Monday, September 19, 2005

What Was Ray Nagin Thinking?

I'm glad to see that New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin has reconsidered his apparently hasty plan to reopen portions of the city to business owners and residents. What's the rush? By all accounts, the health risks in the city are still enormous. On MSNBC, Douglas Brinkley just spoke about visiting his home in New Orleans this past weekend and smelling feces and leaking gas everywhere, seeing power lines dangling, etc. etc. It seems nuts for the city government to want to take responsibility for the illnesses or deaths that would surely ensue if people rushed back into this unsafe environment.

I don't know a lot about Ray Nagin, but it's easy to connect his ill-conceived plan with his prior background as a cable TV executive. (He had no political experience before being elected mayor.) Business people--especially those in utility-like industries such as cable--are always tempted to behave as though economic development is the priority in any situation. Nagin reportedly is concerned that businesses will begin to abandon New Orleans if there are further delays in repopulating the city.

That's a valid concern. But we're talking about lives here. Why flirt with a second, even more avoidable, human disaster?
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Sunday, September 18, 2005

Has Bush Jumped The Shark?

I'm accustomed to being unpleasantly surprised by the tactical brilliance of the Bush team, but I'm beginning to wonder where the brilliance went. It's hard to fathom how anyone is supposed to be pleased by Bush's claim that he can pay for $200 billion worth of Katrina reconstruction costs without raising taxes by cutting "unnecessary government programs."

If I'm a liberal, I respond: The hell you can! Keep your hands off our already-underfunded programs for health care, education, infrastructure, housing, veterans, etc. etc. etc.

And if I'm a conservative, I respond: The hell you say! What have you been doing as president for the past five years--five years during which you have never vetoed a single spending bill--if you now tell us that the government has $200 billion worth of unnecessary programs!?

Who exactly--other than people so blinded by the Bush cult of personality that they would find ways to praise him if he became a serial killer--is going to laud this latest irresponsible gambit as an act of foresighted statesmanship?

As a Mets fan who has said "This is finally the year when the Mets will overtake the Braves" every spring for the past six years, I hesitate to say this--but is it possible that the Bush administration has finally jumped the shark?
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Bush's "Integrity"

Andrew Sullivan's "email of the day" does an excellent job of disemboweling the claim (made in a previous "email of the day") that George W. Bush is a "man of integrity." Here's what Andrew himself would call the money quote:

A man who hires somebody like Karl Rove to obfuscate and spin the truth and to vicitimize minorities for political purposes is no man of integrity. A man who has so ineptly planned for the security of this nation (and Iraq) as was vividly revealed by Katrina when he has stood in front of millions of his citizens saying otherwise is no man of integrity. A man whose government is filled with incompetent cronies, and who values loyalty above merit is no man of integrity. A man who spends so irresponsibly the money of generations to come and who does not think of the economic and social consequences for this nation's future is no man of integrity. A man who courts the views of extremists and fundamentalists whose own views are grounded in hate and fear and who would choose to scapegoat homosexuals to win votes is no man of integrity. A man who would ignore scientific evidence and instead professes support for the dodgy theory of intelligence design is no man of integrity.

The word integrity actually needs to mean something. It should not be a platitudinous word that is used by men so flippantly. Your reader is wrong in this regard. George Bush is no man of integrity.

One further thought:

The use of the word integrity by Bush supporters as a platitudinous term of praise devoid of actual content parallels Bush's assertions that "So-and-so [Rumsfeld, Putin, Bolton, Gonzalez . . . whoever] is a good man. I know his heart, and he is good," which Bush uses to defend his associates against charges of wrongdoing or incompetence. As if "being good" is an unchanging, abstract quality with no connection to concrete actions, decisions, or policies.

Once Bush decides you are "good" then you can lie, cheat, and screw things up till the cows come home and never suffer any consequences . . . because Bush "knows" you are "a good man," and that's all that matters.

For those who think of themselves as Christians, note that Jesus never spoke of "goodness" in this empty way. "By their fruits you shall know them" (Matthew 7:16). Integrity is measured by what people do, not by what they say, how they look, or who their friends are.
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Saturday, September 17, 2005

No Substitute For Boots On The Ground

Even today, almost three weeks after Katrina made landfall, we're hearing from reporters about affected communities where FEMA and other government relief agencies are virtually invisible. "We saw someone from FEMA ten days ago, and he promised he'd be back. But there's been no sign of him, or of anyone else from FEMA," was the comment I heard from a homeless Mississippian on CNN last night--just one of many.

Given the unprecedented scope of this disaster, it's not surprising that the manpower available to FEMA, the combined state National Guard forces, and other agencies should be overstretched. (Diversion of Guards to Iraq doesn't help, obviously.) But one of the lessons of Katrina that deserves to be hammered home is an old one--constantly in need of relearning--that there is no subtitute for boots on the ground.

