Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Rapper Kanye West went off-script last Friday night. During a star-studded telethon for victims of Katrina, West went free-style, saying, among other things: “[America is set up] to help the poor, the black people, the less well-off as slow as possible,” and “George Bush doesn't care about black people.” NBC cut away as soon as their censors realized West had dumped their saccharine script, and immediately released a statement condemning his comments. Whether you agree with West or not, his rage was real, and representative of what many people watching this nightmare unfold have been feeling. Meanwhile, the administration drags its feet, feigning ignorance. Our own Commander-in-Chief lamely alleged: “I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees.” Think again, Mr. President. No wonder there’s a lack of trust out there.

Understandably, Mr. Bush, himself, is rarely allowed to go off-script in public. It’s a tangled web, and unscripted comments often expose fissures in the official version of things. But it’s truly surprising his handlers have been so lackluster in their response to this latest crisis. All week they had the Commander-in-Chief muttering banalities. After a visit to the disaster area for his photo op, for instance, he once again stated the obvious as if it were revelatory: “I understand the devastation requires more than one day’s attention.” He was clearly happy it would take at least until the following Wednesday, so he’d have a good excuse to cancel his meeting with China’s President Hu Jintao (big yawn). Shocking as it is, it took his speech-writers a full week to come up with something nominally inspiring, like “we’ll once again show the world that the worst adversities bring out the best in America.” But by then it was too little, too late. The administration’s “compassionate conservatism” had (once again) been exposed as a sham.

Mr. Bush’s big idea is that the responsibility for society’s well-being belongs to the private sector. But then, why, exactly, do we need a government in the first place? Just to line the pockets of the top two percent, whose soon-to-be permanent tax cuts provided impetus for eviscerating FEMA’s budget? Don’t forget: funding for flood prevention was slashed by 80 per cent under Bush.

The media towed the official line at first. There were touching tales of children emptying their piggy banks for flood victims. Not to be outdone, corporations, seeing a massive PR opportunity, trumpeted their own contributions on the evening news. All well and good. But as much as we’d like to believe the glass is half-full, sometimes it’s necessary to acknowledge that for many among us, it’s empty. What Kanye West was getting at is that in America today, while the cup is overflowing for Bush & Co., shamefully, many are left with nothing at all. The government should be there for them, too. We don’t talk about that much. It’s not in the script. But maybe America would be a better place for all if more of us went off-script more often.

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