Tuesday, May 30, 2006

A Post-Katrina piece (written autumn, 2005)

After a national catastrophe like Katrina, the usual voices are singing accusatory hymns of indifference to the poor and racism, while a grieving nation fumbles to make sense of it all.

The only thing we haven’t heard was that at the behest of President Bush and a cabal of scheming advisers, the National Weather Bureau conspired with the Army Corps of Engineers to create a level four hurricane to ravage an unsuspecting body of citizens because they are unlikely to vote Republican.

We can decry an inept response to a mammoth tragedy, hold accountable, sack, humiliate and prosecute decision-makers at all levels who controlled resources that could have helped more of our southern citizens. We can blame, excoriate, ridicule and permanently mutilate the careers of those who could have executed a more efficient evacuation from what New York Times Columnist David Brooks described as “the most anticipated natural disaster in American history.”

Let us do all this and more but in the process let us also reject the slanderous voices throwing out their shopworn race card, because their empty charges only extend harm done by the hurricane.

Even contributors on the editorial pages of my local newspaper (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) could not resist the temptation to tar the Bush administration with a recent piece entitled, “A racial rift sadly revealed” (Sept. 9, 2005).

What is bothersome is the notion that if only we’d fund more government programs for the inner cities, tragedies like Katrina could be averted.  Make certain midnight basketball programs are flush with cash and Louisiana levees will hold.  Rap singers call the President of the United States a Racist and columnists are actually tying the Katrina tragedy to “tax cuts for the rich.”  How does that work?

Visit a cocktail party hosted by someone who thinks this way and whisper any dismay over a lack of  responsibility among those forewarned and able to avert Katrina but who chose to remain in the hurricane’s path, or condemn the behavior of those looting stores and the party host will brand you a Racist.  But camouflage talk about Katrina victims in terms of a personal contempt for Bush policies and one comes off like Dr. Schweitzer.

Tendencies to brand American policymakers with accusations of racism after natural calamities is not new. In some cases, the effects can endure. In his last book, To America, Personal Reflections of an Historian (Simon & Schuster, 2002) former University of New Orleans professor Stephen E. Ambrose writes about the propensity of educators over the decades to teach American expansionism in the West as a period where we practiced genocide of the American Indian.
Stephen Ambrose, Wikipedia

Ambrose called such explanations for the complete disappearance of Indian tribes “totally irresponsible.” (My emphasis in bold).   

That our forefathers’ policies equated to a massive land grab, that they broke treaties, that they failed miserably to assimilate Native Americans is all quite true Ambrose reminded us. Yet the only factual basis behind the total disappearance of Indian tribes occurred, as Ambrose wrote,”…because of the introduction of European diseases, most of all smallpox.”

If he was alive and writing about Katrina years from now, perhaps Dr. Ambrose would point out that the Crescent City tragedy in the year 2005 was due to a devastating hurricane and bureaucratic ineptitude -- not racism.