It's a constant technocratic dream that organizations can somehow eliminate most or all of the people they rely on, substituting machinery, more efficient systems, or self-operating programs for services provided by human beings. The dream dates back at least to the "automation" craze of the 1950s and was an important element in the Internet bubble and the "reengineering" fad in business. Today it's behind such fiascos as Rumsfeld's "modernized" military, which he mistakenly believed could control and reconstruct Iraq with a fraction of the manpower required for similar operations in the past, as well as the over-reliance of our intelligence agencies on technical means of gathering information (such as satellites and computer searches), to the neglect of "human intelligence" collected by people who know the languages and the cultures they are supposed to analyze.

The dream of eliminating people appeals to technocrats for many reasons. People are expensive, variable, and require training. They get tired and hungry, and when they die their families get upset. Worst of all, people have minds of their own. You can force employees (or soldiers) to do your bidding in the short run, but if you expect them to produce good results in any long, complicated project, you have to earn and maintain their support. No wonder men with quasi-fascist tendencies like Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Bush prefer the fantasy of getting their way by pushing buttons.

It is actually possible to drastically reduce the number of people involved in certain organizational functions, such as manufacturing. Today there are factories run by a small handful of employees who merely oversee the operations of computerized machines. But when it comes to delivering services to a human clientele, there's a lot that only people can do. Only people on the ground can observe, understand, and report on human needs. (Lacking people on the ground, the director of FEMA had no idea what was going on at the New Orleans Convention Center.) Only people on the ground can communicate effectively, solve unanticipated problems in real time, and reshape plans to fit rapidly changing conditions. And, of course, only people on the ground can make human connections with other people, which is a crucial part of the equation for success, whether in Iraq, on the US Gulf Coast, or in any of the many other service functions provided by government.

This truth is the Achilles heel not only of the technocratic dream of "automation" but also of the conservative dream of dramatically downsizing government. It sounds good in the abstract, and of course everyone approves of lower taxes and more efficient administration. But in practical terms, no one (liberal or conservative) wants schools with too few teachers, VA hospitals that lack nurses and doctors, or Social Security offices that have no one to answer questions or disentangle red tape. And when the hurricane strikes, we all want government on our doorsteps--in a human form, quickly, and in massive numbers.
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Thursday, September 15, 2005

Defining Racism Down

Just heard a presidential spokesman saying that, in tonight's speech, Bush will respond to the accusation that the administration "deliberately chose to delay the relief effort to New Orleans for racial reasons." (I'm paraphrasing, but the exact language was very close.)

This is of course one of those infuriating straw man arguments the Republicans employ so frequently--twisting an opponent's position to make it exaggerated or absurd, and then refuting that. "Oh, so you opposed invading Iraq on false pretenses, without allies, with too few troops, and with no post-war plan? Then that means You supported keeping Saddam Hussein in power. And here's why that was a bad idea . . . "

This particular twisting of logic, however, strikes me as especially pernicious. Naturally it misstates what Democrats and progressives are actually saying about the Bush administration. I don't imagine (nor have I heard anyone claim) that Bush and Chertoff had a conversation like this:

CHERTOFF: Pretty bad flood down in New Orleans, Mr. President. I guess we ought to help.

BUSH: Guess so. But wait, aren't a lot of those folks Black?

CHERTOFF: Now that you mention it, I think they are.

BUSH: Then forget it. Let 'em drown.

. . . which is what the idea of a "deliberate racial decision" to delay aid appears to imply. The idea that Bush (or any other mainstream politician in the year 2005) would be so crudely and overtly racist is probably ridiculous. It's also irrelevant.

The real charge that progressives are leveling at the administration is much more subtle--and much harder to deny. Our accusation is that the level of concern, urgency, and commitment devoted to the well-being of poor Black people by conservative Republicans is consistently and noticeably lower than that devoted to the well-being of affluent white people. This kind of racism doesn't appear in the form of "deliberate racial decisions" by the president or his top advisors. It takes the form of patterns of action and inaction that extend over decades. For example:

There's subtle racism in the decision by the Republican party back in 1968 to implement a "Southern strategy" whereby Black votes were simply written off in favor of appealing to prejudiced whites, in the South and elsewhere. Ever since then, many Republicans (including the current administration) have had zero political motivation to respond to the needs of Black voters. After all, they're not part of The Base and they never will be. Why waste time, energy, or money on them? And ninety eight percent of the domestic policies of the Republicans have been tailored to fit this strategy.

