Monday, January 12, 2009

Heckuva Job Bushie! (And more thoughts on Katrina, the Left, and New Orleans)

The administration's response to Katrina was rapid, as I'm sure you recall:

"Don't tell me the federal response was slow when there was 30,000 people pulled off roofs right after the storm passed," Bush said at what was likely his final news conference as president. "You know, I remember going to see those helicopter drivers, Coast Guard divers, to thank them for their courageous efforts to rescue people off roofs -- 30,000 people were pulled off roofs right after the storm moved through. That's a pretty quick response."

A heartfelt thanks to the Bush administration for its incredible compassion to the people of New Orleans. History books will remember those days very kindly. And since everything's fixed here, we can all have a laugh and move on, right?


This bit of revisionism is quite bold, don't you think?

Last weekish, Oyster highlighted this article from the Institute for Southern Studies.

In it, Chris Kromm highlights the latest confessions from aides close to Bush who point to Katrina as the absolute low point for the administration.

So it's kind of surprising that President Bush would bother trying to put any kind of silver lining on what is so indisputably a giant smelly turd. Wouldn't it be better to just admit that it was a low point, and use the mythology campaign to chisel away on issues that are at least a little bit more argueable?


But Kromm and ISS don't really hammer away at Bush in that article, rather they use the admission of these top-level aides to wonder about the Left:

What's shocking is how little progressives and Democrats understood this. In the months after Katrina, progressives were rightfully pouring into the streets to protest the Iraq war, and blogs and book writers were churning out millions of pages on human rights crimes like CIA torture flights and Abu Ghraib.

But on one of the biggest human rights tragedies within our own borders -- a hurricane which devastated an area the size of Great Britain, killed 1,800 people and uprooted a million residents -- progressives had little to offer.

It has been quite frustrating as a progressive living in New Orleans. Here's part of what I think happened:

Within the first few weeks of the storm, conservative talk radio had effectively galvanized listener opinion against storm victims. They intoned against victims of Katrina, simultaneously using racial imagery to depict victims of the federal flood and of slow administration response as responsible for their own predicament while pushing back hard against a caricatured interpretation of Kanye West's allegations of overt racism on the part of the administration.

While the vast majority of the American public tithed generously and remained largely sympathetic, the larger Right found refuge from accountability on the issues of poverty and race within the bosom of their base. This proved to be enough political cover to kill Democratic efforts for an independent commission on the Bush administration's Katrina response.

There was partisan stalemate in Washington. Democrats were in the minority and Republicans had enough juice from their base to limit federal intervention into the recovery process. President Bush and Karl Rove worked on doing public opinion damage control while the GOP caucus worked on limiting the ability of Congressional Democrats to claim that they'd won any victories on the matter.

Then what happened?

Then Ray Nagin was reelected Mayor.

Regardless as to what you personally believe about Mr. Nagin's culpability in the Katrina disaster, he was largely discredited at the national level. The Right may have overzealous in targeting Nagin as a means for absolving the Bush administration of responsibility, but it was clear to pretty much everyone that Nagin was an ineffective leader during those days. Some choice quotes during his reelection campaign only compounded his national image problem.

While locals know that Mayor Nagin got reelected by frightening a traumatized African American population with rhetoric while making specific political promises to local Republicans, national progressives and Democratic leaders were at a loss for an explanation. The Right was able to pounce on Nagin's victory as evidence to support the racist memes they had been pushing about storm victims all along. Elected Democrats and progressive bloggers, meanwhile, began to consider our issues to be something of a political hot potato. Mayor Nagin and indicted former Congressman Jefferson were public relations cancers and had to be avoided. As local and state level Democrats struggled with corruption and basic competence, national Democrats had to inch away from actual nuts and bolts recovery policies or else get their hands dirty in the clogged septic tank known as Louisiana politics. Progressive bloggers and advocates lazily abandoned the recovery of New Orleans because focusing on the original disaster response was such a simple sensational bludgeon.

If there was a popular, charismatic, and engaged Mayor elected in early 2006 instead of Mr. Nagin, I'd bet that we would have seen many more joint press conferences with Congressional Democratic leaders from here in New Orleans. It would have certainly been much easier to champion rebuilding and recovery as a mainstream campaign issue. Instead, Democrats stuck to running against general incompetence and for the need to fix FEMA. If you're a Democrat campaigning for Congress in Pennsylvania or Virginia or Indiana, why would you take the unnecessary risk of taking a position on Gulf Coast recovery when you can just rail against administration and FEMA incompetence? If you're a progressive activist, you wouldn't hold a congressional candidate from Indiana, Pennsylvania, or Virginia accountable (through the media or campaign donation) for not having a detailed position on rebuilding and recovery. National Democrats hammering on the issues facing the Gulf could too easily be faced with tough counter arguments related to the utility of sending more money into what was increasingly portrayed (somewhat accurately) as a garbage disposal.

