In a recent letter to a European newspaper, an American expressed dismay at one aspect of the catastrophic situation on the country's Gulf Coast. This citizen's problem was not presidential indifference, governmental incompetence or pervasive racism. It was the slowness of foreign governments to express their condolences to the United States. The letter reflected our nation's limitless narcissism, the conviction that the feelings of our citizens are the primordial stuff of world politics. Recall President Bush's demand, after September 11, 2001, that the rest of the world accept his absurdly simplified explanation of the attack. Much public language in the United States ignores the constraints of history, including our history.
Bush shares with many Americans an intellectual world from which institutions and interests have all but disappeared. What matters are only moral sentiments.
The President, for days in a stupor of passivity, called his father and Bill Clinton to the White House to lead a national fundraising appeal for the victims of the hurricane. He said nothing of the federal government's plans to meet the problem. Walking the streets of Biloxi, Mississippi, he reportedly advised citizens who had lost everything, "Go to the Salvation Army."
Perhaps this was an indirect vote of no confidence in the Federal Emergency Management Agency--whose preposterously unqualified head, the now-resigned Michael Brown, Bush nevertheless praised. The President showed a great deal of emotion only when he denounced as criminals those who, starving, broke into closed supermarkets. As for rising prices and shortages of fuel in a society totally dependent upon the roads, he called for restraint in driving. The President cannot envisage public solutions to public problems. He has shown renewed faith in private initiative--indeed, in announcing that he will personally look into the troubling suggestion that his government's response to Hurricane Katrina was just a bit defective.
It is difficult to know where ideologically induced blindness stops and cynical calculation begins. Bill Clinton initially exculpated the President, and finally expressed some reservations about the federal response. Hillary, with a Democratic leadership struggling against its recent affliction--walking in its political sleep--is now quite critical. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice insistently denies that racism caused abandonment of the poorer residents of New Orleans. She derided the protests of the Black Congressional Caucus as "emotional." Before he backpedaled from his insensitive remark, House Speaker Dennis Hastert saw no point in reconstructing New Orleans. He was perhaps anticipating the likely objections of his white Illinois constituents to paying taxes to assist blacks in the South. Lincoln and the Republicans who sought the social reconstruction of the South would not recognize their contemporary descendants.
A substantial number of commentators still have the inhumanity to denounce the victims for not leaving New Orleans in time--regardless of whether they had automobiles, funds for gas and lodging or infirm family members. Television and the newspapers are now full of a journalistic discovery: The United States is a nation divided by class and race. A government report issued just before the storm declared average incomes stagnating and poverty rising, but was hardly noticed.
If a majority of Americans are indeed blind to the facts of social existence, it is a blindness that serves a purpose. In a nation of individuals responsible for their own fates, there is no obligation to assist those who fall or fail--except for entirely voluntary charity. Charity, often, has its price. Those fleeing New Orleans and housed in the Houston Astrodome have been instructed by the matriarch of the Bush clan that they are fortunate to be so well taken care of, since they were in their normal lives "underprivileged." Clearly, in the Bush family's case, there is as much nobility as there is a sense of obligation: none. That deficiency is widely distributed. In a society of bitter competition, those who have to run twice as hard to stay in the same place can compensate for their failures to achieve beauty, fame, riches: At least they do not need social assistance.
There is, then, a connection between the vacuous sentimentality of public speech and social understanding--and the more brutal substratum of American existence.
The connection has been understood by those citizens of the Gulf who, their cities inundated with people fleeing from the devastated coast, have been overcome with anxiety. Many are white, and the black urban masses--descendants of the slaves who once worked the land--frighten them. They have taken out their firearms to defend themselves. Self- help of this kind is also a form of volunteerism, if not of the sort preached in most churches.
It is true that many Americans are experiencing shame about the abandonment of New Orleans. How long this authentically decent response can endure--and whether it will have political consequences--are very open questions. It is asking quite a lot of the nation to abandon the myth of a society that is predominantly middle-class.
It will be difficult to reinvent a fully modern public sphere. But unless a change occurs, we may have to put aside Jefferson and Lincoln and rely solely on the New England Calvinist Jonathan Edwards and his "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." The people of the United States have as yet to decide whether they are citizens of a modern Republic--or are living in an absurdly mythicised past, on an imaginary frontier, with only a wooden church as their shelter.