Friday, September 09, 2005

From Washington

Babble on.

Out of the U.S. capital come two excellent pieces from two different newspapers today.

Charles Krauthammer plays the blame game in The Washington Post, but in a non-partisan way:

In less enlightened times there was no catastrophe independent of human agency. When the plague or some other natural disaster struck, witches were burned, Jews were massacred and all felt better (except the witches and Jews).

A few centuries later, our progressive thinkers have progressed not an inch. No fall of a sparrow on this planet is not attributed to sin and human perfidy. The three current favorites are: (1) global warming, (2) the war in Iraq and (3) tax cuts. Katrina hits and the unholy trinity is immediately invoked to damn sinner-in-chief George W. Bush.


Some would say that's defending Bush, that it's completely partisan. Those people should remove their heads from their rectums so they can hear this next part clearly. Krauthammer specifically lays blame at Bush's feet later on in the piece when he labels the President's response "late, slow, and simply out of tune with the urgency and magnitude of the disaster."

What Krauthammer is saying is that pointing only one finger, and that finger at GWB is asinine. As you might have gathered already, I agree with this assessment.

In their myopic, obsessive focus on Bush, windbags like E.J. Dionne let everyone else - many even more responsible than the man in the White House - completely off the hook. That in and of itself isn't enough to get my blood boiling - people get stuck with more blame than they deserve all the time. No, the problem is that this time, if people like Ray Nagin and Kathleen Blanco and their administrations get off scot free then there's absolutely no motivation to fix the problems that pervaded their levels of government and crippled evacuation and relief efforts.

I've called into question Bush's decision to appoint an incompetent FEMA head and to disappear through the critical opening stages of this tragedy, and I'm not alone. Why can I not see a blogger or columnist from the other side of the political divide ask why Nagin didn't follow his own disaster plan? Or how Blanco dropped the ball because she thought Nagin was taking care of the evacuation? Or why the state Homeland Security Department - Blanco's purview, again - wouldn't let the American Red Cross into NOLA after the hurricane? These are important questions, and they shouldn't be ignored because they can't be tied back to the White House.

The other piece, an editorial from The Washington Times, says something many of us in the blogosphere have been saying for a week now, but it says it well:

In assessing the events on our Gulf Coast over the past fortnight it is necessary to note that thousands of Americans in News Orleans showed almost no sense of self-reliance and personal responsibility. Some, of course, were sick, infirm or otherwise helpless. But many were not. This malfeasance of citizenship is as damaging as the failures of government officials, and rectification is just as crucial.

It is worth noting, as Michael Novak has shrewdly observed, that a majority of the 80 percent of the citizens of New Orleans who took personal responsibility for getting themselves out of New Orleans before the certain danger were African American. Few were rich. Many were surely poor.

Nor was courage and self-reliance the province of merely the young and strong. There was the heartbreaking account of what rescuers found at a nursing home where 31 elderly, infirm patients died. As the end grew near, these feeble old men and women valiantly, if ineffectively, started moving furniture to try to block out the death water that was soon to consume them. God bless them all. Surely their noble souls are safe now in His hands.

To their shame, thousands of New Orleans residents who don't deserve the honor of being called citizens utterly failed to show personal responsibility. They heeded neither common sense nor a respect for their own human dignity, nor the warnings of government, to move out of danger's path.
...
How did so many Americans come to such a degraded condition? And what is to be done about it? This is not a matter of race, or class, or innate intelligence. It is largely the product of a mental state of dependency induced by deliberate government policy.

Franklin D. Roosevelt knew and feared the debilitating effect of putting a man on a dole. So he put millions of hungry, jobless Americans to work building roads, bridges, national park facilities -- and character. Many of those young WPA men went on to demonstrate their self-reliance and dignity carrying rifles on distant battlefields only a few years later. Many of those young women went on to be the human force in our arsenals of democracy.

Yet today, the remnants of the liberal welfare state continue to subsidize the degrading human condition of giving the down and out a check without demanding in return the personal responsibilities that develop self-reliance.


It seems you can't talk about personal responsibility without being labelled some sort of unfeeling right-wing radical these days. This absolutely boggles my mind. We're not talking about Randian philosophy here, or survival of the fittest. We're talking about common sense: if everyone's looking to everyone else to bail them out, who's left to do the bailing? The system only works if we all pull as much of our own weight as we possibly can.

When exactly did the idea of responsibilities become a solely conservative value, and rights a solely liberal one? How did we get so confused?

