The scene was, for me, picture-perfect. It was shortly before midnight, in the bar of the Hotel Pontchartrain on St Charles Ave in the garden district of New Orleans. Outside, the rain was beating down, illuminated by a yellow streetlamp, and the famous streetcar – yes, of Streetcar Named Desire fame – was shuttling past. Inside, the pianist had just started on Sinatra’s great torch song: ‘… so make it one for my baby and one more for the road.’
I was in New Orleans a little more than a year ago, ostensibly on a reporting trip for the impending US presidential election but one that coincided with the New Orleans Jazz Festival. Funny that. The festival was a wonderfully egalitarian event and most jazz fans seemed to be Democrats, so prolific were the John Kerry buttons and the ‘Re-Defeat Bush’ stickers. I can’t tell you how good it felt.
President Bush and music star Mark Wills,
The festival, then in its 34th year, was a marked contrast to another New Orleans landmark: the private, gated streets that run off St Charles Ave. I tried to walk – walk, not drive – down one of these streets, thinking they were really just about controlling traffic, not stopping mere pedestrians. ‘Hey, where you going?’ demanded the guard in the booth.
‘Just walking, looking,’ I replied.
‘Can’t you see? This is a private street.’
‘A private street? How can a whole street be private?’
‘Buddy, this is America. If you’ve got money, you can do anything you want.’
Including, it seems, escape from the rising waters of a flood brought on by a hurricane.
Last week, as I read of the mounting toll of death and other assorted horrors that have engulfed New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, I thought frequently of that incident last summer in the leafy grove off St Charles Ave. The security guard – black – could well have been among the 10 000 estimated casualties, swallowed by the rising floodwaters or infected with water-borne disease.
The people whose homes he was protecting no doubt drove defiantly through the floodwaters in their four-wheel drives, to relatives’ homes or hotels or second homes interstate. In my fury – an irrational fury, I admit – I thought the one consolation might be that their homes might have been first on the looters’ hit list.
If there was ever a more glaring manifestation of the great John Kenneth Galbraith’s dictum of ‘private affluence, public squalor’ it was New Orleans this past week. It was the 20 000 people sweltering, dehydrating, even starving in the fetid air of the New Orleans Superdome. It was the rigor mortis of the old lady, dead three days and covered in a sheet, propped up in a wheelchair on the lawn. It was the infant taking her last gasp, dying because her parents could not get enough baby formula. It was Aaron Broussard, president of the neighbouring Jefferson County and normally a tough Louisiana politician, reduced to tears, crying, ‘We’ve been abandoned by our own country.’ It is the very term ‘refugees’ being applied to citizens of the United States, the world’s richest nation, still living in their own country.
But this is George W Bush’s America. This is Republican America. This is free-market America.
Despite all the eloquent denunciations from Americans, such as Aaron Broussard, of the Bush Administration’s callous disregard for its own citizens, I reach back two decades, to the former British Labour leader, the great Neil Kinnock, for a ‘pre-emptive’ critique of Bush’s negligence and cruelty. Addressing a Labour conference after Margaret Thatcher had declared there was ‘no such thing as society,’ he could have just as easily been speaking of Bush’s attitude to national solidarity and the notion of a shared humanity. For the Right, he declared, there is…
no such thing as society, no obligation to the community, no sense of solidarity, no principles of caring and sharing. No sisterhood, no brotherhood, no neighbourhood. No honouring other people’s mothers and fathers, no succouring other people’s little children. No number other than one, no person other than me, no time other than now. No such thing as society, just me and now.
Under Bush, this has become the national ethos of America. If the underclass of New Orleans was too poor to own cars to drive themselves out of the disaster zone, well, they should have worked harder. If their minimum wage jobs – US$5.15 an hour – paid so little that they could only afford to live in the flood-prone ghettos of the city, tough, they should have invested more wisely. If the rich object to paying enough tax to support the infrastructure that would secure the city, hey, that’s the free market that has made America the most prosperous, but economically uneven, country on earth. The commonweal – what’s that?
Thanks to Alan Moir at the Sydney Morning Herald
George Bush claims to be the inheritor of Ronald Reagan’s legacy, to be the champion of limited government. He wants to wave it as a badge of pride. I say, let him wear it as history’s indictment. After all, it was Reagan who, in his 1981 first inaugural address, said ‘government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.’ Tell that to the 500 000 citizens of New Orleans who last week looked around and asked where the Federal Emergency Management Agency was when they needed it to deliver them food, to deliver them water, to deliver them from the worst natural disaster – exacerbated by Republican incompetence and insouciance – in living memory. Where was the government when they needed it?
Here’s a tip. The man who sets the agenda for the Bush Administration, the fanatical small government advocate Grover Norquist, has said: ‘My goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.’ American government is not quite that small – yet – but Hurricane Katrina is hurrying the job along rather nicely for Norquist.
Could Bush have got anything else wrong? Let’s run a tally.
He redirected money that was supposed to be spent on shoring up the levee banks along the Mississippi to his child-killing war in Iraq, ensuring that some children in New Orleans also died. My old Washington friend Dave Sirota, a brilliant progressive writer and activist now based in the western United States, sent out a mass email earlier this week, recalling the congressional debates three years ago about how to fund vital, life-saving infrastructure, such as the Mississippi levee banks:
‘I remember these debates very well when I worked for the Appropriations Committee. Democrats noted repeatedly that serious budget cuts to critical Army Corps [of Engineers]programs were coming AT THE VERY SAME TIME THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION WAS PUSHING TRILLIONS IN TAX CUTS [the capitals are Dave’s] … What we see now is very clear: there are serious, tragic and awful consequences that result from the Bush administration’s willingness to make tax cuts for the wealthy a priority over everything else.’
Bush also deployed a third of the Louisiana National Guard to Iraq, leaving no one to drive the trucks carrying New Orleans refugees out and supplies in, or to unload the sandbags to plug the holes in the levee banks.
And of course, he took a five week vacation, in a country where the average paid vacation is just two weeks, (the longest break for a president this century and last) and played golf amid the crisis.
Bush is the ultimate plutocrat, born into privilege and with an innate belief in his right to rule because of his bloodline and his bank balance. Based on his public policy – his bungled war in Iraq, his deliberate effort to starve the government of revenue by slashing taxes on the obscenely wealthy, his attempt to undermine the one remaining civilising element of America by privatising social security – we have long known he is the least competent and most corrupt president in 100 years. (Corrupt? Try his administration’s largesse for the Texas gas and oil interests, from whence he came and to where he will undoubtedly return, and read the Conyers Report on the Bush campaign’s vote rigging in Ohio last year.)
But when Bush chose to rush away, with indecent haste, from the scene of such human misery last weekend, he revealed something else about himself. He is the most callous president in the history of the republic. A modern-day Nero.
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