Sunday, September 11, 2005

Dueling ideologies in my inbox

A friend of my mother's emailed me this article, under the mistaken notion that Mom would be reading my email while she was visiting. I started to write a response, but was prevented from completing it by the uncontrollable surge of anger rising up in my gut. My mom's friend is a lovely person, a devoted pediatrician from Baton Rouge, well over seventy years of age, and has always been very kind to me. It would be rude and disrespectful of the elderly to unleash my sarcastic tongue just now.

An Unnatural Disaster: A Hurricane Exposes the Man-Made Disaster of the Welfare State

An Objectivist Review

by Robert Tracinski | The Intellectual Activist

September 2, 2005

It has taken four long days for state and federal officials to figure out how to deal with the disaster in New Orleans. I can't blame them, because it has also taken me four long days to figure out what is going on there. The reason is that the events there make no sense if you think that we are confronting a natural disaster.

If this is just a natural disaster, the response for public officials is obvious: you bring in food, water, and doctors; you send transportation to evacuate refugees to temporary shelters; you send engineers to stop the flooding and rebuild the city's infrastructure. For journalists, natural disasters also have a familiar pattern: the heroism of ordinary people pulling together to survive; the hard work and dedication of doctors, nurses, and rescue workers; the steps being taken to clean up and rebuild.

Public officials did not expect that the first thing they would have to do is to send thousands of armed troops in armored vehicle, as if they are suppressing an enemy insurgency. And journalists--myself included--did not expect that the story would not be about rain, wind, and flooding, but about rape, murder, and looting.

But this is not a natural disaster. It is a man-made disaster.

The man-made disaster is not an inadequate or incompetent response by federal relief agencies, and it was not directly caused by Hurricane Katrina. This is where just about every newspaper and television channel has gotten the story wrong.

The man-made disaster we are now witnessing in New Orleans did not happen over the past four days. It happened over the past four decades. Hurricane Katrina merely exposed it to public view.

The man-made disaster is the welfare state.

For the past few days, I have found the news from New Orleans to be confusing. People were not behaving as you would expect them to behave in an emergency--indeed, they were not behaving as they have behaved in other emergencies. That is what has shocked so many people: they have been saying that this is not what we expect from America. In fact, it is not even what we expect from a Third World country.

When confronted with a disaster, people usually rise to the occasion. They work together to rescue people in danger, and they spontaneously organize to keep order and solve problems. This is especially true in America. We are an enterprising people, used to relying on our own initiative rather than waiting around for the government to take care of us. I have seen this a hundred times, in small examples (a small town whose main traffic light had gone out, causing ordinary citizens to get out of their cars and serve as impromptu traffic cops, directing cars through the intersection) and large ones (the spontaneous response of New Yorkers to September 11).

So what explains the chaos in New Orleans?

To give you an idea of the magnitude of what is going on, here is a description from a Washington Times story:

"Storm victims are raped and beaten; fights erupt with flying fists, knives and guns; fires are breaking out; corpses litter the streets; and police and rescue helicopters are repeatedly fired on.

"The plea from Mayor C. Ray Nagin came even as National Guardsmen poured in to restore order and stop the looting, carjackings and gunfire....

"Last night, Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco said 300 Iraq-hardened Arkansas National Guard members were inside New Orleans with shoot-to-kill orders.

"'These troops are...under my orders to restore order in the streets,' she said. 'They have M-16s, and they are locked and loaded. These troops know how to shoot and kill and they are more than willing to do so if necessary and I expect they will.' "

The reference to Iraq is eerie. The photo that accompanies this article shows National Guard troops, with rifles and armored vests, riding on an armored vehicle through trash-strewn streets lined by a rabble of squalid, listless people, one of whom appears to be yelling at them. It looks exactly like a scene from Sadr City in Baghdad.

