The stark, disturbing reality of what America has become can no longer be hidden behind patriotic platitudes and empty sloganeering.
The tragedy begat by Hurricane Katrina has shown us in no uncertain terms the dark underbelly and real consequences of a democracy gone sour, even as we congratulate ourselves for being the richest nation that has ever existed in the history of civilization.
So have the haunting and heartbreaking images from Katrina’s devastation resulted in a collective shame that will finally wake us up? Or will we just return to business as usual?
The sluggish, initially indifferent and incompetent response to this disaster from local, state and federal officials can only be described as utterly shameful. Political posturing and rhetoric aside, what was allowed to happen to the poor, the sick and the elderly along the gulf coast, particularly after the flooding of New Orleans should be simply unacceptable to any thinking, feeling human being. Forget the political spin, the efforts to lay blame at anyone’s feet but their own. Our government has failed us. Our government no longer exists to serve its citizens anymore; it’s as simple as that.
No one can rightfully argue, no matter what their political stripe is, that allowing elderly, frail nursing home residents to drown a full week after a national disaster was declared because no one ever showed up to rescue them can be tolerated in any sane, civil society.
But our “public servants” apparently have no shame. In the aftermath as the rebuilding begins, the no-bid contracts going to those with ties to the Bush Administration, the declaration of “free enterprise zones” that allow relaxation of labor and environmental laws among others, the ludicrous spectacle of those in charge investigating themselves for wrongdoing, underscores the reality that our government is its own little empire, serving only to promote and empower those who travel in its spheres, be they elected officials, corporations, lobbyists and any other big money interest.” We the People”, in the meantime, are reduced to we the spectators, who watch this distorted, corrupt version of democracy like an endless sporting event, waving our flags on cue like an audience at a game show when the applause light comes on.
But if our government has revealed itself in all its shameful glory, what about the rest of us? How did the typical, ordinary American respond? Simply put, like any truly compassionate, caring human being would respond. Citizens across the nation overwhelmed organizations like the American Red Cross and The Salvation Army with millions of dollars in donations. Volunteers with boats came to the floodwaters to rescue the stranded. Hundreds of others have taken evacuees into their homes and their communities, offering them jobs and any other kind of assistance they might need. Medical facilities are offering health care, not knowing whether they will be reimbursed or not by the federal government. Even schoolchildren have gotten into the act, collecting money, schoolbooks and clothing, all to help those who have lost their homes, their livelihoods, their loved ones.
So apparently, many of our citizens instinctively understand how democracy needs to be applied. How then have we ended up with a government where even the pretense of serving the public good no longer exists? This is where our shame comes in. It is undeniable that much of our power as citizens has been usurped by a highly coordinated, decades-long assault by a determined group of very powerful and wealthy interests. But we are also culpable. Our lack of interest in our political system and what goes on in our name allowed us to be manipulated and become addicted to an ideal of America that doesn’t really exist. We have combined illogical optimism with a pretense of perfection and ignored the inhumanity and real consequences that this rigid, picture-perfect ideal has on those very often hidden from our awareness.
How do we get our humanity as a nation back? We must begin by a willingness to look at the harsh truth. The images from Katrina transfixed our attention for days. Those images have largely faded from our TV screens- but let’s not allow them to recede from our consciousness. We as a nation deserve better than this. We deserve a government that serves all of us; we deserve our elected officials to know that their job is more than just grabbing power and keeping it by rewarding themselves, their wealthy donors, and damn anyone else.
The Katrina disaster laid open for all of us to see in horrifying detail the cancer that has eaten away at our democratic society. It will be a daunting challenge for us to wrest back control and demand accountability from our public officials; to demand fairness, demand justice, demand truth.
We citizens showed our government how to act in a responsible and moral manner. They need to follow our example. They won’t, however, unless we find a way to make them. Otherwise, all bets are off on whether any of us gets out of here alive.
Peggy Fry served as a radio announcer and music and news programmer for 20 years at various radio stations, including seven years in Asheville, N.C. She currently resides in Beaufort, S.C.