Friday, September 30, 2005

Politics, power, and money

For the past five years or so I've been trying hard to understand the motivation behind the actions of the Bush administration and the Republican Congress. Just why do the Bushies do what they do, and why do their Congressional lapdogs follow in lock-step? I pondered various motivations, from Oedipal Syndrome to power-mad "we're going to rule the world" fantasies, and nothing seemed to make sense. And as for the Congressional lapdoggedness, the only thing I could come up with was some sort of large-scale blackmail scheme involving every single member of the Congress -- Republicans and Democrats alike. But that was too farfetched, even for me; something else had to be at work.

Well, with the indictment of Tom Delay, the real motivations are now clear. The actions of the entire Bush administration are based on simple crony capitalism, albeit taken to a heretofore-unthought of extreme. It's a matter of politics being played for the purpose of power and money, nothing more insidious than that.

Here's how it works. Bush has friends (who have friends who have friends) who would like to profit a bit from their relationship to the Prez. Bush uses his power to financially reward his friends, in the form of government contracts, tax breaks, watered-down regulations, and cushy appointments. The more power he has, the more actions he can take without anyone asking any embarrassing questions. Bush's power grabbing has nothing to do with world domination or ideology; he's only grabbing power to better reward his cronies.

I think I would have been more comfortable if there was a truly evil intent behind the re-emergence of the Imperial Presidency, the war in Iraq, the Patriot Act, and all of Bush's other follies. But it's not evil we're dealing with, it's simple greed. I'd wager that Bush really doesn't care that much about the whole power thing, other than for the perks that come with it. (He certainly doesn't seem to like the responsibilities that come with the power.) A strong Presidential branch is simply in a better position to get its way -- and better serve its cronies.

Examples? How about the whole Iraq war, which ultimately doesn't have much if anything to do with neo-colonialism or nation building or even oil. It's all about the contracts. Bush invades Iraq, demolishes untold number of buildings and facilities, and thus paves the way to hand out contracts to Halliburton and other cronies to rebuild what they've just destroyed. Billions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives down the drain, just so a few big contractors can make a few more bucks. Disgusting.

And what keeps Congress from blowing the whistle on this nonsense? Money. This is where Tom Delay comes in. The Hammer controlled the purse strings for millions of corporate lobbying dollars, which he handed out to those Republican congressmen who went along with the game plan. If you didn't play by Delay's (and, by proxy, Bush's) rules, you not only got your funding cut off, you also found yourself on the receiving end of Karl Rove's Rotweiller-like attacks. It was a carrot and stick approach, with lobbying funds as the carrot and loss of funds (and Rove's ire) as the stick.

Looking at things, one has to wonder who was pulling whose strings. Was Delay working for the Bush administration, or was Bush put in place to be Delay's man behind the scenes? It doesn't really matter; one hand washes the other, whichever way you look at it.

This is, without question, the dirtiest bunch of politicos since the Harding administration. By the time prosecutors get to the bottom of it (and they will; the public loves a good political scandal), this will prove to be an even more flagrant abuse of power and privilege than what led to the Teapot Dome scandal in the early 1920s. The rich and the powerful have been using our country's resources to make themselves more rich and powerful; the public should be outraged.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

More sorry servers

Continuing my previous rant about unprofessional service help, here's another one. I'm at my local sub shop the other day, I'm not the only person in line, and the lady behind the cash register decides to have a nice little conversation with the woman in line just in front of me. But it's not a little conversation, it's a long one. They're gabbing about crystals and healing massages and who knows what, while the line is piling up behind me and steam is starting to issue forth from my ear canals. They talk for a good five minutes, like old pals who haven't seen each other since the last high school reunion, totally oblivious to the other customers in line, before the woman in line finally takes her change and heads off to a table.

I'm all for being friendly with customers (to a point), but his was ridiculous. It was extremely unprofessional and inconsiderate to us other poor shlumps waiting to pay for our rapidly-cooling food. Did this woman -- these women -- totally lack common sense and a minimal awareness of their surroundings? Apparently.

