Katrina's Truths

Labor Day is the true American New Year's, the day of fresh beginnings -- and this year it's just in time. The broader culture takes its cue from school children, who leave the house this week believing in possibility itself. We, their parents and grandparents, need the reminder that change for the better is the business of human life. Change for the worse, alas, has been the rule of the season past, which is why the time is ripe for something new.

Hurricane Katrina was more than a natural disaster. It was a political epiphany, laying bare difficult truths from which, mainly, the United States has been in flight. Most obviously, the flooding of the cities and towns along the Gulf Coast has pulled a curtain back on a huge population of desperately impoverished people. The ''other" America, as Michael Harrington called it a generation ago, has shown itself as hardly ever before. The wealthiest nation on earth has its hidden legion of have-nots, and all at once the rest of us saw them. The scandal of rank poverty was exposed, and if beholding it was like seeing something indecent, that's because such poverty in this nation is exactly that -- indecent.

At the same time, the abstraction of ''poverty" has been made concrete. Face after anguished face appeared on television to tell us, This is what it is like to live with absolutely no margin of safety or comfort. There was dignity in those faces, at times nobility. Mostly, though, there was pain. Diabetics without insulin, babies without diapers, evacuees with no mode of transport, urban hospital workers entirely without backup. America has its river of refugees now, tens of thousands of people who, herded into sports palaces-turned-charnel-houses, are alike in having nothing to return to.

The spectacle of failure, how for days the government was powerless to help such people, only put on display how government was already failing them and everyone else. Here was Katrina's second main epiphany -- what it means that the United States, after a generation of tax-cutting and downsizing, has eviscerated the public sector's capacity for supporting the common good. The neglect of civic infrastructure, the destruction of social services, the abandonment of the safety net, the myth of ''privatization," the perverse idea, dating to the Reagan era, that government is the enemy: It all adds up to what we saw last week -- government not as the enemy, but as the incompetent, impotent bystander. The bystander-in-chief, of course, is George W. Bush, whose whining self-obsession perfectly embodies what America has done to itself.

One cannot see the devastated cities or that river of refugees or those harried National Guard soldiers without seeing something even more disturbing -- Katrina's third epiphany. This is what war looks like, and the harsh reality is that the United States has been the source of exactly such devastation elsewhere. Obliterated cities, populations pushed into refugee camps, young American soldiers overwhelmed by the impossibility of their mission -- this is Iraq today. Oil is part of the Gulf Coast story and part of Iraq's story, too. We are at war for oil, a war we cannot win. Four dollar gasoline. The truth is crashing over us, a tsunami of it.

Assessed only in terms of US casualties, last month was the most violent of the year in Iraq, even as the Iraqi political system hit the wall of the failed constitutional process. The American political system, meanwhile, remains in moral lockdown, with Democrats every bit as feckless as Republicans, leaving the urgent public debate about the war to the heartbroken parents of dead GIs.

Labor Day marks the turn of the season, with its promise of change. Epiphanies abound, however, and the promise has become a demand. Cruelties of our own making have crashed through the levies of complacency and denial. If our children believe in possibility this week, who are we to shrug? Change for the better begins by reckoning with the worst, which Katrina helped us do. A bystander nation must reclaim itself, accepting responsibility for the unnecessary impoverishment of millions, accepting responsibility for an unjust war.

Today, the biennial American political season also begins, aiming at next year's elections. The issues are as clear as water in the streets, as blood in the gutters. Even as candidates seek to avoid those issues, citizens must force them. The role of government. Taxation not as a bane, but as the ground of commonwealth. The overdue end of poverty in America. The cry for peace. Peace.

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