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The re-sinking of the Titanic


The Katrina disaster is still so fresh that it seems a bit cold to discuss its political implications. But the Bush Administration’s response has been so incompetent, and its words and deeds so utterly lacking in empathy, understanding or accountability, that the prospects of them getting any aspect of the clean-up and rebuilding right are slim at best. If the suffering of the victims does not shake their torpor, we must take up whatever cudgel falls to hand in order to get their attention and prevent the train wrecks to come. Lives continue to be on the line. And so politics, in lieu of insurrection, must be fair game.


Politics never stopped, of course, for the House of Rove. The Bush machine is now hard at work diverting resources from rescuing the displaced to their favorite WAR: the War Against Reality. The White House is spinning madly to shift blame, circle wagons, and deny responsibility for the failures that didn’t occur. As with 9/11 and Iraq, soon they will attempt to stifle investigations into the failures that led to the disaster (correction: they already have.). When their pathetic attempts to blame the victims are rejected, they will finger their Janice Karpinskis and Lyndie Englands (correction: they already have), award themselves medals, and slink off to fail again another day.

Commentators, following the lead of President Johnny One-note, have talked about parallels between Katrina and 9/11. In terms of lives lost, the comparison may turn out about right; in terms of lives disrupted and property loss, this disaster will likely turn out to be more like last year’s tsunami. But we should be talking about another, more symbolic comparison from almost a century ago: the sinking of the Titanic.

The devastation along the Gulf Coast is orders of magnitude greater than the loss of a single ocean liner, of course. But I see some important parallels. Hubris and greed put innocents on a path to disaster, then as now. As with the disaster then, it can be argued that ignorant decisions made the damage worse, and apathy and foolishness pushed the death toll higher. And the fury voiced by the victims is being echoed and amplified by an outraged press, just as it was in 1912.

But there is a more basic commonality: in 2005, as in 1912, the wealthy had little trouble making it into the lifeboats. A century ago, only 4 out of 143 women in first class died; 62% of the Titanic’s 1st class passengers were saved; only 25% of steerage. For untold thousands of poor blacks in New Orleans history repeated; for them there were no lifeboats. American citizens without cash or cars were told that that they were on their own. In 1912, many lifeboats pushed off half full; in 2005, hundreds of school buses that could have been used to evacuate people sat unused in what became Lake New Orleans. Nearly a week after the storm blew through, the poor and the black at the Superdome were trumped yet again so that their “betters” who had been marooned at the Hyatt could get priority seating on the buses heading out of town. Katrina has revealed the depraved indifference of our leaders (at all levels of government), but it has revealed ugly truths about the rest of us as well.

The faces of the victims now are overwhelmingly those of poor blacks, truly the steerage passengers of today. (One could argue that this represents progress, since they were once cargo rather than passengers, but meaningful progress for the permanent underclass of Jefferson Parish obviously stopped some time ago.) The way thousands of mostly poor blacks were effectively locked into the Superdome for days, and were prevented from walking out of the city by armed guards, echoes the way some steerage passengers may have been locked in the bowels of the doomed ship.

The deplorable conditions faced by the poor at the turn of the 20th century were hidden in plain sight, just as they are today. But the sinking of the Titanic brought cause and effect into stark relief: class distinctions killed. Widespread outrage brought important changes not just in ship design, but in our society. The good that came out of the sinking of the Titanic was the impetus it gave to many progressive ideals, not the least of which is that the poor, the uneducated, and the underclass are still people. Ships with only enough lifeboats for upper deck passengers became unacceptable. In turn, grudging recognition of the basic humanity of the unwashed also grew. Class never stopped mattering, but for a while it mattered less. Universal education, the New Deal, Social Security, the GI Bill, and numerous other programs narrowed gaps between rich and poor. The tide did not lift all boats, but over the course of seventy years, it lifted a lot of them.