And here's something I've noticed. Foreign-born service staff, or those with ethnic backgrounds, seem to be both more professional and more polite than native-born Caucasians. As an example, the Indian woman at my other local sub shop is unfailingly prompt, cheery, polite, and professional. She always says "thank you" and "you're welcome," and never says "no problem" -- unlike the dumb white kid who serves beside her; he moves so slowly I can see the fresh vegetables wilting while he works, and can always be counted on to mumble "okay dude" when I give him my order (which he then screws up). One suspects it's a cultural thing when the Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, and Mexican waitresses and counterpeople do such an exemplary job while the native-born lunks act as if the whole process is really bumming them out. Yet another sign of American's decline, no doubt.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds might disagree, dude.

Monday, September 19, 2005


My family was eating breakfast at a local Bob Evans restaurant the other day (not my choice), and my 14 year-old nephew got really annoyed at the waitress, who kept calling him "sweetie." He wasn't a sweetie, my nephew protested, which is true. Besides, referring to a complete stranger (no matter how young or how sweet) by such a familiar term is highly unprofessional.

It happens to me all the time. There's one counterperson at my local bagel shop who insists on calling me "hon." I am not a "hon," I have never been a "hon," and I am extremely annoyed if not downright offended to be referred to as such. In this case the countergirl is about half my age (she in her 20s, me in my 40s), which doesn't excuse anything. (At least she didn't call me "gramps.")

Then there's the guy at the sub shop who always asks me about whatever book I happen to be reading. (I always take a book to lunch, in order to keep from getting bored while refreshing my nutrients.) I didn't go to lunch with the expectation of giving a book report, and it's no one's business what I'm reading, what the book is about, or whether or how much I like it. He tends to get offended when I answer his "what're you reading?" question with the curt phrase, "a book," but at least he gets the point. Let me read in peace, bub.

I'm also not a big fan of waitresses and waiters who sit down in the booth with me while they're taking my order. This seems to be standard operating procedure at my local cheap chain steakhouse. This person who I do not know sits down, completely uninvited, and starts conversing with me like I'm some long lost friend. Well, folks, if I wanted a conversation, I'd eat dinner with someone I actually liked, not this stranger who has an uncanny knowledge of the specials of the day. Excuse me for being surly, but I really didn't go to that restaurant with the express purpose of being chatty.

You might think that my dislike of overly familiar waitstaff contradicts my previous rant about impolite waitstaff -- you know, the guys who offer a lackadaisical "no problem" instead of the expected "thank you" and "you're welcome." But they're really two sides of the same coin. It's not so much about being friendly or not, it's about being polite and professional. When you call me "hon" or try to make unwanted conversation, you're not acting in a professional manner. Overfamiliarity is just as much a service-industry sin as not thanking customers properly for their business. What I want is a professional greeting, prompt and attentive (but not overly attentive) service, and then for the staff to fade into the shadows. I don't want to be their friend. I want to be their customer, and be treated accordingly.

But that's just my opinion, hon; reasonable minds may disagree.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Another reason to hate cell phones

I'm taking time off from my continuing criticism of the inept and criminally corrupt Bush administration to complain once again about one of my least favorite technological advances -- the cell phone. I continue to believe that cell phones will lead to the death of civilization as we know it, as you can tell from some of my previous rants on the subject (here, here, here, here, and here).

My latest beef with what the Europeans call "mobiles" comes after a day spent at a big industry trade show. Trade shows are not my favorite places to be, but you gotta go where you gotta go. What I encountered this go-round was that people like to talk on their cell phones while they cruise the show floor. The annoying thing, in addition to being forced to listen to their private conversations, is that most people have difficulty walking and talking at the same time. (Thank heaven they didn't try to chew gum, too.) So what you get is a guy walking down the crowded aisle talking on his cell phone, then abruptly stopping in the middle of everything so that he can make some conversational point with someone a couple of hundred miles away. It goes without saying that when you stop dead in your tracks in the middle of flowing pedestrian traffic, you cause incalculable bodily collisions. A guy walks, talks, stops, and causes chaos in his wake. Multiply this situation by dozens if not hundreds of similar walker/talkers, and you see why I'm particularly peeved.