There's subtle racism in the myriad budgetary decisions made by a Republican White House and a Republican Congress, whereby the needs of (mainly white) suburban, rural, and Western communities consistently take preference over the needs of (largely minority) city dwellers. Hence the cutting of funds to repair levees to protect New Orleans, while plenty of money is found to build bridges to nowhere in Alaska.

And there's subtle racism in the patterns of action and inaction that are more directly and immediately related to Katrina as well.

Subtle racism is at work when Governor Blanco (whose affected constituents are mainly poor, Democratic, and Black) can't reach Bush on the phone at the height of the hurricane, while Governor Barbour (elected by people who are mainly middle-class, Republican, and white) gets several calls from Bush on the same day.

Subtle racism is at work when FEMA managers look at a crowd of hungry, desperate Black people stranded in New Orleans and think they see an out-of-control mob who are too dangerous to try to feed or rescue--and so they don't.

And subtle racism is at work when government officials (abetted by the news media) are quick to seize upon, exaggerate, and spread reports of violence and looting by Black people in New Orleans, thereby encouraging fellow victims of Katrina like the police in Gretna, Louisiana, to treat those stranded at the Convention Center like criminals--and suggesting that the highest priority of the government had to be "restoring law and order" rather than saving the lives of helpless children, the aged, and the infirm.

I don't think President Bush is overtly racist. He probably gets along all right with Black people who share his general outlook on life, and I doubt that he uses racial epithets or openly espouses racist beliefs. (I'm not so sure about his mother, however).

Unfortunately, none of this matters. The kind of subtle racial prejudice he and his government exhibit is almost as repugnant as the old-fashioned, overt kind. It certainly doesn't offer Black people any better help toward justice and equality than the overt kind does.

In effect, the Republicans have "defined racism down" so that only someone who snarls the N-word can be accused of it. This makes it very easy for people to consider themselves racially enlightened. It encourages people to say, When I look at myself, I see someone who is nice and friendly and well-meaning. Therefore I can't possibly be a racist. I have no doubt that something like this is going on in the mind of Laura Bush, who is a perfectly "nice" person and therefore "knows" that her husband can't possibly be a racist.

As Bill McKibben recently noted in Harper's magazine, it makes for an extraordinarily comfortable sort of Christianity--one that lets you congratulate yourself on your morality at no absolutely no personal cost. No wonder Republicans keeping winning elections. Who wouldn't want to believe he's a great guy without having to lift a finger to prove it?
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Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The Partisan Divide Is Not Symmetrical

For those interested in countering conservative talking points, these results from a Pew Research Center poll give the lie to one of the claims being made over the airwaves by Republican apologists--namely, that Democrats are eager to cover up or excuse the mistakes made by local and state officials in the response to Katrina.

As the poll shows, Democrats, Republicans, and independents are pretty much united in recognizing that the local and state response was badly flawed. The one number that's off the charts is the Republican opinion about the federal government's response, which is far more favorable than that held by either Democrats or independents.

So, yes, there is a group of people in this country who seem to be so blinded by partisanship that they can't bring themselves to acknowledge failures by their chosen leaders. That group is not the Democrats.
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Sunday, September 11, 2005

Alas, Poor Michael

During the Reagan, Bush 1, and Clinton years, no one wrote sharper, wittier, more pointed political commentary than Michael Kinsley. His specialty was pungent eviscerations of the hypocrisies, inconsistencies, and meannesses of politicians, especially rightwing extremists--pretty much the kind of stuff I am trying to write today, except that Kinsley did it with far more cleverness and humor than I can usually muster. To this day I find the collected pieces in his book Big Babies both politically dead-on-target and laugh-out-loud funny.

Lately, however, Kinsley's columns (written for the LA Times and reprinted in the Washington Post and other papers) have mostly lost their intelligent edge. Today's column is an unfortunate example. Kinsley makes the point that disaster experts, politicians, and others with axes to grind are constantly issuing warnings about hurricanes, floods, and myriad other disasters that might or might not strike. Thus, it's easy to find articles and reports from past years saying that the New Orleans levees might break and calling for repairs. "But," he concludes,

. . . just Google up a phrase like "commission warns," or "urgent steps," or "our children's future" -- or simply "crisis" -- and you may develop a bit of sympathy for the people who stand accused today of ignoring the warnings about anything in particular. Far from being complacent about potential perils, we suffer from peril gridlock.

Did all the attention and money devoted to protecting us from a terrorist attack after Sept. 11, 2001, leave us less prepared for a giant flood? Undoubtedly. And if the flood had come first, the opposite would be true. We, the citizens, would have demanded it and then blamed the politicians and the institutions when it turned out to be a bad bet. There is no foresight. We fight the last war because hindsight is all we have.

