Friday, September 09, 2005

New Orleans

There was an article published on September 2, 2005 in the so-called Intellectual Activist website by a fellow named Robert Tracinski, himself not a certifiable intellectual, but nevertheless a person devoted to the furthering of the ultra-conservative (libertarianism on steroids) point of view of Ayn Rand (Alissa Zinovievna Rosenbaum), the author of Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead, and other fascinating science fiction stories of delusional, impossibly self-reliant individuals.

The title of Mr. Tracinski's piece is "An Unnatural Disaster: A Hurricane Exposes the Man-Made Disaster of the Welfare State". It stands first among many to follow, no doubt, of rants against the poor (Black) people of New Orleans ... and anywhere else that poor congregate to live a humble existence.

Tracinski's piece is a jumble of various time-worn fictions and bald assertions, and is ultimately self-contradictory. He points out, for instance, that jails were emptied in the hours before the flood and that there was massive looting, rapine, pillage, and all manner of uncivilized behavior throughout New Orleans. (In actual fact there was not widespread violence! There was looting, to be sure, mostly—but not exclusively—for food. The national and international press is pretty clear about this now.) But Tracinski's conclusion deliberately conflates the activities of a few bonafide jailbirds with the tens of thousands of poor Blacks who, for reasons I will detail below, did not evacuate New Orleans when politely asked to by the Mayor.

Tracinski clearly believes that there is little difference between a jailbird and a poor person; after all, both are a blight on society, both have failed to reach the middle class where virtue is its own reward. The fact is Tracinski deliberately mixed up the two groups because, one, he wanted to attribute the behavior of the thugs to the general population, and two, his conviction is that poor people are less self-reliant and therefore less valuable than rich people, that poor people are too heavy, a drag on society, that poor people are not quite the same as his better-off brothers and sisters. He does want any responsibility for their well being or opportunities. I suspect he just wants them to go away!

In fact Tracinski believes that public welfare is immoral because it helps the poor to procreate and create more poor people, that government programs to keep innocent children properly fed, clothed, and sheltered are abused by these very children's parents to support themselves in squalid splendor, because they just don't have any initiative, any backbone, any morals, or any dignity. Ultimately this is a racist argument and unworthy of even the likes of Tracinski. After all, does anyone really believe the poor like living in tenements and slums and stay there just so they can abuse the welfare system? Tracinski and all of those who believe this ugly myth are sadly and self-righteously mistaken.

Yes, there really are welfare cheats and indigent poor. Yes, there are corporate cheats and the purposeless, effete rich. Yes, there are hard working middle class taxpayer cheats. Yes, people of all stations in life drive way over the speed limit and, in fact, the world is not as we would construct it ourselves to meet our own puerile illusions of cleanliness, rectitude, normalcy, or any other glittering ideal. But, believe it or not, welfare cheating is not Tracinski's real problem.

Welfare cheating was never as widespread (or as profitable as the industry that grew up spreading stories about it). It simply is not the case that many poor persons cheat the welfare office, nor, by the way, is it true that many corporate CFOs cheat the securities and exchange commission, or that many middle class homeowners cheat the IRS on their taxes (although I would guess that the middle class has the larger number and higher percentage of cheats). In any case it is a very small percentage of the group that stimulate the stories that create these illusions of wide-spread frauds. The problem is not the cheaters; for Tracinski it is the politics of federal welfare that really is in question.

Tracinski and his crowd do not believe it is a good idea to make citizens "clients" of federal programs. They believe that these "clients" will become beholden to the government and any political party that promises them continuation of benefits. Tracinski and Co. are afraid of a Big Brother State where millions of people are mindless constituents of a dole system that contains no incentives to break the pattern of poverty. Well, these critics know their own souls; perhaps that is why they fear government. But they know nothing of the politics of welfare. And how convenient it is that Tracinski and his readers have forgotten the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 passed by a Republican Congress and signed by a Democratic President. For a decade (that's twice as long as anyone can receive welfare payments) there have been no lifetime welfare checks. There is no dole system in the United States. The richest country in the world decided in the 1960's that no child should go hungry, unclothed, or unsheltered. Yet, folks, huge numbers of children still do.