What explains bands of thugs using a natural disaster as an excuse for an orgy of looting, armed robbery, and rape? What causes unruly mobs to storm the very buses that have arrived to evacuate them, causing the drivers to drive away, frightened for their lives? What causes people to attack the doctors trying to treat patients at the Super Dome?

Why are people responding to natural destruction by causing further destruction? Why are they attacking the people who are trying to help them?

My wife, Sherri, figured it out first, and she figured it out on a sense-of-life level. While watching the coverage last night on Fox News Channel, she told me that she was getting a familiar feeling. She studied architecture at the Illinois Institute of Chicago, which is located in the South Side of Chicago just blocks away from the Robert Taylor Homes, one of the largest high-rise public housing projects in America. "The projects," as they were known, were infamous for uncontrollable crime and irremediable squalor. (They have since, mercifully, been demolished.)

What Sherri was getting from last night's television coverage was a whiff of the sense of life of "the projects." Then the "crawl"--the informational phrases flashed at the bottom of the screen on most news channels--gave some vital statistics to confirm this sense: 75% of the residents of New Orleans had already evacuated before the hurricane, and of the 300,000 or so who remained, a large number were from the city's public housing projects. Jack Wakeland then gave me an additional, crucial fact: early reports from CNN and Fox indicated that the city had no plan for evacuating all of the prisoners in the city's jails--so they just let many of them loose. There is no doubt a significant overlap between these two populations--that is, a large number of people in the jails used to live in the housing projects, and vice versa.

There were many decent, innocent people trapped in New Orleans when the deluge hit--but they were trapped alongside large numbers of people from two groups: criminals--and wards of the welfare state, people selected, over decades, for their lack of initiative and self-induced helplessness. The welfare wards were a mass of sheep--on whom the incompetent administration of New Orleans unleashed a pack of wolves.

All of this is related, incidentally, to the apparent incompetence of the city government, which failed to plan for a total evacuation of the city, despite the knowledge that this might be necessary. But in a city corrupted by the welfare state, the job of city officials is to ensure the flow of handouts to welfare recipients and patronage to political supporters--not to ensure a lawful, orderly evacuation in case of emergency.

No one has really reported this story, as far as I can tell. In fact, some are already actively distorting it, blaming President Bush, for example, for failing to personally ensure that the Mayor of New Orleans had drafted an adequate evacuation plan. The worst example is an execrable piece from the Toronto Globe and Mail, by a supercilious Canadian who blames the chaos on American "individualism." But the truth is precisely the opposite: the chaos was caused by a system that was the exact opposite of individualism.

What Hurricane Katrina exposed was the psychological consequences of the welfare state. What we consider "normal" behavior in an emergency is behavior that is normal for people who have values and take the responsibility to pursue and protect them. People with values respond to a disaster by fighting against it and doing whatever it takes to overcome the difficulties they face. They don't sit around and complain that the government hasn't taken care of them. They don't use the chaos of a disaster as an opportunity to prey on their fellow men.

But what about criminals and welfare parasites? Do they worry about saving their houses and property? They don't, because they don't own anything. Do they worry about what is going to happen to their businesses or how they are going to make a living? They never worried about those things before. Do they worry about crime and looting? But living off of stolen wealth is a way of life for them.

The welfare state--and the brutish, uncivilized mentality it sustains and encourages--is the man-made disaster that explains the moral ugliness that has swamped New Orleans. And that is the story that no one is reporting.

Source: TIA Daily -- September 2, 2005

Copyright© 2002 The Intellectual Activist

Then, someone else sent me this one:

Eyewitness Report from New Orleans

September 6, 2005

On Saturday September 3, award-winning filmmaker Gloria La Riva, internationally-acclaimed photographer Bill Hackwell and A.N.S.W.E.R. Youth & Student Coordinator Caneisha Mills, a senior at Howard University, arrived in New Orleans.

The following is an eyewitness report of the crisis in the area written on Sunday, September 4.


