Abusing Katrina

Remember what Conservatives did after 9-11? They exploited a moment of vulnerability by passing laws like the PATRIOT Act and taking us to war. Now look at Katrina. They are again using human suffering and tragedy as the ruse to ratchet up their agenda, today arguing that we need spending cuts in social programs to pay for hurricane relief.

Katrina Exposed Us to Poverty and Squalor

We were bombarded with horrible sights–dead bodies covered with sheets, people stranded on roof tops to escape rising flood waters, others huddled in relief centers without enough foodall waiting to be helped. Just about all of them African Americans.

Who can forget the story of Henry Jackson who lost his wife Tonette:

“The house just split in half. We got up the roof and the water came and just opened up, divided,” a stricken Mr Jackson told America’s ABC television. “My wife, I can’t find her body, she gone.” He lamented. “I held her hand tight as I could and she told me ‘you can’t hold me’. She said, ‘take care of the kids and the grand kids’,” Mr Jackson said.

Since the majority of folks suffering were African Americans the national media for the first time since 9-11 began talking about racism and poverty, implying that government policies had failed them. Team Bush reinforced the notion through its words and actions that helping the poor and African Americans was not a high priority for a conservative government. FEMA head Michael Brown told CNN’s Paula Zahn after days of media coverage of the Katrina victims suffering in the Convention Center that: “[T]he federal government did not even know about the convention center people until today.” Then there was the President Bush who chose to show his concern by flying at a distance overhead instead of spending time with those suffering on the ground.

Many of felt like joining in the chorus victims in the Convention Center chanting, “Help us, Help us, Help us…”

All of this had Progressives beaming with hopes that their issues of poverty, economic justice and racism would become the nation’s agenda.

Conservatives were quick to agree that Katrina was about to change the political agenda in Washington. Speaking on News Hour, Conservative columnist David Brooks of NY Times talked about similar times when national crisis had precipitated a shift in policies towards progressive issues:

” [Y]ou get these meteorological storms and then these political storms because in the moments of extremis people see who’s up and who’s down, who’s at fault and who is suffering. So, for example in 1897 there was the famous Johnstown Flood, a pond owned by millionaires including Andrew Carnegie flooded the town of Johnstown. The public anger over that helped spawn the Progressive Movement.”

Brooks continued and made it seem that almost every major tragedy in the past had led to a resurgence in progressivism:

“Then in 1927 you had the great Mississippi Flood, which flooded New Orleans. And there you have first of all, you had great demand for the government to get involved in disaster relief which had not happened much before then. And that helped lead the way to the New Deal. You also had the situation where the town fathers flooded some of the poorer and middle class areas to relieve some of the pressure on the rest of the city and then reneged on their promises for compensation for the people who had their homes destroyed. The anger over that, helped lead to the rise of Huey Long, the populist governor.”


Santa was Mugged

Katrina appeared to have provided the perfect opportunity for Progressives, but instead Conservatives were able to successfully hijack the national mood and use it to further their cause.

Senator John Kerry speaking at Brown University, September 19, 2005 noted how the Conservatives had again seized the day:

“The plan they,re designing for the Gulf Coast turns the region into a vast laboratory for right wing ideological experiments.”

Let’s not forget that all the poverty and misery we saw were the result of failed conservative experiments in social engineering. Now Kerry was telling us that a new round of experiments lay ahead for the poor? He went on to elaborate:

“They’re already talking about private school vouchers, abandonment of environmental regulations, abolition of wage standards, subsidies for big industries – and believe it or not yet another big round of tax cuts for the wealthiest among us!”

The laboratory Kerry is referring to is not being confined to the Gulf States region. To pay for Hurricane relief, Congress is resorting to cuts in spending, most of it coming from causes dear to Progressives.

House Republicans have pledged to cut $50 billion in entitlement programs to help pay for Katrina relief. A proposal to cut or postpone the medicaid drug program is also being bandied about. Then there is the trial balloon of a tax cut. There is also an effort to further reduce civil liberties and increase militarism. On October 4 President Bush requested Congress to repeal the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, which prohibits the use of the military in domestic policing except for the purpose of quelling a revolution While effort has been made in cutting some pork on the highway bill, at 258 million, it is minuscule. In the face of all this Congress voted to fund the war with Iraq another $50 billion.

What happened? How were conservatives able to turn what seemed an apparent set-back in their agenda into a victory?