One other annoyance I discovered at the trade show was the profusion of drag-along briefcases. You know what I'm talking about; the oversized briefcase on wheels with a extending handle, like a airline carry-on but used on the ground. The problem with this particular contraption is the floor space it occupies. One person takes up a certain square footage of floor space; dragging a rolling briefcase behind doubles if not triples the floor space used. The issue, then, is of increased density, as the available floor space is cut in half without the crowd itself expanding.

Then there's the related issue of floor space versus air space. That is, it looks as if you're the proper distance from the person in front of you, but the trailing luggage trips you up. I can't tell you how many times I stumbled over low-riding bags when traffic slowed. Combine the mobile briefcase problem with the mobile phone walk/talk/stop problem and you have a complete breakdown of normal traffic patterns -- and more than a few lawsuits waiting to happen.

My solution? Well, other than staying away from trade shows (which is an excellent suggestion), I keep coming back to a universal cell phone ban in public places. That won't solve the rolling luggage problem, of course, but my question there is just how much shit does a person really need to haul around? I mean, I've never carried such a load that I couldn't heft it with my arm or fling it over my shoulder. If you have to drag it, you need to dump it.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Reining in the Christian right

The Christian right, which is neither Christian or right, is becoming a danger to our American democracy. It’s one thing to adhere to a set of beliefs; it’s quite another to try to impose those beliefs on others. This is especially so when the beliefs are extremist in nature, held by a small minority of the public, and, quite frankly, wrong.

Can you get any more wrong than claiming that the Hurricane Katrina disaster was the wrath of a God angry about New Orleans’ noted debauchery? That’s what Repent America says, claiming that it was no coincidence that Katrina hit just days before New Orleans’ annual Southern Decadence gay pride celebration.

“Although the loss of lives is deeply saddening, this act of God destroyed a wicked city,” stated Repent America director Michael Marcavage. “From 'Girls Gone Wild' to Southern Decadence, New Orleans was a city that had its doors wide open to the public celebration of sin. From the devastation may a city full of righteousness emerge.”

Equally deplorable was the rejoicing by Rev. Bill Shanks, pastor of New Covenant Fellowship of New Orleans, who was ecstatic that Katrina shut down the area’s abortion clinics – thus, to his way of thinking, becoming a disaster that actually saved lives.

“New Orleans now is abortion free,” Shanks said. “New Orleans now is Mardi Gras free. New Orleans now is free of Southern Decadence and the sodomites, the witchcraft workers, false religion -- it's free of all of those things now. God simply, I believe, in His mercy purged all of that stuff out of there -- and now we're going to start over again.”

This just goes to show how similar fundamentalists are across all religions, as Islamic extremists are also praising Katrina as Allah’s revenge on evil Western society. And just as Islamic fundamentalists are a danger to our American way of life, so are these Christian fundamentalists.

This country was founded on individual liberty, freedom of speech, and religious tolerance, and any movement that seeks to suppress any or all of these tenents is a potential danger to the republic. Today’s Christian right, those activist fundamentalists represented by James Dobson and his ilk, want to remake the country in their own image. These are not harmless kooks; these are extremists who are well-organized and well on their way to achieving their goals.

Let us take, as another example, the Christian Exodus movement, as highlighted in a recent article in the Los Angeles Times. This is a movement of politically active Christian extremists who want to establish a government based upon a specific set of fundamentalist Christian principles. If these activists have their way, they will live in a county where abortion is illegal, homosexuality is outlawed, school prayer is mandatory, and all manner of so-called immoral behavior is banned. They want to live in a Christian nation of their own very specific design, one where non-Christian beliefs and behavior are simply not tolerated.

Those in the Christian Exodus movement are starting small. Realizing they might not be able to take over the entire United States in a day, they’re instead concentrating on taking control of local governments across the country. They’re putting their people on city councils and school boards, in local sheriff’s offices and planning boards, just about anywhere they can get a foothold. They plan to pass what they deem as godly legislation, openly defying Supreme Court rulings on the separation of church and state. As one of the group said:

“We’re going to force a constitutional crisis. If necessary, we will secede from the union.”

Now, I ask you, is this the voice of a true American? Do loyal citizens openly defy established law, with the goal of overthrowing the national government or seceding from the union?

