Heck of a Job

A story to appear in tomorrow’s New York Times says that a study of more than 260 Louisianans who died during Hurricane Katrina or its aftermath “found that almost all survived the height of the storm but died in the chaos and flooding that followed.”

The results are not necessarily representative of the 1,100 people who died in the storm-ravaged part of the state. The 268 deaths examined by The Times were not chosen through a scientific or random sample, but rather were selected on the basis of which family members could be reached, and which names had been released by state officials.

Nonetheless, the study represents the most comprehensive picture to date of the Louisiana victims of Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent levee failures. The Times conducted more than 200 interviews with relatives, neighbors and friends of the victims, and culled information from local coroners and medical examiners, census data, obituaries, and news articles.

It’s a heartbreaking thing to read. One suspects some of those people could have been saved had there been halfway adequate response.

Looking the Other Way

Be sure to read Harold Bloom’s essay in The Guardian — “Reflections on an Evening Land.” Although in places it reminds me why I didn’t major in English lit, the essay makes vital points —

At the age of 75, I wonder if the Democratic party ever again will hold the presidency or control the Congress in my lifetime. I am not sanguine, because our rulers have demonstrated their prowess in Florida (twice) and in Ohio at shaping voting procedures, and they control the Supreme Court. The economist-journalist Paul Krugman recently observed that the Republicans dare not allow themselves to lose either Congress or the White House, because subsequent investigations could disclose dark matters indeed. Krugman did not specify, but among the profiteers of our Iraq crusade are big oil (House of Bush/House of Saud), Halliburton (the vice-president), Bechtel (a nest of mighty Republicans) and so forth.

All of this is extraordinarily blatant, yet the American people seem benumbed, unable to read, think, or remember, and thus fit subjects for a president who shares their limitations.

This made me think of yesterday’s Risen-Lichtblau article in the New York Times:

Some officials familiar with it say they consider warrantless eavesdropping inside the United States to be unlawful and possibly unconstitutional, amounting to an improper search. One government official involved in the operation said he privately complained to a Congressional official about his doubts about the legality of the program. But nothing came of his inquiry. “People just looked the other way because they didn’t want to know what was going on,” he said.

That’s pretty much our situation in a nutshell. We look the other way. We don’t want to know what’s going on.

This past week news media made a Big Bleeping Deal out of the fact that President Bush uttered the words “As President, I’m responsible for the decision to go into Iraq,” as if this marked some new era of presidential candor. But look at the context — the paragraph in which the fleeting moment of candor appeared —

When we made the decision to go into Iraq, many intelligence agencies around the world judged that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction. This judgment was shared by the intelligence agencies of governments who did not support my decision to remove Saddam. And it is true that much of the intelligence turned out to be wrong. As President, I’m responsible for the decision to go into Iraq — and I’m also responsible for fixing what went wrong by reforming our intelligence capabilities. And we’re doing just that. At the same time, we must remember that an investigation after the war by chief weapons inspector Charles Duelfer found that Saddam was using the U.N. oil-for-food program to influence countries and companies in an effort to undermine sanctions, with the intent of restarting his weapons programs once the sanctions collapsed and the world looked the other way. Given Saddam’s history and the lessons of September the 11th, my decision to remove Saddam Hussein was the right decision. Saddam was a threat — and the American people and the world is better off because he is no longer in power. (Applause.) We are in Iraq today because our goal has always been more than the removal of a brutal dictator; it is to leave a free and democratic Iraq in its place.

— he’s still not admitting to a mistake. He’s still claiming he did the right thing. And he’s still pretending the world at large agreed with his decision, when it most definitely did not.

The fact that Bush could have (somehow) obtained a second term, even after it was obvious he had taken us into a costly and unnecessary war that could easily have been avoided, is an obscenity. It’s obscene that so many people in the media and in politics continue to cover his ass and treat him with respect. And it’s obscene that Americans accept him as president. I sincerely believe that earlier generations would have stormed the White House bearing buckets of hot tar and bags of feathers, never mind sit quietly by and watch him be inaugurated for another term.

Earlier Americans would have been outraged. Today’s Americans sit placidly and watch as their betrayal is televised.

And, constitutionally speaking, it is not the President’s responsibility to decide to invade another country. That’s Congress’s responsibility. But who reads the Constitution any more? That’s so, like, pre-9/11.

