My grandfather would frequently remind me that had it not been for Franklin D. Roosevelt, that house would not have existed for my father or for me. Even with all his other indefensible beliefs, particularly when it came to people of color or women’s rights, my grandfather did have one belief that I still carry with me: He believed that paying taxes was an investment, and he expected his government to use his tax dollars to protect its citizens from disasters, both external and internal.
When my children were small, I used to take them hiking in Bastrop State Park. I marveled at the stone cottages built in the 1930s that are still rented to the public for camping. Those charming cottages, built by crews put back to work under FDR’s federally created programs, have housed many a family reunion and slumber party. The froth-spitting fury of industrialists over the FDR New Deal should not have been unexpected. It cut profit out of the picture while this country tried to recover from the 1929 Depression and concurrent natural disasters. Unthinkable! Profit was set aside, and human need was made the most important figure in the equation. And the industrialists are still smoldering over this injustice toward their bottom line.
A friend in El Paso told me of sessions around her office water cooler, where people stood around in the air conditioning and, with straight faces, talked about how they don’t understand the furor over the victims of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. After all, these people are “indigents.” They are “just people on welfare.” Some of her co-workers said they were doing what they could by donating their used clothes to their church. There – that should fulfill their obligations to their fellow human beings.
The captains of industry are in charge of our society now, the primary motive of every corporation is profit, and industry and organized religion have now been almost seamlessly melded. All of us are covertly told every day that having true faith requires an unswerving belief that poverty is a sign of judgment by the Almighty that the poor have been examined and somehow found lacking. Why else would the fundamentalists trumpet that Katrina is proof of God’s wrath? And who suffered the most from this wrath? Why, those at the bottom of the economic ladder, of course.
In its Sept. 12 issue, Newsweek observed that the Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina was both shortsighted and paralyzed. But what did we expect? The three branches of government are all under new management by individuals intent on making good the threat that they will starve the federal government to the point that its emaciated frame can be not only drowned in a bathtub, but also swished down the drain so we don’t have to view the unsightly remains. The government created to “form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare” has been bludgeoned to the point of being unrecognizable. Because of that, water being delivered to New Orleans was turned away by a neutered federal agency managed by incompetents. Trained firefighters from other communities were turned away or used only for photo opportunities. Amtrak, offering to help take survivors out, was told, “Nah, not now.”
Now the almost insurmountable task begins: helping the ghost of New Orleans bury its dead and drain the city of toxic water filled with human waste and chemicals. Who will be at the helm? The tattered remains of FEMA or the private contractors who are already lining up at the trough? In the end, if you’re not outraged by now at the direction in which this country is headed, you’re not just failing to pay attention – you’re heartless.
Rollyn B. Carlson is a fourth-generation Texan and a local community activist.