This is an astounding op-ed piece from David Brooks in today’s New York Times. Brooks is a conservative Republican and usually his essays defend the interests of the upper class as he argues in support of free trade, tax cuts, limited government, deep budget cuts to social programs and Social Security reform. In fact, he often sounds almost giddy in his defense of Bush’s economic policies with no genuine awareness of what their consequences would be for ordinary middle class people in the real world. Which makes this article from him even more astonishing.
But here, Brooks’ main point is that natural disasters, like Katrina, do more than devastate cities and populations. They also expose the fault lines in inequitable societies. It’s as if the raging waters that uproot homes and flood streets also sweep away the normal hypocrisy that keeps us from realizing the genuine greed and self-interest of wealthy civic leaders who protect their own class to the detriment of those least able to cope with natural disaster. And in their wake, they bring social and political turbulence as devastating to the political status quo as the storm was to the town or city it destroyed.
He gives concrete historical examples such as the Johnstown flood of 1889, which was partly caused by an artificial pond that wealthy Pittsburgh industrialists built so they could go fishing. In a terrible storm, the pond overflowed into the town, sparking the dreadful flooding that claimed so many lives.
At first, the public’s wrath was focused on Hungarian immigrants – whom Brooks astutely likens to today’s Hispanic immigrants, who are hated because they take jobs that nobody else wants to do anyway. Various newspaper accounts accused the Hungarians of cutting off the fingers of dead women to steal their wedding rings and of singing, dancing, and fighting in the streets in disrespect of the dead. In other words foreigners, then as now, became the first scapegoats that the media lashed out at in the aftermath of disaster.
Those stories were mostly false and were spurred by the prevailing nativism of the population. However, public wrath soon focused on the wealthy industrialists thus leading to the rise of progressive politics and the anti-trust laws that reigned in the hated robber barons’ excesses.
In another bad storm, this time in1927, and ironically also in New Orleans, blacks were forced into work camps and left to die in the floods while a luxury ship filled with wealthy white civic leaders sailed out of the port playing “Bye Bye Black Bird.” And the neighborhoods of poor and middle class whites were deliberately flooded to save wealthier areas.
The rage that people felt led directly to a resurgence of populism and the rise of Huey Long.
Those are just two of the examples Brooks cites to support his argument. The rest of the article is well worth reading.
The amazing thing is that after reading his cautionary essay – which, after all, was written to warn his conservative friends – you can’t come away failing to understand that there is really a class war that has been raging for generations. Only, as I’ve long said, it’s the wealthy that are waging that war in defense of their own selfish interests, while the rest of us usually don’t even realize we’re in mortal combat.
But every once in a while, something so dreadful occurs, as it just did in New Orleans, that it rips the polite façade off the ruling class and even offends a conservative like David Brooks.