Tuesday, March 07, 2006

A Disaster of Government and Citizenship?

I reacted to what I witnessed on the TV screen after Katrina with a deep sense of betrayal because I recognized that the deaths we were witnessing were not the result of any natural disaster, but a disaster of our own making--a disaster of government stemming from a long-developing failure of policy vision and policymaking--a disaster stemming from a fundamental failure of citizenship by all Americans. For me, the voices of the people abandoned to death or hunger after Katrina screamed of the failures of policy and political vision that had been preparing this disaster for many long years, and that will continue to prepare many disasters to come until we, as citizens, change this country's policy of wilful blindness and neglect toward the poor and uninsured.

I take our current and ongoing failures of government initiative personally because I know we can do better, in this culturally and materially wealthy country, than this. We not only can do better, we must do better--if we want a future for this country that will be worthy of what the citizens of this country have to offer each other and the rest of the world.

As I prepare to head to New Orleans tomorrow, I've begun to read Michael Eric Dyson's new book, Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster. Dyson begins by discussing the long history of our nation's blindness to the structural politics of race and class, along with the short-sighted practices of policymaking, that long before August 2005 paved the way for the failures of response to Katrina (which continue six months later).

Most valuable in Dyson's opening chapter "Unnatural Disasters" is his move to look beyond the immediate failures of government to the failures of citizenship and civic responsibility that made the response and policy failures not only possible, but inevitable. Dyson underlines the naivete of the majority of white middle-class and wealthy Americans who were surprised to see their government leave behind the most vulnerable poor and black citizens of Louisiana and Mississippi, and he indicts a culture of "blissful ignorance" that keeps so many Americans "deliberately naive about the poor while dodging the responsibility that knowledge of their lives would entail."

And Dyson quickly moves to the heart of the matter when he underlines the blissful escape from responsibility embodied in the framing of what happened to the Gulf Coast six months ago as a "natural disaster." When we frame what has happened to a million of our fellow citizens over the last six months as the result of a natural disaster, we can be angry about what happened without feeling responsible for what happened:

"We are thus able to decry the circumstances of the poor while assuring ourselves that we had nothing to do with their plight. . . . We are fine as long as we place time limits on the origins of the poor's plight--the moments we all spied on television after the storm, but not the numbing years during which we all looked the other way. But we fail to confront our complicity in their long-term suffering. By being outraged, we appear compassionate. This permits us to continue to ignore the true roots of their condition, roots that branch into our worlds and are nourished on our political and religious beliefs" (4).

Dyson then moves immediately to restating a basic fact: "There are 37 million people in poverty in our nation, 1.1 million of whom fell below the poverty line in 2004."

Meanwhile, as we all know, our federal government has dedicated itself for more than four years now to enriching the wealthiest among us with tax cuts, while cutting what little remains of the social safety net of government programs that were created once upon a time when the citizens of this country still understood what it meant to use government as a common instrument for helping all Americans to share with each other the responsibilities and privileges of being citizens.

As I have watched the political game of failure and blame play itself out over the last six months in Washington, my long-developing fears and despair about the future of this country have only been compounded. I fear we now live in a country where the most advantaged individuals, who have gained the most from living and doing business in this country, no longer feel they owe any duty or responsibility to either their fellow citizens, or the social infrastructure (which includes public health), that has made their success and wealth possible. Why else would they accept increasing tax cuts while the least advantaged of their fellow citizens go without health care and fight their wars overseas? And based on the way those with the most power in our society and government have been devoting ever-increasing fractions of the tax dollars some of us pay (along with the lives or our fellow citizens) to fighting wars overseas while ignoring the poverty and suffering that increases among our own fellow citizens, I have lost faith in our current national "leadership" (of both parties).

My only hope (and this is why I am going to New Orleans this week) in the future of this country is that we can learn from each other as citizens to allow Katrina to teach us all to be citizens of a common country. 9/11, for all its trauma, and for all the media-inspired celebrations of patriotism that followed, apparently failed to do this. Otherwise we would not be allowing our government leaders to continue to abandon our fellow citizens as we have been since 9/11. While near 3000 died that day, how many more of our citizens have died since then of poverty and lack of access to proper health care treatment? How many more have died from despair at watching their government leaders talk of promoting democracy in the rest of the world while the most basic of human services are denied them at home?

And by abandoning our fellow citizens, I mean not just those from the Gulf Coast, but those 37 million in poverty (including the 1.1 million new poor in 2004), and the 46 million of our fellow citizens without health insurance, all over this country, who are suffering because of a national policy of wilful neglect and failure. Until we all, as citizens of this country, take responsibility for summoning the collective will to create a government and a policy structure worthy of the people of the United States, I will continue to live in despair of this country's future--for the poverty of other Americans is my poverty. Until we begin as a nation to understand and feel the poverty of others as our own, we will not escape our current national state of spiritual impoverishment. And this spiritual impoverishment is already showing its very material hand.

For no matter how much American citizens like to criticize their government when it does badly, and take it for granted when it serves us well, our government and our policy are what we make of them, for better or worse for all of us. Our government's failures (at local, state, and federal levels) to serve the most vulnerable of our fellow citizens only underline our own failures as citizens to create the kind of government that will not leave our fellow citizens (us) behind in their (our) times of need--

And so I continue to take our ongoing failures of government policy and vision personally. We can do better, in this rich country, than this. We owe it to ourselves and to each other, as citizens, to make sure our government does better in the future. We owe it to ourselves and each other to join together as citizens to demand new political vision and new policy frameworks for addressing the suffering of our fellow citizens. And so I am going to New Orleans to learn from, and contribute to, what the citizens of New Orleans are already doing to rebuild and demand better of this country, and better from all of us.

And lest we make the mistake of thinking that doing better for the citizens of the Gulf Coast would demand that we all become selflessly noble and philanthropic, we need simply to remember that a country filled with increasing numbers of poor and impoverished people, without hope, and living in despair, can not long continue to be a prosperous and successful country on any level. We should demand of ourselves that we do better for the citizens of the Gulf Coast because one day we will depend on the citizens of the Gulf Coast to do their part to help the rest of us in our time of need. This is the meaning of citizenship in common.

The great Mississippi flood of 1927, and the government failures of response after it, preceded the Great Depression by only a few years. But the market, policy, and political failures that brought on the Depression were already firmly in place by 1927. One need only compare the economic policies of Coolidge during the 1920s to those of today to begin to see the much larger failure toward which we may be heading in an era which seems to think there is little reason to pay attention to the lessons the history of the past century of human market failure and war might have to teach us.

A country of people too self-involved to summon the collective will to demand that its government insure the health and well-being of ALL its citizens can hardly serve as a good model of democracy to the rest of the world. Such a country has only a poor future ahead of it. The future we help (or do not help) to build in the Gulf Coast will mirror the future we are building (or not) for the rest of the country. Perhaps the best way we can begin, as a people, to earn back the respect of the rest of the world for this country is to show that we can insure the well-being of our own fellow citizens, beginning with those on the Gulf Coast.


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