Saturday, September 17, 2005
Run for the hills!
Or maybe what we need is to invest in developing neighborhood-based response stategies that could allow us to cope with a variety of different local threats. At the first organizing meeting, put together a list of local residents and all of their contact information. If the communication infrastucture survives, you can use it to get the word out and also to quell rumors. If our landlines and cellphones die, we can also go on foot around the neighborhood with updates. Make sure to collect information on people with special needs.
Next step is to identify a safe refuge within walking distance. The basement of a school, the township hall, the community center. Pitch in to stockpile food, water, blankets, flashlights, batteries and all those other things we will need if something goes wrong, whether it's a blizzard, a tornado, an epidemic or a terrorist attack of one kind or another. Put someone smart and organizing in charge of developing the checklist and seek local donations.
Then we need a response plan to get people to the refuge, while identifying fallback options. Make sure that volunteers conduct periodic dry runs to make sure the plans work.
I would be overjoyed to find that my local and state officials, as well as FEMA, have it together. But I do not want to bet my life and my family's life on it. In most cases, the challenge is to get through the first few days. That persuades me that it's time to get to know my neighbors better. How about a potluck to get started?
First, Big Bonnie does believe in something. I posted my credo: "Humans should strive to support the best possible quality of life for all living creatures." And, yes, that does mean that I revere all life on the planet. Indeed, when push comes to shove (as it often does), I increasingly find that I prefer most dogs to most people. (You posters know who you are.)
And if I may be allowed a second commandment, it is that we also owe the natural world, both plants and animals, our attention and respect. While the U.S. media almost universally ignores such stories, the Independent in the United Kingdom reports that we may be approaching the point of no return with global warming -- if we have not passed it already. (For a lengthy discussion of my analysis of why, please visit my less-than-optimistic article called "Why conservatives will keep winning ... and winning ... and winning.)
As a card-carrying atheist, I look to science for answers to many but not all questions. So I exercise those not-God-given brain cells of mine seeking information that helps me better understand the world, knowing that we can never find all the answers.
I realize that it is less work and less unsettling to believe in a sky god or astrology or some other system that requires only faith. And some spiritual constructs, if they are appreciated as metaphor and not as literal truth, contribute to our quest to make sense of our lives.
But it is the pursuit of information and ideas and the attempt to place them within a logical framework that makes life exciting and worth living for me. I would actually find it quite sad and constricting to find that someone or something else hands us all the answers.
Columnist E. J. Dionne of the influential Washington Post this week announces the Bush era is over
. Former Clinton advisor Sidney Blumenthal says in Salon, "Bush's America is gone with the wind," while the headline screams that Bush's presidency is ruined.
Bush lovers will argue that these are people who never thought much of Bush in the first place. But the difference now is that the press no longer hesitates for fear of being called unpatriotic. News organizations have regained their voice and are willing to criticize this group of ideological kleptocrats for what they are -- radicals who line their own pockets with your money.
The rebuilding after Katrina shows the Bush folks for who and what they are. They don't give a damn for the folks abandoned at the SuperDome or the Convention Center, as evidenced by the fact that Bush immediately lifted the Davis-Bacon requirement to pay prevailing wages from all those new contracts. And Halliburton, of course, gets first dibs, even after whistleblower Bunnatine Greenhouse of the Army Corps of Engineers was demoted for telling us how badly Halliburton performed in the rebuilding or Iraq.
This is cronyism of the highest order. It is also part of that privitization ideology that means workers get screwed so that owners can make higher profits, cloaked in the argument that we must create a business-friendly climate of competition. Do you know any competitors for corporations are large as Halliburton and Bechtel that aren't equally as corrupt and incompetent?
In Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, John Perkins blows the whistle on the work he used to do -- selling economic development to Third World countries that did nothing but enrich the Halliburton and Bechtel corporations, while leaving the impoverished countries with a massive debt and dubious projects. These policies not only do nothing to alleviate poverty, they add to it. Sound familiar?
