It has been three months since Katrina struck and (New Orleans) is a complete shambles.
-- The New York Times (12/11/05)
I wonder how the history books will cast the death of a great American city.
They'll note, of course, that while President George W. Bush and his vice-president, Dick Cheney flew around the country, insisting to Americans that the war in distant Iraq was being won, and while the opposition party, The Democrats, fought among themselves about how they could best call on the president to extricate the U.S. from that tough war without looking weak, no one seemed to much notice that an historic American community, a place of jazz and joie de vivre, home to some of the country's best cooking and delightful eccentricities, was dying of neglect.
They'll conclude, no doubt, that this rich and human city, where the real block parties had nothing to do with the drunks on Bourbon Street, where unlike most of the country people really did know their neighbors, was in the end abandoned by an America that just didn't care enough to tune in.
Abandoned by a ruling Repubican Party consumed by scoring ideological points, giving more tax cuts to the rich, winning a war it couldn't win, and covering up its own growing corruption.
Abandoned by a Democratic Party grasping desparately for leadership, and coming up short.
Abandoned by a news media bleeding from too many corporate cuts and grasping for news, however trivial, that sold well the next day instead of news that might have built a better country tomorrow.
In the end, however, historians will conclude correctly that it is we who killed New Orleans. We let it be abandoned by politicians and ignored by the press. You and I, preoccupied by how much we could spend on Christmas gifts or whether Matt Damon's betrothed was really pregnant.
You and I, mesmerized or just numbed by the finger pointing and shouting over Iraq, an easier story to grasp, no doubt, because people die there every day. You and I, conned by the silence into believing, or at least deceiving ourselves into believing, that in the aftermath of Katrina, the aftermath of a week of utter incompetence, a week in which we watched Americans dying on national television while the government burped, that same government was now doing something of substance to rebuild the Big Easy.
By all signs, it's not. The New York Times recently told us large swaths of New Orleans remain without electricity. It sounded sort of like Baghdad. Representatives of New Orleans' colleges toured Boston last week, pleading with the displaced students of Tulane and Loyola and Xavier, to come back. Most, they insist, are planning to re-enroll. But what about next year? Who wants to study, and live, and work in a city left shattered and largely to its own devices.
Some people, of course, might argue that New Orleans doesn't deserve to be rebuilt. It's largely below sea level, they say, a city awaiting its next disaster. But then, so is the Netherlands, and that's a country. It is possible to invest in a solution. But it takes will -- and billions of dollars -- to do so.
Some might argue that it isn't the rest of America's problem. That big government can't solve all problems. That the United States was built on entrepreneurship and a pioneering spirit and that the people of New Orleans should apply their quotient of both. But that's poppycock. The people who talk about getting government off of our backs are the very same people who have frittered tens of billions of dollars of government money in Iraq and push to spend more and more there.
I am astonished that neither of our political parties has yet come up with even a coherent framework for rebuilding New Orleans and its levees. With the life support system turned off, they're just waiting for it to die.
I'm particularly astonished that The Democrats have said next to nothing. It is, after all, the party that brought us the New Deal, Head Start and other programs which, at crucial turning points of American history, extended a hand.
I'm still waiting for Democrats to propose a new New Deal, programs that create jobs for, and extend tax credits and incentives to, those who help rebuild New Orleans. I'm waiting for a Democratic economist to construct and trumpet a clear and simple graphic that shows we could rebuild New Orleans many times over for what we've invested in the corruption, torture and mayhem we're passing off as democracy in Iraq.
I'm waiting for a Democrat to lead, to demand construction of a levee system that will stand when the next hurricane comes, to point out that the latest $90 billion tax cut passed by Congress is three times the estimated cost of reconstructing New Orleans levees to withstand even a truly catastrophic storm. Without new levees, no one will return.
Why have the Democrats been silent? And if they're capable of nothing but a whimper from Capitol Hill, why should we, an increasingly disgusted and disenfranchised public, support either party? Is anyone capable of earning our votes? But I digress. The Republicans arrogance is ultimately our arrogance as a nation. And the Democrats silence is ultimately our shame.
Writes The Times: "If the nation has decided it is too expensive to give the people of New Orleans a chance at renewal, we have to tell them so. We must tell them we spent our rainy-day fund on a costly stalemate in Iraq, that we gave it away in tax cuts for wealthy families and shareholders. We must tell them America is too broke and too weak to rebuild one of its great cities. ..... Whether we admit it or not, this is our choice to make. We decide whether New Orleans lives or dies."
The Times is right. But are we listening?
Jerry Lanson is an associate professor of journalism at Emerson College in Boston. He can be reached at email@example.com.