The people of New Orleans most certainly had a right to help from beyond city limits. But they also had a responsiblity to help themselves and others less able than themselves, and a significant proportion of them abdicated that responsibility in a most spectacular and depressing fashion.

Babble off.

10 Comments:

At 1:54 PM, Blogger Useful Idiots said...

At the risk of generalising its been my observation that people in rural areas are more self reliant. In my area there are many men who know how to fish and hunt who know the building trades who know with their women how to plant and care for a vegetable garden. Things needed for survival.People here also look out for their neighbours and actually know their neighbours.

 
At 2:52 PM, Blogger Declan said...

"It seems you can't talk about personal responsibility without being labelled some sort of unfeeling right-wing radical these days."

So thousands of people have died, you're suggesting that it's their own fault because they didn't prepare properly, yet your mind is boggled that people might accuse you of being unfeeling for saying such a thing.

Try going face to face with someone whose parents or children died and saying how their dead family members deserve part of the blame because they didn't show enough personal responsibility or enough respect for their own human dignity.

You seem to be a bit confused on the topic of responsibility and your assertion that it is only a Conservative value is ludicrous. Pretty much everyone agrees that people have a responsibility to do what they can to help themselves and those less fortunate, especially in a crisis situation.

Where there is a distinction, is that those outside the right wing fringe think that society has a *further* responsibility to help people in trouble, even if some of those people could have taken more responsibility for themselves.

What might be causing the confusion is that responsibility, while important, is not always the first priority (for most people). For example, there is also compassion, which suggests that the time for scolding people for what you think were bad decisions is not right after they've lost everything.

 
At 3:17 PM, Blogger Babbling Brooks said...

Declan, what part of "The people of New Orleans most certainly had a right to help from beyond city limits" didn't you get?

Of course I wouldn't suggest people's dead relatives might have been at least partially responsible for their own demise to their face right now. I also wouldn't call Paul Martin Mr. Dithers to his face either. Some things that are appropriate for arms-length discussions on blogs aren't appropriate in person. I would have thought you'd have figured that out by this point in your life.

Oh, and here's another thing you might want to figure out before sounding off in a comments thread: it's possible to feel compassion for people and at the same time acknowledge their role in their own misfortune. Contrary to what you seem to believe, the two are not mutually exclusive.

 
At 4:35 PM, Blogger Declan said...

"Declan, what part of "The people of New Orleans most certainly had a right to help from beyond city limits" didn't you get?"

It's not enough to write that, if you contradict it later on in the same post. The part I didn't get was where those same people were approvingly quoted as being 'in a degraded condition', 'undeserving of being called citizens', and 'lacking in respect for their own human dignity'.

At any rate, I wasn't looking to cause offense, just to point out why it might be reasonable, not mind-boggling, for people to consider blaming the victims unfeeling.

You are right that time and distance affect what is considered appropriate to say. My analogy was not to suggest that you were doing the equivalent of saying this to someone's face, but to illustrate that we all have a line where respect for what people have sufferred takes precedence over rational analysis of whether their actions were optimal. I guess we disagree on what is appropriate here.

Finally, I did not mean to suggest that you feel no compassion for the people affected (as I am certain that you do), only to point out that others might choose not to emphasize resonsibility at this time - not because they are not conservative and hence don't place any value on it, but because their sense of compassion prevents them from bringing it up in this manner in this situation at this time.

"it's possible to feel compassion for people and at the same time acknowledge their role in their own misfortune."

To feel, certainly, but to show, I'm not so sure.

--
P.S. You wouldn't call Martin 'Mr. Dithers' to his face? Chicken!

 
At 4:46 PM, Blogger treehugger said...

Where your argument is weak is on propogating the ole conservative cruch that liberal democracy by extension is somehow to blame for people dying. There will always be cases of human stupidity in any disaster like this, but it is pure bunk to try to pin the sheer number of deaths on some partisan hack argument about people being too soft or reliant on goverment. There is absolutely no evidence to back up that claim as a statiscal rule in this disaster at all.

What is clear is that New Orleans is (was) a city with 30 - 40% of the people living below the poverty line. How many of those people simply did not have the means to flee the city when directed to do so? That is a legitimate question Damian that has absolutely nothing to do with notions of "personal responsiblity" created by people, with hindsight and the financial wherewithall to make that kind of decision whenever they need to.

 
At 5:49 PM, Blogger Babbling Brooks said...

No takers on the proportion of responsibility attributable to each level of gov't, eh? Ah well, back to personal responsibility then.

