“We are what we pretend to be,” said Kurt Vonnegut. “So we must be careful what we pretend to be.” Up until late August of last year, the United States pretended to be the leader of the Free World–a nation that derived its leadership from its military power and derived its freedom from its meritocratic impulses. Indeed, the two were interlinked. Everyone who worked hard enough could get on here; that was not just the philosophy that made America what it was but the basic worldview worth exporting at the barrel of a gun, if necessary. Then came Katrina. And for a short moment, the pretense was over.
When the levees were breached, Lake Pontchartrain poured into the bowl of New Orleans and washed up the America that most Americans had tried to forget. Like Rodney King, Katrina told truths that were both long known and long denied and put them on prime time. This was reality TV at its most compelling and sickening. To be in the Crescent City the week after was to see what Haiti would look like with skyscrapers–the appearance of wealth, power and order towering over the reality of poverty, helplessness and chaos. America clearly did not have to go abroad to find the developing world, let alone fight it. It was right here. Rates of black infant mortality in Louisiana are on a par with those of Sri Lanka; black male life expectancy is the same as for men in Kyrgyzstan.
In many ways these scenes were far more ruinous to America’s international reputation than the debacle in Iraq. Anyone with a television, from Jamaica to Jakarta, got a ringside seat on the reality behind the rhetoric of freedom the Bush Administration sought to impose internationally at the barrel of a gun. A nation where people died in the street for lack of basic food, water and medical services without the removal of corpses for weeks and even months had abdicated its authority to lecture the rest of the world on how to run their affairs.
Scandalized by incompetence at every level of government and indifference at the highest levels, the nation turned its ire on the White House. This was entirely logical. Katrina was an act of nature. But almost everything that happened both before and after was an act of neglect. Not benign neglect–the careless omission of deeds by people too busy to do otherwise–but malign: the willful disregard for environment and infrastructure over several decades because the state did not care to act otherwise.
The episode exemplified all the ills of the Bush Administration. Poverty, racism, cronyism, underinvestment, inequality, militarism, ineptitude, dissembling, sectarianism, cynicism and callousness–all the hallmarks of Bush’s tenure–were on display. As the year continued, immigration, corporate welfare, democratic deficits and gentrification would be added to the list.
The light that Katrina shone on American reality burned brightly and petered out quickly. Bush was a legitimate target, but he was also a convenient one. His policies had accentuated America’s fault lines but they had not created them. Katrina revealed the problems with his Administration. But the past year has also exposed the left’s inability to formulate a coherent progressive agenda in response, galvanize a constituency for it and then sustain a campaign around it.
To truly grasp how events in New Orleans unraveled, America would have to grapple with its ahistorical understanding of race, ambivalence toward class and antagonism toward government. But those rabbit holes proved too deep and too ugly, and in the end it was a journey the country had neither the will, curiosity nor leadership to make.