Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Katrina and the Right

This will probably be my last post on Katrina. More than enough has already been said on the subject, and I myself wasn't actually planning to post more than once. But two things kept me going. The first was the continuing flood of reports of the event itself, the horrifying images and descriptions of destruction, neglect, incompetence and violence on the one hand, and tragic dignity, compassion and outraged human concern on the other. The second was the parallel flood of commentary from the hard Right: an ugly, toxic mix of partisan excuse-making, stereotypes and contempt for the victims, all expressed in tones of insufferable smugness. The utter lack of empathy demonstrated by so many of the commentators was, for me, an excruciating reminder of the vacuum at the core of radical individualism, an absence of morality so profound that a million pretentious "philosophers" of the Ayn Rand variety couldn't begin to fill it with their specious substitutes.

The past few days have been emotional for me, and in some of my comments I have not been attentive to the fact that "the Right" is a category that should not be overly homogenized. There is decency to be found among some on that side of things, and the other positive qualities that make us human, too: empathy, compassion, caring. The Right, after all, is composed (for the most part) of ordinary human beings. But my attention was drawn and held by the sheer noise generated on that section of the political spectrum when and after Katrina hit: the kindly voices were simply drowned out.

Before getting to a few examples, let me dispose of the "charity" meme. A number of right-wing blogsites have been prompt to post links to various charitable organizations. For many, that seems to be the only way to express any fellow-feeling in this affair. Amidst the veritable forest of fingers wagging at the victims, here are some numbers to call, some sites where you can come and donate.

Let me put my cards on the table. I don't like charity. I give to charity, as I've given to Katrina relief recently, but always with a sinking feeling. It's like tipping waitstaff: I know I'm supplementing low wages, in fact I'm helping to keep them low by tipping, but stiffing servers isn't my style. Charity is an institutionalized perversion of the noblest of human instincts, the urge to share and reach out, to be social in the deepest sense. Charity establishes a hierarchy of donor and recipient. It encourages a kind of sanctimonious egoism, a sense of moral superiority. It's too often giving without really giving, even setting aside the tax deduction; it's cold and (for some) merely an obligation, like going to church.

I don't want to "give to the less fortunate." I want a society where there are no less fortunate, where social relations are authentic relations among equals, where we have so cooperatively arranged our relations that "charity" per se is no longer necessary. Until then, I'll keep on paying my taxes and giving to charity. A better world is something to work for, but too far off to wait for.

Now, to a sampling of the people who sum up, for me, what is wrong with the Right, with the caveats now securely in place above. Let's start with James Taranto. This moral imbecile is actually pleased that the disaster happened, because it increases the likelihood that Louisiana will go Republican. Here is his ill-concealed glee:

Katrina may change Louisiana politics for another reason: demographics. The storm forced a mass exodus from New Orleans and vicinity, and many residents surely will resettle out of state. The political effect will depend on whence the emigrants turn out to have come.

In the 2004 election, President Bush carried Louisiana by 281,870 votes, according to data from David Leip's election atlas. A breakdown by parish shows that the two candidates ran almost exactly even in the New Orleans area: John Kerry had a 109,763-vote margin within the city (Orleans Parish), while Bush beat Kerry by a combined 109,546 votes in the suburban parishes of Jefferson, Plaquemines, St. Bernard and St. Tammany.

Obviously if more New Orleans residents than suburbanites move out of state, Louisiana will become more Republican. Less obviously, the state will become more Republican even if flight from the suburbs equals that from New Orleans, since the evenly divided New Orleans region will account for a smaller part of the population than the heavily GOP-leaning rest of the state.

Moving hastily along, holding our noses in a tight grip, we come to Christopher Ruddy, who really nails that weepy liberal bastard Aaron Broussard:

Broussard, who was never identified by "Meet the Press" as a Democrat, spent much of his time attacking the Bush administration, as has Democratic New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin.

Broussard then ended his performance as he collapsed in tears with a demand: "For God's sake, just shut up and send us somebody!"

His tears didn't wash with me. My sympathies lie with the tens of thousands of people who have suffered or died because local officials like Broussard, Mayor Nagin and Governor Kathleen Blanco, also a Democrat, failed monumentally at their jobs.

As it turns out, of course, while FEMA was obstructing so much assistance that a clear pattern seems to have emerged, if not a clear motive, the Governor had already declared a state of emergency and requested federal assistance, in fact before Katrina had even made landfall. The Mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, has been hailed for leadership and courage. He was not a man for cursory flyovers and staged photo-ops like another American leader. Check out this video and tell me, or anyone recognizably human, that Broussard was faking it, as blogger Jay Currie (for whom I usually have some respect) unbelievably asserts (and he's not alone).

Then there's Rush Limbaugh, sounding like he's back on OxyContin:

What we've seen in New Orleans is first and foremost the utter failure of generation after generation after generation of the entitlement mentality.