What a flaccid piece of reasoning. Of course it's true that crisis-mongering is a real problem, and that political leaders can't be expected to respond with action (and money) every time anyone proclaims any danger. But sorting out the most important dangers from those that are minor or exaggerated is exactly what leadership is for. Simply throwing up one's hands and saying, "Oh, I can't keep all these reports straight--let's just do nothing" is not a solution. But that's what Kinsley seems to recommend.

Most unfortunately, this attitude gives a big, fat pass not just to the current administration but to any group of leaders who commit serious misjudgements. If "there is no foresight," then government might just as well shut down; there's no way it can possibly prepare for any future problems or opportunities, since none of them can be predicted.

Kinsley has taken a germ of insight and expanded it past the point of logic. Of course, there is no perfect foresight. And it's appropriate for us to remember that gauging the urgency of comparative risks before trouble strikes is a complex matter which humans can never expect to perform with absolute certainty. But don't forget that our current president ran for reelection almost solely on the claim that his laser-like focus on the dangers that really matter (i.e., terrorism) would keep Americans safe, while his opponent would expose us to danger.

If we can't criticize Bush's failures on this precise claim, then he is beyond criticism altogether. It's not a position I ever expected Mike Kinsley to embrace.
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Saturday, September 10, 2005

How Low Can They Go?

The desperation of the Republican spinners' efforts to whitewash the administration's failures in New Orleans by blaming local officials like Mayor C. Ray Nagin is pretty remarkable. Consider the following litany of facts:

1. The notion that FEMA had no responsibility or power to act in the early stages of the disaster is without basis. As the presidential disaster declaration makes clear, as early as Saturday, August 28 (two days before Katrina made landfall), the feds had legal authority to use any means necessary to "alleviate the impacts from the emergency." It's absurd to claim that the hands of the feds were legally tied.

2. Assuming that the mayor's office joined FEMA in making errors both before and after the hurricane struck (which seems very likely), whose errors seem more surprising and culpable? Who would you expect to be more knowledgeable and skilled at dealing with a disaster--the first-term mayor of New Orleans, or the head of a national agency specifically charged with planning for and dealing with disasters? And given the different levels of resources available, is it reasonable to expect a local government to respond as quickly and effectively as a national administration that can call on the US military as well as the personnel of FEMA and other government agencies?

3. Furthermore, as we draw these comparisons between Mayor Nagin and George Bush, let's remember that ten months ago Bush was reelected as the leader of the world's greatest superpower based almost entirely on the argument that he would "keep Americans safe." This is the man that the right believes deserves almost unlimited deference and fealty from Congress, the courts, and the general public, because of his great wisdom, boldness, vision, courage, strength, compassion, and character. Now Bush's partisans are reduced to defending him by saying that he is no worse than Ray Nagin. Too bad they didn't let us know before the election that this was actually where the bar was set.

4. Then consider the disconnect between the current Republican spin and their usual talking points. The Bush administration says they wanted to save New Orleans but were hampered by state and local officials. What happened to the myriad benefits of federalism, states' rights, and local control, all of which conservatives generally claim are crucial to responsive government?

Then, unnamed administration sources tell the New York Times (Friday 9/9/05) they were worried "about the message that would have been sent by a president ousting a Southern governor of another party from command of her National Guard." What happened to the usual conservative disdain for "political correctness"? What happened to the demonstrated readiness of Bush and his allies to violate custom and protocol so as to cut out Democrats from decision-making processes--for example, by repeatedly forcing votes on bills that Democrats in Congress are given no time to read?

Odd how the administration developed this exquisite sensitivity to the feelings of women and Democrats just in time to screw up the response to Katrina.

5. Finally, remember that Mayor Ray Nagin--a Democrat, we are constantly being told--was a Republican until three years ago. He switched parties just before the 2002 primary to facilitate his election in a heavily Democratic city. What's more, before becoming mayor, he was a cable TV executive with little political experience. In short, exactly the kind of business-oriented, "entrepreneurial," "outsider" candidate that Republicans generally swoon over.

But this doesn't matter any more than any of the other logical absurdities in the current rightwing posture. If it's necessary to slime Ray Nagin to protect Bush, they will slime away. Their tenacity is impressive--but the logical, moral, and political strength of their position sure isn't.
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Friday, September 09, 2005

More Actual Facts

Another good source of verifiable facts on the Katrina catastrophe is this timeline being compiled by the staff and readers of the Talking Points Memo website. Again, note that each event has a link to a specific source--this is not conjecture or "I heard from a friend of a friend's cousin who listens to Rush Limbaugh" stuff.
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Not Spin, Myth, or Rumor, But Facts

The Internet is swirling with blog posts and emails making assertions and accusations about the failed response to Hurricane Katrina. In particular, there are long messages being circulated by rightwing supporters of President Bush that are designed to absolve the Federal government of any responsibility for emergency preparedness and pin all the blame for the disaster on the Mayor of New Orleans and the Governor of Louisiana.