While 80 percent of New Orleans was submerged in water, Algiers is one of the few districts that have been spared the worst of the flooding as it sits higher than most of the city. An historic district established in 1719, Algiers is on the west bank of the Mississippi river, across from the French Quarter. Probably 15% of the residents still remain behind, most of them determined to stay in their homes. The majority of homes are still intact, although many have suffered damage. While their houses survived, the peoples’ chance of survival seemed very bleak since there was no electricity or disbursement of food, water or other supplies.

We arrived in the Algiers district of New Orleans after getting through seven checkpoints. We quickly learned that the current media reports that relief and aid have finally arrived to New Orleans are as false as all earlier reports that also had as their origin government sources. The people in the Algiers area have received nothing or next to nothing since the Hurricane struck. Left without any way to escape, people are now struggling to survive in the aftermath. Now they are being told they have to abandon their homes, even though they want to stay. They are not being given what they need to stay and survive, and are being told they must leave.

“Imagine being in a city, poor, without any money and all of a sudden you are told to leave and you don’t even have a bicycle,” stated Malik Rahim, a community activist in the Algiers section of New Orleans. “90% of the people don’t even have cars.”

One woman told us it was not possible for her to evacuate. She said, “I can’t leave. I don’t have a car and I have nine children.” She and her husband are getting by with the help of several men in the community who are joining resources to provide for their neighbors.

The government claims that people can get water, but residents have to travel at least 17 miles to the nearest water and ice distribution center. Only one case of water is available per family. Countless people have no way to drive.

While the government is touting the deployment of personnel to the area, there is a huge military and police presence but none of it to provide services. All of them, north and south of the river, are stationed in front of private buildings and abandoned stores, protecting private property.

The goods that the government personnel are bringing in are for their own forces. They are not distributing provisions to people who desperately need them.

Not one of them has delivered water to Algiers or gone to the houses to see if sick or elderly people need help. There is no door-to-door survey to see who was injured.

The overwhelming majority of people who have stayed in Algiers are Black but some are white. One man in his late 50s in Algiers pointed across the street to a 10-acre grassy lot. It looks like a beautiful park. He said, “I had my daughter call FEMA. I told them I want to donate this land to the people in need. They could set up 100 tractor trailers with aid, they could set up tents. No one has ever called me back.” He is clearly angry.

Although some of the residents do express fear of burglaries into houses, acts of heroism, sacrifice and solidarity are evident everywhere.
Steve, a white man in his 40s, knocks on Malik’s front door. He tells us, “Malik has kept this neighborhood together. We don’t know what we’d do without his help.” He has come in because he needs to use the phone. Malik’s street is the only one with phones still working.

Malik and three of his friends have been delivering food, water and ice to those in need three times a day, searching everywhere for goods.

There is a strong suspicion among the residents that the government has another agenda in the deliberately forced removal of people from Algiers, even though this particular neighborhood is not under water and is intact. Algiers is full of quaint, historic French-style houses, with a high real estate value, and the residents know that the government and real estate forces would like to lay their hands on their neighborhood to push forward gentrification which is already evident.

Downtown New Orleans

Although entry is prohibited into downtown New Orleans north and east of the Mississippi, we were able to get in on Sunday.

The Superdome is still surrounded by water and all types of military helicopters, army trucks, etc are coming in and out of the area; however, most of the people who survived have already left. On US-90, the only road out of New Orleans, convoys of National Guard troops are pouring into the city, too late for many. According to an emergency issue of The Times-Picayune, 16,000 National Guard troops now occupy the city.

Thousands of troops are in New Orleans but water is premium and still not available. One African American couple we met looking for water told us, “We have four kids. When they told us to leave before the hurricane we couldn’t. We have no car and no money.”

Undoubtedly it is similar in the other states that got the direct hit of Katrina, Mississippi and Alabama. On the radio we hear reports of completely demolished towns. What differentiates the rest of the Gulf coast from New Orleans is that the many thousands of deaths in New Orleans were absolutely preventable and occurred after the hurricane. On everyone’s lips is the cutting in federal funds to strengthen the levees of Lake Pontchartrain. Two reporters from New York tell us they just came from the New Orleans airport emergency hospital that was set up. We made our way to the airport.

