How Americans Are

I’m guest-blogging on Crooks & Liars this week. I am trying to constrain myself over there and not write my usual kitchen-sink-plus posts. Yesterday and today I posted a couple of brief (for me) posts on two of my favorite subjects, post-Katrina reconstruction of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, and America’s failing health care system.

Although both posts were triggered by new news stories, there isn’t any information in them I haven’t ranted on about in the past. For the “kitchen sink” details of the “Katrina” post see The Mahablog “Katrina” archive. Past posts on the health care system issue include this, this, and this.

Yesterday’s New York Times ran a column by Bob Herbert about the New Orleans Ninth Ward that I wish were not behind the subscription firewall. I am too repressed to defy the New York Times copyright and permissions department and post the whole thing here, even though I would probably get away with it. Anyway, Herbert writes that it “boggles the mind” that the U.S. seems to have taken the loss of a major city, New Orleans, in stride. Here’s a portion:

Much of New Orleans is still a ruin. More than half of its population is gone and an enormous percentage of the people who are still in town are suffering.

As Mr. [Spike] Lee noted, the public face of the city is to some extent a deceptive feel-good story. The Superdome, a chamber of horrors during the flood, has been made new again. And the city’s football team, the Saints, has turned its fortunes around and is sprinting into the National Football League playoffs. (They beat the Giants in New York yesterday, 30-7.)

“They spent the money on the Superdome, and you can get drunk in the French Quarter again, and some of the conventions are coming back,” Mr. Lee said, “so people are trying to say that everything’s O.K. But that’s a lie.

“They need to stop this focus on downtown and the Superdome because it does a disservice to all those people who are still in very deep trouble. They need to get the cameras out of the French Quarter and go to New Orleans East, or the Lower Ninth Ward. Or go to St. Bernard Parish. You’ll see that everything is not O.K. Far from it.”

Vast acreages of ruined homes and staggering amounts of garbage and filth still burden the city. Scores of thousands of people remain jobless and homeless. The public schools that are open, for the most part, are a scandal. And the mental health situation, for the people in New Orleans and the evacuees scattered across the rest of the U.S., is yet another burgeoning tragedy.

There’s actually a fifth act, only recently completed, to “When the Levees Broke,” in which a number of people reflect on what has been happening since the storm. Wynton Marsalis, ordinarily the mildest of individuals, looks into the camera with an expression of anger and deep disgust. “What is the government doing?” he asks. “They’re trying to figure out how to hand out contracts. How to lower the minimum wage so the subcontractors can make all the money. Steal money from me and you, man. We’re paying taxes, you understand what I’m saying?”

For most of America, Katrina is an old story. In Mr. Lee’s words, people are suffering from “Katrina fatigue.” They’re not much interested in how the levees have only been patched up to pre-Katrina levels of safety, or how the insurance companies have ripped off thousands upon thousands of hard-working homeowners who are now destitute, or how, as USA Today reported, “One $7.5 billion Louisiana program to help people rebuild or relocate has put money in the hands of just 87 of the 89,403 homeowners who applied.”

There are other matters vying for attention. The war in Iraq is going badly. Donald Trump and Rosie O’Donnell are feuding. And, after all, it’s Christmas.

“You know how Americans are,” Mr. Lee said. “We’re on to the next thing.”

That may be how Americans are, but what it says to me is that we have no effective national leadership. One of the most important functions of a leader is to keep people focused and working together on what needs to be done. And we just plain don’t have anyone filling that role right now. Dear Leader Bush is floating around in his bubble oblivious even to the basic responsibilities of the job of POTUS. In a nutshell, whatever doesn’t glorify him doesn’t interest him. And he is way disinterested in New Orleans’s Ninth Ward. Meanwhile, the favored federal contractors are profiteering with abandon, getting fat and rich on our tax dollars, while New Orleans stagnates. And while some individuals have worked hard to help New Orleans, without effective national leadership most of us feel helpless to effect any real improvement.