There is definitely plenty of blame for all, and an independent investigation like the one that most Democrats (and some Republicans) are calling for should and will assess the mistakes made by leaders of both parties at every level of government. Meanwhile, don't assume that statements made on the Internet or in emails are accurate. Instead, look at sources like this one (courtesy of the Washington Post) which try to sort out what happened when and the underlying legal powers and responsibilities based on facts, not partisanship.

You'll note that each assertion in the Post story includes specific quotations from the government documents mentioned as well as links to public websites, so that you can verify (or debunk) the information for yourself. And you'll note that the propaganda documents being circulated, excerpted, quoted, and relied upon elsewhere lack such quotations and links.

Sadly, false assertions being spread to hundreds of thousands of people this week will end up permanently infecting the body politic, like other urban myths that serve various political agendas.
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Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Don't Look For Magic From Rudy

Chris Matthews--along with others in the MSM, I'm sure--has been salivating over the notion of having Bush appoint Rudy Giuliani to oversee the relief and recovery effort in New Orleans. The idea seems to be that Rudy will bring his magical, inspirational touch to The Big Easy, rallying the grateful citizenry, stimulating a spirit of bipartisan unity, and organizing the work crews with breathtaking competence and efficiency.

I don't think Bush is going to take this route--because giving Rudy this gigantic, very visible assignment would be viewed as tantamount to anointing him as his successor, which I doubt Bush wants to do. But even if Bush did call on Giuliani, I wouldn't expect any of Rudy's supposed 9/11 magic to rub off on Louisiana.

By comparison to the problems facing New Orleans today, those that faced New York after 9/11 were relatively minor. Dubious? Consider:

1. The city government of New York had very few health-related problems to deal with after 9/11. When the towers fell, city hospitals braced for a flood of injury victims. Almost none materialized. Close to 3,000 people were killed, but those who survived were mostly fine. The injuries suffered by survivors were mainly respiratory ailments from airborne debris (which the city has disavowed responsibility for) and routine things like broken legs--nothing like the massive health problems and long-term contamination that are looming in New Orleans today.

2. Many residents and businesses were displaced from lower Manhattan. But the numbers are dwarfed by those in New Orleans. And those made homeless by 9/11 could find refuge elsewhere in a vast metropolitan area that continued to operate on an almost normal basis. Municipal services like water and electricity were uninterrupted (except, of course, in the immediate vicinity of the Twin Towers), and the region's huge transportation system was soon operational again. The scale of the recovery that New Orleans requires is several orders of magnitude greater than in New York.

3. Rebuilding downtown Manhattan is a big job (which Rudy has had very little to do with--remember, he left office just a few months after 9/11 and has been raking in the big bucks in private industry ever since). It is being managed under considerable pressure, since the site is naturally both a political football and an important national symbol--this on top of the usual difficulties in organizing any massive public works project in a complicated, contentious city like New York. But rebuilding after Katrina, again, will be a much, much greater challenge--starting with the fact that any city in the traditional location of New Orleans will require the most gigantic (and costly) water-control system ever constructed in the United States.

So terrible as 9/11 was, the aftermath of Katrina is going to be much, much more difficult to deal with.

After 9/11, what New York needed was a Chief Morale Officer--someone who looked calm, caring, involved, and in control, and who could articulate feelings like anger, grief, and resolve on behalf of the city's people with dignity and strength. Rudy did all this, and it made him a national hero.

I wouldn't denigrate the difficulty or importance of this task of symbolic leadership--the pathetic performance of Bush this week illustrates that it's not as easy as Rudy made it look. But the fact is that the problems of New Orleans require a hell of a lot more sheer managerial talent than Rudy has ever had to exhibit. Remember that, until 9/11, Rudy's reputation as a mayor was very shaky; during his administration, crime in New York had fallen (as it had in many other cities), but the schools and the transit system were struggling, and Rudy had exacerbated racial and social tensions with his frequent high-handedness.

Could Rudy become the savior of New Orleans? Maybe--but I wouldn't give him odds any better than one in four. Which is why I doubt that he will accept the job even if Bush offers it.

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What the President Knows

Via the Washington Post:

Here are Bush's remarks while visiting with residents in Poplarville, Mississippi: "I understand. I understand the damage. I understand the devastation. I understand the destruction. I understand how long it's going to take. And we're with you. That's what I want you to know," he told the residents of Poplarville.