Thursday, September 15, 2005
I know that even some fellow atheists are arguing that banning the "Pledge of Allegiance" from schools, as Michael Newdow's court case attempts to do, has been pooh-poohed as the wrong battle at the wrong time.
But this is not the same as having a reference to god on our money. The pledge is recited in schools each day, which means that children who don't believe in a god face harrassment.
I know I did. I was in elementary school in Cleveland when Eisenhower stuck "under God" into the pledge and I was ridiculed daily for refusing to do so.
By middle school, we had moved to the country and the issue became my refusal to say the morning prayer that the principal led over the PA. (In Burton, Ohio, in the 1950s, it apparently didn't matter what the Supreme Court said.)
I can still hear the principal say, "Little Bonnie doesn't believe in God. She and her parents think she will be harmed to hear these healing words of prayer. So we will ask her to step outside until we are done seeking the Lord's blessing." How Christian of him.
It wasn't yet an era when you could raise a clenched fist in support of Atheist Power. (Come to think of it, it's pretty dangerous to do that now.) I sure wanted to do something to rebel against his self-righteous, smug and superior tone. But usually I was just too busy running for my life.
The fact is, when we talk about religious toleration in this country, the baseline standard often seems to be that everyone believes, but maybe not in the same sky god. The reality, of course, is that there are actually lots of people like me here who don't believe -- atheists, agnostics, ignostics (I don't know what you mean when you say god, so I don't know whether I believe what you believe or not), freethinkers (think Tom Paine) and The Brights (kind of atheist-lite or atheist but more wholesome and friendly).
Throw in a few existentialists as well (It's those pesky French again).
The problem for many of my peers back there in Ohio was that to them, an atheist was immoral, maybe even a Satanist. As one young red-faced boy shouted at me years ago, "You just don't believe in nothing so what would stop you from killing and stealing." Not as eloquent as Albert Camus quintessential question perhaps - "without god, who can say that it is better to nurse lepers than burn Jews?" But I found comfort in Jean Paul Sartre's challenge that each of us must construct our own meaning against the backdrop of a cold and uncaring universe.
For those of us who have struggled to create our own beliefs and rituals to support them, the idea of an off-the-shelf set of beliefs based on garbled utterances of self-anointed prophets in agricultural societies thousands of years ago seems far more peculiar. My modest credo -- that humans should strive to support the best possible quality of life for all living creatures -- seems all the more appealing because of the process required to develop my own values.
But requiring school children to pay obeisance to a god, any god, whether it's in the Pledge of Allegiance or school prayer does what it has always done - which is invite expressions of intolerance against those who don't agree. Most of my peers received little or no spiritual nourishment from repeating the words "under God" in the pledge -- most paid little attention to what they were saying. But the ritual of invoking a god in school contributes to perpetuating the myth that people like me don't exist or don't deserve to.
Saturday, September 10, 2005
The more you read this family's account and look at the pictures, you see that FEMA is not about protection but control.
I don't know about you, but I don't remember voting yes on making our country a police state. Oops, sorry -- I guess we did when we allowed Congress to pass the PATRIOT Act and establish Homeland Security.
One thing the right and the left should agree on is that our freedoms are eroding. I am old -- I remember when we were freer. I worry that if Abby Hoffman and the Yippies were protesting today, throwing money at the New York Stock Exchange and trying to levitate the Pentagon, they would be whisked into federal custody as potential terrorists.
It's time for both ends of the political spectrum to join forces and take our country back.
With the pro-privatization crowd in power, it always pays to look for the underlying economic motive. But part of the challenge in investigating these issues is that reporters themselves rarely know what it was like to grow up poor, so they don't even know what questions to ask.
Do you think that Anderson Cooper, son of Gloria Vanderbilt Cooper, ever had to worry about how high the check-cashing fees are?
