Crawl Across the Ocean

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Some Belated Thoughts

It may be somewhat inappropriate, given the magnitude of what has happened in New Orleans and across the Gulf Coast, but the way my mind works, it has been thinking about the hurricane in the context of a couple of movies.

The first is 'Die Hard'. In Die Hard, a band of terrorists take over an office building to break into a vault and steal some money. The part I'm thinking about is how the local and federal agencies which respond to the situation are portrayed in the movie. The locals are portrayed somewhat sympathetically, especially the lower level 'grunts'. But the further up the chain of command you go, the more arrogant and incompetent the police become. After the FBI unwittingly helps the terrorists get access to the safe, the terrorist leader Hans tells a team member who thought the last seal was unbreakable, "You asked for miracles, I give you the FBI".

The other movie on my mind is "The Fugitive". Here, after a bus carrying death row convicts crashes, the local police investigate, but they're not very thorough. Then the U.S. Federal Marshall arrives (played by Tommy Lee Jones) and soon his team has discovered that some of the convicts have escaped. The federal officials are still somewhat arrogant and a little obnoxious in this movie, but they are very competent. Staffed by intelligent people and with lots of resources to draw on, the federal agencies are portrayed as being very good at their job.

Two different views of the federal government's response to a crisis. And while the 'Die Hard' scenario plays into the lone wolf plot where our hero (played by Bruce Willis) is one man against the world, I think that 'The Fugitive' is a more accurate portrayal of what most Americans expect from their federal government when the chips are down. America is a country which is rightly proud of its huge, well equipped and highly efficient military, a country which sees itself as an example for the world, as the people you turn to in a crisis, the ones who can mount a huge humanitarian operation better than anyone, the ones who could build enough tanks and airplanes and ships to turn the tide of World War II. And it's also a country which isn't big on making excuses, a country where people aren't inclined to let someone off because they did their best, a country where you have to win a gold medal, not silver or bronze before you get any media attention.

And I think this is why, while some Canadians I've seen have suggested that it is too early to be critical of the relief effort or emphasized the logistical difficulties of dealing with such a massive crisis, I've seen very few Americans, even those who wish to defend the Bush administration, take this tack. For American citizens to be stranded in their own waste and filth and left with little or no food or water for days while the sick, the very young and the elderly die is simply unacceptable, regardless of the circumstances.

Karl Rove and the rest of the Republicans understand this, which is why they are working so hard to shift blame to the local (Democratic) authorities, or to the people of New Orleans themselves for not getting out of the city or not being civilized (white?) enough.

My natural inclination is to give people the benefit of the doubt, especially in a crisis situation, and I'm inclined to at least hear out the argument that the response we've seen is the best that could be done under the circumstances, but I've simply read too many stories of mismanagement by those involved, especially by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) - the people who are supposed to be the Tommy Lee Jones' of this situation - knowledgeable, experienced, in control and supplied with whatever resources it takes to get the job done.

When you look at the people who are in charge of FEMA, one would almost be surprised if they *were* able to do an effective job leading in a situation like this. The current chief, Michael Brown, was previously employed as the commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association, has little or no related experience to emergency management, and was forced out of his job as Arabian horse czar amid lawsuits and generally unflattering circumstances. Brown's main qualification seems to have been that he was a college roommate of the previous director. And Brown is not an isolated case. From the NY Daily News
:"The three top jobs at the Federal Emergency Management Agency under President Bush went to political cronies with no apparent experience coping with catastrophes, the Daily News has learned.
Even if Bush were to fire embattled and suddenly invisible FEMA Director Michael Brown over his handling of Hurricane Katrina, the bureaucrat immediately below him is no disaster professional, either.

While Brown ran horse shows in his last private-sector job, FEMA's No. 2 man, deputy director and chief of staff Patrick Rhode, was an advance man for the Bush-Cheney campaign and White House. He also did short stints at the Commerce Department and Small Business Administration.

Rhode's biography posted on FEMA's Web site doesn't indicate he has any real experience in emergency response.

In addition, the agency's former third-ranking official, deputy chief of staff Scott Morris, was a PR expert who worked for Maverick Media, the Texas outfit that produced TV and radio spots for the Bush-Cheney campaign. In June, Morris moved to Florida to become FEMA's long-term recovery director."

and later,

"Government sources blame Bush's first FEMA director, Joe Allbaugh, with turning FEMA into a patronage shop.

He was chief of staff when Bush was Texas' governor and later headed the 2000 Bush-Cheney campaign.

