Simon Schama comes up with a great many zingers on the devout slacker of the free world.
George W Bush has decreed that…there is to be a further day of solemnities on which the nation will pray for the unnumbered victims of Hurricane Katrina. Prayers (like vacations) are the default mode for this president who knows how to chuckle and bow the head in the midst of disaster but not, when it counts, how to govern or to command. If you feel the prickly heat of politics, summon a hymn to make it go away; make accountability seem a blasphemy. Thus has George Bush become the Archbishop of Washington even as his aura as lord protector slides into the putrid black lagoon, bobbing with cadavers and slick with oil, that has swallowed New Orleans
Zing! Exactly. He knows how to chuckle and how to bow the head, and nothing else. Not much of a repertoire. And the blasphemy bit is exactly right: that is just what he is doing with the piety schtick: he’s wrapping himself in the deity so that anyone who argues will look like one of them there values-free atheists. It’s creepy, it’s bogus, and it’s coercive. And people are finally calling him on it! It’s about time…
So this weekend it was predictable that the president would shamelessly invoke the spirit of 9/11 to cover his shamefully exposed rear end…But comparisons with 9/11…will only serve now to reinforce the differences between what the two calamities said about America, and especially about those entrusted with its government. The carnage of 9/11 generated an intense surge of patriotic solidarity, even with America’s Babylon, a city scandalously and notoriously indifferent to Heartland values…Blood and food donations piled up and a mayor disregarded his personal safety to be where he had to be, in the thick of the inferno; his daily press conferences astoundingly bullshit-free, unafraid of bearing bad news; treating his fellow-citizens, mirabile dictu, like grown-ups.
Zing, again. Oh, man, how I long – how I crave – to be treated like a grown-up, how I crave for all of us to be treated like grown-ups. How I loathe and despise and detest this regimen in which we are all treated like soppy weak-minded children. This permanent on-going insult to every one of us, in which we’re constantly talked to as if we believed in Santa Claus and the tooth fairy.
It was this redeeming sense of national community that protected the president from any kind of serious political scrutiny whenever he invoked 9/11 as the overwhelming reason for launching the invasion of Iraq. As John Kerry found to his cost, unexamined passion triumphed over reasoned argument. Bush won re-election simply by making debate a kind of treason; an offence against the entombed.
Zing again. Unexamined passion whups reasoned argument, over and over and over again, and the infantilization proceeds apace.
And what they saw, as so many of them have said, was the brutality, destitution, desperation and chaos of the Third World. Instead of instinctive solidarity and compassion, they have witnessed a descent into a Hobbesian state of nature; with Leviathan offering fly-by compassion, 30,000ft up, and then, once returned to the White House, broadcasting a defensive laundry list of deliveries, few of which showed up when and where they were needed. Instead of acts of mutual succour, there was the police force of Gretna, south of New Orleans, sealing off a bridge against incoming evacuees, and turning them back under threats of gunfire…And instead of an urban community of every conceivable race, religion and even class brought together by trauma, another kind of city, startlingly divided by race and fortune, has symbolised everything about America that makes its people uneasy, ashamed and, finally, perhaps lethally for the conservative ascendancy and its myths, angry.
Damn right. That’s exactly what it makes us – ashamed, and angry. And so it should. Even David Brooks – as smug a commentator as you’d want to find – last week said that leaving the poor behind in New Orleans was like abandoning the wounded on the battlefield. I for one spent the entire Clinton administration (to say nothing of its predecessors) wondering and whining ‘But what about inequality?’ Katrina did one hell of a job of making it clear why inequality does matter.
Historians ought not to be in the prophecy business but I’ll venture this one: Katrina will be seen as a watershed in the public and political life of the US, because it has put back into play the profound question of American government…Fema, which under Bill Clinton had been a cabinet level agency reporting directly to the president, had under his successor been turned into a hiring opportunity for political hacks and cronies and disappeared into the lumbering behemoth of Homeland Security. It was Fema that failed the Gulf; Fema which failed to secure the delivery of food, water, ice and medical supplies desperately asked for by the Mayor of New Orleans; and it was the president and his government-averse administration that had made Fema a bad joke. In the last election campaign George W Bush asked Americans to vote for him as the man who would best fulfil the most essential obligation of government: the impartial and vigilant protection of its citizens. Now the fraudulence of the claim has come back to haunt him, not in Baghdad but in the drowned counties of Louisiana. In the recoil, disgust and fury felt by millions of Americans at this abdication of responsibility, the president – notwithstanding his comically self-serving promise to lead an inquiry into the fiasco – will assuredly reap the whirlwind.
I think so. Some people think this will fade the way everything else fades – and maybe so, but I don’t think so. I think this one bit too deep – way too deep. I think the shame is real, and will keep the anger from fading. I think it’s another Emmett Till, another Little Rock, another Selma. I think people are going to want something better than small gummint and pious cronyism and greed is good.