No, Rush, what we've seen in New Orleans is levees breaking because of Bush's cutbacks, and people dying because of an utter failure of the federal government to respond, not to mention the criminal incompetence of FEMA. And what we've heard is a whole lot of bloated charlatans like yourself leaning down from on high to tell drowning people that they should have taken swimming lessons.

The self-same theme is continued by the grossly self-satisfied and shallow Mark Steyn:

Unlike 9/11, when the cult of victimhood was temporarily suspended in honour of the many real, actual victims under the rubble, in New Orleans everyone claimed the mantle of victim, from the incompetent mayor to the 'oppressed' guys wading through the water with new DVD players under each arm.

Welfare culture is bad not just because, as in Europe, it's bankrupting the state, but because it enfeebles the citizenry, it erodes self-reliance and resourcefulness. New Orleans is a party town in the middle of a welfare swamp and, like many parties, it doesn't look so good when someone puts the lights up.

Nauseated yet? Check out the blogosphere. Here's just a small sampling:

Jay Currie (after claiming that the people should have predicted the levee break and stocked up on water):

The problem, of course, is that several generations of a nanny state saps the self-reliance of its clients. That infantile dependency gives us the pitiful spectacle of Aaron Broussard telling the story of a co-worker who kept reassuring his elderly mother that help was on its way right up until she drowned. There the poor woman is in a building with a phone asking him why he didn’t come and get her…So why didn't he? Or why didn't Mr. Broussard?

That "co-worker" happened to be the emergency situation manager for a large building. Had he deserted his post, the wingnits would have been all over him for "lacking a sense of responsibility," blah, blah. Besides, he had no way of knowing that the fifth cavalry were mounted on giant snails. As for the remark about Broussard, he is the President of Jefferson Parish,and in that role he's been struggling every waking moment with monumentally huge coordination and relief operations. At least the Left didn't fatuously wonder aloud why Bush wasn't there in person hauling people off roofs. (One right-wing blogger was critical of a Congressman who did pitch in. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.)

Here's Kate McMillan, at Small Dead Animals:

What is their [New Orleanians'] response to this consequence that has befallen them, a consequence largely of their own making?

"You owe us".

Well, cheer up, Kate. The feds sure gave a reality check to those lowlifes, didn't they? You've got thousands fewer people with a sense of entitlement now.

Meanwhile, Bill Whittle hasn't yet choked on his self-generated combination of smugness and priggishness:

Only a few minutes ago, I had the delightful opportunity to read the comment of a fellow who said he wished that white, middle-class, racist, conservative cocksuckers like myself could have been herded into the Superdome Concentration Camp to see how much we like it. Absent, of course, was the fundamental truth of what he plainly does not have the eyes or the imagination to see, namely, that if the Superdome had been filled with white, middle-class, racist, conservative cocksuckers like myself, it would not have been a refinery of horror, but rather a citadel of hope and order and restraint and compassion.

(This gutless wonder, incidentally, seems to have pre-emptively banned the entire Progressive Bloggers blogroll. Only positive comments appear to be welcome in his echo-chamber. Of course, the Right's tolerance for dissent is well-known, witness the Cindy Sheehan pile-on.)

So what is it about the Rightist sensibility that leads to what Christopher Hitchens, commenting in this instance on George W. Bush’s astounding failure of leadership, calls "fatal insouciance?" It is precisely this: a cult of exclusion and privilege, based upon race and class, alibied by a fetishizing of "the individual" that is central to the right-wing Weltanschauung. Exclusion from the winner’s circle requires that others be tagged as "not like/not as good as us," and demands the suppression or even the complete elimination of those feelings of empathy and compassion towards them that make us social beings.

An ideology is required to legitimize this. "There is no such thing as society," declared Margaret Thatcher, who counts as one of her close friends Augusto Pinochet, the Butcher of Santiago. The very notion of altruism is excoriated by Ayn Rand and her babbling horde of followers, who extoll selfishness as a virtue.

The natural human instinct to nurture and empathize is thus perverted into a preening self-love, so evident over the past few days in everything from hokey Presidential photo-ops to priggish comments about "entitlement mentality" to racism-tinged stereotyping of the victims, as those on the high and dry ground of moral superiority distance themselves, emotionally and morally, from the dead and dying in New Orleans.

The psychopathology I have been illustrating and describing is best summed up, admittedly in one of its more extreme manifestations, by someone of the right-wing persuasion. The last word is his or hers, then, in a fitting conclusion:

[M]y first reaction [at seeing Aaron Broussard on NBC] was disgust--crying and carrying on like that is no way for a leader of men to behave on national tv, I don’t care if it was his own mother who'd been drowned. Leaders have to help people bear up, not wallow with them in a pit of grief, especially when the crisis is by no means over yet.

I was wondering [at] my inability to be moved by the emotional displays of any spokesperson the news media chooses to pluck from the New Orleans wreckage, or the flotsam and jetsam of the government of that city and its state, other than to feel a sensation as if hot slugs were crawling on me.

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