I think not. This kind of thinking is every bit as dangerous as what we face from Islamic terrorists. Just like the Islamic terrorists, these Christian extremists want to topple the United States of America. If they have their way, you and I and anyone else who thinks differently from them will be either detained or banished. Their ideal world doesn’t allow for opposing views.

What can we do to stop these Christian fanatics? Our constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech allows them to say what they want to say, think what they want to think, and believe what they want to believe. We are forced to be tolerant of those who are intolerant of us. Outlawing their particular beliefs would make us no better than them.

We do not, however, have to fund their anti-American activities. Religious organizations today enjoy tax-exempt status from the Federal government; in essence, since we don’t tax them on their income, we are helping to pay for these Christian extremist organizations. This can – and should – change.

What I recommend is simple. Any religious organization that engages in political activities should have their tax-exempt status revoked. Whether we’re talking Repent America, Christian Exodus, James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, or Pat Robertson’s 700 Club, as soon as politics and religion merge, the religion loses its government support and starts paying taxes. I can assure you, with many of these organizations, that could be a killing blow. (And a great boon to Federal tax coffers.)

We have to tolerate even the most extreme among us. We don’t have to financially support them. No loyal American would knowingly write a check to Al Queda; we must stop our similar funding of these anti-American Christian extremists.

But that’s just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

More lies

I titled my last post "The blame game," not knowing that the Bush administration would appropriate this phrase as their talking point of the week. When anyone criticizes them on how they responded to the Hurricane Katrina disaster, the appropriate Bush administration official says "Now's not the time to play the blame game." But, as we all know, anyone who doesn't want to play the blame game is probably to blame.

The other, historically typical, Bush administration response to criticism is to simply lie about what happened. Like Bush lying when he said nobody had any idea the New Orleans levees would break -- well, nobody except the National Weather Service, The Weather Channel, CNN, The New York Times, my local radio and television stations, me, and anybody else who was watching the big eye of Katrina hurtle towards the Gulf Coast. If Bush didn't know what was coming he was either ignorant or delusional -- or he's lying when he said he didn't know.

Team Bush is also lying when they say that the governor of Louisiana didn't call a state of emergency, and didn't ask the Feds for help. First, the facts demonstrate that Governor Blanco actually asked President Bush to declare a state of emergency on Saturday the 27th, before the storm hit. (Read the documentation here.) It was, in fact, the Bush flunkies who were obstructionist. It was on Monday the 29th that FEMA Director and ex-Arabian horse judge Michael Brown told fire and rescue services outside Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama not to send in emergency workers unless they are specifically requested. Why would he do that?

And here's the kicker. Even if the locals hadn't asked for help, don't you think the Feds would have gone in and done their thing anyway? After all, insignificant matters of procedure didn't stop Team Bush from invading Iraq and Afghanistan; the Bushies typically do what they want to do, whether anyone else invites them to or not. Why would entering Louisiana with food and water be any different from entering Iraq with bullets and bombs? This administration has never asked permission to do anything in the past; if they really wanted to help in Louisiana and Mississippi, they would have just gone in and did it. Act first, ask permission later -- that's their motto.

Bottom line, the Federal government screwed up big time in reacting to Hurricane Katrina, and everybody knows it. The Bushies can't spin or lie or otherwise divert attention away from the unpleasant facts. Let's hope the media and the people continue to push back against the "blame game" talking points and insist on a non-partisan commission to get to the bottom of this very obvious dereliction of duty.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The blame game

Hurricane Katrina has the Bush Administration on the ropes. Forget the 10,000 or so lives lost, the half-million or more left homeless, the billions of property damage, and the untold environmental impact; for perhaps the first time in his political career, George W. Bush has taken a serious hit, which calls for swift and immediate action.

Too bad the administration didn’t act as swiftly and surely when the people of New Orleans needed their help. But when it’s the president’s political career that’s in jeopardy, no expense is to be spared.

How do Karl Rove and the Bush spin machine deal with the negative publicity generated by the government’s dereliction of duty in the Katrina disaster? By going even more negative, of course. When something is obviously the president’s fault, it’s time to start playing the blame game – and dump their problems on somebody else’s shoulders.

Hence this not-so-surprising report from the New York Times:
Under the command of President Bush’s two senior political advisors, the White House rolled out a plan this weekend to contain the political damage from the administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina.

