08 September 2005

Fairness and impeachment

Nearly two weeks after Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, I'm still more stunned than angry ... at least angry in the way that most of my friends, and most commentators, seem to be. The cold, calculating political scientist in me (or is it the Martian observer in me) says not to wade into the rhetorical fray, just add things up and state the results.

Add things up: many commentators seem to agree that our compound national tragedy includes marginalization of environmental and conservation concerns (90% of us are probably guilty) and passivity in the face of systemic economic injustice (a similar high percentage of guilt?). What specifically are the President and his crew guilty of, that the rest of us are not, and that would explain the venom being directed their way?

Are they in fact guilty of contempt for government (as some commentators charge) and contempt for poor people? If so, they reflect attitudes that are widespread in their support base. George Lakoff links the ruling ideology to a Dobsonian "strict father" concept of leadership. In the present situation, we see the corrosive cost of a narrow and sloppy application of ideology to the real stewardship that government requires: when the time comes for the strict father to protect his charges, he fails miserably in a way that the metaphor does not anticipate. How can daddy discipline those who are dead and dying as a result of his self-indulgence, denial, cronyism, and failure to apply his own ideology to himself? Nevertheless, the ideology is not unique to a few at the top, nor is its lazy, corrupt, and inconsistent application.

Where I find a case for guilt, in a stricter sense, at the top is this: fraud and deceit in the exercise of leadership responsibilities. President Bush committed the resources and psychic energy of this country to a false war, whose support and financing have distorted every aspect of national life: our economy, our domestic policies, our sense of national community, and our standing in the rest of the world. The consequences of massive deceit go beyond bad policy choices; they rob Bush of moral authority just when that authority is most needed: to rally the nation at a time of the national traumas resulting from Katrina. On a spiritual level, the demons unleashed by a deceitful war and the resulting deaths of thousands of innocents—a category that probably includes most of our own dead soldiers who were not party to the fraud—contribute to global moral confusion and outrage.

I cannot argue that Bush has no support for this direction; half the nation's voters seem to have ratified at least some of this program by returning him to office. What seems to me to be impeachable is the deceit by which their approval was obtained. (Contrast the deceit practiced by President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky! The primary national consequence of that deceit, other than the unedifying scramble by Clinton's enemies to exploit his idiocy, was to force sensible parents into providing some proactive sex education.) I don't know where the balance lies between Bush's personal incompetence and his level of conscious participation in the ideologically-driven strategies of Norquist, Rove, & Co. But perhaps the best way to find out would be a congressional investigation and trial.

To help me cope with the surreal images of displaced and neglected humans, unattended bodies, and journalists entering where emergency assistance had not yet arrived, I escaped to the land of poets. Actually, to the prose writings of beloved Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva. Jamey Gambrell translated and edited the Yale University Press edition of Tsvetaeva's Earthly Signs: Moscow Diaries, 1917-1922. At the time of the Bolshevik revolution, Tsvetaeva was visiting her mentor Max Voloshin in the Crimea; the book begins with Tsvetaeva's experiences returning to Moscow on a train during the social hurricane of those October (Old Calendar) days.
Should God grant this miracle—leave you [husband Sergei, supposedly at home in Moscow] among the living, I shall follow you like a dog.

The news is vague. I don't know what to believe. I read about the Kremlin, Tverskaya Street, the Arbat, the Metropol Hotel, Voznesensky Square, the mountains of corpses. In yesterday's (the 1st issue of the SR newspaper Kurskaya Zhizn I read that disarmament had begun. Other papers (today's) write of fighting. I'm not allowing myself the will to write now—but I've imagined a thousand times how I'll walk into the house. Will it be possible to enter the city?

Soon we'll be at Oryol. It's about two in the afternoon now. We'll be in Moscow at 2 in the morning. And if I walk into the house and there's no one there, not a soul? Where shall I look for you? Perhaps the house is no longer there?

David Finke sent the following commentary out to a number of people last Friday. For both human and documentary value, I reprint it, with his permission:

"Acts of God" and acts of man -- a D.H.F. Essay, 9/2/05

Beloved relatives,

I spent yesterday -- our first full one home after 2 weeks on the road -- mostly catching up on e-mail and web-browsing, (though also catching up with Hadley Finke in the morning, to our mutual benefit.) The horrific reality of what has happened and is happening along the Gulf Coast was, of course, a major and growing part of my awareness. (We had seen, at gas-station and quick-snack rest stops, TV pictures of reporters struggling with 145 mph winds, as we drove to Alice & Ted's... and then started Tuesday evening to begin to get more pictures of what an entire city flooded looks like.) Wednesday was our drive-back day, over 600 miles of midwest before tumbling into our own beds that night, increasingly aware of how many people now don't have homes to return to.

So, I want to share some reflections that on the face of them may seem needlessly polemical, but I predict will be straws-in-the-wind for an impending sea-change in American Politics, and our sense of vulnerability and indeed of humanity in a world we think we control but in sobering moments like this realize we hardly do at all.