New Orleans International Airport

The New Orleans International Airport was converted into an emergency hospital center. Thousands of people were evacuated there to get supplies and food, and for transportation that would take them out of the city. Many people arrived with only one or two bags, their entire lives reduced to a few belongings.

Some people did not want to leave their homes, but say they were forced to do so. For example, one white woman and her husband were forced to evacuate. She said, “The military told us that we had one minute to evacuate. We said that we weren’t ready and he said they can’t force us to leave but if we don’t leave anybody left would be arrested … but it was the end of the month. The two of us have been living for a couple of months on $600 a month and rent is $550. At the end of the month, we only had $20 and 1/8 of a tank of gas. There was no way we could leave.”

When it became apparent that nobody was coming back to pick them up, the couple walked five miles to the airport to see if they could get help.

Disaster Medical Assistance Teams, doctors, nurses and community organizations came from as far as San Diego, California and Kentucky to provide support during the crisis. None of them were dispersed into the community. When we arrived at the airport on Sunday, September 4, there were approximately 20 medical people for every one patient while people in regions such as Algiers and the 9th ward were left to fend for themselves.

The majority of people in New Orleans blame the local and national government for the catastrophe. One young Black man said, “The government abandoned us … [it’s] pre-meditated murder.” Another said, “Why would you [the government] protect a building … instead of rescuing people that have been without food or water for three or four days? It seems like that was the plan. … We couldn’t starve them out, the hurricane didn’t kill them, it seems planned.”

Baton Rouge

As we drive to Baton Rouge tonight to visit evacuated people, we hear on local radio that possibly 10,000 people have died in the flooded areas of New Orleans. Tonight in one announcement, we hear the names of some of the missing people still being searched for, a 90-year-old woman named Lisa, a man 102 years old, two women 82 and 85 years old. The elderly, the most vulnerable, left to their own devices.

Bodies are lying everywhere, and hidden in attics and apartments. The announcer describes how one body, rotting after days in the sun, was surrounded by a wall fashioned from fallen bricks by survivors, and given a provisional burial to give her some dignity. Written on the sheet covering her is, “Here lies Vera, God Help Us.”

At a Red Cross shelter outside of Baton Rouge, we meet Emmanuel, who can’t find his wife and three sons after the floods. His story is shocking but not unusual. His home is near the 17th Street Canal, where the Pontchartrain levee broke through.
“I stayed behind to rescue my neighbors while I sent my wife and kids to dry land,” he says. It is difficult for him to relate what happened. He had a small boat so he went from house to house picking up neighbors. While doing so, he encountered many bodies in the water.
“My best friend’s body was floating by in the water. One mother whose baby drowned tied her baby to a fence so she could bury him after she returned.” Because troops kept driving by him and others without helping them, he had to walk 30 miles north until he was picked up.

The people of New Orleans did not have to die; their lives did not have to be destroyed. This conduct of the government is a crime of the highest magnitude. There is not a single adjective that is adequate.

Negligence, incompetence, callous disregard while all are true, none are sufficient. Those who manage a system that always and everywhere puts the needs of business and private property ahead of the people, that always find money to fund wars that benefit the rich of this country rather than meeting people’s needs should be held responsible and accountable. The real problem however, is not with the managers of the system, but with the system itself. They call it the free market. It is the economic and social system of plutocracy, the system of modern capitalism, of, by, and for the rich that in words declares itself to be of, by and for the people. The reality, however, can now been seen in the streets of New Orleans.

A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition
Act Now to Stop War & End Racism
National Office in Washington DC: 202-544-3389
New York City: 212-533-0417
Los Angeles: 323-464-1636
San Francisco: 415-821-6545


m said...