Because we kid ourselves that we are a classless society, when there is talk about diversifying our newsrooms (and all too often it is just talk), they never talk about diversity in terms of class. We may see more women and people of color hired (and occasionally promoted), but they all come from the same narrow socioeconomic slice of society.
And as our colleges and universities become more and more expensive to attend, only the sons and daughters of the upper middle class can afford four-year degrees, which will further narrow the range of voices we hear and issues we address.
Thursday, September 08, 2005
Former White House staffer Jock Gill blogged: "As a former staffer in the White Office of Media Affairs, my sympathy goes out to the current White House staffers for their recent epic failure to recognize that hurricane Katrina presented their principal, POTUS, an opportunity to demonstrate strong Presidential leadership - an opportunity which, unfortunately, may become more frequent.
Note that he doesn't regret that POTUS could have acted soon enough to save some babies and elderly folks who died of thirst before water got there. He's only sorry that the POTUS didn't get the chance to LOOK good.
Remember Billy Crystal as Ricardo Montalban saying, "It's better to look good than to feel good"? With this group, it's all about perception, not performance.
But even the conservatives should feel a chill down their spines when they think about What If It Happened Here?.
If a nuclear device goes off in DC, Mayor Nagin won't be there to blame.
If someone infected with bird flu is getting off a plane at Detroit Metro Airport this moment, it won't be Governor Blanco in charge of dealing with the pandemic.
We have paid billions for a vision of Homeland Security as our ultimate protector. Let the others dither and falter, these strong, brave and competent men will come to our rescue.
Born-agains aside, Bush won the last election because he peeled off enough women's votes -- women who turned to what they perceived as a strong husband and father to save them. His appeal to enough women to win became blindingly clear to me when beauteous Angie Harmon of Law and Order fame spoke at the Republican convention about how she felt after 9/11. With her own eyes, she had seen people of her race and class murdered by the thousands. She wanted no part of the Democratic Mommy Party, with its compassion and nuance -- give her the tough Republican Daddy Party every time.
So what may be the Bush administration's ultimate undoing is that they didn't deliver, no matter how many Democrats might have stood in their way. Dad is supposed to brush the feckless aside and carry you to safety.
If the Angie Harmons of the world don't abandon the Bush ship now, the only explanation I can come up with is that this time, the victims didn't look like them. If you don't identify with the folks at the SuperDome, maybe you can cling to the hope that these guys will still keep the privileged classes safe.
But even the Angies of this country must rest a little less comfortably at night wondering whether catastrophes like bird flu will spare people with means like the hurricane did. Maybe it takes having that second home up in the mountains, where you can shoot anyone with the sniffles who tries to stop by?
One of the comforting myths that Americans cling to is that we are all in this together. New Orleans showed how many are left behind. Let's hope that we all become smart enough to understand that the trickle-down theory leaves too many people drowning and that even those who own their own lifeboat may find they aren't safe either.
Wednesday, September 07, 2005
I am in danger of becoming a broken record, but I think the challenge will be to keep us focused on this issue. The problem with insidious catastrophes is that we do not have a media model to keep up the pressure. Yes, there was a report that the levees would break and New Orleans would look as it does now. But until the disaster occurs, you don't have the visuals on TV that keep people riveted to the tube, demanding action.
No one can prove that any one hurricane like Katrina is the direct result of global warming. But the increase in dangerous weather is undeniable and even the naysayers are running out of excuses.
In just the past few weeks, scientists discovered the error in the way temperatures were read that skeptics relied on to argue global warming is a myth. Soon even the diehards who cling to corporate-funded research to argue that humans are not part of the problem will be forced to face reality.
McKibben warns us that continuing to ignore taking action to slow climate change will mean that more people die and are displaced. We have already waited far too long to act decisively.
Time to get those oil men (and women - little Condi sat on the board of Chevron board of directors) out of the White House.
Tuesday, September 06, 2005
- (1) Phase 2 - The challenges ahead in re-building the Gulf are almost as big as the ones last week.