Times of natural disaster bring forth that legal word, which I've never liked, "Acts of God" (the kind of things excluded from some
insurance policies!) Unlike some whose reflex is to shake their fist at
the sky and shout to their Creator "Why me?!!!", I can't believe that God somehow has it in for us when big things like tornados, floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, prairie fires, swarms of locusts, etc etc, happen to hit us. I know that religious traditions are strong with myths and stories about the Judgment of the Almighty descending in such events, and the whole Exodus drama sees God's hand against Pharaoh's tyranny in a succession of plagues and disasters.

At the same time, I treasure the way that Jesus put aside and reformed the question when -- confronted with a suffering human being -- the skeptics and questioners and provocateurs asked him, "Who sinned? This man or his parents?" And even the archetypal Book of Job basically ends with God saying, more or less, "You can't understand. This is all beyond you" in the face of the tormenters wanting to see if a righteous man's faith can be shaken by a series of misfortunes.

For me, if I believe in -- no, make that "If I Experience..." -- a Universe that has dynamic forces.... Gravity and momentum, a spinning planet, heat and water currents swirling in patterns that look fascinating from space but can be rough when you're caught under them... then I simply must accept that there will be times that humanity and tsunamis and whirlwinds happen to be in the same time and place. We can take precautions, but ultimately we can't guarantee safety in a world and solar system and universe in which (contrary to the expectation of many) things just don't revolve around homo sapiens' sole interests. Hugely powerful events are happening all the time, and we're not even right now in the neighborhood of collapsing stars; relative to others parts of space, things are pretty much in a steady-state for us, here and now, so much that we usually don't notice the reliability and predictability of natural forces that we can plan around.

Then comes a hurricane, and people have some kind of crisis of faith.
Sorry: I don't (mostly) get upset about what I think are the morally neutral forces of nature, which we may call "Acts of God."

But what I CAN reserve my upset and right now my outrage for are what I'll call "Acts of Man" (and the gender reference is usually literally the case.) These "acts" can also be non-acts of neglect and ignorance and stupidity and blind short-sightedness. These last few days have given data in abundance for those phenomena. The "Act of God" in it for me is that maybe, just maybe, the human race (especially the part of it within the U.S.A. which purports to have a government accountable to The People) may learn some lessons and do some course-corrections.

My prayer, if you'll allow me that language, is that we're just now starting to have a widespread wake-up call in which we'll discover the massive deception in the claims "Who could have known?..." emanating from the White House and its lapdog apologists. I predict, as well as hope, that the kinds of data in the few snippets I collected yesterday in my web-browsing will move from being the cries-in-the-wilderness of lefty bloggers, to a paradigm shift in which it will become the new CW ("Conventional Wisdom," as the column in Newsweek puts it.)

The human race has made it this far not only by dumb luck, but also by the ability to recognize and learn from mistakes, to do course corrections when inertia and tradition and venal self-interest keeps chanting "Stay the course, Stay the course..." right into increasing disaster.

OK, enough for my preaching (in Round One, anyway.) Let me get on to sending you a quick and far-from-comprehensive paste-together of what I think are straws-in-the-wind observations. The quotes of course have judgments and conclusions in them -- as we humans are rightly wont to do -- but they also point to empirical facts that can be researched and documented and verified. I am always comforted by the recollection of words I heard Martin Luther King, Jr., say in person (probably quoting some poet) that "A lie cannot live forever." Truth, even painful truth, may yet set us free.

And I'll close with a favorite quote which has been on my mind in this last week, from Mother Jones: "Mourn the dead, but fight like hell for the living!"

Here's my quick collection, which I hope is prophetic:



How New Orleans Was Lost
Submitted by Anonymous on Thu, 2005-09-01 08:18.

Chalk up the city of New Orleans as a cost of Bush's Iraq war.

There were not enough helicopters to repair the breached levees and rescue people trapped by rising water. Nor are there enough Louisiana National Guardsmen available to help with rescue efforts and to patrol against looting.

The situation is the same in Mississippi.

The National Guard and helicopters are off on a fool's mission in Iraq.

The National Guard is in Iraq because fanatical neoconservatives in the Bush administration were determined to invade the Middle East and because incompetent Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld refused to listen to the generals, who told him there were not enough regular troops available to do the job.

After the invasion, the arrogant Rumsfeld found out that the generals were right. The National Guard was called up to fill in the gaping gaps.

Now the Guardsmen, trapped in the Iraqi quagmire, are watching on TV the families they left behind trapped by rising waters and wondering if the floating bodies are family members. None know where their dislocated families are, but, shades of Fallujah, they do see their destroyed homes.

The mayor of New Orleans was counting on helicopters to put in place massive sandbags to repair the levee. However, someone called the few helicopters away to rescue people from rooftops. The rising water overwhelmed the massive pumping stations, and New Orleans disappeared under deep water.

