07 September 2005

Washing Away the Conservative Movement by William Rivers Pitt

Somewhere, at this moment, a neoconservative is seething.

It isn't fair, he rages within. We had it wired. The House is ours, the Senate is ours, the Supreme Court is ours, the Justice Department is ours, the television news media is bought and paid for. We could act with impunity, say whatever we needed to say to get what we want, do whatever wanted, and no one could touch us. We could refashion the nation as we saw fit, whether people wanted to come along with us or not, because we know better.

We followed Leo Strauss's edicts to the letter, growls the seething neoconservative. Strauss, our neoconservative godfather, told us that this nation is best run by an elite that does not have to bother with the will or desires of the populace. Strauss told us we didn't even have to bother with the truth while pursuing our agenda. We are the elite, and we know best.

Somewhere, at this moment, a neoconservative is seething because his entire belief structure regarding government has been laid waste by a storm of singular ferocity. Hurricane Katrina has destroyed lives, ravaged a city, damaged our all-important petroleum infrastructure, and left every American with scenes of chaos and horror seared forever into their minds. Simultaneously, Hurricane Katrina has annihilated the fundamental underpinnings of conservative governmental philosophy.

What we are seeing in New Orleans is the end result of what can be best described as extended Reaganomics. Small government, budget cuts across the board, tax cuts meant to financially strangle the ability of federal agencies to function, the diversion of billions of what is left in the budget into military spending: This has been the aim and desire of the conservative movement for decades now, and they have been largely successful in their efforts.

Combine this with a wildly expensive and unnecessary war, rampant cronyism that replaces professionals with unqualified hacks at nearly every level of government, and the basic neoconservative/Straussian premise that the truth is not important and that the so-called elite know best, and you have this catastrophe laid out on a platter. The conservative and neoconservative plan for the way this country should be run has been blasted to matchsticks, their choice of priorities exposed as lacking, to say the very least.

The Katrina disaster in a nutshell: A storm that had been listed for years as #3 on America's list of "Worst Possible Things That Could Happen" arrives in New Orleans to find levees unprepared because massive budget cuts stripped away any ability to repair and augment them. The storm finds FEMA, the national agency tasked to deal with the aftermath of natural disasters, run by Bush friend Michael Brown, a guy who got fired from his last job representing the rights of Arabian horse owners. The storm finds a goodly chunk of the Louisiana National Guard sitting in a desert 7,000 miles away with their high-water Humvees parked beside them. The storm finds that our institutional decades-old unwillingness to address poverty issues left tens of thousands of people unable to get out of the way of the ram.

Grover Norquist, one of the ideological leaders of our current administration, once said he wanted to shrink the federal government until it was small enough to be drowned in a bathtub. Well, those who believe in his view of things have worked very hard to accomplish this, and we see now what happens when you do that. In this case, the government did not drown. An American city did.

Early estimates of the costs to repair the damage to New Orleans are rolling above $100 billion. The invasion and occupation of Iraq has cost many times more than that. The gigantic tax cuts of a few years ago further denuded the federal budget. Conservative and neoconservative dogma required this, and has left us singularly vulnerable. They have always wanted a weakened federal government, and now we have one, and a lot of people are dead because of it. The cost of this storm, plus the cost of the tax cuts, plus the cost of the Iraq war, plus the long-term damage to our economy caused by high gasoline prices, is going to kick the guts out of our government for a very long time to come.

In so many ultimately dangerous ways, their exposure is complete. For the last four years, we have been inundated with the claim that only Bush and the neocons can protect us from terrorism. The justification and shield for every action taken, no matter how absurd, has been that it is for our own good and defense. That's all dust now. "This is the Law and Order and Terror government," writes MSNBC newsman Keith Olbermann in his blog. "It promised protection - or at least amelioration - against all threats: conventional, radiological, or biological. It has just proved that it cannot save its citizens from a biological weapon called standing water."

Above and beyond the fact that the levees have broken all around the governmental philosophies of the conservative/neoconservative crew is the question of whether this could have been avoided with a little bit of personal responsibility. There is a lot of finger-pointing going on at the highest levels right now; at one point over the weekend, Bush defenders absurdly attempted to blame the Mayor of New Orleans for what happened. One boggles when trying to determine how the mayor of one city bears the responsibility for the damage and lack of rescue response that took place in Mississippi, Alabama and outside the realm of his parishes. This was a nicely Straussian twist on the truth, straight out of the playbook.

