I’m probably still way too angry about what we’ve seen in New Orleans over the past two weeks to be writing about it. But a piece by Timothy Garton-Ash in the Guardian, of all places, has finally forced me to say something.
Garton-Ash is a very clever chap, and he tells us that what we have seen unfolding in New Orleans is an instance of “decivilization,” in which a crisis of resources quickly destroys the thin veneer of civility that binds us together, and reduces humans to their animal essence. (He’s talking of the incidents of extortion and brutality that got much media attention as the mechanisms of law enforcement were swept away.) “Katrina’s big lesson is that the crust of civilisation on which we tread is always wafer thin,” he writes. “One tremor, and you’ve fallen through, scratching and gouging for your life like a wild dog.”
“Remove the elementary staples of organised, civilised life – food, shelter, drinkable water, minimal personal security – and we go back within hours to a Hobbesian state of nature, a war of all against all. Some people, some of the time, behave with heroic solidarity; most people, most of the time, engage in a ruthless fight for individual and genetic survival. A few become temporary angels, most revert to being apes.”
By way of disclosure, he fesses up to the fact that he acts like an asshole in a crisis where the last seat on a plane may be at stake, assuming that the same goes for the rest of us and that we would therefore recognize such behavior as somehow natural. Garton-Ash warns that the combination of environmental cataclysms, poverty and war that await in the decades ahead are likely to combine to generalize this unfortunate state.
Now, I’m happy to accept the neo-Malthusians predictions on where things are heading in terms of scarce resources under ever greater pressure etc. because I’ve always found them far more compelling than the wishful thinking of globalization cheerleaders like Thomas Friedman who imagine global prosperity as an ever-expanding cake waiting to feed those who sign up for the program.
It’s Garton-Ash’s characterization of the human response to such crises that I find hard to accept. For every rapist and thug that rampaged in New Orleans, there were hundreds, thousands of ordinary people maintained their humanity and their sense of solidarity with one another even when it became clear that they had been abandoned by their government and the foundations of their society appear to be ripped out from under them. (Not entirely abandoned, of course: Bush flew over and then touched down among a crew of supporters to slap backs and praise FEMA chief Michael Brown – “Brownie,” in Bush’s adolescent nicknaming nomenclature — for the “great job” he was so obviously not doing. And the White House did warn those who dared to steal a loaf of bread from a flooded supermarket that such “looting” would not be tolerated, because property rights are sacrosanct and people ought to simply go hungry until some arm of the government could get supplies to them.)
The bulk of people in New Orleans bore their suffering with dignity and humanity. Just as in the Nazi concentration camps and other extreme instances cited by Garton-Ash, not everyone survived by being a selfish bastard. Just because you turn into an asshole when there’s only one seat left on the last plane out of Des Moines, Tim, doesn’t mean the rest of us do.
What I found a lot more annoying, and insidious, in Garton-Ash’s piece, was the fact that in the guise of this coolly detached social analysis, he is inadvertently rationalizing the very social Darwinism that lies at the heart of the betrayal of the people of New Orleans. Thousands may have died because the levees were not upgraded, despite repeated warnings of their vulnerability – the money was spent elsewhere. And FEMA’s response was shameful – hardly surprising, though, because FEMA was gutted by the Bush administration as part of their assault on “Big Government.” The hurricane was a natural disaster, but the extent of its impact was a product of human actions and omissions. The same social darwinism as Garton-Ash treats as inevitable is what undergirds the systematic looting of the federal government (through tax cuts and corporate welfare) over the past couple of decades, by a party governing in the interests of a tiny minority of the wealthiest Americans, but presenting themselves as bearers of the interests of the common people by draping themselves in the flag (who was it who said that “patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels”?) and a version of Christianity that seems to have forgotten such basic observations by Jesus as the one that “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” The logic of their actions in government, which have left the people of New Orleans more exposed than they needed to be, and then abandoned in the wake of the storm, is the same as that elaborated by Garton-Ash — resources are scarce, and the wealthy must take care of themselves first.
Given the extent of public anger, the Bush administration appears to have abandoned its traditional closing of ranks even around some of some of the fools, incompetents and charlatans that have authored some of its worst disasters — anyone remember that rather Soviet-esque moment in which President Bush literally awarded medals to George Tenet, Tommy Franks and Jerry Bremer for their “pivotal” roles in the Iraq fiasco. Last week “Brownie” may have been destined for a medal, but the administration is in such deep doo-doo politically that it needs a scapegoat, and “Brownie” — who told CNN four days after the storm that his department was unaware of the people taking refuge at the convention center — is the obvious choice.
But don’t let Brown’s anticipated hara-kiri distract you: The issue is not simply the competence of the CEO figure; it’s about a culture of government — and, more specifically, of shrinking government by starving it of funds in order to line the pockets of the wealthiest of the wealthy. Not only did Bush put an obviously incompetent political crony in charge of FEMA, he also slashed its funds and privatized some of its functions.
The problem with what Garton-Ash is saying is that if resources are scarce and anarchy inevitable, then – he suggests – a hoarding of resources by powerful elites is inevitable, “natural” even.
But if Garton-Ash is wrong, then New Orleans should serve as a reminder that a very different way of ordering society, and a very different set of priorities for government, may better serve and protect citizens in an age when scarce resources, environmental decline and longstanding conflicts are going to intensify the pressure on the bonds bind our fates together. New Orleans should be prompting a discussion on what defines America, on its common values and purpose, and how it ought to be governed in pursuit of those. It’s not a partisan thing, because the Democrats have hardly championed the cause of the common people with any conviction for some time now; they’ve been trying to avoid being accused of “class warfare” even though that’s exactly what the Republicans have relentlessly waged. What New Orleans showed more than anything else is that the America of Woodie Guthrie is very much alive; an America where people are still hungry and unemployed and line up by the relief office, or still work just as hard as they’re able for the crumbs from a rich man’s table, and still wonder if its truth or fable that “this land was made for you and me.” And that America has been failed by its leaders.