- (2) More hurricanes this year - The updated forecast issues August 5 predicts hurricane activity 150% of normal.
- (3) The terrorist threat - Maybe Osama bin Laden thinks he doesn't have to bother hitting us now. But if he has the means and the opportunity, he might want to see us reeling from a one-two punch.
- (4) Bird flu - Experts warn that a flu pandemic isn't just possible but inevitable.
- (5) Setting the right tone - We are a country that wasted untold amounts of Congressional time worrying about embryos and Terry Schiavo, while patting ourselves on our collective backs for caring so much about life. Meanwhile, we left tens of thousands of our citizens at risk.
We impeached Bill Clinton for having an affair and lying about it. What about a president who told us he'd keep us safe and didn't?
Isn't it time we expended a little effort right now finding out which bozos deserve to be fired so we aren't back here again in a few weeks wondering why?
Click here to use their online form to send a letter to your legislators.
That's why it's no surprise to me that so many people in New Orleans are refusing to leave their flooded homes -- especially when they have pets who will be stripped from them when they leave the city. I saw a distraught woman on CNN last night who had rescued dozens of neighbors. But when she went to leave herself, she found she couldn't take her dog Tinky. "I want to go, but I can't leave Tinky," she said.
I, for one, don't think she should be asked to leave her dog behind.
We've seen lots of people yelling and screaming about looting -- about things. Where is the chorus saying that we should let people take their pets with them if they want to? Where are our priorities? For many of us, our pets are family.
Monday, September 05, 2005
But let's look at both premises a bit more closely:
(1) If your local government doesn't help you, we won't - According to the Bush folks, the problem is those pesky state and local officials. But isn't that why we have Homeland Security and FEMA? Because we know the locals cannot do it all? So now I have to worry and wonder whether my local officials have it together, because if they don't, the cavalry never comes? Then where have the billions the feds have spent on our security gone to?
(2)We will neglect everyone's safety equally - So all of us white people with a bit of money can rest assured that we'll find ourselves stranded for days without food or water? Why don't I find that thought comforting?
All I know is that FEMA did a pretty good job on the hurricanes in Florida the past couple years. You know, Florida, where Bush's brother is governor -- the state Bush desperately needed to win last November to remain in his job.
Is the real issue that the Bush folks only save people in the swing states?
Because the world lives on soundbites, the fact that Governor Blanco refused to federalize the response makes it sound like she slowed them down. A 10-second sound bite might explain that she merely balked at the political hardball that could have meant she was set up as the patsy.
It would have been an insult to the National Guard to put them under federal control. As Gen. Russel Honore said this morning on CNN, he doesn't want the feds in charge - he's happy with the way things are. But Blanco's refusal to cave in to the obviously incompetent Bush folks is part of why they apparently disinvited her to today's Bush photo-op.
Here's my blog from Saturday at 4:20 -
HERE'S HOW THEY PLAN TO GET AWAY WITH IT
I can imagine Karl Rove and our Cowboy in Chief going over the talking points now:
- Blame the Democratic Mayor and Governor - Admittedly, Governor Kathleen Blanco's dithering makes that easy to do, but we have a federal government precisely for those times when local resources and planning fail. And Rove certainly knows that most of the folks in waist deep water this past week probably weren't Bush voters to begin with.
- Whom do you identify with? - Do you see yourself struggling among those decent but desperate folks at the Convention Center or the SuperDome? Or do you see yourself cowering at the Ritz Carlton among the tourists (or outside the city with the rescue workers), terrified to the point of paralysis by uncontrollable fears of looting and violence?
- - The double whammy - FEMA Director Michael Chertoff has invented a new category -- the "Ultra" disaster -- as an excuse for why they failed so miserably. It's almost as if he's saying we should feel lucky that New Orleans gave us a chance to understand this new phenomenon and practice during a real-world training exercise. That works only as long as you ignore the fact that experts have been warning about a one-two punch from hurricane followed by levee failure for years. But repeat this long enough and at least some people will believe it. (Rush Limbaugh and the other members of the right-wing buzz machine can be counted on to help.)