"He stacked the deck with political appointees," a knowledgeable source said of Allbaugh, who had a reputation for running an efficient FEMA operation until he left the job in March 2003."

Paul Krugman suggests that what is wrong is that you have a group of people (Bush and company) running the government who don't believe in the idea of government,
"I don't think this is a simple tale of incompetence. The reason the military wasn't rushed in to help along the Gulf Coast is, I believe, the same reason nothing was done to stop looting after the fall of Baghdad. Flood control was neglected for the same reason our troops in Iraq didn't get adequate armor.

At a fundamental level, I'd argue, our current leaders just aren't serious about some of the essential functions of government. They like waging war, but they don't like providing security, rescuing those in need or spending on preventive measures. And they never, ever ask for shared sacrifice."

Greg at Sinister Thoughts picks up the same theme saying,
"This is the same kind of anti-government governing so baldly on display during the Mike Harris years. If you don't believe that the organization you head has any business being in business, you can't provide effective leadership when the trouble starts."

But there is some disagreement that the Republicans have no interest in government. Says 'N', commenting in reply to Greg,
"In fact, I suspect Bush's desire for a bloated and corpulent federal government quite closely matches your own preferences. The only difference between Bush and you is that his religion (evangelical Christianity) and yours (Marxism) are spiritually incompatible. He thinks a massive federal government ought to stop Americans from smoking weed and buying porn. You think a massive federal government ought to stop Canadians from smoking cigarettes and buying health care."

The Canadian Cynic made a similar kind of point the other day, in reference to cuts to the budget of federal agencies which monitor the weather,
"But that's cool, since I'm assuming that all those soon-to-be homeless, impoverished, uninsured residents of the Gulf Coast can take solace in the fact that, no matter how bad off they are, gays still can't get married.

It's all good, then."

But I think that Billmon is more accurate when he corrects Krugman to say that it's not that the Republicans don't believe in government, and it's not that they believe in government as a moral enforcer, it's that they believe in government as a tool: a tool which they can use to further enrich themselves and find cushy well paying jobs for all their friends. A tool they can use to cut taxes and regulations on the companies they own stock in and serve on the boards of. Says Billmon,
"But after thinking about it, I realized Krugman got it wrong -- or at least partially wrong. This catastrophe isn't a product of the anti-government biases of the conservative true believers; it's a product of the uses to which government has been put by the Mayberry Machiavellis and their GOP ward heelers in Congress.

Even the legally blind can see the Rovians are serious about the essential functions of government. It's just that in their value system, funneling federal money to sympathetic interest groups while simultaneously redistributing the tax burden away from those same groups are the two essential functions of government.

Likewise, the Bush family is prepared to spend almost unlimited amounts of federal money on preventative measures -- that is, on efforts to prevent them from losing an election."

It would be a separate post in itself for me detail all the reasons why I agree with Billmon's assessment and why I see the current Republican party as governing purely for their own benefit and not for the average American, but for this post I'll just state that that is my opinion.

Now, corrupt, cronyist leaders who govern for themselves rather than for the people have a long and storied history, but they are typically backed up by military force which quells any dissent. In a democracy, you have to be a bit more creative. Things like covering up the corruption, coming down hard on whistle-blowers, trying to control what the media covers and how, sliming your opponents, preventing or at least controlling oversight all go without saying. When you've given up the primary moral reason for governing - to help the people - all the other morals fall quickly as well. But these tactics by themselves are not enough.

As I see it, the Republican party retains power through the use of two (primary) strategies which go beyond the standard corruption toolkit. The first of these is what generally goes by the name of 'the culture war(s)' and is what both 'N' and the Canadian Cynic were referring to.

The culture war is best described by Thomas Frank's, "What's the Matter With Kansas". It's a fascinating book with a lot of interesting details about present day and historical Kansas, but the core argument of the book is very simple. Republicans have taken advantage of populist resentment against the elites of society and against the coarsening of American culture to garner votes by telling people that the Democrats are a bunch of Volvo driving, latte drinking *liberals* who you wouldn't want to have dinner with because they'd be looking down on you the whole time and who are in bed with the Hollywood elite which is destroying family values across America.

But what's left out of the populist vs. elitist Republican mythology is the idea of money and that the difference between the elite and the common man is not that one drinks a latte and one drinks black coffee, but rather that one is rich and makes a living from their portfolio while the other is poor and makes a living from their own labour. And what is driving the coarsening of the culture is not Hollywood moguls who hate America but rather unrestrained capitalism always searching for another dollar. By taking economics out of the populist vs elitist equation, the Republicans get the common man to vote Republican as a statement against those elitist Democrats and the common man doesn't mind (or notice) when the Republicans focus their governing efforts not on reigning in the excesses of the elite or the rotten culture or anything like that, but rather on making the rich richer, making corporations richer and creating an even more cutthroat dog-eat-dog market where the race to the cultural bottom just gets faster.

