Friday, September 02, 2005

Poverty’s face, in New Orleans

Among the multitude of things being overlooked in our response to the cesspool that New Orleans has become, is the realization that in this country, it really is all about class. Whether you live or whether you die, whether you’re given water, or just overflowing toilets, whether there is a major relief operation launched to save your life or you’re just packed like so many sardines into a useless stadium, whether you have a way out of a collapsed city or if you’re just left behind to die—it all just depends upon your class.

The head of FEMA, Michael D. Brown (Bush’s old college bud who’s got no crisis-management experience at all) defended the suffering and dying of thousands by saying that they “were ordered to evacuate but chose to remain behind in New Orleans.” I guess this defines him as a modern Republican, given his perception that these folks even had the option of leaving—it can only reflect his belief that they chose to be poor in the first place.

News reports have stated that the poverty rate in New Orleans was 25-30 percent. When the order of “mandatory” evacuation was given, the buses and trains had stopped running the day before, so the only way out of town was in a personal vehicle or taxicab. How many people with an annual income of $8000 or less own cars, and how many of them have credit cards, and how many of them have extra cash at the end of the month to pay for gas? They might as well have been (mandatorily) ordered to take wing and fly to Mars.

The response to the disaster in New Orleans should shame us all, and it brings unfathomable dishonor to our country, and it NEVER would have happened this way if, instead of New Orleans, it was Hilton Head, or Martha’s Vineyard, or Maui that was underwater. For starters, President Bush would have immediately ordered Navy and Coast Guard vessels to the area, and would have immediately begun construction of a tent city of some sort for the displaced, and would have immediately rounded up whatever transportation was necessary to accomplish the evacuation.

Instead, to all appearances, the dispossessed of New Orleans have been herded into a “shelter” not worthy of the housing of livestock (or even prisoners of war), with fewer comforts, and without even the basic necessity of WATER being provided. No drinking water in 96 degree, crowded, airless conditions? For days on end, with no promise of escape? It brings to mind nothing so much as the Circles of Hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy. And we really think the Houston sports arena will be that much better than the one in New Orleans? Who among us can even imagine “living” under such conditions? Why the “arena” model of shelter, instead of the traditional tent cities, perhaps at one of the numerous vacated military bases? There would already be infrastructure in place to provide water and other basic needs, and the people would be afforded at least a modicum of privacy.

If these people are being subjected to conditions that would result in jail terms to those housing animals in such a manner, while our President is careful to adhere to his vacation plans (cutting it “short” by what? 12 hours?) in the face of the crisis, and while our Secretary of State takes in a Broadway play and some designer shoe-shopping, and while our Vice President is (apparently) snuggled into his undisclosed location, can it be mere coincidence that those suffering and dying just happen to be poor? That, my friend, would truly strain credulity.

One last thought for the moment: could it be that the root cause of this disastrous situation in New Orleans is not that “we” now have to take responsibility for all these tens of thousands who are in such dire straits, but that these folks were too poor to “do for themselves”? Could it be that poverty itself is unacceptable to a “first world” country in the 21st century, and especially such an extremely high rate of poverty? If 25-30 percent of inhabitants cannot even afford the means of simple physical escape from their city of residence when necessary, doesn’t this suggest an underlying problem with the way our economy services its citizens? And can any of us pretend to be surprised when people who literally have nothing left to lose start to carjack and loot their way to survival?

The situation in New Orleans will eventually be solved, but our very economy seems premised upon the acceptance of a quite high rate of poverty: is this really how we want to run our lives? Because New Orleans will not be the last time we witness complete anarchy, if we continue to refuse to allow such a large proportion of our citizenry to share a sense of ownership of this country, and by “ownership” I mean far more than Bush does when he lauds his plan to gut Social Security. The amount of suffering with business-as-usual is simply unacceptable, not only morally, but also pragmatically, but with this I am assuming that most of us would like to live where peace and harmony prevail. Maybe I’m just dead wrong.

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