Whatever happened to noblesse oblige?

I threw a fit at the breakfast table when I read this piece by Z. Dwight Billingsly one fine Thursday morning about 3 1/2 weeks after the catastrophe.  I hadn’t even been back to assess damage and begin clean up.  Billingsly himself might not have written the headline, but whoever did captured his thrust, I think.

HURRICANE KATRINA: Blame state and local Democrats, not the president

The first response to disaster is local response, not federal response. The second response to disaster is state response, not federal response. We live in a republic where the federal goverment’s role in the states’ business is limited.

In New Orleans, despite advance warnings of up to five days, an incompetent black Democratic male mayor and an incompetent white Democratic female governor – not our president – were the cause of too much unnecessary suffering. Regardless how one views the disparate impact of the hurricane across racial and class lines, in Louisiana, incompetence knows no racial or gender boundaries.

I think there are two lessons we need to take away from the Katrina fiasco:

First, the people we saw rioting in New Orleans are America’s flotsam, and they exist in every society. Other than the physically disabled, young children and seniors 80 years old and up, the people we saw holed up in the Superdome and elsewhere are the perfect demonstration of what happens to people who choose (yes, choose) to lead third-world lives in a capitalist society.

They were accustomed to living off a government check every month, accustomed to subsidized housing, accustomed to food paid for by food stamps. They’ve elected politicians like Mayor Ray Nagin and Gov. Kathleen Blanco to make them comfortable in that third-world existence, and now they have neither the resources nor the political leadership to survive in a time of crisis. Such has been the case throughout history for people who don’t take charge of their lives.

Second, the real bottom line here is the catastrophic lack of leadership – contrasted with, say, Republican Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s control after New York’s 9/11 terrorist attack. What a scary proposition it would be if Democrats were in charge of national security, given how badly they have screwed up in Louisiana.

Make no mistake about it: State and local government in Louisiana have been in the hands of Democrats for generations. There might be a mayor somewhere else in America as inept as Ray Nagin, but I doubt it. An earlier hurricane, Georges in 1998, demonstrated that using the Superdome for emergency shelter wouldn’t work. And Governor Blanco, despite a declaration of disaster by the president two days before the storm hit, failed to take advantage of the offer of federal troops and aid until two days after the storm hit.

It’s worth mentioning that Alabama, Florida and Mississippi – all of which were hit hard by Katrina but fared far better – all have Republican governors.

We have important elections coming up in 2006. The U.S. Senate races will serve as a barometer for where the country wants to go. I hope we’ll go for security. Picture Democrats in charge of national security or a truly national emergency. And be very afraid.

At the end of the article, Z. Dwight Billingsly was identified as a principal of Branford Gateway Investment Co., a longtime activist in local Republican politics and a regular contributor to the Post-Dispatch’s commentary page.  My host in St. Louis — who reads the paper virtually daily — had never heard of the guy.

I cut loose.  My only letter printed so far.

How can a man face himself in the mirror that looks at people flooded out of their homes, stranded with no food or water for days, and thinks, “this is America’s flotsam“?  I was horrified.  Below was my response to this despicable piece.  Notice I write “natural disaster.”  It wasn’t clear at that early point that the Corps was responsible.

To the editors,

I had to check the date on Z. Dwight Billingsly’s column of 9/22/2005 to make sure I hadn’t stepped through a time warp back to Dickens’ London, when poverty was a criminal offense and callous insensivity from the wealthy the order of the day.

First, having worked directly with the poorest of the poor in New Orleans, I can assure Billingsly that such abject poverty is not chosen.  This is not can’t-afford-a-car poverty; it’s can’t-afford-the-bus poverty and no one chooses it.  People in such circumstances face obstacles that Billingsly and his like can’t even conceive of.  Lack of a permanent address or a phone makes it impossible for you to complete a job application.  Lack of a means to bathe and wash clothes make others turn away from you in disgust.  All the basic necessities of life that Billingsly takes for granted such as food, clothing, housing, and health services are more expensive — if these can be gotten at all; and every penny of the meager assistance that comes from government and charity is begrudged you by people like Billingsly, who are clueless to how difficult it is just to survive in such circumstances, let alone pull oneself up out of them.

Second, comparisons between Rudy Giuliani and Ray Nagin are specious.  Giuliani had to deal with destruction of a couple of dozen square blocks in Manhattan’s financial district.  The rest of New York — police and fire departments, hospitals, roads, bridges, subways, most of the landline and cellular phone networks — was left intact.  The city’s tax base — its businesses and residents — though badly shaken, remained in New York.  Ray Nagin is doing a yeoman’s job coping with devastation on a scale that was never in Giuliani’s worst nightmare.  Almost all of New Orleans’ tax base is gone.  Most of the city’s infrastructure is devastated: water, gas, and electric lines, roads, drainage systems, hospitals, schools, along with half or more of the city’s housing stock.  The city’s primary sewerage treatment plant was under 20 feet of water.  Did Nagin do everything perfectly?  Obviously not, but the tens of thousands in the Superdome would likely have drowned in their homes had they not been in the stadium.  As for Gov. Blanco, she did ask for troops immediately, and was given fewer than she asked for later than she needed them by a president who felt it more important to finish his vacation than to respond decisively to the worst natural disaster in North American history.

Third, it is clear to most Americans — if not to Billingsly — that rampant cronyism in the Bush administration made this disaster worse than it had to be.  In the Bush administration, connections count for more than competence; and this is the primary reason the response was so pathetic.  Even now, the country is witness to the spectacle of Karl Rove, Bush’s chief political operative, being put in charge of the rebuilding effort — as clear a sign as one could ask for that political considerations will be paramount in rebuilding New Orleans, a Democratic stronghold.

Billingsly’s lame attempt to shift blame to the local level is characteristic of the dark side of Republicanism: an inhumane “every man for himself” philosophy that assumes that the poorest and least fortunate in our world need only make better choices in order to improve their lot.  What Billingsly and his like fail to appreciate is that the choices they have been able to make are not available to all.

A shortened version of the letter appeared about a week or so later.  I don’t have copy of the edited, published version — or, I can’t find it if have it — and I don’t recall what they cut.  Still, to this day, this is my only letter-to-editor about Katrina, the flood, or New Orleans, that’s been published.  (The Times-Pic has used some of my letters in the past, pre-flood, but none since.)