Thanks for your considered response, Declan. I'm sorry I misconstrued the tone of your earlier comment.

At any rate, I wasn't looking to cause offense, just to point out why it might be reasonable, not mind-boggling, for people to consider blaming the victims unfeeling.

Again, I'm not saying the folks stranded in the Superdome were to blame for having a hurricane turn their homes into bayou. I'm saying if we're apportioning blame for their current misery, they need to take some - SOME - for staying in NOLA without a plan for how to survive if something like this happened. To say otherwise is to imply they are no more than children who have no understanding of the consequences of their actions, or the danger of their circumstances. I find that perspective incredibly condescending.

As far as reminding people of the consequences of their decisions while simultaneously expressing sympathy, you've obviously never worked in insurance. :) I've had to tell clients a claim wasn't covered because of a decision they made to strip their policy down to bare bones, while at the same time expressing sincere sympathy for their situation. If you don't sympathize, it's easy to lose the client. And I really feel it too: it's not like I haven't made some dumb decisions in my own life - I just know enough to look in the mirror for the first person to blame.

...it is pure bunk to try to pin the sheer number of deaths on some partisan hack argument about people being too soft or reliant on goverment. There is absolutely no evidence to back up that claim as a statiscal rule in this disaster at all.

TH, glad to hear you haven't fallen off the face of the planet. I can only assume you didn't actually type what you meant here. Because the fact is that those people who got out of town before the storm hit - who didn't rely on government to provide for them - are safe, and many of those who didn't - who DID rely on government to take care of them - are dead. It's actually a pretty strong correlation.

As I said in one of my earlier posts, we should demand a great deal from our elected representatives and the machinery of state that they control, but we should not excuse ourselves from that demand.

 
At 9:19 PM, Blogger pogge said...

Krauthammer is just doing what a number of the neocon theorists have been doing: distancing themselves from Dubya's incompetence so they can continue to defend the agenda. They're right about the incompetence but wrong about the agenda.

As for the focus on Bush rather than Blanco and Nagin, consider the possibility that some of us figure Bush is much better positioned to screw up and get away with it. He's been getting away with it all of his life.

I have no doubt that in the long run every action taken by municipal and state legislators will be scrutinized several times over. I'm not that sanguine about an honest assessment of Bush's actions. He has a billion dollar echo chamber to drown out criticism and it may have been caught off guard for a while there but it's getting warmed up now.

 
At 10:50 PM, Blogger Babbling Brooks said...

Pogge, I can see you point of view. My concern still stands though - not because I'm particularly keen to see each individual grain of fault doled out for the record, but because the focus on Bush won't fix the most important things that went wrong.

Put this another way: if it was Clinton, I'd probably be ragging on his choices (FEMA, funding, vacation, etc) a bit harder, but acknowledging that the primary responsibilities on these types of disasters are always local. I hope I would, at least, because that's the most important part to fix. The feds should just be a safety net for the states in situations like this.

Also, apparently Blogspot was down for maintenance earlier on, so Treehugger e-mailed this comment to me and asked me to post it for him:

I see. They stayed, therefore they MUST have been looking to suck on the government teat to save themselves. Bunk indeed. At best your argument is lofty and judge-mental with a dash of partisan blind-spot. At worst it is callous. Are you actually suggesting that you can state with a certainty that you know the minds of the people who stayed behind and died? Who is to say that they stayed expecting the government to help? My point, which you did not address, is the sheer number of folks in the city who by virtue of poverty may have had little choice in the matter. I can think of a few other reasons why people might stay behind (property protection, libertarian, sheer stupidity, been through a storm before and survived fine, got no where to go) and far down that list is “oh we will just wait for the government to bail us out of this.” The fact that someone did choose to stay has nothing to do with the so-called failures of liberal democracy and by extension a desire to rely on the government for personal care.

With the chain of events that ensued the people there are desperate for help. They should be helped especially since many probably had little choice in the matter with no means to get out of the city.


TH's overarching point about the difficulty the poor have preparing and escaping as opposed to the well-off is well-taken. But he ignores the evidence that many of the city's poor did in fact heed the warnings and get out despite those difficulties. Kudos to them. The editorial that sparked this whole discussion explicitly excepts the elderly and infirm from its criticism.

