Sunday, September 25, 2005

Maureen Dowd, Nihilist

Some people have observed that the New York Times editorial pages are unbalanced, staffed almost entirely with liberals, save for the milquetoast centrist Republican David Brooks (admired by no conservative I know), and William Safire's libertarian replacement, John Tierney. But this is too hasty - the various columnists do have different areas of emphasis, and some ideological variation between them. The Times, after all, also has a token nihilist - Maureen Dowd.

Maureen Dowd has to be one of the most intellectually vapid people to ever get a gig as a columnist. That she was hired by a paper with the prestige of the New York Times says a great deal more about that newspaper than about her own merit.

This all struck me about her this morning on Meet the Press. Tim Russert asks her, "Maureen Dowd, be counterintuitive here. Karl Rove calls you up and said, "Maureen, I've been reading your column for the last couple years. Give us advice. What should we do in the second term?"

Dowd answers with this sterling sage piece of policy advice: "Well, I think, you know, given what David said, people have talked about whether the Bushes are racist, and I don't think they're racist, but their problem is about class, because they never have understood that when they have this story arc where they go down to Texas and pull themselves up by their bootstraps, that that is--they think that's a true pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. They didn't accept the fact that they always have Daddy's friends to help them. And until they can see reality, then--you know, Bush's--say he's a good third- or fourth-quarter player, after Katrina. Well, that's not good enough for people who don't have Daddy's friends to help. And until he accepts that about himself, you know, he can't move on, I don't think."

Umm... what? Yes, Maureen, I realize that you have this weird obsession with all things Freudian, and that you've made half your career trying to read pathological stuff into people's ideological and policy stances. But what about your own ideas? What, exactly, would you do? (Russert, frustratingly, let Dowd's answer slide, turning to Brooks to ask him another question. What I would've given if he could've said the above).

Her answer reveals all you really need to know about her methodology. She has no specific proposals, no specific ideas of her own. She can sort of parrot a standard narrative about personalities, e.g. that Bush doesn't care about poor or black people (see Kayne West). But it has little to do with substantial political ideas, because she has none. This is why she was able to transition so easily from being a Clinton critic, Kenneth Starr critic, then anti-Bush critic. Someone, I recall, once called Maureen Dowd the political "mean girl." I think that's it in a nutshell. She is a social metaphysician of the highest order, and lacks either the acumen or interest in substantial political issues to actually have an opinion on them. And that is why she had no answer on what, exactly, a person in Bush's position should do, beyond making another character attack.

Nihilistic? You bet. But then, what else would one expect from a mean girl, possessed by an insatiable envy for power?

Monday, September 05, 2005

The Politics and Patterns of Blame

May I say that I've found it thoroughly distasteful the way that so many have tried to make ideological hay out of the Katrina disaster. But as I've been discovering, there's no shortage of that hay-making to go around.

Mainly what irks me about is something Madbard identified. How many of these critics actually know anything about how to run a government response to a category 5 hurricane and a city the size of New Orleans submerged under so much water? And when rescue workers are being shot at?

Naturally, the anti-Bushies are piling on in a giant cluster fuckbomb. But I realized they're not the only ones, and that there's a certain pattern emerging - from Anti-Bush/Anti-War Activists, enviromentalists, civil rights activists, Muslim clerics, welfare-statist liberals, and Christian fundamentalists. Note that these are hardly discrete categories - likely, many people are members of two ro three on this group.

Surveying these commentaries, we're given several candidates over who or what we are to blame:

1. Christian Fundamentalists

In an echo of Jerry Falwell's post-9/11 commentary, we find something called Repent America:

"We must help and pray for those ravaged by this disaster, but let us not forget that the citizens of New Orleans tolerated and welcomed the wickedness in their city for so long," [Repent America director Michael] Marcavage said. "May this act of God cause us all to think about what we tolerate in our city limits, and bring us trembling before the throne of Almighty God," Marcavage concluded.

In essence, blame goes to the moral decay of New Orleans, and in particular, of all the gay people who were about to celebrate Southern Decadence. (A Hit & Run commentor noted, interestingly enough, that this is a strange way for God to repay Louisiana for banning gay marriage).

2. Civil Rights Activists

Several merit mentioning. According to Rev. Lewis E. Logan II, "[I]t is no a coincidence that it is exactly 50 years from the time of [Emmett Till's] lynching and murder. That it is not a coincidence that the storm's name is a sister. Katrina. For she represents the collective cries of mothers who have lost their sons to the brutality and the murderous grip of this racist white supremacist American culture." (Jesse Walker notes, though, that Sister Katrina picked a really odd target, considering New Orleans is 70% black).

