Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Friday, September 01, 2006

One year after: Lessons from Katrina

Hurricaine Katrina hit a bit over a year ago, and we're still cleaning up after it. I thought I would take a few moments to reflect on what Katrina really taught us about ourselves as a nation.

A lot of people have argued - persuasively - that the administration's poor response to Katrina speaks volumes about the soul of the Republican party. To be perfectly honest, it bothers me a great deal to lay the blame that poor response at the feet of "the Republican Party" because I don't think that's fair.

The Republican Party, like the Democratic Party, is composed of millions of Americans, many of whom were just as shocked as we progressives were about the whole thing, and many of whom dug just as deeply into their own pockets to donate money to help the victims of Katrina.

Those are not the people whose failings Katrina pointed out so vividly - or should I say, so morbidly - and to impugn them in the blame simply because they tend to vote for the men and women with the Rs after their names doesn't seem fair.

The lesson we should take from Katrina is not about the Republican Party. It's about something much deeper. What Katrina did was to show us the enormous distance, measured in lives and destruction, between two different philosophies about America.

Two different philosophies that could not be more different from one another. I don't find it useful to confuse the philosophies themselves with any particular party labels, so I will dispense with party labels from here on out.

One philosophy is the notion that "we're all in this together": that people should support each other. That society - which is just a fancy word for "we" - has a moral responsibility to help people who fall on hard times, just as we would wish for someone to help us.

That individuals - again, a fancy word for "we" - have a responsibility to be diligent, honest, and work hard in order to support the society that supports us. We're all in this together, and we all succeed or fail together. Along with that philosophy come other notions that derive from it.

For instance, that there must be a balance between individual (and corporate) freedom to do whatever the hell one likes, and the overall good for society. You can doubtless think of many other examples.

The opposite philosophy, of course, is the notion that "you're on your own, buddy." That you should expect no help, ever, from society, for anything. Neither should you be obligated to help anyone, anytime, with anything, ever. Some poor shmuck wants his kids to be educated?

Well then, he should darned well pay for it himself! He wants health care? Then he should suck it up and pay his insurance premiums. He doesn't feel secure enough in his neighborhood?

Well, then he ought to build a wall around his house and hire some security guards. He ought, in fact, to provide for all his own needs, and never ask you to pay a penny in taxes to help with any of that stuff. To each, quite literally, his own.

That latter philosophy can be quite appealing if you happen to be tremendously wealthy. You can easily afford to provide yourself and your family with every possible thing you could want or need, and you naturally don't want to pay substantial sums in taxes to support society at large.

But, of course, that latter philosophy falls down pretty quickly, because even the uber-rich can't build their own roads, sewer systems, telecommunications infrastructures, electric power plants, farms, hospitals, etc. Even the uber-rich can't, on their own, research new remedies and treatments for cancer and other currently un-cureable aliments.

People who hold the latter philosophy want to have it both ways: they want to keep all their money for themselves, never pay a penny in taxes, yet they still want the state to provide them with well-maintained roads, a well-policed society so they can live in safety, a nearby and quick-responding fire department and ambulance service, and so on. They don't recognize that it just isn't possible to live comfortably and be completely un-beholden to a larger society.

It simply isn't feasible to live even as well as someone earning $20,000 per year, yet remain completely un-beholden. One could, it is true, go buy 40 acres of land out in the middle of the woods, hunt and fish, live in a cave, make one's own buckskin clothes, and hope to God never to hurt one's self badly enough require medical attention. That is, live like an 1800s mountain-man in the wild west.

Anyone willing to accept that standard of living and the work it takes to maintain it, can indeed manage the "you're on your own, buddy" philosophy just fine. But anyone who wants to live well and comfortably will inevitably require help from society. This is the double-standard of the "you're on your own, buddy" philosophy.

The "we're all in this together" philosophy, however, explicitly recognizes - and celebrates - the interdependence of human beings. It explicitly recognizes and pursues the notion that by helping each other, everyone can be safer, more comfortable, and healthier. By promoting the overall social good, we can raise the tide for all of our boats, as it were. It recognizes that if you'd like to have help when you need it, then you must provide help to others when they need it.

This is not a new philosophy. It goes back, literally, to whatever precursors of Homo Sapiens made the jump from being solitary animals to being social, tribal primates.

Human beings are an undeniably social species. We are not like animals that live their lives alone, only coming together during mating season to find a quick one-night-stand to preserve the species, before going off alone again for another year.

Human beings live in societies for a reason: it's nicer, it's easier, and the results are better. The simple fact of our social natures shows our predisposition towards that shared-success philosophy.

Recent history gives us several examples of Americans' tendancy - regardless of party label - towards this compassionate philosophy as well.

When the tsunami struck Indonesia and India just before New Year's Day a couple of years ago, Americans donated millions and millions of dollars of their own money to help total strangers in far off parts of the world put their lives back together.

When Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans, Americans generously donated over a billion dollars to aid agencies to help our cajun brothers and sisters get back on their feet.

That's real Americans - you and me types, the ones living paycheck to paycheck - who donated that money. That wasn't corporate America. That wasn't David Lesar, Halliburton's current CEO, or Rupert Murdoch, or any of a bunch of other "you're on your own" billionaires you could name. That was regular people. The paycheck-to-paycheck types. The ones who get it that we're all in this together.

America is presently engaged in a heated debate about which of these philosopies our government should espouse. I think that the evidence, in the form of how real Americans behave when the chips are really down, makes the answer obvious. We are an "all in this together" people.

Unfortunately, the debate is almost never framed in those terms. The "you're on your own" crowd argues against government and against taxes - because it's a lot easier to argue against taking a chunk out of our paychecks than it is to argue against having a functioning society in which everyone benefits - while the all-together crowd argues for taxes - failing to frame the argument in terms of the functioning society those taxes go to support.

Arguing about taxes and the size of government is the wrong argument to be having: governments are nothing more than tools created by societies to advance their philosophies, and taxes are nothing more than the method the "we're all in this together" societies use for promoting the good of all.

When you cut taxes, you cut everything else. You cut society. You cut the ability for each of us, through the tool of our government, to support our fellow citizens. You cut the ability of the rest of society to help you when you need it.

When you cut taxes, you push everyone towards living in the go-it-alone mode, whether they like it or not. Arguments over how taxes should be assessed, how much the tax should be, and how the money should be spent are surface arguments that do not address the core question: what kind of people are we, and what kind of society do we want to live in.

We are, today, poised between these two diametrically dissimilar philosophies. In November, we will be asked once again to choose between them, in the form of little marks on ballots or careful taps on touch-screens.

The real lesson of Katrina, what that hurricaine showed us one year ago, was the consequences of making the wrong choice, of choosing against our own true natures. We know what kind of a nation we want to be.

When November comes around, it is up to each one of us to vote accordingly. To vote not on the basis of party label, but on the basis of these philosophies and which candidates' statements and records most closely align with the philosophy we happen to believe in.

If we make the right choice, we need fear no hurricaine, no earthquake, and no terrorist, because no matter what happens, we'll be there for each other.

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