One of Bush's most annoying verbal tics is his habit of declaring "I know" or "I understand" when describing things that he clearly does not know or understand. It comes across (quite accurately) as defensive, since he generally employs this construction in an attempt to fend off criticism about his obliviousness: "I understand the economy isn't perfect," "I know people are suffering," "I know that building a democracy is hard work," etc. etc.

I would love to see the Democratic Party, MoveOn, or some other organization put together an ad consisting of a montage of clips of Bush acknowledging one disastrous problem after another--"I know," "I understand," "I know"--gradually fading into silence, to be replaced by an announcer's voice: "The president says he knows how bad things are. So when will he and his party do something about it?" On-screen: "PRESIDENT BUSH: A FAILURE TO LEAD."

If nothing else, such an ad might at least prevent Bush from ever using the "I know" defense again--thereby throwing him and Karl Rove another five per cent off their (already shaky) game.
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Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Still Dreaming of a Fantasy Bush

Over at Slate, John Dickerson offers this advice to George Bush about how to revive his sagging popularity:

Bush should put his own prestige on the line by appearing in an unscripted public forum to answer questions about the government's response to the disaster. He should schedule a press conference, or, better yet, a town hall meeting with residents. The directors of FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security can join him onstage, if they'd like, but this president who likes bold action should promise that he will be the one doing the talking. George Bush knows that political capital is built by risk. His approval ratings are at their lowest mark. A majority of Americans have doubts about his stewardship of the Iraq war. Standing alone on a stage would be a gamble that could quiet those pesky hand-wringers—"I'll answer your questions soon enough, now grab a shovel"—and provide some kind of psychic relief for the frustrated and helpless stranded miles away from the marinating streets on which they once lived.

This makes Dickerson this year's front-runner in the Tom Friedman Memorial Presidential Fantasy Sweepstakes. If you believe there is a chance that George W. Bush will appear in an unscreened, unscripted public forum to answer questions about Katrina--the same George W. Bush who won't even make campaign appearances before unscreened audiences--then I have some lovely building lots in New Orleans I'd like to sell you . . .
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Blaming Bureaucracy

Bush's latest Katrina tactic--announcing that he will lead the investigation into "what went right and what went wrong"--is infuriating on so many levels that it will take more than our humble blog to dissect it thoroughly. I just want to focus on one small aspect of the president's obfuscating statement today--his bold declaration that "Bureaucracy is not going to stand in the way of getting the job done for the people."

As noted on The American Prospect's website by Sam Rosenfeld, attacking "bureaucracy" is of course a standard rhetorical ploy of contemporary conservativism. However, it takes enormous chutzpah (or in Bush's case, cojones) for this ploy to be used by an incumbent president who has been running the government for the past five years and in fact personally called for and oversaw a massive reorganization of the specific bureaucracy in question. If there's some terrible dysfunction in the FEMA or Homeland Security bureaucracy, whose fault is that exactly?

A true conservative would respond that I am missing the point. Conservatives don't hate specific bureaucracies that are dysfunctional. They hate capital-B Bureaucracy itself, no matter what form it takes or what cause it supposedly serves, because it is inherently ineffectual, wasteful, and counter-productive. Therefore, there's no point in criticizing Bush's dumb-ass management of the bureacracy because bureaucracy is inherently evil.

I could quibble with this--for example, by pointing out that conservatives don't spend a lot of time attacking such massive bureaucracies as the Pentagon. In fact, anyone who criticizes the military immediately gets slimed by the foot soldiers of conservatism. So conservatives apparently consider some bureaucracies less evil than others, on grounds that aren't immediately obvious. But let's not quibble. Instead, let's look at the basic premise of their argument--the inherent evil of Bureaucracy itself.

The obvious question is, What are we talking about? What is bureaucracy? Answer: Any large organization designed to administer complex operations of some sort, using defined procedures, lines of communication, system for information-sharing, and other pre-arranged protocols.

As noted, the Pentagon is a bureaucracy. So is FEMA. And so are General Motors, Microsoft, the University of Chicago, and the Roman Catholic Church. Even the Cato Institute, I imagine, must have some sort of bureaucracy--I bet there's a human resources department, an I.T. manager, and some vice president or other in charge of getting the floors mopped and ordering cartons of yellow legal pads. (Don't give me that stuff about "flat organizations" that are "non-hierarchical" and "bureaucracy-free." Any organization that gets to be bigger than a couple of hundred people develops a bureaucracy, or else it stops working. That's the nature of reality.)

So being "against bureaucracy" is really devoid of meaning in today's world. You might as well be "against electricity" or "against printing"--that's how pervasive bureaucracy is. And we'd all have to agree that some bureaucracies do things we like, while others do things we hate. (We'd just disagree about which bureaucracies fall into which category.)