It should not go unnoticed, by the way, when Republicans are in office (Nixon 6, Ford 2, Reagan 8, Bush 4, Bush 5 ... a quarter century's worth so far) they do everything they can to realize the worst from the system; they treat welfare recipients with disdain, trumpet horrifying (but fictional) stories about abuses on Fox TV, and turn the occasional case of out-and-out welfare fraud into generalizations about rampant fraud. Barbara Bush's comments this week are emblematic of Republican arrogance and indifference. Well, despite this and given the Republican record of stewardship welfare fraud is rare, but, believe me, it is not as rare as the humanitarian impulse among some people in this country.

Folks like Tracinski thrive in times when the average standard of living is inexorably ebbing, when hardworking and moderately successful middle-class families discover that their jobs have been exported to India or Central America and they have to learn how to make fries at McDonald's for a while. People in personal, economic, and cultural retreat, (but not yet reduced to grinding poverty,) are less willing to be charitable than people who see slow-but-steady improvement in conditions for themselves and their children. This, beyond any doubt, is the nature of social program politics in America today. The squeeze is on the middle class, and the middle class does not like it one bit!

It is the sad story of a people who put their trust in corporations and had their faces slapped when Progress did not turn out to be our most important product and that better living through chemistry killed 10,000 people in Bhopal, India, and polluted Love Canal in Niagara Falls. All the slogans of idealism they embraced and all the hopes for careers working for good companies turned out to be a mirage, a momentary flashes of public relations, corporate policies reversed because of their unprofitability.

Most of the people of New Orleans got out when they could, if they could. Hundreds of thousands of people left and have bedded down in neighboring cities and states. Southwest Airlines, bless their hearts, took people onto their planes in droves so that they could escape the rising waters. But, many people were slow off the mark because either they could not imagine a losing what little they have to a flood, because they did not hear or understand the news broadcasts, and principally because neighborhood leaders, ward leaders, and other municiple leaders—not just the Mayor and Governor—did not make the point clearly, and (duh!) no one provided massive means of conveyance for these people, the overwhelming majority of whom did not own a car or truck.

If you have ever been in a disaster situation, you know that your attention is drawn to the immediate, the howling of the wind, the persistent rain, the awful noises, the looks on faces. Personal assurance and confidence is volatile and quickly evaporates as the situation becomes visibly hostile. If you are poor and under-educated, perhaps not even the smartest person in your class at school, the situation becomes frightening and paralysis sets in. You aren't about to drag two or three kids out of the house and down the block, let alone hike fifty or a hundred miles out of harm's way. No, you stay where there are visible signs of comfort and stability, though these may be in peril.

America is a nation predominantly Christian in faith, but of apparently superficial morality. The story of the good Samaritan should have thoroughly permeated private and public life, but instead there is a party of people, a school of conservative thought, that says that the federal government just because it is central and powerful should NOT play the Good Samaritan. The Conservative's fear that the federal government will become too intrusive all too easily trumps charity and brotherhood. There is something wrong in the conservative soul! Such fear is fed by distrust of democracy!

Liberals, on the other hand, remembering the principles upon which the nation was founded, believe that We The People inherently control the federal government. Liberals still believe in America and its democratic form of government. They stay eternally vigilant against hubris and the power that easily corrupts. They see social and economic justice programs as the necessary counterpart to corporate welfare and the mentality of limited liability and limited responsibility that comes with corporatism.

Conservatives end up being rigidly unSamaritan and shamefully selfish! Liberals end up getting called "bleeding heart" and "do-gooder" and even "communist" by the very people who understand charity least. You tell me which side performs the greater service to their community and world. Which is the more civilized?! Your first clue is that neither Ayn Rand nor her adoring epigones understand the first thing about altruism or Christian charity, ... but you should!


James Richard Brett