- Co-opt as many Democrats as possible - At the end of the day, many politicians know that tomorrow it could just as easily be their time in the barrel. Better be nice to your opponents today in the (usually misplaced) hope that they will cover your posterior tomorrow. So even after former ambassador and Senator Carol Moseley Braun launches into a scathing indictment about how black are being treated like animals in New Orleans, she stops short of blaming the president. And the ever-ambitious Bill Clinton gives Bush political cover by saying the federal response was as good as it could get.
One of the sadder side effects of the alarmist rumors mongered mostly on Fox News is that the drama changed from one of compassion for the victims to fear of the predators. Sure, there were some truly dangerous people there -- and they were preying on the same people who were too weak to repel them the week before, back when the national and international media were not there and nobody cared.
This is the same fear that led people to flee our "dangerous" cities after the long, hot summers of the Sixties rather than invest the resources to fix the problems.
Today's fear echoes back even further. Remember that a toxic combination of racial fear and rumor once allowed many otherwise seemingly "normal" people to get caught up in the frenzy that resulted in more than 5,000 lynchings nationwide between the Civil War and the end of the Fifties.
And as long as the only people questioning whether institutional racism had anything to do with the slow response are African American, it will be easy to brush off the complaints as the same old predictable rhetoric.
The challenge for all of us who know better is to continue making the case:
- Don't Forget What You Saw - Those families at the Convention Center and the SuperDome weren't rioters and looters. This administration's ineptitude allowed babies in this country to die of thirst and starvation. Third World countries did better after the tsunami.
- My Pet Goat/Baghdad Revisited - We have a disconnected president incapable of keeping us safe, surrounded by administrators who exhibit a greater sense of urgency when passing tax cuts than in trying to save people.
- We Need Leaders Who Can Keep Us Safe Now More than Ever - The biggest threats to our country right now may well be bird flu and global warming, not terrorism. But no matter the threat, we need leaders who know how to assess the risk, make realistic plans and execute them. New Orleans proved that Bush and his crowd either cannot or will not do what it takes to keep us safe.
Conservatives' eyes gleam when they talk about luring a business executive into government to clean up the mess. But this disaster underscores how different both systems are and why that doesn't work.
When a corporation experiences an increase in demand, revenues go up. It goes without saying that Katrina has dramatically increased demand on government, but this one risks bankrupting us.
There is also a pervasive view within the managerial class that bbusiness executives can work magic without needing to understand the product. I would argue that it's a tremendous blind spot in the kind of business model taught in the United States, but it becomes deadly when it's allowed to infect government.
Allow me a moment to illustrate what I mean with a personal story. My dad began work as an assistant sweeper in a factory in Cleveland right after World War II. Over the years, he rose through the ranks and was General Works Mananger for a similar forge shop in upstate New York when he was bought out by a conglomerate and his job evaporated in 1961.
Dad sent out 135 resumes in an era when most people didn't even know what they were. He got eight reponses -- five polite rejections and three positive responses, two job possibilities at forge shops (including the one in Jackson, Michigan, that brought me here) and one solid job offer with the highest pay from a plastics plant in Arizona.
My anxious mother wanted Dad to take the sure thing in Arizona, but my father wouldn't even consider it. "I don't know the product," he said.
So now we see FEMA run by Michael Brown, who previously worked for the Arabian Horse Association. Clearly, he doesn't know the product.
The dangerous blinders we see in business and in government is there is some magic handed out in business school that automatically confers competence in a specific field.
It simply isn't true. Yes, a talented and bright person can learn a new field, but they had better listen to the people within the organization who know the ropes. As Willie Loman said in Death of a Salesman, "You gotta know the territory."