So bureaucracies are inescapable. And far from being inherently evil, they are involved in almost all activities in contemporary society, both good and bad. The only real question is, do you believe it's possible to make a bureaucratic organization run effectively, or not?

Some people claim to believe it's not possible. If they are sincere, they avoid large organizations altogether. They live in communes in the woods, home-school their children, and raise their own food (since they naturally mistrust the goods produced by the vast bureaucracies that constitute modern "agri-business").

However, most of those who claim a principled antipathy to bureaucracy are not sincere. Their insincerity is exposed by their readiness to participate in large organizations (businesses, universities, private companies, think tanks) when it suits their purposes. In some cases they even develop notable talents for navigating through and manipulating bureaucracies.

These people reserve their anti-bureaucratic rhetoric for times when it's politically useful to them. For example, when they want to break rules for their own benefit, they like to claim they are expressing the "revolutionary" zeal of those who hate the stifling effects of bureaucracies. Or, as George W. Bush did today, they use anti-bureaucratic language when they want to disavow responsibility for the fuck-ups of the bureaucracy they are supposed to run. "Hey, I'm a free spirit!" is the message. "You didn't expect me to burden my mind with all that bureaucratic detail, did you? But if you want, I can go into the bureaucracy and kick some butt. That's my thing--kicking butt. So much more fun than working on org charts or communications systems or evacuation plans."

Unfortunately, this is the kind of person we've chosen to elect as president.

As for me, I'd rather entrust my government to someone who believes it is possible to make a bureaucracy work. It's true that people like this sometimes come across as wonkish, stiff, boring--kinda like Al Gore or John Kerry. But when the levee breaks and hundreds of thousands of people want an emergency plan that makes sense and will save lives, I find it comforting to know that someone who believes in that stuff and cares about it is in charge.
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Monday, September 05, 2005

New Orleans Helicopter Shooting--Urban Legend?

For days now, we've been hearing about the supposed shots fired on a rescue helicopter at the New Orleans Superdome as a prime symbol of the "anarchy" and "lawlessness" that took over the city in the wake of Katrina and hampered relief efforts. But did it really happen?

My answer: I don't know, and at this point I would submit that no one actually knows.

A search of Google turns up hundreds of articles in which people mention and decry the incident based on obvious hearsay. The usual phrasing is, "There are reports that," "News outlets are stating that," and so on. The closest thing to actual reporting that I have found is this story from Reuters, which is sourced as follows:

But the operation was put on hold when shots were fired at Chinook military helicopters being used to transport the evacuees, a local official said in Texas.

"We were told they are shooting at Chinook helicopters and the operation has been put on hold until daylight," said Gloria Roemer, spokeswoman for Harris County Judge Robert Eckels, who has been involved in the evacuation.

A subsequent AP story contained these paragraphs:

Lt.-Col. Pete Schneider of the Louisiana National Guard said law enforcement officers would accompany the evacuees on the school buses.

"At the Superdome, we have a report that one shot was fired at a Chinook helicopter," Schneider said, adding that the Chinook is "an extremely large aircraft."

Laura Brown, a Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman in Washington, said she had no such report.

"We're controlling every single aircraft in that airspace and none of them reported being fired on," she said, adding that the FAA was in contact with the military as well as civilian aircraft.

So unless I am missing something, news reports about this incident were based on a comment by a spokesperson for a judge in Texas--which is a far cry from an eyewitness account. And they were later denied by a spokesperson for the agency in charge of "every single aircraft in that airspace."

It will take time to sort out much of what happened in New Orleans. But for now, this story--which has played a prominent role in the law-and-order spin being given the Katrina story in many media outlets--appears at least highly dubious.

I'm old enough to remember stories after the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago about protesters shooting police, throwing Molotov cocktails, etc. etc. Months later the official commission investigating the unrest found that virtually no protesters were armed, and they concluded that the violence at the convention was caused by "a police riot." During times of unrest, the media tends to accept and amplify tales they get from officials that fit their preconceived storylines, some of which turn out to be completely false. This may turn out to be more of the same.
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Sunday, September 04, 2005

Times-Picayune: "We're Angry, Mr. President"

Those of us who live far from New Orleans and know little about its topography aren't qualified to understand or judge many of the charges being made in the wake of last week's relief fiasco. For example, I don't know how to gauge the accuracy of claims by the Bush administration and its defenders that flooding and hurricane damage simply made it impossible for the National Guard, US troops, and relief workers to reach stranded citizens.

