then
the questioning was imbued with a peculiarly American self-righteousness
and aggressive need to pin blame on the guilty: on the inattentiveness of
the Bush administration, its lack of foresight, the racial and class
divisions within the US, and so on.

In so far as they went, the inquests are justified. There is much guilt and
blame to be shared around. It took the fury of Katrina to bring home to
many the sheer hopelessness of Bush and his administration, both in their
immediate response and in their prior lack of competent planning. The
spectacle of countries such as Sri Lanka sending donations and Fidel Castro
offering to send medical supplies with 1,100 doctors only underlined the
desperate nationalistic need to find scapegoats to appease the shame.

But nobody, as far as I can see, has dared to suggest that there are deeper
explanations for so disconcerting a shambles, explanations that transcend
political parties or individuals. The self-image of America, now largely
adopted in Britain, too, is that of a nation of uniquely hardy and
resilient people predestined by God to be omnipotent in the world, be it
against the forces of nature or of bogeyman dictators.

Because, in reality, the reverse is so often true - present-day Americans,
after all, are the most pampered human beings in history - the myths,
fostered by popular culture and especially Hollywood, have given rise to a
complacency that is increasingly dangerous not only for the rest of the
world but for Americans, too. Hardship is only momentary and can always be
overcome, hard work will always be rewarded, and other such uniquely
American traits, will result in a society that is matchlessly efficient and
soars to ever greater triumphs: it ticks over so smoothly that even after
the 11 September 2001 atrocities, Bush is still free to go off to bike,
Cheney to fish, Rice to shop.

Yet Katrina showed the fragility of the US and this belief that there is
little need for strong collective leadership or institutions of the kind
that European civilisations have come to value. The feelings date back to
victory over the British in the American revolution: a distrust of
government and a belief in the righteousness and inevitable prosperity of
the little guy, equipped only with his gun, his initiative and his own
humble patch of land. This culture of so-called private entrepreneurship
blended with a disavowal of collective responsibilities actually gained
under Ronald Reagan, George Bush Sr and then Bill Clinton - leading to
growths in gated communities, armed sentries and further class/racial

It is also why, early in his presidency, George W Bush downgraded the
Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema), the body designated to cope
with national emergencies. Such departments, the reasoning went, are for
feeble folk looking for government handouts (and that often meant blacks).
In the words of Bush's budget director Mitch Daniels in 2001: "Many are
concerned that federal disaster assistance may have evolved into an
oversized entitlement programme . . . expectations of when the federal
government should be involved, and the degree of involvement, may have
ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level."

That very year, Fema itself warned that a hurricane hitting New Orleans was
one of the three "likeliest, most catastrophic disasters facing this
country". The Texas crony Bush had appointed to lead Fema, Joe Allbaugh,
left the following year to start a consulting firm that now advises US
companies wanting to do business in Iraq, and which advised Bush on his
2004 re-election campaign. The main qualification of the man appointed in
his wake, another crony called Michael D Brown, was that he had recently
left the post of commissioner of the International Arabian Horse
Association after presiding over a decade of turmoil and internal rancour

Thus, the task of spearheading the mighty US government's response to
Katrina was left to a twit appointed because of his social networking
rather than any sound qualifications to lead. The prevailing ethos, after
all, is that government is unimportant and can be left to amateurs, just
like Bush himself. Long after television viewers throughout the world saw
thousands of suffering and dying men, women and children herded inside the
ill-named Superdome in New Orleans, without food and water, Brown told NBC
that "the federal government just learned about these people today".

Yet the response to Hurricane Katrina was "incredibly more efficient" than
that of the international community to the Boxing Day tsunami, Brown
thought. "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job," the president duly
congratulated him when Bush belatedly toured Louisiana. (Can a Presidential
Medal of Freedom for Brown be far off?) Brown's boss, Michael Chertoff - a
startlingly unremarkable 51-year-old whom Bush appointed this year to be
head of the US department of homeland security, which ultimately subsumed
Fema and downgraded the threat of natural disaster on the Gulf Coast -
opined that "nature was unhelpful", but that the federal response had been
"really exceptional".

You do not have to look any further into such complacency and out-of-touch
amateurism to see why there were no immediate landing zones (LZs, in US
military parlance) set up, why fleets of Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters
were not immediately sent in, or even why there was simply nobody to take
visible control in the way that Rudy Giuliani did in Manhattan on the day
of the 11 September attacks. Bush himself dismally failed to do so, exactly
as he did that day in 2001 - a fact now conveniently brushed over by much
of the world. But government leadership had demonstrated that its ability
to be strong and professional in coping with catastrophe had been vanishing
for decades.

Since 1993 (Clinton fans, please note), progressively larger areas of
protective wetlands had been lost forever in Louisiana alone. Bush then, in
effect, froze spending on the US Army Corps of Engineers, the body
responsible for protecting US coastlines and inland waterways from
disaster. So that just at the point when the corps said it needed $62.5m
for the Louisiana urban flood control project in the next fiscal year, the
Bush administration slashed its projected budget to $10.5m. The impetus of
its philosophy - that commerce and profits should flow unimpeded because
they are the lifeblood of the nation - has meant that, when the government
has become involved, it has sought instead to impede the natural flow of
the Mississippi, so that ships can import and export goods more easily from
Mississippi and Louisiana ports and new housing developments can
proliferate, even while natural defences against flooding are destroyed.

And so the indictments mount against the Bush administration, as well as
its predecessors. In the 2000 presidential election debates, Bush lectured
Al Gore that natural disasters are "a time to test your mettle". Bush's
mettle, yet again, has conspicuously failed to measure up, both in the
build-up to the disaster and in its denouement; a naive belief that the
government will run itself in entrepreneurial America has simply fallen
apart. Nor can he fall back any longer on yet another American
characteristic that has sustained him since 11 September 2001: that
nationalistic need for visible foes and quarries, such as the old Soviet
Union or Osama Bin Laden, on which the country can vent its spleen.

