We now see President George W. Bush on his third trip to New Orleans, this time conspicuously enjoying himself as he jokes and jives with the aid workers and military personnel who are finally beginning to have some positive effect in the stricken city. And what we see is that this is really the President’s element. He thrives in a setting where he can stage a cheerful photo op--with a bullhorn in the ashes of the World Trade Center vowing to rebuild and to hunt down the bad guys who did this; on the deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln in San Diego harbor announcing his premature Mission Accomplished; in Baghdad on a surprise Thanksgiving junket, eating fake turkey with servicemen; and now, now that the the crisis is resolving, TV-wise, pressing the flesh with the happy workers who have turned the New Orleans disaster into an occasion for a U.S. victory over nasty nature. And though he doesn’t respond well to crisis--his apparent bafflement when he heard about the WTC bombings and continued to read about a goat, followed by his craven flight to the remotest area of the country; his bumbling responses to the New Orleans catastrophe, playing golf while a great American city drowned--this is a President who knows how to lead the cheers when the danger is past.
This pattern might even be seen as humorous, as an ironic commentary on a man who has promoted the image of himself as a courageous leader, if it were not so troubling.
For this pattern, far from signifying simply the accidental missteps of a canny politician under stress, speaks to a deeper paradigm of the man, and his entire philosophy. His party’s entire philosophy. What I mean is that the conservatives who now own the Republican party don’t do disaster well. As with the current president, their inclination in times of trouble seems to be to head for the hills, to get to some offshore haven or gated community from which they can shift the blame onto poorer or weaker others. As with this president, their moment really arrives when the nation enters a period of relative peace and/or prosperity like the 20s, the 50s, the 80s. (As to who promotes the prosperity, that is another matter: with the boom of the 1990s, it was the work of the Clinton administration’s economic and fiscal policies, generating trillions of dollars in surpluses.) Then it is that they can prate about morning in America, inveigh against welfare mothers and street criminals, and trumpet their anthem of rugged individualism, of citizens taking care of themselves, of the glories of privatization and the evils of liberal bureaucracy and pork-barrel handouts to the undeserving. And if into this mix should creep a disaster of some kind, either natural or man-made, they are once again nowhere to be found. At moments of crisis--the Great Depression, World War II, the attack on the WTC, or now the drowning of a great American city--the nation is shocked into the realization that its survival really does depend on all the dread engines of government bureaucracy the conservatives have been busy dismantling. Its collective welfare really does require all the soft-headed programs animated by concern for the less fortunate. Its safety really is secured by competent people committed not to fattening their pockets or rewarding their cronies but to creating support systems for those who have been or will be flattened by life.
Americans should seriously reflect upon this. They should reflect and understand that in truth, it is most often the conservatives in America who reap the benefits of big government--in subsidies for major corporations, in tariffs and price supports to benefit huge farming operations, in trillions expended and wasted on foreign adventures, and no-bid contracts for always newer and bigger weapons systems and privatized operational support for our armies of occupation, legal or illegal.
They should reflect that the size and scale of modern industrial civilization demands that a national government provide the indispensable infrastructure to make everyday necessities--roads, bridges, dams, power, transport, schools, levees, and now even air and water--work. That in crisis situations the health and welfare of a people cannot be left to “rugged” individuals struggling (or scamming) for their own narrow advantage. That there are recurrent times when people are brought face to face with the fact that a nation is a pact among millions of cooperating individuals, and that, in truth, the basis for survival of any one individual, no matter how self-reliant, always depends on the survival of seemingly distant, unrelated others, no matter how insignificant. The health of New Orleans is not something that can be left to individual residents of New Orleans. Because not only is any one individual New Orleaner unable to implement and maintain the strength of the levees upon which his very survival depends; individual farmers in Minnesota and South Dakota and Kansas and the entire nation are unable to thrive or survive without the strength of those New Orleans levees either. For those levees make possible the city and port of New Orleans, and the river leading to it and from it, and all those who work there and throughout the region as well.
This is the truth that the conservative movement in this nation has been trying to suppress and deny and ridicule. That people are dependent upon each other. All people. Rich and poor and middle class. That no one individual, no matter how talented or wealthy or self-serving, can survive alone. That individualism only works in a community of cooperation which takes care of all the tributary functions that every individual needs: clean air and clean water and streets and schools and hospitals and ports and the agreement by each individual to abide by the restraints and constraints and levies that are required in the social compact.
Nor does that social compact condemn individuals for being poor or dark or foreign-born or homeless. It, on the contrary, speaks to the inherent worth of every human being, any human being, regardless of circumstance. That is the meaning of the compact. In return for the agreement of each individual to abide by specific restrictions on individual greed and selfishness and freedom placed by government, government agrees to provide the services necessary to survival. It is moments of crisis that bring this compact into stark relief, moments of crisis that demonstrate what the competing political systems and their leaders truly have to offer. The drowning of New Orleans has done this in the most fundamental way possible. Now it is up to the people of the United States to draw their conclusions about who is likely to serve them in a crisis, and who is likely to turn tail and run until the waters have begun to recede.