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POLICY/POLITICS: The ugly side of American character revealed by Katrina, by The Industry Veteran

The Industry Veteran has been a little quiet of late. But you wouldn’t expect him to keep too quiet about an event like Katrina. Given the way that the whole thing has been turned into an Iraq-style feeding frenzy by the Republicans eager to run a privatized New Deal Mk II, here’s his sage perspective.

It’s interesting that even displays of shock and regret about Katrina, together with the belated recognition of larger problems concerning class and race uncovered by the hurricane, show an ugly side of the American character.  Read this op-ed piece from Harold Meyerson of the Washington Post and the LA Weekly.  He makes the point that American culture at its core is indifferent to the well being of the larger community.  With some minor qualifications, Meyerson is certainly correct.  This country was founded on the dark side of John Locke’s Whig philosophy, the idea that property constitutes the basis of liberty.  While “possessive individualism,” as it came to be called, can possibly be pushed in directions to show strong fellow feeling, its more typical implementation over the course of American history has been, “I’m looking out for me and mine, screw everyone else.”Reagan-Bush hucksters have self-righteously propagated the current incarnation of possessive individualism over the past 25 years by adding a fillip regarding the sanctity of markets.  According to their dogma, if any goods, services or social action appears desirable or necessary, a market will emerge to fill that need.  It is a manifest evil, according to these cowboy capitalists, for government to act in lieu of such a market or, even worse, to somehow alter the operations of an existing market to account for such an unmet need.  Of course if a market consisting of the poor and minorities makes it difficult to derive profits and, as a result, such a market is slow to emerge or never emerges, well, life’s unfair.  The free market fascists contend that government planning in the face of a market system’s well documented failures is, by definition, elitist.  Now here we have a natural disaster marked by the worst job of US government planning and response since the end of World War II and what do the Republicans propose to remedy the situation?  Well more of the same “free” market thinking that produced the problem should do the trick.  Doesn’t it make sense that generations of socially structured inequality can be remedied by granting liability exemptions to hospitals and physicians while businesses can be encouraged to hire the dispossessed by temporary exemptions from environmental safeguards?  Temporary exemptions from the estate tax will really help rebuild New Orleans as a city that provides greater opportunity, won’t it? See Wall Street Journal, 9/15/05.

The darker side of American character also helps explain the Democrats’ largely spineless failures to attack either the tactical failures or the pernicious social philosophy of Republicans.  The Democrats’ timidity comes from the fact that Republicans won the last two presidential elections, and all the off-year Congressional elections since 1994, by appealing to the dark side of the political center: prosperous suburbanites who aren’t terribly concerned about the general welfare.  As John Dickerson wrote in Slate, “For [suburbanites in SUVs], hurricane Katrina isn’t so much about race or poverty, it’s about homeland security—about what would happen if someone bombs their mall.”  The Democrats remain desperate to curry favor with this voting segment and only gauche party crashers such as Howard Dean will acknowledge that an understanding of hurricane Katrina requires us “to come to terms with the ugly truth that skin color, age, and economics played a significant role in who survived and who did not."  While the Democrats continually try to out-center the Republicans, the latter take the center for granted, favoring instead their fundamentalist and plutocratic bases.If studying social disasters is useful because they reveal a country’s underlying values and the way things really work, then I am even less sanguine about the prospects of significant health care reform than I was three weeks ago.

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BobbyG
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BobbyG

Well, regarding “…Reagan-Bush hucksters have self-righteously propagated the current incarnation of possessive individualism over the past 25 years by adding a fillip regarding the sanctity of markets. According to their dogma, if any goods, services or social action appears desirable or necessary, a market will emerge to fill that need. It is a manifest evil, according to these cowboy capitalists, for government to act in lieu of such a market or, even worse, to somehow alter the operations of an existing market to account for such an unmet need. Of course if a market consisting of the poor and minorities… Read more »

Linkmeister
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I quoted Robert Scheer’s LAT column in a post I titled “I Blame Ronald Reagan” over here:
http://www.linkmeister.com/blog/archives/001553.html
I maintain that once Reagan said (first inaugural address, I think) “Government isn’t the solution, it’s the problem,” he enabled all the selfishness inherent in human nature to come out of the closet with no shame accruing to those who have it.

gadfly
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gadfly

My thought is that possessive individualism wasn’t evil as long as this was a frontier country, and people could always stake a claim – farm, hunt, fish, forage, etc. In urban society, however, people can’t support themselves from pure effort. Moreover, they aren’t even selected for the opportunity to support themselves on the basis of skill or talent (yep – that sort of ability to contribute might cause unrest amongst the Team…). So, not only are most people dependent on others employing them, the rationale for a work ethic has been all but taken away. This is a society based… Read more »