That progress began to reverse with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Regressive tax laws and the rapid pulling up of ladders strengthened the “them’s that got shall get” theory of society. Reagan may have asked Gorbachev to tear down one wall, but his administration ushered in the rebuilding of another. The “city upon a hill” Reagan fantasized about did not include low-income housing; for him, it was enough if some of the benefits of cronyism and corruption trickled down to hoi polloi from that gated city like rainwater (or, more likely, raw sewage).

Little has changed since then. Bill Clinton’s Washington odyssey is the exception that proves the rule. The utter contempt with which the DC establishment greeted and treated him cannot be explained by his middle-of-the-road politics or the trumped-up scandals – scandals that pale in comparison to the monstrosities that have followed. The backlash against him makes sense only through the lens of class. Coming from poverty was not his fatal flaw; remembering it, and identifying with the disenfranchised was. The outraged Washington elite talked of Clinton as the “first Black President,” an epithet (to them) that arguably made sense more as a distinction based on class than anything else. As Toni Morrison said, the elite’s message was “No matter how smart you are, how hard you work, how much coin you earn for us, we will put you in your place or put you out of the place you have somehow, albeit with our permission, achieved.” The “man from Hope” was a threat to the ruling class precisely because his skill and undeniable intelligence represented a victory for the greatest threat to their future: meritocracy. If a boy from a poor, single-parent home in Arkansas could rise to the White House, their justification for the gross disparity in real opportunity and education in this country was suspect. And so the powerful moved heaven and earth to unseat him, and to unring the bell Clinton rang. The coronation of George W. Bush represents the purest possible refutation of the idea that the humble of birth can rise by dint of talent: government by primogeniture.

And so George Bush, aided and abetted by the dukes and earls of Congress and the barons and lords of the press, willing to sell out all other constituencies in order to protect their own peerage, however minor, presided over a vast increase in wealth for the few, and the virtual entombment of a permanent steerage class. The dispossessed, like the apocryphal frog in a pot of warm water, might well have let themselves be slowly boiled to death. But the loss of New Orleans may finally have changed all that. The sinking of this new Titanic may have unleashed forces too powerful for the gentry to control.

The press, miraculously emboldened by some fateful combination of outrage, fear and disgust, has finally found its voice. A real story is finally displacing endless loops of celebrity indulgences and missing white women. And that real story is tailor-made to help the press hold the government’s nose to the steaming pile of poo they have left in our home. Telegenic images of devastation and destruction will remain available for months, as will tens or hundreds of thousands of furious displaced residents. Reporters will not need to trek to far-off lands to bring back footage of failures and broken promises and dead Americans. The tragedy of New Orleans, a tragedy inseparable from issues of class and race, will haunt every living room in America.

Lest we grow tired of the story, the government’s transparent attempts to hide its failures and its apparatus of incompetence offer a seemingly endless supply of insensitivities and outrages that will only feed our anger. Now that skeptics hold the klieg lights, the President’s incompetence transcends the backdrops of his carefully staged photo ops. As Bush careens from one gaffe to the next, one cannot escape the impression that, had he been captain of the Titanic, he would, after reaching the bridge a few hours after first striking the iceberg, have ordered the ship to back up and ram it again.

George Bush’s hagiographic self-image was defined four years ago this week. When there was nothing to do but dig through the rubble and get angry, a dazed and frightened nation gave its new president tremendous credit for figuring out which end of the bullhorn to speak into. The fact that his response killed nearly two thousand mostly poor Americans while enriching Halliburton et al. has taken years to register.

Four years later, the captain of the ship of state has learned nothing. People are again suffering and dying due to the failures of his leadership – and Halliburton again benefits. But this time the bluster and misdirection are fooling no one. And so we may finally have reached a day of reckoning, which should lead to the most important Titanic parallel of all: though he is too craven to do it voluntarily, justice requires that the captain again go down with his ship.

John Steinberg bloviates regularly @


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