Thus in so many ways, New Orleans ceased to be a national issue. "Katrina" was still a live battlefield but "New Orleans" was too complicated, with too many pitfalls for progressives.

I wrote about that in more detail after the Nation recently published an article about vigilante racism during the storm:

For the nation, the federal response Katrina signalled a final deathblow to President Bush and conservative governing philosophy. Polls demonstrate that the public pretty much turned on the GOP for good as a result of the Katrina saga. The PR battle that took place between the parties was one in which the Right blamed Nagin and the natives for their lack of "personal responsibility," while the Left (and the vast vast majority of the country) blamed Bush and his henchmen for their inexplicable and inexcusable inability to respond to an entirely predictable catastrophe in a major American city.

Since then, national analysis of New Orleans is through these lenses, not just the lens of 'Katrina' but the lenses of were was the immediate partisan reactions to Katrina.

The Left, during Katrina, was justifiably incensed over the way that African Americans were labeled "looters" while whites just looking for food. That's why it is unsurprising to see the lions of the liberal netroots (HuffPo, Think Progress, Color of Change) seize upon this story - it scores points in that old front against racist right wing media portrayal.

Katrina is an eternally smoldering political fire, that actual people live here New Orleans is an abstraction that most don't, can't, and won't think about in the midst of the constant drone of the 24 hour news cycle. That the story of New Orleans continues, that it takes on new twists and turns, that its existence continues to be tenuously propped up on a three-legged stool of racism, corruption, and incompetence seems lost on much of the progressive netroots, on thinkers who I respect greatly and read every day.

To get back to the article from ISS, it isn't that progressives didn't understand that Katrina had dealt a deathblow to President Bush. Rather, everyone seems to understand this quite well. The thing progressives didn't understand or work to learn was how to help New Orleans, partially because there weren't any local leaders to show them the way.

Interestingly enough, this theory of mine will be put to the test. New Orleans has another Mayoral election coming up next year. National progressives like blogging about elections, and national progressives are good at donating money to campaigns. One of New Orleans' most desperate needs is for progressive political reform, for new leadership.

Get it?


Papa Bear said...

Feburary 2010 will be the true test of this city's idea of the future.

Concerning your last paragraph, I can only hope that our fellow citizens understand who the true progressive candidate is.

Civitch said...

Yet another reason that this city can ill afford to elect a has-been hack like Sapir, Murray, Willard-Lewis, Clarkson or Gusman; or a playboy like Georges or Moreno; or a an average politician, like Carter-Peterson, Richmond, or Badon; or someone who clearly has no idea what he or she is doing - Boulet.

Editilla said...

Goodness Notious that is a fine post thank you very much.
However on this Progressive Thingy...
I want your next to last paragraph too... where I believe that Katrina and the Flood (I know it sounds like a new-age whole'food punk'rock casino band) caught "progressives" and the whole nation by surprise with a deathblow.
I just don't get this "progressive" thing. I got Reagan'a Fascist Groove Thing. But for me "progressives" also allowed Boy George to ascend in 2000. I watched it. Watched 9/11 too. Of course lived though (maybe) 8/29... after that the thought overtook me that "progressives" need a country in which to Progress and after the flood I believe that notion had become at best quaint in the minds of most Americans and Tactical in the mind of Carl Rove... (please forgive my Dr. Bronner-ation running on here)
Noble Son, I honestly have not begun to understand anything remotely "progressive" until reading this blog WCBF. Fork me if I'm lying. This blog and a few others who shall remain nameless. Frankly I have thought of New Orleans since around the late 70s as a place above and beneath any notion of "progressive politics" in the way a flamenco dancer stomped upon the classical in the caves of Spain... jus'sayin...

There are very few "progressives" like you and the nolaspheraaaahh in other cities keeping an eye on the Infamy, let alone confronting it and in some cases Crushing the Infamy with a Volairian Sneer.

Progressives didn't just take it on the chin with Katrina, we all took it in our genitals, our kidneys, and our heart... if anyone thinks New Orleans doesn't lay down the lower chakras they need to call the Devil's Chiropractor.
Rove and Corps left us to die on purpose.

Ray Nagin I thought had a lot of Republican financial help the 2nd time around. Can anyone verify that? It would make sense to me.

Larry Flint for Mayor!

Editilla said...

Really though...