Saturday, September 17, 2005

No scales have fallen from anyone's eyes 

It is crucial that we stop harboring, even as a wistful daydream, the fantasy that some "thing" will "happen"--involving some indeterminate combination of suffering and eruption--that will "change things" and "wake people up." Things have happened again and again and again. And people are in fact awake. They--we--are awake and hopeless. What is there to do? Where is there to look? What is there to hope for?

As of now, nothing. Does it really need to be said that the Democrats are so shallow and weak that they cannot and will not--ever--be able to serve as stable repositories of hope?

If there is hope, it is only in the possibility that some future political organization will exist that will actually be governed by clearly stated and broadly agreed upon principles. There simply is no such organization now in existence. The structures of both political parties are totally divorced from any principle; the principles articulated by both parties are too mixed and contradictory--unformed, liquid--to serve as the basis for any sort of organization. Their principles aren't in fact articulated; they have no formal coherence; and the organization-men, such as they are, pursue their own agendas...

The country is now in the thrall of a dynamic that is larger than either of the two parties. Obviously the Republicans are, to a man, more evil than the Democrats. If the Republican agenda were enacted at once, there would be chaos and then perhaps revolution. But this fact just highlights the Democratic place in the larger process. The Democrats--along with the craven media--cast a veil over the entire ongoing and apparently unstoppable catastrophe, the veil of "procedure" and "discourse" and frightened "moderation." The veil is created by the timorous, reasonable, reluctant, and murderously imprecise language that the Democrats seem unable and unwilling to stop speaking. The result is the televised semblance of legal governmental "procedure." It is this apparent "procedure" that is guiding the country step-by-step towards the cliff. Or have we already fallen? Are we plummeting towards the ground right now? Will we even know when we crash?

Of course one can and should vote Democratic (whatever "vote" means, at this point). Democrats might be able to apply the brake, slightly, to the careening apparatus. But they will never turn it around. Turning it around has to be the goal. And that will require something new and altogether different.

All of this is a way-too-long preface to Adolph Reed's superb article in The Nation. Excerpts:

"I know that some progressives believe this incident [the aftermath of Katrina] will mark a turning point in American politics. Perhaps, especially if gas prices continue to rise. I suspect, however, that this belief is only another version of the cargo cult that has pervaded the American left in different ways for a century: the wish for some magical intervention or technical fix that will substitute for organizing a broad popular base around a clearly articulated, alternative vision that responds to most people's pressing concerns. The greater likelihood is that within a month Democratic liberals will have smothered the political moment just as they've smothered every other opportunity we've had since Ronald Reagan's election. True, Nancy Pelosi and others finally began to bark at the Bush Administration's persisting homicidal negligence. But my hunch is that, as with Iran/contra, the theft of the 2000 election and the torrent of obvious lies that justified the war on Iraq, liberals' fear of seeming irresponsibly combative and their commitment to the primacy of corporate and investor-class interests will lead them to aid and abet the short-circuiting of whatever transformative potential this moment has....

Natural disasters can magnify existing patterns of inequality. The people who were swept aside or simply overlooked in this catastrophe were the same ones who were already swept aside in a model of urban revitalization that, in New Orleans as everywhere else, is predicated on their removal. Their presence is treated as an eyesore, a retardant of property values, proof by definition that the spaces they occupy are underutilized. And it's not simply because they're black. They embody another, more specific category, the equivalent of what used to be known, in the heyday of racial taxonomy, as a "sub-race." They are a population against which others--blacks as well as whites--measure their own civic worth. Those who were the greatest victims of the disaster were invisible in preparation and response, just as they were the largely invisible, low-wage props supporting the tourism industry's mythos of New Orleans as the city of constant carnival. They enter public discussion only as a problem to be rectified or contained, never as subjects of political action with their own voices and needs. White elites fret about how best to move them out of the way; black elites ventriloquize them and smooth their removal.

Race is too blunt an analytical tool even when inequality is expressed in glaring racial disparities. Its meanings are too vague. We can see already that the charges of racial insensitivity and neglect threaten to divert the focus of the Katrina outrage to a secondary debate about how Bush feels about blacks and whether the sources of the travesty visited upon poor New Orleanians were "color blind" or racist. Beyond that, a racial critique can lead nowhere except to demands for black participation in decision-making around reconstruction. But which black people? What plans? Reconstruction on what terms? I've seen too many black- and Latino-led municipal governments and housing authorities fuel real estate speculation with tax giveaways and zoning variances, rationalizing massive displacement of poor and other working-class people with sleight-of-hand about mixed-income occupancy and appeals to the sanctity of market forces.

The only hope we have for turning back the tide of this thuggish Administration's commitment to destroy every bit of social protection that's been won in the past century lies in finding ways to build a broad movement of the vast majority of us who are not part of the investor class. We have to be clear that what happened in New Orleans is an extreme and criminally tragic coming home to roost of the con that cutting public spending makes for a better society. It is a shocking foretaste of a future that many more of us will experience less dramatically, often quietly as individuals, as we lose pensions, union protection, access to healthcare and public education, Social Security, bankruptcy and tort protection, and as we are called upon to feed an endless war machine."


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