However, the writers and editors of the New Orleans Times-Picayune do. Here's what they say:

Despite the city’s multiple points of entry, our nation’s bureaucrats spent days after last week’s hurricane wringing their hands, lamenting the fact that they could neither rescue the city’s stranded victims nor bring them food, water and medical supplies.

Meanwhile there were journalists, including some who work for The Times-Picayune, going in and out of the city via the Crescent City Connection. On Thursday morning, that crew saw a caravan of 13 Wal-Mart tractor trailers headed into town to bring food, water and supplies to a dying city.

Television reporters were doing live reports from downtown New Orleans streets. Harry Connick Jr. brought in some aid Thursday, and his efforts were the focus of a "Today" show story Friday morning.

Yet, the people trained to protect our nation, the people whose job it is to quickly bring in aid were absent. Those who should have been deploying troops were singing a sad song about how our city was impossible to reach.

The editorial quoted above goes on to discuss how many lives were saved by Mayor Nagin's action in opening the Superdome to those who were unable to evacuate (contrary to the emerging rightwing meme that "All the screwups can be blamed on the [Democratic] mayor and the [Democratic] governor"). There's much more at the link that's worth reading, not only in the editorial but also in related articles. Pay a visit to get a perspective beyond what the MSM are offering.
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Saturday, September 03, 2005

Two More Katrina Observations

1. I strongly suspect that the reports of lawlessness, violence, and anarchy on the streets of New Orleans will turn out to be exaggerated, driven by racism and by a subtle Republican effort to blame the victims.

Consider this: Over the past few days, we've seen plenty of film of conditions inside and outside the Superdome and the Convention Center, of stranded people on rooftops, of people sleeping or trying to flee on highway overpasses, of the largely deserted French Quarter, and many other scenes around the city. Why is it that we haven't seen film of the bands of armed thugs who are supposed to be terrorizing the city? And if the Convention Center is supposed to have been the setting for numerous rapes and other crimes, why is it that NBC cameraman Tony Zumbado, in his lengthy account of life inside the center on Keith Olbermann's Countdown Thursday night, emphasized how peaceful, cooperative, and law-abiding the trapped citizens were?

2. How do I get a job like George W. Bush's--a job where I get credit for anything good that happens on my watch (including things I had nothing to do with, such as the emergence of a new government in Palestine following the death of Arafat) but bear no responsibility for anything that goes wrong?

The same Republicans who blamed (and blame) Jimmy Carter for everything from inflation and lines at the gas pump to hostage-taking in Iran now absolve Bush of blame for any of the series of disasters that have befallen America during his administration. Evidently Carter must have been nearly omnipotent, while Bush is apparently a helpless victim of circumstance. But then again, wouldn't that call into question the preferred image of Bush as a macho, take-charge kind of guy? Darn, there I go being logical again.
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Friday, September 02, 2005

Armed Bands in New Orleans

Isn't there something incongruous about hearing an anchor on Faux News (as I just did) decrying the "armed bands" roaming the streets of New Orleans, and demanding that the Army and the National Guard move in to take the weapons away from the "thugs"?

Contemporary conservative doctrine holds that the absence of government and the arming of ordinary citizens are two highly desirable goals. Remember that the NRA argues that the "well-regulated militia" mentioned in the second amendment = all the citizens, who ought to be armed so as to protect themselves against overweening government power.

According to that theory, life in the streets of New Orleans today is just about perfect. No government . . . plenty of guns floating around . . . every person for himself . . . it's a libertarian's dream come true.
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Thursday, September 01, 2005

Is It Not Pathetic

. . . that President Bush has asked his father and Bill Clinton to launch a global effort to raise funds for the victims of Katrina?

That the United States, constantly bragging about being the richest and most generous nation in the world, is supposed to go hat in hand to the peoples of Europe and Asia begging for assistance to help our own?

The same United States that spends more on guns and soldiers than the rest of the world combined--that didn't miss a beat when the time came to commit a billion dollars a week to a pointless war in Iraq--and that, under the leadership of John Bolton, is haughtily rejecting the Millennium goal of providing seven-tenths of one percent of the national budget to development aid for the world's neediest nations?

This is an embarrassing week to be an American.
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Grover Norquist's Dream Come True

For years, anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist has been fantasizing about "making the government small enough so we can drown it in the bathtub."

This week we see what happens when government's ability to respond to human needs is reduced by budget cuts, privatization, cronyism, and incompetence. In New Orleans, the government has been drowned under the waters of Katrina. In the resulting chaos, with no one in charge, no one providing leadership or help, thousands of innocent people are dying along with any semblance of civilization.

Happy, Grover?
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Help Katrina's Victims

Here is a handy collection of links to various organizations that are accepting contributions. Or click on the ad at the bottom of the right-hand column to give via the Liberal Bloggers' Network.
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