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
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
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
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