It's interesting to read the conservative slanted piece, as it shows how obviously biased the writer is long before the disaster struck. There is a cold calculated analysis built on disdain for people who receive public assistance, and almost no empathy whatsoever for those who were stranded. The writer attempts to imply that all of the survivors left behind were simply there to steal, pillage and break the law. While certain activities that occured during the aftermath of Katrina are reprehensible, that in no way excuses the government from the ultimate duty to serve and protect, defend and maybe help the people left behind. Perhaps if they hadn't let the situation devolve into a state of abject lawlessness in the first place, things wouldn't have gotten so out of hand altogether. This flooding was not an entirely unforseen situation as everyone but the President seems to know, and it is a fact that people at all levels of governemnt have been critical of the way the relief situation was delayed. I in no way want to make excuses for the welfre state and systemic poverty culture that that has developed in New Orleans (or throughout our nation), but these are well known conditions there and any government worth it's bureacratic weight should have better anticipated the needs of the population they ostensibly serve. It looks as if officials (federal , state and county )had no interest in helping in the initial evacuations or relief, but somehow wanted to create an inevitable chaotic situation in which brutal law enforcement is the only response left.

Obviously the folks at the A.N.S.W.E.R coalition have a left wing bias, but at least their article is written from firsthand information on the streets of N.O, not from info in the Moonie controlled Washington Times.

I think this event was far more relevant to most of our daily lives than 9/11. Indeed these days I am far more frightened of the power and policies of my own government than the chance I'll be hit in a terrorist attack.

BeerNutz said...

Here's my response to this, in no particular order. I'm writing this at 1 AM, so please forgive any incoherence.

1. Local officials absolutely did not let prisoners go free. That is a total lie. The author probably knows this as he only says this is based on "early reports" even though he wrote the e-mail at least 4 days after the hurricane. But I guess it was too good a story to leave out.

2. This is an attempt to divert attention from the real scandal - the incompetence of the federal government to get aid to the affected area even 2 days after the hurricane had passed. (2 days after the tsunami, we were air-dropping supplies in Indonesia, but we can't do that in N.O.) The cmdr. of the National Guard said today that with much of the Mississippi Nat'l Guard in Iraq, relief efforts in that state were set back by at least 1 day. I read early in the week about an unnamed source at Ft. Bragg who said so many military helicopters were in Iraq, it took a while to get helicopters to the affected area.

3. There are a few code words/phrases here. "Pack of wolves"; "Third world" - contrasting New Orleans to what happens in a "small town" when a traffic light isn't working. Third world = black; small town = white. This is playing the race card. The small town traffic light example is so incomparable to the devastation of the flood that it's laughable. The author asks "why the chaos in N.O.?" when compared with his idyllic small town and NYC on 9/11. For starters, how about that communication was completely wiped out. With people cut off from the outside world, without supplies for more than a few days, & with rising flood waters, people will become paranoid and people will become violent. Rudy Giuliani couldn't have done any better than what the mayor of N.O. was doing after the hurricane hit because there was no way to communicate. Also, 9/11 had a 10-square block area affected; obviously this was far different. I would add that these same reasons can be given to somewhat defend the federal govt's slow response.

4. The emphasis of some in the media and some conservatives on the looting really misses the point. The looting of non-essentials (anything other than food and a reasonable amount of clothes) is not defensible, but when compared to the creation of conditions that lead to the deaths of likely thousands of individuals (cutting funding for the levees by 80% or not having the federal response ready), which deserves our attention? The real looting was spending $230M in the last transportation bill on a bridge to an uninhabited island in Alaska because the chair of the Appropriations Cmte. is from Alaska. Conservatives historically are very concerned about property rights and liberals about civil ( i.e., human) rights. This dichotomy is seen in the horrified reaction by conservatives to the looting. Regrettable? Yes. Missing the point? Absolutely. If you add the rapes and murders, that is terrible, but again it should be overshadowed by the larger tragedy. I would add that there were rapes and murders in N.O. every day before the flood as well. The real question, which I don't have an answer to, is how many more rapes and murders were there during the flood. To the extent there was an increase, and for the sake of argument, I will agree there was, it is partly due to the failure of government, local and federal, to provide order, which is the primary reason of having government in the first place.