And it's not just people as obscure as the Rev. Logan. Jesse Jackson and rapper Kayne West couldn't wait to jump in. See this on Jackson's charges that the media and government are focussing too much on looters and thugs instead of on people who are just suffering, see this from Interdictor (who is holed up in New Orleans and seeing everything for himself), and this on the supposed media bias of looting photo captions.

3. Environmentalists

Well, there's RFK Jr. To name but one. But quite a number of people are trying to tie the hurricane to global warming, or the US's refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocols. RFK thinks Haley Barbour deserves special attention.

Says RFK Jr, "Now we are all learning what it’s like to reap the whirlwind of fossil fuel dependence which [Mississippi Governor Haley] Barbour and his cronies have encouraged. Our destructive addiction has given us a catastrophic war in the Middle East and--now--Katrina is giving our nation a glimpse of the climate chaos we are bequeathing our children."

Note RFK's religious metaphor - a striking parallel with our friends in #1 & #2. James Glassman gives a thorough fisking to RFK Jr & friends at Tech Central Station.

4. Anti-War/Anti-Bush Activists

So far, I haven't seen anyone come right out and claim that American military involvement in Iraq or Afghanistan actually created the storm. (Stay tuned!) But the extent of the devestation, these people think, can directly be attributed to military equipment, resources and personal that should have all been stationed in Louisiana. See Michael Moore for yet another brilliant example of why he's the Ann Coulter of the Left. And see this piece by a guy who thinks Bush is guilty of "murder, murder, murder."

Actually, Mikey, it doesn't appear that equipment or manpower was an issue. Moore, as always, sets things up in his arguments such that whatever Bush does, it's wrong. If he goes there in person and helps out, he's showboating for political gain. If he stays away, he doesn't care and he's a heartless human being.

5. Muslim clerics

Then we have Muhammad Yousef Al-Mlaifi, director of the Kuwaiti Ministry of Endowment's research center. Says al-Mlaifi, Katrina is "a wind of torment and evil that Allah has sent to this American empire. Out of my absolute belief in the truth of the words of the Prophet Muhammad, this wind is the fruit of the planning [of Allah], as is stated in the text of the Hadith of the Prophet."

And he adds, "But how strange it is that after all the tremendous American achievements for the sake of humanity, these mighty winds come and evilly rip [America's] cities to shreds? Have the storms have joined the Al-Qaeda terrorist organization?"

6. Leftist/Statist Types.

To read some critics, you'd think the real culprit here was libertarianism, or at the very least, a government too small to hand the difficulty. See the Daily KookKos's political cartoon posting, for example, or The New Republic, or EJ Dionne. Worth noting, of course, is that it was the government that designed and built those levees - and they were not designed to handle anything worse than a Category 3 storm.

The People for the American Way tried to use the disaster as an excuse to target the repeal of the death tax. David Corn tried the same trick at the Nation.

Julian Sanchez has it right on this: This is all profoundly stupid. There is no deep overarching ideological point here, because for pretty much everyone short of the anarchists, preventing the collapse of civilization into a huge Hobbesian clusterfuck makes the list—whether yours is short or long—of things governments are supposed to do—state governments when feasible (assuming adequate preparation on the ground is better than airlifts later), federal government when it isn't. Funding, Sanchez notes, doesn't seem to have been an issue here.

Lew Rockwell, with whom I disagree on many issues, retorts with the opposite, that if anything, too much government bureaucracy undermined the safety of New Orleans. See also Interdictor's post, in which he writes, And another thing to think about when we start pointing fingers is this. The government is never equipped to handle a crisis like this. There's too much bureaucracy -- initiative-stifling bureaucracy which prevents swift, effective action. ... The nature of that bureaucracy is such that you have very specific guidelines to follow for even the most minute tasks. You need approval for just about everything, and the person you need approval from usually needs approval to give you the approval. It's not as easy as say rounding up 4 of your co-workers and saying, "We've got someone at such and such an address, let's go grab her and get her out of there." Now add a destroyed or disabled command and control center to that bureaucracy and you've got a total and complete mess. You (as a civilian) don't need "Approved" stamped on 3 different forms before you can run into your neighbor's house and pull them out. I hope this makes sense. Anyway, I'm sure there's been human error in this catastrophe. How could there not be? But what I'm saying is that I've come to expect poor decision making and a total lack of initiative from government. They can't even balance a budget, at the federal, state, or local levels. I could balance my checkbook and spend within my means when I was a teenager. But I'm not gonna point fingers and get into the blame game. If you want me to blame something besides the storm herself, I blame the nature of government in the first place. It's too big, it's too slow, it's too inefficient, it's too bloated, and it's too intiative-stifling to be effective in normal circumstances, much less in a disaster. It's a systemic issue, more than an issue of individual people in government.

