Last year's devastating tsunami provoked a lot of soul searching about the ways of God to man. Hurricane Katrina, by contrast, didn't spark much religious or metaphysical discussion, aside from a few folks on the loony right who thought the hurricane was a form of divine retribution. Instead, the commentariat turned its attention to human culprits: Bush, local authorities, American racism, the shiftless poor, big government, small government, Ronald Reagan. Somewhere, someone probably pinned the blame on Martha Stewart.
To an extent, that's understandable. In Katrina's wake, public officials at all levels flailed about in an embarrassing display of ineptitude and evasion, spinning while New Orleans drowned. The disaster became a shameful spectacle most of us never thought we'd see in the United States: dead bodies in the streets, huddled masses trapped in fetid shelters with no food or water. It is also true that Katrina's devastation exposed to a harsh daylight the often ignored problems of the black underclass. But it was easy to miss the valid points in all the political sniping.
On the left, criticism of Bush turned into an orgy of schadenfreude. Michael Moore's gloating open letter to the president, titled "Vacation is Over," set the tone. "It's not your fault that 30 percent of New Orleans lives in poverty," he wrote, "or that tens of thousands had no transportation to get out of town. C'mon, they're black! I mean, it's not like this happened to Kennebunkport."
Bush did make himself a convenient target. As if the revelations of cronyism and incompetence at the Federal Emergency Management Agency weren't enough, he had to utter lines straight out of some nasty comedy skit intended to portray him as the president of rich white men (most infamously, his comment that he was "looking forward to sitting on the porch" of Sen. Trent Lott's house once again after the Gulf Coast arises from the rubble).
But many of the charges against Bush ranged from shaky to downright absurd. Critics implied that Bush hadn't just overseen a shoddy response to the disaster; he had all but caused it in the first place, by diverting National Guard troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, by generally being a proponent of small government (as if), and by failing to curb hurricane-producing global warming.
Yes, overseas operations have left the National Guard overextended. But commanders insist that their resources are more than adequate to cope with disaster response, and the governors of Mississippi and Louisiana called up only a fraction of the National Guard troops that were available in their states.
And global warming? The idea that the slight rise in ocean temperatures is causing more intense (though not more frequent) hurricanes has been advanced by a few scientists, such as MIT climatologist Kerry Emmanuel, but it remains outside the mainstream. An article in The New York Times published on August 30, 2005, reflected the consensus, pointing out that most climate scientists think it "is not the case" that "the recent rise in [hurricanes'] number and ferocity is because of global warming."
To all those other Republican sins, add racism. Obviously, race and poverty are intertwined in America, and to that extent race was related to who survived in New Orleans. But the race mongers went far beyond that plain, and discomforting, fact. The trope that Bush doesn't give a damn if black people die was repeated by Moore, rapper Kanye West, self-styled civil rights activist Al Sharpton, and others.
It, too, was dramatically out of touch with the facts. Government ineptitude, like the hurricane itself, was an equal opportunity offender. People were just as neglected, probably more so, in predominantly white Katrina-stricken areas in Mississippi and Louisiana.
As Harry Shearer pointed out in The Huffington Post, "three weeks after landfall, their officials sit with populations of middle-class people largely homeless, waiting for help that still does not come. A lot of those people and officials, this being the suburbs, are white. The words from the officials' mouths…eerily echo the words cried out by black folks at the Convention Center almost three weeks ago: they keep promising buses and other help and it never comes, we feel betrayed by our own government."
But this corrective did little to displace the racism meme. By then, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan was suggesting that the white man had deliberately blown up the levees to destroy New Orleans' black neighborhoods, and two Air America hosts appearing on MSNBC's The Situation, Chuck D and Rachel Maddow, would not repudiate his charge but merely danced around the issue, suggesting that under these awful circumstances some racial paranoia was justified or at least understandable.
Meanwhile, many on the right were fighting their own brand of culture wars. George Neumayr, executive editor of The American Spectator, wrote darkly about the "civilizational collapse" in ravaged New Orleans, victim of a "politically correct culture in which pathologies are allowed to fester in the name of 'progress.'?" The pathologies in question ranged from violent rap music (there's nothing like a "Born a Pimp, Died a Playa" T-shirt or two to throw fear into the hearts of social conservatives) to a police department allegedly filled with criminals because of "let's-just-meet-the-quota-style affirmative action." The New Orleans Police Department does have a notorious history of corruption, but this problem long predated affirmative action.
Several conservative sites also ran a shrill screed by Robert Tracinski, editor of the Objectivist journal Intellectual Activist, who opined that the real devastation in New Orleans was a "man-made disaster" caused by "criminals and welfare parasites." The latter, Tracinski wrote, were "a mass of sheep" unable to help themselves due to "lack of initiative and self-induced helplessness."
Of course, Tracinski has no more idea than the rest of us how many of the refugees were on welfare and how many were working poor, how many suffered from "lack of initiative" and how many simply lacked the transportation to get out of town. The welfare state does cause social pathologies. But it might have been a little more decent to at least wait until all the "sheep," alive and dead, were plucked from the waters.
Such decency seemed in short supply in the weeks following Katrina. As the city began to retrieve its dead and the final tally was still expected to be in the thousands, some Republicans launched into a spin cycle, suggesting that 10,000 dead in a nation of 300 million wasn't that bad and pointing out that household accidents cause more annual casualties in America and the 2003 heat wave killed more people in Europe.
Vanity Fair writer James Wolcott rightly took them to task for this callous and clumsy attempt at damage control. Then he immediately turned to a numbers game of his own: Whatever the eventual death toll from Katrina, he asserted, it would take away the World Trade Center bombing from the right as a propaganda tool in the War on Terror because conservatives would no longer be able to "ritualistically invoke the '3,000 dead' to the same sonorous effect." One has to wonder if a body count below 1,000 would have been a disappointment.
This is not to say that there weren't valuable policy lessons to be learned from the hurricane and its aftermath. The problem is that the lesson, as always, depends on who wants to teach it. In the words of The Economist's Megan McArdle, who blogs at Asymmetrical Information: "Hurricane Katrina seems to have triggered a lot of deep revelations to everyone. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these deep revelations consisted of…reaffirming exactly what they had previously believed."?