5. "Why are they attacking people who are trying to help them?" I asked myself this question and was certainly disturbed by this as well. When people believe their very lives are at stake, it is little wonder they will try to commandeer buses, carjack, scream at the police, etc., etc. Where their belief is irrational, the action is criminal; where the belief is rational, even people in small towns would do the same.

6. The author claims that 300,000 people remained in New Orleans. He also claims he got this from Fox News. I don't even think Fox was that wrong. About 100,000 people remained. 80% of the population was evacuated, which makes it a rather successful evacuation; especially when you consider you can only leave N.O. by bridges to the northeast or by road to the west-northwest. Speaking of evacuations, if local officials even had time in 2 days or the manpower to enforce a mandatory evacuation (which they didn't), there aren't enough buses in the state of Louisiana to transport 100,000 people - not to mention the clogging of roads, gas stations, etc. And where exactly could the mayor of N.O. send 100,000 mandatorily evacuated people? Was the author's hometown ready to accept them?

7. This reminds me of an interview on CNN in the small Louisiana town where a provisional morgue has been set up. A woman there said she'd rather have people coming in dead than alive because of all of the "problems" the living evacuees would have brought. Now that's compassionate conservatism.

8. The author claims that in a welfare state, local officials are only concerned with getting welfare payments out and political patronage jobs. Well, there is no better example of a political patronage system gone horribly wrong than when all of the top officials at FEMA have no prior disaster experience and the director's main qualification must have been that he was Bush's campaign manager's college roommate, because it certainly wasn't the years he spent at the Arabian Horse Association. The author is so perplexed by the welfare state, perhaps he forgot the welfare reform of 10 years ago. Of course, he offers no solutions for chronic poverty. He doesn't even offer specific criticisms of any particular aspects of what he calls the welfare state - just that it has fostered a sense of entitlement and a lack of initiative (I'm giving his poorly worded argument more justice than it deserves).

9. The author says that there were some good people in N.O. but they were trapped by criminals (wrong, see paragraph 1) or "wards of the welfare state" selected over decades for a lack of initiative living off of "stolen wealth" (wealth! hah!). Selected? Wow, this guy is racist. As of this week, they are now wards of something - of a society that would rather ignore them. In time, we will remember to ignore them again, but for now at least, the forgotten of this country are finally getting some attention. It's too bad they didn't get some 2 weeks ago. This guy makes being a ward of the welfare state sound absolutely wonderful. It is such a wonderful existence that it is no wonder that people would prefer to live under such terrific conditions. Poor people like being poor - now that is rich, no pun intended.

10. At the end, the author strongly hints that the victims of the flood don't have "values" like the rest of us do. No, they are "welfare parasites" with a "brutish, uncivilized mentality" - note the code words. I'm happy to talk about values. What are this guy's values? Every man for himself, apparently (although a lot of poor people with guns is unlikely to be his vision of utopia). I believe that is an uncivilized mentality. Blithely accepting the poverty and deplorable conditions of millions in this country and using them as an excuse for a feeling of moral superiority is a brutish mentality. I wish I had more answers to solve poverty, but I don't. I've got more than this guy, though. If we gave kids in the inner-city the same education we give kids in the suburbs, then future generations would have a much better shot of breaking the cycle of poverty. What if we offered them the same security - both in terms of police presence and health insurance - that more fortunate Americans can take for granted? I guess the author wants to end public housing - throw people out on the street and cut off their benefits. Who will that affect the most? The children and the elderly. What did they do to this guy? What have they done that makes the author feel so superior to them? They were born or they grew old in the ghetto. But I'd still rather have their lot in life than be someone who lives his life in bitter ignorance and writes e-mails that spread his ignorance like a virus.