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
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 –
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.
Steinberg bloviates regularly @ www.bluememe.blogspot.com.