Forget about containing the storm’s damage; it’s the political damage that really needs containing. Of course, there’s more:
It orchestrated visits by cabinet members to the region, leading up to an extraordinary return visit by Mr. Bush planned for Monday, directed administration officials not to respond to attacks from Democrats on their relief efforts, and sought to move the blame for the slow response to Louisiana state officials…

And what prompted this flurry of activity?
…Mr. Bush and his political aides rapidly changed course in what they acknowledged was a belated realization of the situation’s political ramification.

It wasn’t important enough for cabinet members to visit the devastated area when it was only the poor and the infirm who were suffering – road trips are only necessary when it’s the president’s poll numbers that are suffering. Forget the human toll; action is taken only when there is a political ramification.

The key bit, however, is the last one. Even though it’s fairly obvious that the slow and inept Federal response was the fault of the Federal government, Rove is trying to turn the tables and blame state and local officials instead. It’s typical Rove, and it stinks.

First off, it stinks that the Bush administration is putting more effort into their political response than they did to their humanitarian one. I recently wrote about the administration’s priorities; this just shows how misplaced those priorities are. I shouldn’t be surprised at the calculated callousness of Bush and Rove trying to make political points from others’ suffering – after all, that’s how they were able to turn the 9/11 attacks in 2001 into an electoral victory in 2004. No, what’s particularly galling is the insensitivity of doing it while people are still suffering, and doing it in such a way that it blames the victims for Bush’s own incompetence and indifference. Really, there ought to be a law against this sort of thing.

It stinks even more that the Bushies are trying to deflect the blame in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Some might call this spin; I call it lying – and they just might not be able to get away with it this time.

Thanks to 24/7 in-your-face television coverage of the disaster, the American public could see with their own eyes that the Feds were fucking this up big time. Yet the administration’s talking heads are out there on the news show circuit lying their asses off about everything being the fault of the locals. The governor didn’t fill out the proper paperwork, the mayor didn’t officially ask for their support, blah blah blah. I hope that our recently-awakened media and the public they serve see this as the administration’s version of a “the dog ate my homework” excuse, and call them on it.

I tell you, it’s heartening to see hacks like Michael Chertoff appear on Meet the Press and have Tim Russert hand him his head in a handbasket. Chertoff tried to spin the administration line about it being everybody else’s fault, but Russert wasn’t having any of it. Our boy Tim was like a pit bull, and Chertoff was left sweating and sputtering. If the media keeps on like this, the Bush administration will finally be caught in their own web of deceit.

Here’s the bottom line. Yeah, the local officials did their share of screwing up; someone should of thought to have some food and water waiting for the refugees in the Superdome, and maybe even station some police there to keep things under control. Nobody’s denying that. But the bigger issue is that it shouldn’t have taken the Federal government four days to respond to this disaster. The Feds should have rolled in Monday afternoon, Tuesday morning at the latest, in force and in charge. That didn’t happen, and you can’t blame the locals for that.

The Federal government’s insipid and inadequate response to the Katrina disaster is the fault of the Federal government, plain and simple. The blame is squarely on the officials in charge. If there is justice in this world, Michael Brown, Michael Chertoff, and all their direct reports should be fired for incompetence. In addition, Congress should hold hearings to determine if the government’s slow reaction was criminal in any way – and, if so, prepare the necessary indictments and letters of impeachment. This isn’t a little thing; 10,000 or so people lost their lives, a large number of which might have been saved by a faster, more sure response by the Federal government.

Yes, our first priority is to save those who still need saving, and then to help rebuild the area. But when that work is done, those responsible for making the catastrophe worse must be held to account. It’s not a matter of blame; it’s a matter of taking responsibility.

But that’s just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Monday, September 05, 2005


Ever wonder what George Bush's priorities really are? Let's try to find out, by taking a quick look at some recent events:

It took President Bush four days to respond to the Hurricane Katrina disaster. The storm hit on a Monday, and Bush didn't visit the affected areas until the following Friday.

It took President Bush less than twelve hours to respond to the death of Supreme Court Chief Justice Rehnquist. Rehnquist passed away on a Sunday evening, and Bush nominated John Roberts to replace him on Monday morning.

