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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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  1. 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 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…”
    I am reminded of THIS –
    “…The Bush Administration did have a plan for what it would do after the war; put simply, it was to lay out as much honey as possible, then sit back and wait for the flies.
    The honey theory of Iraqi reconstruction stems from the most cherished belief of the war’s ideological architects: that greed is good. Not good just for them and their friends but good for humanity, and certainly good for Iraqis. Greed creates profit, which creates growth, which creates jobs and products and services and everything else anyone could possibly need or want. The role of good government, then, is to create the optimal conditions for corporations to pursue their bottomless greed, so that they in turn can meet the needs of the society. The problem is that governments, even neoconservative governments, rarely get the chance to prove their sacred theory right: despite their enormous ideological advances, even George Bush’s Republicans are, in their own minds, perennially sabotaged by meddling Democrats, intractable unions, and alarmist environmentalists.
    Iraq was going to change all that. In one place on Earth, the theory would finally be put into practice in its most perfect and uncompromised form. A country of 25 million would not be rebuilt as it was before the war; it would be erased, disappeared. In its place would spring forth a gleaming showroom for laissez-faire economics, a utopia such as the world had never seen. Every policy that liberates multinational corporations to pursue their quest for profit would be put into place: a shrunken state, a flexible workforce, open borders, minimal taxes, no tariffs, no ownership restrictions. The people of Iraq would, of course, have to endure some short-term pain: assets, previously owned by the state, would have to be given up to create new opportunities for growth and investment. Jobs would have to be lost and, as foreign products flooded across the border, local businesses and family farms would, unfortunately, be unable to compete. But to the authors of this plan, these would be small prices to pay for the economic boom that would surely explode once the proper conditions were in place, a boom so powerful the country would practically rebuild itself.
    The fact that the boom never came and Iraq continues to tremble under explosions of a very different sort should never be blamed on the absence of a plan. Rather, the blame rests with the plan itself, and the extraordinarily violent ideology upon which it is based…”
    See http://www.harpers.org/BaghdadYearZero.html
    We’ll now replicate our stunning and rapid success in Iraq with the same M.O. in Louisiana.

  2. 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.

  3. 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 on terror, and instead of challenging it, people have turned to new forms of Faith based on improving their ability to manipulate others: increasing physical attractiveness, learning psychological tricks, social engineering…and generally turning what used to be recognized as class formation into a “skill set”.
    It’s this swapping of class for possessive individualism that’s validating the Dark Side. As long as people can claim their advantages as virtue, then all the people who are left out of the “ownership society” are just people who don’t deserve to be part of society, anyway.
    My hope is that the country will only be able to work this way as long as the shrinking “center” are able to fake themselves out. Once they recognize that possessive individualism that requires dispossessing others is an evil, once the veil is ripped away – they will feel compelled to do something. Katrina was probably a nudge, but people are quenching any moral disturbance by watching the Charity Concerts and perhaps throwing a few bucks at the Red Cross. It will probably take a few more disasters, and perhaps a visit from all four Horsemen, for the dark reflection to sink in.

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