What a terrible casualty of the Iraqi war one of our oldest and most beautiful cities, a famous city, a historic city.

Distracted by its phony war on terrorism, the U.S. government had made no preparations in the event Hurricane Katrina brought catastrophe to New Orleans. No contingency plan existed. Only now after the disaster are FEMA and the Corps of Engineers trying to assemble the material and equipment to save New Orleans from the fate of Atlantis.

Even worse, articles in the New Orleans Times-Picayune and public statements by emergency management chiefs in New Orleans make it clear that the Bush administration slashed the funding for the Corps of Engineers' projects to strengthen and raise the New Orleans levees and diverted the money to the Iraq war.

Walter Maestri, emergency management chief for Jefferson Parish, told the New Orleans Times-Picayune (June 8, 2004): "It appears that the money has been moved in the president's budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose that's the price we pay. Nobody locally is happy that the levees can't be finished, and we are doing everything we can to make the case that this is a security issue for us."

Why can't the U.S. government focus on America's needs and leave other countries alone? Why are American troops in Iraq instead of protecting our own borders from a mass invasion by illegal immigrants? Why are American helicopters blowing up Iraqi homes instead of saving American homes in New Orleans?

How can the Bush administration be so incompetent as to expose Americans at home to dire risks by exhausting American resources in foolish foreign adventures? What kind of "homeland security" is this?

All Bush has achieved by invading Iraq is to kill and wound thousands of people while destroying America's reputation. The only beneficiaries are oil companies capitalizing on a good excuse to jack up the price of gasoline and Osama bin Laden's recruitment.

What we have is a Republican war for oil company profits while New Orleans sinks beneath the waters.


[via Alternet]

Posted by Lakshmi Chaudhry on September 1, 2005 at 10:15 AM.

While we're on the subject of Bush's incompetence, Wonkette offers this email from an EPA staffer down in New Orleans, who says the people cleaning up the White House-created mess have a special name for the flood waters:

We're naming it Lake George, 'cause it's his frickin fault. Have you seen all that data about the levee projects' funding being cut over the past three years by the Prez, and the funding transferred to Iraq? The levee, as designed, might not have held back the surge from a direct Class 5 hit, but it certainly would not have crumbled on Monday night from saturation and scour erosion following a glancing blow from a Class 3. The failure was in a spot that had just been rebuilt, not yet compacted, not planted, and not armed (hardened with rock/concrete). The project should have been done two years ago, but the federal gov't diverted 80% of the funding to Iraq. Other areas had settled by a few feet from their design specs, and the money to repair them was diverted to Iraq.

The NO paper raised hell about this time and again, to no avail.



Head Of Emergency Operations: "This Is A National Disgrace"..."There Is No Command And Control"...

Posted on September 1, 2005

Tens of thousands of people remain stranded on the streets of New Orleans in desperate conditions because officials failed to plan for a serious levee breach and the federal response to Hurricane Katrina was slow, according to disaster experts and Louisiana government officials.

Though experts had long predicted that the city -- which sits below sea level and is surrounded by water -- would face unprecedented devastation after an immense hurricane, they said problems were worsened by a late evacuation order and insufficient emergency shelter for as many as 100,000 people.

(c) 2005 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.


Quote of the Week (from Sojourners)

"Missing the personnel is the big thing in this particular event. We need our people."

- Lt. Andy Thaggard, a spokesman for the Mississippi National Guard, commenting on how having so many troops in Iraq is hampering relief efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Source: The Washington Post:


Anonymous said...

One element of my personal theology is the belief that God does not make things happen, either the good or the bad in life, but it is by the grace of God that we are able to learn from what happens. For example, to find meaning and instruction in amoral acts of nature, to repent of our failures to act with our full capacity for love, and to renew our commitment to "do the right thing," as we understand what that is - by the grace of God.

Johan Maurer said...

God made our "good" creation, in which death, destruction, and cruelty happen. As I (and others) said somewhere else after the December tsunami, each person dies only once, whether alone or along with many others simultaneously. I'm far less fearful of death, my own or others', than I am of cruelty. But in either case, death or cruelty, I rely on God's promise not to leave us alone, ever.

We never need to come to a full understanding of catastrophe to make a decision for compassion, for life, in its awful aftermath.

You use the word "repent" -- one of my favorite words, a far deeper and more humane concept than it's sometimes given credit for.

Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

Anonymous said...

This tragedy illustrates the reality of the fault lines of class and race remaining in America today. Before the storm hit, the order to evacuate came. However, no provisions at all were made to evacuate those who did not own their own transportation and who could not afford to purchase lodging.

The arrangements eventually made for buses to evacuate residents and for shelters to accommodate large numbers could have been made prior to the storm, since there were 5 days advance notice. But there is no indication it was even considered.

At a minimum, arrangements could have been made to make the Superdome and the Convention Center more livable in the absence of utilities.

However, as usual, the poor -largely minorities - were afterthoughts.