Monday, September 26, 2005

Who’s playing politics with Katrina now? The cynicism of this administration and its minions should never be underestimated. Hordes of Republican lawmakers gathered in front of the Capitol last week to offer ideas for budget cuts to pay for billions in no-bid contracts awarded to their buddies for hurricane recovery. It goes without saying that none suggested foregoing extending the massive tax cuts for the rich. If it’s up to them (and it is), PBS, Amtrak, and foreign aid will all be down the drain. This is the best thing to happen to the GOP since the War in Iraq. They’re loving it. Slash and burn, baby, burn!

To recap: while Congress contemplates cutting already meager funding for public programs, it’s also preparing to funnel billions in public funds to well-connected, often dubiously qualified private firms. As the New York Times reported Monday, “More than 80 percent of the $1.5 billion in contracts signed by FEMA [so far] were awarded without bidding or with limited competition”—not surprisingly to Republican contributors and the party faithful. The largest no-bid contract so far was for over half a billion for debris removal going to a buddy of Mississippi’s Republican governor. The Army Corps of Engineers has admitted the undisputed asking price for that contract may have been grossly inflated. Also not surprising: two of the major contractors so far are subsidiaries of Halliburton, represented by a lobbyist who was a former campaign manager for Bush. Hmm. That’s subtle.

Bush was slow in responding to the poor folks down South left stranded in the storm, but he’s been quick to respond to his true constituency, “the haves and have-mores,” as he’s fond of calling them (and they are no doubt fond of being called). Bush himself has been called the CEO president, and like a good CEO he has delivered terrific profits to his shareholders (not the taxpayers, mind you, but his super-rich Republican patrons) and rewarded his executives, while stiffing the rest of us. None of this has been done on the sly—this administration has never been particularly subtle—and there’s no reason to expect Katrina, a human catastrophe, will warrant a new and different approach. In fact, the only difference between Katrina and that other human catastrophe, the war in Iraq, is that the president didn’t have to go to the trouble of floating false intelligence to whip up the latest storm. So much the better.

Because Bush really can’t be bothered. The truth is, watching the president reclining in an easy chair for a briefing on Hurricane Rita at Randolph Air Force Base last weekend, the very picture of perfect lassitude, I was reminded of his performance in the first of his presidential debates with John Kerry, where he struggled to stay awake, sighed, and stifled the occasional yawn. It’s past time to offer our bored CEO-in-chief his golden parachute, and send him back to Crawford, where he would be happier, and we would all be better off.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Mere days into the latest natural catastrophe I began hearing about “Katrina fatigue”: a term meant to describe not the condition of hurricane victims, but that of their television audience, growing bored with the spectacle. The opening act was riveting, but the second has been overlong, stagy, and full of more bluster than the storm itself. Can you imagine staying for the third? Let’s sneak out during intermission, and go on a bender instead.

While the first act ended with a tortured chorus from the Superdome and heartbreaking arias from the rooftops of New Orleans, the second has culminated in a solemn recitative in a deserted Jackson Square. From the masses to The Man. From the struggle for life and limb, to the fight for political survival. But while the plot has taken a turn, the sets remain stunning. The lone, besieged protagonist in front of a hauntingly lit-up St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans was some of Karl Rove’s best work to date. Truly, he is Washington’s answer to Puccini. The atmospherics, tone and content of the set piece achieved, to the relief of us all, I’m sure, what Rove & Co. are known and loved for: a retreat from reality into formalist fantasy. Jackson Square was transformed into a stark, minimalist stage, emptied of any signs of the chaos leading up to and necessitating the president’s stirring soliloquy. Such expert stagecraft explains why the administration has put Rove in charge of the “recovery” effort. Whose recovery, exactly? You could be forgiven for asking.

If the setting was surreal, the speech itself approached the sublime. This president, ostensibly an advocate of “starving the beast” has truly created a monster: a bloated, pitiful giant incapable of assisting those in need at home or affecting positive change abroad. He has presided over the greatest expansion of government bureaucracy in the nation’s history, while simultaneously slashing the budget. We now have a government that serves at the pleasure of its corporate sponsors, as a go-between, funneling honest, hard-working Americans’ tax dollars to the wealthy. This is government’s raison d'être, after all, isn’t it? The Gulf Coast catastrophe left no question whom the government serves. With Katrina, as with the war in Iraq, you can bet Bush & Co. will find enterprising ways to make money from the misery of others.

Katrina: from tragedy to farce in three weeks flat. It’s true, as postmodern opera this latest disaster has been pretty much tapped out. It takes shockingly little time to suck the marrow out of human catastrophe these days. We are cataloguers by nature, and once we have put things in order, chosen a couple of iconic images, and decided on an interpretation that suits us, we’re ready to move on. Even though Mr. Rove’s “Masterpiece Theater Presents” was pure nonsense, we appreciate someone tidying things up for us. A few kind words from the president. Applause. Curtain. There will be another act, after intermission, but by then the theater will be nearly empty.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, that’s for sure. By now we have all heard the appalling comments Mama Bush made last week as she toured the Houston Astrodome surveying the sea of cots for Katrina’s refugees: “So many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working [she chuckles here] very well for them.” Even England’s royals are held to a higher standard by the people and the press. Here in America, we don’t seem to mind the ruling class’s disdain for the rest of us. That we are so generous with our oblivious aristocrats is, frankly, baffling.

Some on the left would like to think that perhaps America’s patience with, not to mention indulgence of our royalty is finally wearing thin. After all, the middle class has been duped into fighting their wars, for which the poor have paid with their lives. And now along comes Katrina, exposing our enfant terrible-in-chief as a garden variety spoiled brat, and his playmates as mean, petty, and petulant. Appalled in their own right that anyone would suggest any of them should be held accountable for anything. No matter how hard you spin it, this bunch of apples is bad. It is as if we have abandoned our government to a gang of vicious children, as if Washington had become the evil island of William Golding’s 1954 novel, Lord of the Flies. And no, by the way, they don’t feel your pain.

But we get the government we deserve, somehow. Though most of our politicians on the national stage do not resemble or represent us, they may represent something we’re striving for: a society in which each is entitled to what he can grab, and accountable to no one. But then why were so many on the right appalled by the looting in New Orleans? After all, this has been going on in the capital for years now. But there’s a logic to it, I guess: the poor are accountable to the rich as servants to their masters, while the rich are accountable to no one. Isn’t this the natural order of things?

But it is not merely about class. We Americans have grown increasingly complacent about race. There is a curious acceptance of our de facto American Apartheid. There are inescapable correlations between race and poverty in the United States. No one is to blame and no one is accountable, of course. It’s the fault of the market, and we reassure ourselves that eventually the rising tide will lift all boats. Which is OK so long as you’ve got a boat. But the truth is, in rising waters, as we have seen, those without one drown. Still, we are dazzled by the gorgeous yachts and speedboats of our ruling class. Those of us in dinghies and rafts are just riding the tide, caught between our admiration for the rich and our pity for the ones treading water.

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.