Now Bush is finding that this spleen is being turned against him instead -
God hardly being an appropriate target for the collective ire - and the
White House is being forced to start a campaign to blame local and state
government (read again, for the most part, black) rather than itself. As
Haley Barbour, governor of Mississippi and a long-time Washington
Republican wheeler-dealer (no Southern hill-billy he), spat out the day
that Katrina hit, there would be "zero tolerance" of looters. But his macho
rhetoric, of a kind that is normally enough to feed white aggression,
suddenly sounded ineffably hollow to a nation that had witnessed the
spectacle of its own citizens foraging desperately for food. (Though, even
then, white people were widely depicted as "finding" food and black folk as
"looting" it.)

The decay of the nation's infrastructure thus continues apace. If there is
no strong government, there is, of course, no one to supervise quality
control. Fifteen yards from my house, less than a mile from the White
House, in privileged, white Georgetown, a so-called "sinkhole", three feet
deep and 18 inches across, appeared in the pavement this spring. It was
enough to swallow a toddler or cripple a blind person or drunk, but after
many weeks of phone calls and e-mails from a neighbour, the response of the
DC government was finally to plonk a heavy steel plate over it. It will
probably remain there for ever.

Bush muted much of his planned Labour Day festivities on 5 September, and
even preparations for the "Freedom Walk" of 11 September - designed to
celebrate his heroic leadership - were suddenly cut back. He does not have
the ability to respond instinctively to events, as he showed on 11
September 2001; he has only the capacity to respond retrospectively to
public reaction to those events, which is very different. He can be
effective one-on-one with people - he genuinely empathises with suffering
once it is personified for him - but otherwise he remains hopelessly unable
to rise to the occasion, politically or bureaucratically.

That is why the US is crying out for the leadership of, say, another
Franklin Delano Roosevelt - which Bush persists in believing himself to be.
Yet even FDR had to cope with a system designed to counteract British
colonialism by diffusing political power and making it hard for any one
branch of government to act decisively. Government here is thus
intentionally sclerotic, but, given the demands of 21st-century
consumerism, when Americans want their government to act, they want it to
do so immediately. Here and now, no questions asked, OK?

These innate conflicts must be resolved sooner or later. In the meantime,
besides trouble in the economy - the Gulf ports deal with a critical
proportion of US oil and gas supplies, as well as half of its grain exports
- political strife looms. Will there be riots and calls for political
change, as there were following the Johnstown flood of 1889 and the
Galveston hurricane of 1900? Racial uprisings? There are already queues for
petrol in my neighbourhood, more than a thousand miles north of the
flooding: panic is another characteristic of a nation that has never really
suffered privation. And the price of timber, as speculators anticipate the
need for a huge programme of rebuilding, has risen steeply.

Yet that sense of American omnipotence, the pride that American mastery can
overcome all obstacles and evils presented by man or by God, is still
inexhaustible. It is anybody's guess why New Orleans was built seven feet
below sea level in 1718 in the first place, no less than why Washington, DC
itself was built on a flea-infested swamp, when a perfectly good existing
city such as Baltimore would have made a much more suitable capital, as
Anthony Trollope pointed out. But $10.5bn has already been allocated to the
rebuilding of New Orleans on the exact spot ("out of this chaos is going to
come a fantastic Gulf Coast", said Bush excitedly).

Thus, on top of everything, there is an adamant refusal to learn the
lessons of history or those of the forces of nature. New Orleans was a
disaster waiting to happen - just as, one day, a monumental earthquake will
hit Los Angeles or San Francisco. It might not happen in our lifetime, but
happen it surely will, and no amount of American know-how will prevent it.
Dennis Hastert, the Republican Speaker of the House, timidly voiced
reservations in the days immediately following Katrina that it might not be
wise to rebuild New Orleans in the same place, but swiftly backtracked amid
recriminations that such notions were defeatist and thus un-American.

My own first experience of the disaster-hit area came long ago, during my
student days, when, clutching my British Universities North America Club
handbook, I arrived in the Gulf port of Biloxi on a Greyhound bus. I was
bewildered when I could find neither the fleapit hotel to which I thought I
was destined nor any of the other buildings that the handbook said were
close to the coach station. I became so desperate for a shower, after
spending more than a week sleeping on the buses, that I ended up at the
local jail asking if I could have one in a cell, which I duly did.

The redneck white jailer, bemused and amused by my willingness to step
inside a hellish all-black cell block, finally explained what had happened:
Biloxi had been levelled by Hurricane Camille, after the BUNAC book had
been published. It duly rose from those 20th-century ruins - only, in 2005,
to be razed again by the same forces of nature. Today, hundreds lie dead
there, and barges haul bodies along causeways where the new visitors'
centre and McDonald's stood only days ago. Lessons, alas, were simply never

To Americans, these lessons of Katrina - that their country may still be
the world's military superpower, but it is neither all-powerful nor even
particularly efficient at home - will be hard to absorb. Perhaps they will
prove simply too humbling; perhaps there will be an impetus back towards
isolationism, to pour more resources into strengthening life at home rather
than trying to put the rest of the world to rights. The nation is nurtured
on tales that America is paradise on earth but the reality is that it is
increasingly falling behind western Europe in technology, education and
healthcare - not to mention the kind of emergency and evacuation procedures
and disaster preparedness needed to respond to Hurricane Katrina. A
predictable natural calamity which inconveniently failed to fit in with the
preordained scripts of this most cynical of US administrations has brutally
exposed America's shortcomings.

Copyright Andrew Stephen, 2005

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