Friday, September 02, 2005

AMERICA IS BANKRUPT IN FACE OF DISASTER

SHORT-SIGHTED AMERICA IS BANKRUPT IN FACE OF DISASTER

WASHINGTON -- Somehow it does not seem strange to me, after this blistering and unpleasant July and August, that the summer should end with an American tragedy -- the waters engulfing beautiful, historic, romantic New Orleans.

It is clear to us traditionally minded Americans that this just should not happen. This is the country of "can do," right? The nation that always put first science and education, sound industry and true environmentalism. The people who built a prosperous and just nation, brick by prudent brick, gradually but surely constructing a great and lasting home for future generations.

Our Founding Fathers? Historian Henry Steele Commager called these "the wisest men politically in recorded history." They were men who "couldn't give a speech or write a letter without talking about posterity." George Washington used the word "posterity" nine times in one speech; Thomas Jefferson talked about the "thousandth and thousandth generation" in his first inaugural address. Horizons held meaning then.

Surely, if this were still the spirit of the nation, New Orleans would not have been left with levees too weak to protect it, particularly in an era of repeatedly savage weather patterns. The wetlands and barrier islands that could have held back the hurricane's fury would not have been destroyed for commercial purposes. Our laconic Congress would not have left for vacation having slashed the budget that could have corrected the area's imperfect flood control. Most of all, the number of National Guard troops available for the crucial rescue duty would not have been so low because of the president's perfervid adventuring halfway across the world.

If you think this is exaggerated, read this from, of all places, The Wall Street Journal (whose editorial pages are still rabidly pro-war neocon, but whose excellent news columns constantly contradict its editorials). The paper reported on Thursday that "the war-related manpower shortages that have already left the National Guard depleted meant that yesterday morning, long after the storm had passed, there was a relative scattering of federal troops on the ground. As of midday, 3,780 Louisiana National Guard troops were clearing debris, rescuing refugees and providing security in Louisiana, even though the state normally counts 10,009 soldiers in its ranks. In Mississippi, 1,945 troops out of 11,690 were on duty, while in Alabama, 1,736 troops out of 12,770 were on duty."

One cannot overstate how tragic the New Orleans situation really is. My friend Arthur Wiese, who is with the Entergy Corp. in the city, reported by e-mail to his friends of his company's helicopter reconnaissance: "The damage to New Orleans has been even more devastating than the horrific situation indicated in national media reports. We had roughly 1.1 million homes and businesses without electricity at the peak. We're looking at an extraordinarily difficult power restoration, taking many, many weeks. We have 40 or so employees marooned by high water at some of our plants ... Loony thugs are running wild in the streets. The bottom line is that the New Orleans you knew is gone forever. The city will be built back, to at least some degree; but after what I've seen in the last three days, I'm absolutely convinced it will never, ever be the same."

So, is there some lesson in this tragedy? Or is "New Orleans 2005" just one of nature's delinquent boys, one of God's punishing tricks, an accident that came out of the blue disconnected to any larger schema? I will opt for the "lesson" explanation, and here is why:

It seems all too obvious, from many indicators, statistics and trends, that we Americans have turned a corner far from the noble beliefs -- and warnings -- of the men and women who founded this country and who laid down its basic principles. We do not fund science anymore; our young scientists tend to come from places like Taiwan. Our children cannot read or add and subtract. Our public culture is close to becoming abhorrent -- just switch your TV channel back and forth a few times -- and is enough to poison or corrupt any young mind. Our young are not taught great literature and thus have no understanding of the inherent tragedy of life. Our infrastructures -- our bridges, our highways and, yes, our levees -- are falling apart. And yet where is an Eisenhower, who, after winning a world war, would build a great American highway system from coast to coast?

But most directly related to the New Orleans experience and to the promises of our founders is the present-day American experience in Iraq. There we see American wastefulness at its height! In a place where we have no business being, we are wasting our blood, our treasure and even our good name. And there are so many "boots on the ground" in Mosul and Najaf and Basra that there simply cannot be enough "boots in the water" for our own, poor New Orleans.

Funny, how quickly the generations can change. The first President Bush (father George H.W.) had a favorite word which we all heard him use so repeatedly it was a kind of joke. The word was "prudent," which means "marked by wisdom or judiciousness" and "shrewd in the management of practical affairs." He was a worthy son of the American Revolution.

The second President Bush (son George W.) is marked, instead, by an overriding and unapologetic recklessness, which means "lacking in caution and deliberately courting danger." Not for him concern about global warming or the environment, not for him rebuilding the country's dangerous bridges, not for him thinking ahead for future generations -- not when he sees himself grandly and hubristically as a great leader of men.

It is true that we no longer have an "Eastern Protestant Establishment" to enforce our original principles. It is true that America began to change to a more vulgar culture in the '60s, in great part because of disillusionment with American leadership in Vietnam. But it is also relevant to remember that there is plenty that Americans can do if they want to return to the principles of moderation and (that splendid word) "prudence" of former generations.

They can insist that candidates seriously address issues like infrastructure maintenance, good schooling, global warming, industrial environmental controls, excellence in public culture ... Then they can vote for the ones who do -- and not for the ones who don't. They can think of America's horizon in traditional terms of conserving, preserving and planting for the future.

This may seem to some like getting a little far from New Orleans, but I really don't think so.

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