Conservatives believe that executive skills alone are enough to carry the day and we can see the deadly consequences of this fallacy unfolding before us on TV even today as people continue to die in New Orleans.
Even Donald Trump, who believes in a business education, would be quick to call the two Mikes, Chertoff and Brown, into his office today to say, "You're fired." It's time to bombard Congress with e-mails and letters demanding that Colin Powell take over.
CNN's Soledad O'Brien just interviewed actor Sean Penn and historian Douglas Brinkley who said they had to abandon their planned reconnaissance trip to do search and rescue -- and that almost all of the boats out there doing the rescues were civilian. It may be easy to dismiss Penn as a lefty, but Brinkley is conservative. The issue isn't ideology but competence.
Sound familiar? Remember when Michael Dukakis was pilloried for saying that government was all about competence, not ideology? Our current president's father quickly turned that around with his race-baiting Willie Horton ads. Watching Bush the son bungle the biggest natural disaster our country has ever experienced reminded me that competence does matter.
President Bush was able to deflect criticism after 9/11 because people always rally against an external enemy. This time the enemy is not someone we can vilify and even Rev. Pat Robertson couldn't turn the hurricane away (or is he clamining that he led it in to purge us of our sins?). As Paul Krugman wrote today in the New York Times:
"But the federal government's lethal ineptitude wasn't just a consequence of Mr. Bush's personal inadequacy; it was a consequence of ideological hostility to the very idea of using government to serve the public good. For 25 years the right has been denigrating the public sector, telling us that government is always the problem, not the solution. Why should we be surprised that when we needed a government solution, it wasn't forthcoming?"
As I wrote here previously, this inherent revulsion toward government undermines effectiveness in so many ways.
For one, it fails to attract to people to public service -- it's as if they have to hold their nose to work in government. It institutionalizes cronyism, where contracts automatically go to their pals in Halliburton and the goal is to privatize and outsource everything they can. And it means that the political appointees atop these federal agencies ignore competent staff recommendations in favor of political posturing instead of delivering on their promises.
For those of you who still believe we have a two-party system, think about former President Bill Clinton today defending the current president's response in New Orleans. Then listen to Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu on CNN thanking President Bush and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist for their leadership in this crisis.
For one crazy moment, I had visions of Bill Clinton ripping the microphone out of Bush Junior's hand and shouting to the world, "Be afraid, be very afraid. You elected this guy because you thought he'd keep you safe. I'd say the joke's on you but the situation is too sad and desperate for that."
Only in my dreams would a Democrat act like someone from the opposition party. Bill Clinton's current job is to get Hillary elected, so they are both running to the right as fast as they can to pick up votes from those so-called Reagan Democrats.
Meanwhile, on CNN, reporters stretched to the limit by what they are seeing periodically break into tears. Patrician Anderson Cooper (son of Gloria Vanderbilt Cooper) has clearly become radicalized. He began asking Landrieu why politicians are so busy thanking each other while babies in New Orleans are dying from dehydration. But little Mary never stopped her relentless spinning, hoping to turn disaster into votes for her the next time by talking about what a great people we are.
One of the high points of the day for me came when conservative commentator Jack Cafferty vented his outrage. Like Nixon going to China, it takes a conservative like Cafferty to certify that Bush's focus on law and order today when the priority should be saving lives is an outrage. As Cafferty said, the elephant in the room is that the majority of the people suffering and dying in New Orleans are poor and black.
The title of Public Enemy's old album Fear of a Black Planet kept running through my head when I heard on MSNBC that there were 80 busses sitting outside of New Orleans refusing to come in until "order was restored." The videographer who had been talking to desperate families said that they pleaded with the drivers that these were good people, people who had followed the rules and went where people told them to go to get help, only to be left stranded. But the drivers refused to budge.
They say the first step to recovery is to confront denial. Is this finally the turning point where average citizens in this country begin to understand that we have problems with racism and inequality? And that no leader in either party seems willing to speak out?