The day after Katrina hit, Bush gave a speech in San Diego, and spent 42 paragraphs talking about terrorism and the war in Iraq.

During the same speech, he spent two paragraphs talking about the Hurricane Katrina disaster.

Earlier in 2005, when the courts ruled to take Terri Schiavo off life support, Bush rushed from his estate in Crawford, Texas back to Washington to sign legislation regarding her case.

For two days following the Hurricane Katrina disaster, Bush remained on vacation and traveling elsewhere in the country. He didn't return to Washington to monitor the situation until the third day after the storm hit.

During his visit to Mississippi four days after the disaster, Bush met with two sisters left homeless by the storm. When they told him they had lost everything they owned and needed basic clothing, he told them to go to the Salvation Army for help.

During the same visit, Bush made particular mention that Republican Senator Trent Lott lost his house in the storm, and promised that Lott's residence would be rebuilt: ". . . there's going to be a fantastic house. And I'm looking forward to sitting on the porch."

So what exactly are Bush's priorities -- and might they be a tad misplaced? You tell me.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

We lost New Orleans

The disaster that was Hurricane Katrina has brought out the best and the worst in our society. Actually, I’m not totally sure of that; it may have just brought out the worst.

Here are the worst culprits in the post-storm tragedy:
  • The New Orleans city government and police force (and, complicitly, the government of Louisiana). It’s easy to see this now, but the mayor should have taken the initiative and started busing people out of town before the hurricane hit. He didn’t, but did at least offer the use of the Superdome and the Convention Center to house those who couldn’t leave on their own. Unfortunately, there was no forethought as to providing any necessities to these facilities post-hurricane, nor was there any order or anyone put in charge after the storm. Tens of thousands of residents were left to fend for themselves in these facilities, with no food, water, or leadership. The local police force, by all accounts fairly corrupt to begin with, proved totally ineffectual if not complicit in the aftermath of the disaster. The entire local government is to blame for doing little to plan for the storm, and for being rudderless afterwards.

  • The United States government, in particularly FEMA, the Department of Homeland Security, and the entire Bush administration. Long before the storm hit, the Bush administration had drained the coffers of the Army Corps of Engineers, which resulted in necessary levy repairs and construction to be delayed. More important, Bush’s war in Iraq depleted the Louisiana and Mississippi National Guards by at least a third, and also deprived the Guard of many of the vehicles necessary to handle a disaster of this sort. And that’s just before the storm hit; afterwards, Bush’s callous indifference and inept leadership resulted in little or no Federal aid to New Orleans until four days after the hurricane. Four days. Third-world countries responded much quicker in the aftermath of the recent tsunami. When aid did arrive, the coordination and management was comically incompetent, resulting in even longer delays and, inevitably, more deaths.

  • Those people of New Orleans who took advantage of the situation to engage in predatory behavior against their fellow citizens. I’m not blaming those who scavenged for food and necessities (in my books that’s survival, not looting), but rather those gangs with guns who spread more fear and terror than there would have been otherwise.

When the extent of the disaster first became apparent, I was appalled by the media coverage of the so-called looters. It seemed… well, it seemed unnecessarily mean-spirited, in a conservative property-owning kind of way, and at least a little racist. I mean, if I were in a situation where there was no electricity or running water, where vehicular transportation was futile, where the supplies of food were dwindling and hope for assistance was days if not weeks away, you betcha I’d be trundling down to my local grocery stores, restaurants, and even office buildings (with lots of nice vending machines) to stock up on necessities. That’s what survivors do, and calling it looting reveals the unfeeling, uncomprehending, elitist viewpoint of the upper class. Hell, if I was a storeowner in New Orleans, I’d throw open my doors so my neighbors could get what they needed, financial considerations be damned. (Virtually everything being taken by the “looters” would soon be spoiled or ruined by the flooding, anyway.)

But then the situation just kept getting worse. You could see that the looting went far beyond simple scavenging for food and supplies; the very fabric of society was breaking down. One could blame the lack of a proper police presence, and that certainly was a contributing factor, but there was something more at play here. As many have pointed out, in the aftermath of the Asian tsunami, in areas more poor than downtown New Orleans, civilized behavior still reigned; the people of the poorest nations came together to help each other, while the people of the richest nation turned on each other. The fact that for a few days, in a few places, American civilization reverted to a barbaric state, is at best a major embarassment, at worst an indictment of what our society is really like under its genteel surface.

