Policy, not people, failed in New Orleans
After weeks of heartbreaking news about the aftermath of Katrina in New Orleans and the surrounding region, we are on now on the verge of another powerful hurricane. In the case of Katrina, the Third World level of prolonged suffering, the failure of response and virtual collapse of almost every level of government amazed even those of us who consider ourselves cynical. The stark images of the mostly poor and black residents told to evacuate without cars, and marooned in an inadequate and overcrowded facility without sufficient food, water, sanitation, security or information, left us feeling shame and alarm for our country. It was days before we heard the fate of those left in the hospitals and nursing homes, but a small group of starving nurses found fleeing along the highway provided an ominous clue. Federal aid finally arrived in some less visible, mostly white, regional communities only late last week. Sobering as the performance of the federal and state government was, the Katrina disaster provided many contrasting and heartening performances: the press, the wildlife department teams who were among the first to appear in their airboats (from Texas), the Coast Guard, the state of Texas, Colorado, Aspen (the fire department, the city and county, Little Annie’s, the Belly Up, the animal shelter and many others) and the valley, the National Guard which finally restored order in New Orleans and the outpouring of support, volunteers and acts of neighborly kindness from citizens everywhere.The president has been subject to a firestorm of criticism, surprisingly, first and most vociferously from traditional conservatives. It serves no citizen’s interest to have a sitting president look that bad. The Democrats had nothing to be proud of. More basic than any partisan blame is the dramatic demonstration of the failure of the politically dominant radical rightist world view: every person for themselves, focus only on this quarter’s results (even if you have to make them up), hire your own police, starve the government out of business and let the charities take care of the poor. This is not a view which can be attributed to most Republicans in our valley, but it is a view that has infected our national outlook and federal policies.We have heard a great deal about the federal government ignoring the environmental warnings and innovative available solutions for Louisiana’s wetlands and the failure of the administration to fund the Army Corp of Engineers programs for the canals. Even in the wake of Katrina, the radical rightists are currently proposing a rebuilding program (see the Wall Street Journal, Sept. 19) including the “relaxation” of environmental laws in the region, abandonment of the minimum wage, shutting out trade unions and giving huge, noncompetitive contracts to Haliburton, an organization which has been so effective in restoring peace, security and the flow of oil in Iraq.These short-sighted, anti-community, the future-be-damned policies are not in the country’s interest. Democrats often speak of fairness to those left in poverty, and as Katrina demonstrated, many Americans simply care about their fellow citizens because it is the right thing to do. However, fairness is really not the issue. Without equal opportunity to achieve prosperity, without social justice, without investment in our environment, schools and infrastructure, our democracy is on very fragile footing and quality of life is degraded for us all, including business. The freedom and flexibility to pursue business and one’s career with as little interference as possible and provide well for our families is a fundamental desire of citizens everywhere. Capitalism clearly provides the most effective and adjustable tool for this objective. The choice between a bureaucratic welfare state and tooth-and-claw right radicalism unfettered by considerations of community, environment, equal opportunity and regulation of disaster profiteering is a false choice. As President Clinton demonstrated, we can have a thriving (and more fiscally conservative) capitalist society and still include everyone in contributing to and building community for the future. It is a difficult, delicate and continuing balancing act that Europe is struggling with and which America has often been fairly skillful at. We just have to keep at it.Camilla Auger is a longtime Aspen resident and chairwoman of the Pitkin County Democratic Party.
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