“What has happened to the American imagination if we have become a parody of the Roman empire?” Bloom asks. I think he’s giving us too much credit; we’re too prudish to parody the Roman empire. I think we’ve become only a parody of ourselves, which is far more pathetic. Just cruise around the Right Blogosphere and notice the imagery — fierce bald eagles, the Liberty Bell, minutemen — and then look at the opinions presented: The president was right to authorize wiretaps of citizens in secret. If you aren’t doing anything illegal you should have nothing to worry about.

How is it that a rich, spoiled, pampered frat boy with an affected Texas accent, who never worked a day in his life and used family connections to avoid service in Vietnam, became the heir to Andy Jackson? If that’s not parody, I don’t know what is.

Although we might yet go the way of the Romans. Historians tell us that as Rome fell, the Romans themselves scarcely noticed it was happening. Even as the barbarians were literally at the gates, individual Romans went ahead with their personal business with no concern that their way of life was about to end. They didn’t see it coming. And they didn’t see it because of end of Rome was unthinkable. Today the true believers in American exceptionalism cling to the idea that the virtues of our American republic are so unassailable as to justify any depravity done in America’s name. The notion that America could be in the wrong, much less fall from grace as The Land of the Free, is unthinkable.

Beware of what is unthinkable. Just because something is outside your imagination doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

The exceptionalists are in power, and those of us who see the fall coming are dismissed as “looney lefties.” I sometimes feel as if I’m watching a train wreck that I’m powerless to stop.

“Even as Bush extolled his Iraq adventure, his regime daily fuses more tightly together elements of oligarchy, plutocracy, and theocracy,” Bloom writes. Today in the New York Times, Scott Shane writes that “A single, fiercely debated legal principle lies behind nearly every major initiative in the Bush administration’s war on terror, scholars say: the sweeping assertion of the powers of the presidency.” Does that make Bush our Julius Caesar? Ol’ Julius would be insulted, I believe.

Of course, in Caesar’s case, the Senate eventually took matters into their own hands and, um, deposed him. With extreme prejudice. I wouldn’t look to our current lot in Congress to be quite so principled. The question is, is it too late for a strong and unified opposition to Bush to arise? Is it too late for Congress to take back its proper authoritiy and demote the Emperor back to being a republican (small R) president? If not (even better) a citizen?

Also commenting on the Bloom essay, Stirling Newberry writes “I do not believe there is an American decline that is inevitable.” However,

I believe that catastrophe is inevitable, that is we will not change direction until checks bounce and people can’t get gasoline. But we are nearer to that than people know. I saw my first gas lines in America in 30 years recently, the shadow of shortage is held at bay by European recession and the strategic reserve. The rich and powerful are pumping oil as fast as they can, because they feel the noose tightening around them. They can feel that if there is an economic tumble now, then who knows where the rebellions will lead.

America has been very foolish indeed, and it has suffered in its arts and letters as it has suffered politically – for the same reason. We are corrupt, and everything is about being attached to the revenue stream. Being attached to the stream of money is the only sign of success we care about, because it is the only one that matters. Read any composer biography, it will be a list of “who cut the check” and how many checks have been cut. As if composers were whores, known for who they serviced.

This reality is passing, because of the many problems of a prostitute society, a certain emptiness that comes with the first light of day is among them. People who could be successful in the world of fighting to get to the teat have given up on it. Yes, I can understand those much older than I being disappointed, there was so much more possible than seems to have occured. It was that very fear of disaster which kept the older generation on the straight and narrow. It was the loss of that fear that allowed the Republicans to raid the savings accounts and produce a generation of fat falsity.

Yet “The whole modern world is running out of value,” Stirling continues, and there is no reason we can’t make a course correction and adjust to new realities.

Perhaps the Democratic Party is not yet ready to take power, but this weakness is a paradoxical strength: when a leader comes who is capable of taking the White House, and governing the nation, with a following to match his vision – the rest of the party will fall into rank and file, because there will be no other alternative. Parties, as Wilson reminded us in his first inaugural, are instruments of the greater purpose of the nation.

So it will be now, when America has finally lost hope in false promises, and finally reaches the moment where the river of oil and corruption can no longer provide enough affluence for enough Americans, we will change, and move in a new direction.

Personally, I think we’re tottering on the edge. Fall one way, and we’ll become a corrupt and bloated plutocracy of exploitation, limited opportunity, and abased civil liberties. Fall the other way, and maybe we’ll no longer be the World’s Only Superpower, or the Richest Sumbitches on the Planet, but we’ll still have the Constitution and civil liberties, and (eventually) our self-respect. Certainly we’re leaning toward the former, but I don’t think the latter is yet lost to us.