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After Katrina: Has the Bubble Burst?
Published on Saturday, September 10, 2005 by
After Katrina: Has the Bubble Burst?
by Ted Morgan
For a week now, the news clips and photographs of people victimized by Hurricane Katrina have been shocking people all over the world and have generated a fresh wave of hand-wringing and finger-pointing in American politics. We are still reeling from witnessing the poor, the handicapped, the ill, the elderly -and predominantly people of color-being left behind as flood waters surged through the city of New Orleans.

People ask, how can this be happening in the United States, and why? The Bush Administration, FEMA, and the city of New Orleans have all come in for deserved criticism for their inadequate, sometimes callous response to this disaster.

But, although this horrific event has been graphically catastrophic, we shouldn't be surprised. The poor, ill and elderly have been left behind in the country's approach to government and public policy for about 30 to 40 years.

It's quite clear that broader political forces led to the disaster of the past week. The Bush Administration, and current-day government in general, are, after all, the product of a 35-40-year history in this nation in which government has been widely attacked, belittled, and stripped of its legitimacy as a force through which we the people can address issues that cry out for attention.

While they've been leading the charge in this campaign, right-wing Republicans from Ronald Reagan to Newt Gingrich to George W. Bush have not been alone in producing the situation we find ourselves in. The Democrats have been fully complicit, too. Americans, generally, have been living in a bubble of delusion for too long. Perhaps, finally, the bubble has burst.

Back in 1962, Michael Harrington published a book on The Other America in which he documented widespread pockets of severe poverty amidst America's postwar affluence. Along with the growing civil rights struggle, Harrington's book was a wake-up call, one of the catalysts for the Kennedy and Johnson administration's "War on Poverty." Impoverished African-Americans whom novelist Ralph Ellison had described as "Invisible" suddenly found themselves at the center of the nation's political agenda.

By 1965, however, at the behest of the nation's mayors, the federal government was beginning to pull back on some of its more controversial efforts to empower the poor -most notably the Community Action Program.

Simultaneously, America's inner cities were beginning to explode in raging "riots," an explosion Langston Hughes had anticipated in his poem "A Dream Deferred."

By 1968, the Kerner Commission warned that the United States was rapidly becoming "two societies, separate and unequal," divided by race as well as poverty. Not long after this, President Nixon's adviser, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, prescribed a period of governmental "benign neglect" of the nation's racial problems.

At the end of the 1960s, according to Robert Putnam's well documented study, Bowling Alone, "Never in our history had the future of civic life looked brighter." A few years later, however, the corporate-based Trilateral Commission concluded that the United States suffered from an "excess" of democracy.

According to the Trilateralists, the demand for public goods needed to be reduced. Corporate-funded foundations backed social science "studies" that allegedly demonstrated the "failure" of Great Society programs, blamed government for the "dependency" of the poor, and celebrated the marketplace as the solution to the nation's problems.

By 1980, with the election of Ronald Reagan, the U.S. was well on its way into the world of neo-liberalism -government, we were told, was wasteful and bad, the market was productive and good. We have lived in this world ever since. More and more public goods have been privatized. Our life-in-common and the ecological "commons" have continued to deteriorate.

Simultaneously, we've moved rapidly towards two Americas, just as the Kerner Commission predicted. The rich have gotten much richer, pursuing lives of staggering self-indulgence; middle class existence has become more tenuous, and the poor have become more desperate, forgotten, and invisible -at least, until Katrina hit.

The City of New Orleans had a "plan" for evacuating all its citizens. They assumed that people could escape in their cars if the hurricane caused significant damage. Privatization, after all, has been the trend in public policy. Citizens should be left to act on their own. Taken in by well-advertised myths of universal American affluence, these so-called leaders ignored the fact that most of the city's poor didn't own cars. The inner-city poor were once again invisible.

Perhaps, then, this disaster, so shockingly visible on our television screens, will be the kind of catalyst that The Other America was some 45 years ago -only this time, perhaps we can get it right. Perhaps we can pull back together as a country and realize that the government really does belong to us . and we can begin to reclaim it. We've got a long way to go, but this could be the beginning of a momentous journey for our society -if we can see outside the bubble and begin to reshape our public priorities.

Eventually, you know, even the politicians will come along.

Edward (Ted) Morgan is Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He is currently writing a book on media culture and the erosion of democracy.


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