So, let's recap. Who do we blame for the disaster?
1. Christian fundamentalists: Sexual sin, especially of the homosexual variety, and government's willingness to tolerate it. God's the agent, but this is the fault of sinners.
2. Civil rights activists: Racism against blacks. This takes the form of a) God punishing America for its racism,
b) Racist government not caring about the fates of New Orleans' poor blacks until it was too late.
3. Environmentalists: Pollution enabled by Bush's environmental policies, spuring global warming, spuring increased hurricane activity.
4. Anti-War/Anti-Bush types: Government resources being tangled up in rebuilding Iraq. The War in Iraq, and Bush's drive for Empire in the Middle East can be blamed for the government's inablity to deal with the disaster.
5. Muslim clerics: Punishment by Allah for US foreign policy in Iraq & Afghanistan - and perhaps for US support of Israel.
6. Leftist/Statist Types: Government made too small, too unfunded, by Grover Norquist-led Republican conspiracy.

So am I wrong to see a pattern here? In essence, people from all of these groups blame the disaster on something they already hated and were aggitated enough against to fight. It's as if their beliefs systems had so directly identified Bush/polluters/sinners/infidels/etc. as the Devil Figure, that when something as catastrophic as Hurricane Katrina comes along, they need to draw a connection between their Devil Figure and the horror of Katrina's aftermath. Is this predictable? I hope not - but what I'm seeing so far is sad. It's such an immature response - something bad happens, therefore, it's the fault of who or what I already dislike. And I suspect that part of what I found so persuasive about Lew Rockwell was that I, too, may be falling prey to this mentality. I don't see what's wrong about his argument, or about Interdictor's, but I wonder nonetheless.

Just to be clear, we should never lose sight of one thing - that Katrina was (at least initially) a natural disaster, worsed by the collapse of levees designed in the mid-1960's to handle Category 3 hurricanes. Two causes of the disaster: Katrina herself, and levees too weak to handle her. The aftermath of the disaster, in which 1) law and order collapsed and New Orleans descended into a Hobbesian nightmare, 2) Superdome and Convention Center survivors were ill-equipped with food, security, and sanitation, and 3) Other survivors in their homes, schools, etc. were not rescued with satisfactory timeliness. Ben Stein, writing for the American Spectator, makes a few more important observations of facts to keep in mind.

To sort out any human responsiblity here, it will require knowning a lot of facts, and what facts we have now are murky. There will most certainly be a Congressional investigation or two, and I'm guessing the MoveOn and Moore-on types will have investigations of their own, and conservative groups will probably launch investigations in the other direction. There is a question about how much FEMA, Louisiana state officials, and New Orleans should have known about the intensity of the storm, and what precautions they should have taken against the possiblity of storms more intense than Category 3 ravaging the levees.

We will also need a pre-Katrina account of who was responsible for what in the run-up to the storm. How much went wrong that was within the normal pervue of the President? Or of FEMA? What about local and state officials? Was it Governor Blanco (D-LA)'s responsiblity to ask for federal aid action before it could be given? Especially in regards to National Guard deployments. Did indecisiveness lead to her stonewalling when the President wanted to move forward immediately? I'm especially curious about the Mayor C. Ray Nagin (D-New Orleans). What was his role in all of this? Was an ill-equiped Superdome his idea? Why didn't he mobilize the city's buses, seen useless and submerged here, to pick up all the poor, elderly, etc. who couldn't leave the city? Did it make sense for a "mandatory" evacuation to even have a Superdome option? How did the Convention Center disaster happen? Which agency first proposed that people relocate there? Etc. And again, as valid as all of these questions are, we should not lose site of just how unique, how outside the range of our normal experience, this event was. Even if one could predict that the levees would not survive Katrina, there is the shock of actually seeing it all unfold, one agonizing event after another, as the magnitude of this disaster spun out of control. I agree with Madbard - to even begin to know where to start or what to do is mind-boggling, and hindsight is a truly wonderful thing indeed.

I should add one other thing - I don't know if this affects the case for responsiblity for any party or another, but just as a personal thing. I remember initially thinking the storm hadn't been all that bad. I recall the media reporting that with the movement of dry air from Louisiana to the Gulf, the eye of the storm moved east, focusing most of Katrina's force against Mississippi, and hitting New Orleans in a relatively favorable way - with the winds and rain coming from land rather than sea. The Superdome lost a piece of its roof, but only a small piece, with no serious threat to its structural integrity. I believe as late as Monday, thinking that Katrina hadn't been such a big deal, that the doomsayers had been wrong once again.

I wonder - was this a common perception? Regardless of the forecasts and predictions, was it shared by people in the government - local, state, and federal? Or was it simply the case that no one could really believe that something like this could happen? I close with that question.