In Frank's words,
"The corporate world - for reasons having a great deal to do with its corporateness - blankets the nation with a cultural style designed to offend and to pretend-subvert: sassy teens in Skeechers flout the Man; bigoted churchgoing moms don't tolerate their daughters' cool liberated friends; hipsters dressed in T-shirts reading "FCUK" snicker at suits who just don't get it. It's meant to be offensive, and Kansas is duly offended. The state watches impotently as its culture, beamed in from the coasts, becomes coarser and more offensive by the year. Kansas aches for revenge. Kansas gloats when celebrities say stupid things; it cheers when movie stars go to jail. And when two female rock stars share a lascivious kiss on national TV, Kansas goes haywire. Kansas scream for the heads of the liberal elite. Kansas comes running to the polling place. And Kansas cuts those rock stars' taxes"

From this perspective, we can make a distinction between the two comments I referenced earlier which tied the hurricane to the culture war. 'N's comment buys into the idea that the Republican government is a government which is primarily concerned with moral issues. The Canadian Cynic's comment on the other hand, sees this posture for what it is, something to distract the voters from the fact that the Republican party is taking actions which are not in their interest.

The second, related strategy is a branding exercise in which the Republican party is repeatedly claimed (and proclaimed) to be the party of competence, the party of serious people (men) who will do what has to be done when there is a crisis. The people you would turn to when you really want help and you're no longer concerned about effeminate issues like affirmative action or civil rights. While those elitist latte-drinking Democrats just pussyfoot around and try not to offend anyone, the Republicans will do what it takes to got the job done. Just think of your average truck commercial and you'll get the idea.

The Republicans have a huge communications machinery set up to implement these two strategies and to get their message out and it works pretty well, as can be seen by the re-election of George Bush despite a record that looked to the rest of the world like an unredeemed litany of failure. But the fundamental weakness of branding and messaging and culture war distractions and everything we call 'spin' is that it is only effective at changing how people think, it doesn't have any direct impact on the physical world. So it is in situations which are, by their nature, intensely physical that the weakness of these strategies is revealed.

The first example of this, is of course the Iraq war. No matter if a body count isn't kept and dead bodies aren't shown on TV and every advance is hailed in loud voices while every setback is downplayed, over time people start to notice that was said would happen hasn't happened and that by the initiators own measures of success, the war effort has been a failure.

With Katrina, the events are more familiar and that much closer to home for Americans and it takes a lot less time for people to get upset. The Republicans will do everything they can to pin blame on the state or the city or the local inhabitants but all the blame shifting in the world couldn't help to get food, water or busses to the stranded people of New Orleans any faster. And while there were undoubtedly screwups at the local and state level, the federal government is the one which people expect to have the resources and the authority to deal with a crisis of this magnitude.

These physical problems don't touch directly on the culture wars, but they do serve as a powerful reminder that some things are more important making a statement against gays or Hollywood or latte-drinkers: Simply put, government matters.

Confronted with the unspinnable reality of a bloody insurgency or a natural disaster, what is revealed about the Republican party and the Federal Government it leads is unforgivable. Not that the Republicans are ideological or that they are corrupt, or that they support big government or small government, or that they focus too much or too little on moral issues - these things could be forgiven, or at the very least buried under a pile of spin. What's unforgivable is that - thanks to a lack of leadership, thanks to partisan appointments and thanks to misplaced priorities - the Republican-led federal government has become the government portrayed in Die Hard. In a word, incompetent. And the price for that incompetence is being paid in American lives both abroad and at home.

Combine the one thing Americans can't accept (the suffering and death of their fellow citizens) and the one reason for something happening they can never accept (incompetence) and something has to give.


  • Beautiful take on the whole thing Declan.

    I sincerely hope the spin can't be spun on this one and those incompetants, including Bush, get their cumupence.

    By Blogger Mike, at 6:26 AM  

  • Well said, Declan. It is incompetence that could be hidden and spun as long as the carnage was taking place in distant Iraq, but now Americans have had a chance to watch the Bush administration screw something up at home, and it was truly ugly. Who knows, it might be their wake up call.

    By Blogger Janie For Mayor, at 1:33 PM  

  • Thanks Mike, Timmy. hopefully there is still time/capacity for the U.S. to turn things around.

    By Blogger Declan, at 4:49 PM  

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