While Progressives were silent for months after 9-11 because they wanted to show national unity, it was not so with Conservatives in the wake of Katrina. With corpses still floating in the flooded streets of New Orleans Conservatives began arguing that local governments were to blame for the failure of the emergency response, not the Federal government (Conservatives and Team Bush). It all came across like a bizarre funeral where the greedy relatives were arguing over the will before the body was in the ground.

Several news stories were planted with the media to help reinforce the image of the local government’s incompetence. For example, Chris Wallace on Fox Sunday showed Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu a picture of hundreds of school buses that were idly parked and said that they could have been used to evacuate indigent New Orleans residents. He was trying to intimate that the idle school buses showed that the local government was unprepared for the Hurricane and consequently compounded relief efforts.

The blame the victim strategy began to raise doubt about whether it was the Federal or the local government that was at fault over the failure of evacuation. It also gave the conservative base an arguing point, albeit a dubious one.

While people were smouldering over Katrina, President Bush took to the airwaves with several carefully staged presentations.

In a nationally televised speech in battered New Orleans on September 15th the President promised the Americans: “We’ll do whatever it takes.”

This was the first of several speeches for the President, who would continue to reaffirm his and the government’s commitment to taking care of the victims of Katrina and helping rebuild the ravaged Gulf Coast. The speech was a milestone because it was the first time that President Bush had publicly admitted that he had made a mistake since being elected President.

The President’s speech stopped his hemorrhaging in the polls.

Since President Reagan began running deficits, Conservatives have been employing a de facto “scorched earth” policy. “Scorched earth” refers to a battle strategy, more often employed by retreating than advancing armies, of burning land and buildings so that nothing is left salvageable for the enemy. General Sherman is still held in infamy by many for his march to Atlanta when he burned everything in the path before him. For this, he was immortalized in the movie “Gone With the Wind,.

Today, instead of burning food and property, the conservatives spend money and put the country deep into debt, the rationale being that deficits reduce the ability of “Liberals” to spend money. President Bush has decided not to follow in the footsteps of President Clinton, who endeavored to balance the budget. Bush opted instead to put through the largest tax cut in history that, along with the invasion of Iraq, caused the largest deficit in the USA’s history.

So how do we fund Katrina, estimated to cost $200 billion? Being in a deficit reduces our ability to go further into debt. So something has to give. This is what the “scorched earth” policy doesit reduces your choices to either you put food on the table or you pay the rent. You chose.

With the war in Iraq becoming increasingly unpopular it seemed only natural that the war should be placed on the chopping block. It was not.

President Bush took the brunt of the Katrina fallout. But is he the real villain? Does lambasting him serve progressive goals?

Making an issue personal, whether it be Katrina relief or funding your local school board, is polarizing. It is easy and energizes the base. We can revel in the fact that President Bush is at an all time low popularity. But does it help the cause? The more we focus on Bush the more the debate turns away from the failures of conservative policies. Would having a different President change anything?

Is there any doubt that conservatives would serve up the President to satisfy the masses and deflect attention away from the failures of their policies? One need only look to how Conservatives have pounced on President Bush over his recent selection of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court to answer the question.


A Terrible Vision

The scenes of suffering and squalor we saw in New Orleans after Katrina are images that will linger with us for a long time. But as haunting or as disturbing the images coming out of Katrina were, they have changed nothing.

That it is the most difficult reality to accept. That horrible scenes of people suffering do little to effect change. To think that only a few generations ago people were moved by the scenes of little girls being bit by dogs and hosed by policeman to make changes in government. Not so today.

That may sound hopeless, it is not. It is only a reflection of how things have changedfrom the media becoming spin dominated, to understanding how ruthless and wily conservatives are, to seeing how money running politics. That is a difficult pill to swallow. For example, many of us say that money runs politics, but when it comes to bringing about change we are only to quick to run to Washington. Do we believe it, or not?

When we look at any program designed to bring about radical change in people, such as the AAA, it begins by understanding that you are at a low and need to make dramatic changes because the old ways aren,t cutting it. Once you do that you will begin to move forward.

Say it: “We have lost government to money.”

Good. Now lets starting talking about ways of affecting change outside of government. Let’s think outside of the box.

A new world is possible.

MADIS SENNER, CPA, is an ex global money manager turned faith-based activist. His causes include supporting a Muslim doctor, Dr. Rafil Dhafir, convicted of violating the Iraqi sanctions and protesting the Federal Reserve.