The barbarism we’ve seen in Louisiana raises lingering questions about the problems of race and class in America. John Edwards was right; there are two Americas, and we just saw the ugly face of the second America in New Orleans. Middle- and upper-class residents were able to flee the hurricane; lower-class residents were forced to bear the brunt of the storm and the resulting calamity. The face of this disaster, the face of the second America, was black and poor.

I’ve heard some conservative commentators – and even President Bush, in an early statement – say that these people made a choice to stay behind, and now they’re paying the price for that choice. This attitude is blind to the facts, and symptomatic of much of what’s wrong with our country. Anyone with a car and a credit card was able to leave the scene beforehand. Those left behind didn’t choose to stay; their choice was made by the fact that they had neither the means nor the financial wherewithal to leave. These poor, mostly black, residents were forced to ride out the storm either in their homes or at the Superdome, trusting in the government to take care of them in their time of need.

Unfortunately, the government failed them. It failed them before the storm by not making their city safer and by not offering public transportation out of the city in the face of pending disaster; it failed them after the storm by abrogating its responsibility to protect and house and feed those who needed the help.

Hurricane Katrina was not racist; storms don’t discriminate based on color or income. Our society, however, does discriminate, if not officially then in the way in which it reacts in times of distress. Was the slow government response due to the fact that the victims were poor and black? Maybe not explicitly, but it’s hard to imagine a similar slow reaction if the disaster had occurred in an affluent suburb of Atlanta or Virginia. Can you picture the government response if the faces of the survivors were those of white soccer moms? Yes, race was a factor, in one way or another.

A bigger factor, of course, was government incompetence and indifference. Incompetence because the Bush administration put its cronies in charge of FEMA and Homeland Security; Michael Brown and his cohorts had no experience in managing disasters of this or any scale, which contributed significantly to the inability to respond in an adequate fashion. (Brown's prior management experience was as director of the International Arabian Horse Association, hardly a similar enterprise.) Indifference because the Bushies and their ilk simply don’t think that government should be responsible for the welfare of its people.

This last point is the one that enrages me the most, and the one that will ultimately result in defeat of many in the current Republican leadership. Instead of believing that government exists to care for the general public, Bush and his co-conspirators believe that government exists to enrich the upper class, the powerful, and the corporate elite. Everyone else, from the middle class on down, is left to fend for themselves. When a disaster occurs, it’s somebody else’s problem; that’s why we have charities, after all. This was best seen when Bush was touring Biloxi and met with two black sisters, victims of the storm; he asked them what they needed, they said clothing, and he told them to visit the nearest Salvation Army location. He didn’t say, “we’ll take of that for you.” He didn’t say, “the government has a relief center for you.” He said, in effect, don’t bother me with your problems, let somebody handle it. As much as I respect the Salvation Army, it’s not a substitute for the U.S. Army.

The repercussions from Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath will be significant and long-lasting. This is, after all, a disaster several orders of magnitude greater than that of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The administration’s response was criminally inadequate, and everyone noticed. The media, forced to deal with the catastrophe head on, with no government handlers to provide the approved spin, has been aggressively attacking administration officials for their incompetence, not letting them slide by on the normal platitudes and propaganda. At the very least, expect to see the 2006 congressional elections go heavily anti-incumbent (which means a big win for the Democrats), with similar results in the 2008 general election. In fact, if the 2006 elections end up being significantly lopsided, look for some very embarrassing congressional investigations into the executive branch’s actions in this and other recent events, perhaps even leading to impeachment proceedings. Do not underestimate the wrath of a public scorned.

I hope that something positive comes out of this disaster. It is long past time for this country to address its simmering racial, class, and economic tensions. Some foreign commentators noted that the scenes from New Orleans looked like something from a Third World country; the reality is that too many citizens of our First World nation live in Third World conditions every day. It’s time for us to deal with this, and to start bridging the gap between our two Americas.

But that’s just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.