TH cites a number of possible reasons people might have remained in the city, "and far down that list is 'oh we will just wait for the government to bail us out of this.'” Perhaps on a conscious level, but that's beside the point. No matter what their reasons for staying, most expected to be rescued (I hear very few survivors on the news saying "I stayed when I should have gone, and I'm paying for it now"). I don't know which is worse: a conscious decision to leave it up to gov't to rescue you, or a subconscious one.

The various levels of government should have done a better job of rescuing the survivors. Did everyone hear me say that loud and clear? All I'm trying to get at is that those who were capable of not requiring rescuing in the first place, but got stuck in NOLA dropped the ball just like Bush, Brown, Blanco and Nagin. They're not entirely responsible for the mess they're in, but I cannot understand the resistance to admitting they're even the teensiest bit responsible.

And to be honest, this has degenerated into a tail-chasing contest. People's actions have consequences - it's as simple as that. Sometimes the consequences aren't clear, and most of the time it's not just one's actions that determine them. But to pretend individual choices don't impact those consequences baffles me. If you don't agree with me, with all that's been written already, I'm not going to convince you now. So I'll stop trying.

 
At 1:36 AM, Blogger kate said...

"Try going face to face with someone whose parents or children died and saying how their dead family members deserve part of the blame because they didn't show enough personal responsibility or enough respect for their own human dignity."

Well, that in a nutshell is the reason that in the next disaster of this type, more will die.

Because to a leftist, feelings trump thinkings. And speaking the blunt truth to people is unacceptable if it offends.

So, have it your way. Keep lying to them about the magical powers of government that can save everyone, so long as it' is just liberal enough, large enough and loving enough - and blaming everyone else when the bloated bodies from the weekend's "hurricane party" go floating down the street.

 
At 12:17 AM, Blogger Timmy the G said...

Kate, you are full of hot air. Please be quiet and go back to reading your namesake's screeds.

Damian, you and I have agreed broadly on the idea that personal responsibility plays a major role in keeping yourself and your loved ones safe, but there are times when we sensibly turn to our society as a whole, and in this case, society - in the form of do-nothing administrations - failed the people of New Orleans.

But why did this happen? How did three levels of government controlled by two different parties fail in such terrible precision?

It was not one party or just one administration that failed, it was the entire Republican concept of government that failed.

You call this a disaster of Liberalism? I lay the blame directly at the feet of a philosophy that says government has no positive role in our lives; we can starve it and still expect our standard of living to remain the same; we can count on ourselves alone because to do anything else is to weak; and by the way, if misfortune does strike you, you deserved it. Pussy.

Nature provided Katrina but neo-conservatism ensured the maximum damage would ensue. When public government's only valid role is seen as conducting warfare, and taxes that protect ourselves and our fellow citizens are seen as the ultimate evil in life, we get the government we deserve. Blanco, a Democrat, tried to raise taxes for urgent education reform and new hospitals in her state, but was hobbled by lobby groups powered by a right wing money and information machine. ("Oh, right wing conspiracy. *Wink* Gotcha.") Well, yes, exactly. And they have very effectively undermined many state governments' abilities to act - be they Republican or Democratic administrations.

Louisiana - and many other states, inlduing some not hit by Katrina - is in a mess today because the U.S. right wing - through dishonest shills like Krauthammer and his ideological troughmates - have destroyed the ethic of sound public governance in the United States.

And you have the balls to invoke FDR, who laid the groundwork for modern liberalism as a prosperous and effective means of governance, to bolster your argument! Read the man's speeches, or Kennedy's or Teddy Roosevelt's, who would piss on any "Republican" he met today if he could actually find one worth pissing on. These are men who knew government could ennoble people because it was people acting together, for the common good, doing greater things than they could do alone.

That concept has been demonized by the right wing and twisted by rhetoric from the Kristols, the Krauthammers, the Limbaughs, the Prudens and a host of others who work tirelessly to destroy the effectiveness of government and thus fulfil their own prophecies.

"When exactly did the idea of responsibilities become a solely conservative value, and rights a solely liberal one?"

They are not, except in the minds of neo-cons who push this basest of talking points.

Liberals accept the responsibility that comes with being part of a community. Conservatives reject it. Liberals accept that we have responsibility to act as decent citizens of the world. Conserevatives reject it, and call their selfishness "independence." Liberals believe we have a responsibility to care for the planet and protect our children's future. Conservatives believe in slashing and burning for today.

I respect your conservatism and have often enjoyed arguing points with you, Damian, but this post is simply over the top. I am amazed to see you buying into an argument being put forth by the bottom-feeders of U.S. neo-conservative rhetoric.

 

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