Could it have been avoided? Let's ask the National Weather Service, which sent out this alert on Sunday, August 28th: "A hurricane warning is in effect for the north central gulf coast from Morgan City, Louisiana, eastward to the Alabama/Florida border, including the city of New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain. Maximum sustained winds are near 160 mph with higher gusts. Katrina is a large hurricane. Coastal storm surge flooding of 18 to 22 feet above normal tide levels, locally as high as 28 feet, along with large and dangerous battering waves, can be expected near and to the east of where the center makes landfall. Some levees in the greater New Orleans area could be overtopped."

"Some levees in the greater New Orleans area could be overtopped." That was Sunday. Monday passed, and then Tuesday, and then Wednesday, and then Thursday, and then Friday, and then the weekend came, before any action of any significance whatsoever was taken to protect the lives of the citizens of that city.

Also on Sunday the 28th, Governor Blanco of Louisiana dispatched a letter to Bush formally requesting help for the horror she saw rolling towards her state over the southern horizon. "Under the provisions of Section 401 of the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, 42 USC. 5121-5206 (Stafford Act), and implemented by 44 CFR 206.36, I request that you declare an expedited major disaster for the state of Louisiana as Hurricane Katrina, a Category V hurricane approaches our coast south of New Orleans; beginning on August 28, 2005 and continuing," read the letter. She went on in great detail over four full pages to list a series of requests that, had they been granted, would have spared thousands of people from death.

She was flatly ignored. Forget the fact that a hurricane hitting New Orleans has been on the danger list for decades. The Bush folks got the word on Sunday, not once but twice, and instead of swinging into action, they literally ate cake.

Have they learned anything from this? Hardly. The most important bit on this week's conservative agenda, beyond stuffing Mr. Roberts into the Chief Justice chair, is to repeal the estate tax. Yes, that's correct, before we do anything else, we have to make sure the rich of this nation get an even larger slice of the pie. This caused DNC Chairman Howard Dean to launch a singularly pointed salvo over the weekend.

"Countless thousands of our fellow Americans throughout the Gulf Coast region continue to suffer in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina," said Dean. "While some have begun the painful task of rebuilding their lives and coping with the unfathomable loss, so many still await help. And the cost of this disaster in human and material terms remains unknown. It's simply irresponsible for Senator Frist and Ken Mehlman to even think about spending our tax dollars on breaks for millionaires at a time when our top priority must be to ensure we have the resources needed to address the long and short term costs associated with rescue, recovery, and rebuilding in the wake of hurricane Katrina. Not to mention the vital lesson we learned this week about the deadly cost of diverting funds at the expense of the safety of the American people. These costs, continued Dean, "also come at a time when our nation faces a massive deficit, and mounting costs in the ongoing war in Iraq."

It isn't irresponsible, Chairman. It's standard operating procedure. They've been doing it like this for so long that they've forgotten how to do it any other way. They are such true believers that they cannot fathom doing it any other way. Likely, they will get away with it, and the loss of estate tax revenues will further damage our nation's ability to care for its own.

The house of cards has fallen in. A generation of conservative thinking, combined with five years of neoconservative thrashing, has finally come to an unavoidable head. The agencies tasked to protect us - FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security to name two - have been proven to be utterly useless. The heads of these agencies - Chertoff and Brown - are the perfect avatars of Bush's way of doing business, insofar as they have no business being in the positions they are in. The conservative movement has failed spherically, from all sides and in all directions.

So here's a thought: Let's repudiate these fools. When the basic software for the operating system of a computer is proven to be riddled with bugs and bad code, it is time to rewrite the whole thing. We have to do that here, with our government and institutions, and we have to do it now. Throw conservative dogma into the dustbin of history where it belongs.

Remember that a massive, highly industrialized and infrastructured, diverse nation requires an effective central government, funded properly and staffed by professionals and patriots, in order to keep the wheels on the road. Remember the words of that great Republican, Oliver Wendell Holmes, who said, "Taxes are the price we pay to live in a civilized society." What we are seeing in New Orleans is not civilized society, but anarchy. The reasons for this are as clear as the nose on your face.

They have failed us. Many people are dead because of it. It's time to change the software. Enough of this Boo Radley leadership.


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