The Invisibles: FEMA Shafts Katrina Refugees Again



In this televised segment, CNN reports that FEMA has given away $85 million in essential household items intended for victims of Hurricane Katrina. Although thousands of refugees from the storm are still languishing in trailers, tents, temporary housing -- and on the streets -- FEMA declared that the emergency was over, and handed over vast warehouses of goods to other federal agencies, state governments, post offices, etc. None of it went to Katrina survivors.

In a civilized country, this would be a major scandal. Official heads would roll, governments would fall, public outrage at the brutal contempt shown to their fellow citizens would shake the Establishment to its foundations. But the five minutes of CNN videotape -- the tiniest bit of flotsam in the vast, churning sea of media sludge -- will probably be the only public record of this appalling action.

Appalling yes; surprising no. This contempt has been evident from the very beginning of the crisis, as we noted here when the floodwaters were still pouring into the city:

The destruction of New Orleans represents a confluence of many of the most pernicious trends in American politics and culture: poverty, racism, militarism, elitist greed, environmental abuse, public corruption and the decay of democracy at every level.

Much of this is embodied in the odd phrasing that even the most circumspect mainstream media sources have been using to describe the hardest-hit victims of the storm and its devastating aftermath: "those who chose to stay behind." Instantly, the situation has been framed with language to flatter the prejudices of the comfortable and deny the reality of the most vulnerable. It is obvious that the vast majority of those who failed to evacuate are poor: they had nowhere else to go, no way to get there, no means to sustain themselves and their families on strange ground. While there were certainly people who stayed behind by choice, most stayed behind because they had no choice. They were trapped by their poverty - and many have paid the price with their lives.

Yet across the media spectrum, the faint hint of disapproval drips from the affluent observers, the clear implication that the victims were just too lazy and shiftless to get out of harm's way. There is simply no understanding - not even an attempt at understanding - the destitution, the isolation, the immobility of the poor and the sick and the broken among us....

Another question was left unasked: Where were the resources - the money, manpower, materiel, transport - that could have removed all those forced to stay behind, and given them someplace safe and sustaining to take shelter? Where, indeed, were the resources that could have bolstered the city's defenses and shored up its levees? Where were the National Guard troops that could have secured the streets and directed survivors to food and aid? Where were the public resources - the physical manifestation of the citizenry's commitment to the common good - that could have greatly mitigated the brutal effects of this natural disaster?

Well, we all know what happened to those vital resources. They had been cut back, stripped down, gutted, pilfered - looted - to pay for a war of aggression, to pay for a tax cut for the wealthiest, safest, most protected Americans, to gorge the coffers of a small number of private and corporate fortunes, while letting the public sector - the common good - wither and die on the vine. These were all specific actions of the Bush Administration - including the devastating budget cuts on projects specifically designed to bolster New Orleans' defenses against a catastrophic hurricane. Bush even cut money for strengthening the very levees that broke and delivered the deathblow to the city. All this, in the face of specific warnings of what would happen if these measures were neglected: the city would go down "under 20 feet of water," one expert predicted just a few weeks ago....

But as culpable, criminal and loathsome as the Bush Administration is, it is only the apotheosis of an overarching trend in American society that has been gathering force for decades: the destruction of the idea of a common good, a public sector whose benefits and responsibilities are shared by all, and directed by the consent of the governed. For more than 30 years, the corporate Right has waged a relentless and highly focused campaign against the common good, seeking to atomize individuals into isolated "consumer units" whose political energies - kept deliberately underinformed by the ubiquitous corporate media - can be diverted into emotionalized "hot button" issues (gay marriage, school prayer, intelligent design, flag burning, welfare queens, drugs, porn, abortion, teen sex, commie subversion, terrorist threats, etc., etc.) that never threaten Big Money's bottom line.

Again deliberately, with smear, spin and sham, they have sought - and succeeded - in poisoning the well of the democratic process, turning it into a tabloid melee where only "character counts" while the rapacious policies of Big Money's bought-and-sold candidates are completely ignored. As Big Money solidified its ascendancy over government, pouring billions - over and under the table - into campaign coffers, politicians could ignore larger and larger swathes of the people. If you can't hook yourself up to a well-funded, coffer-filling interest group, if you can't hire a big-time Beltway player to lobby your cause and get you "a seat at the table," then your voice goes unheard, your concerns are shunted aside. (Apart from a few cynical gestures around election-time, of course.) The poor, the sick, the weak, the vulnerable have become invisible - in the media, in the corporate boardroom, "at the table" of the power players in national, state and local governments.

As the CNN story shows, they are still invisible.

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