Hard Questions About the Big Easy

The New Orleans disaster could yet change American politics?but only if we keep talking about it.

| Mon Oct. 31, 2005 1:00 AM PST

As the New Orleans disaster recedes from the headlines, citizen activists face a choice. We can focus exclusively on other newer issues. Or we can work to make the disaster one of those key turning points with the potential to transform American politics. For this to happen, we need to consciously create new dialogue, reaching well beyond the core converted.

If we think back to the 9/11 attacks, which have shaped American politics ever since, a brief window of critical reflection opened up in their immediate wake. Middle East experts critical of U.S. policies had op-eds in our largest newspapers and appeared on network TV. Ordinary citizens mourned the victims, while asking what would make the attackers so embittered they'd be willing to murder 3,000 innocent people. The next day, when I spoke about possible root causes, with even more frankness than usual, at a community college in the overwhelmingly Republican suburbs just north of Dallas, the response was amazingly receptive.

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But by a few weeks later visible public questioning had largely ceased. Most Americans accepted the Bush administration's definition of a war of absolute good versus absolute evil. John Ashcroft warned that anyone who disagreed was an "ally of terrorism." The space for reflection had closed.

New Orleans has revealed far too much about the cost of this administration's priorities to similarly strengthen Bush's current standing. Republican cheerleaders are trying their best to spin its lessons as a mandate for even greater mistrust of all government, as if our sole hope lies in a survivalist individualism. But no matter what they do, the legacy of this disaster creates a political liability for this administration, highlighting their lack of sound environmental policies, support for critical infrastructure, and the valuing of experience over political cronyism, not to mention their heedlessness of America's growing economic and racial divides. The danger is that the disaster's most far-reaching lessons will be quickly forgotten, as the voices of the city's exiles grow quiet and fresh crises and issues dominate the news.

We can change that by helping our fellow citizens wrestle with the legacy of the disaster while it remains strong in common memory-to give it its due as one of those iconic moments with the power to transform political life and individual hearts and souls. For now America is still wrestling with what happened and why, with what it will mean for those now exiled, with how the disaster affects our common future. From my own recent talks in the heart of red state America, the disaster has led many to begin to rethink core assumptions about this country's priorities. Through the lens of New Orleans, I've been able to raise all sorts of challenging issues to audiences that would have been far more resistant just a few months before. But like the post-9/11 reflection, this newfound concern won't continue automatically. It needs a context in which to bloom.

Some of this is already being created, as we weave lessons from the disaster into arguments we're already making on issues from global warming to the war in Iraq, to the dangers of selling America's every institution to the highest bidder. But the tragedy also calls for specific responses. Suppose progressive citizen activists worked to convene conversations in every community about Katrina's lessons and legacy. These conversations could include MoveOn and The Sierra Club and local social justice groups, but also mainline and conservative churches, synagogues and mosques, civic groups like Rotary and Kiwanis, maybe even Chambers of Commerce-as many institutions of civil society as would be willing to participate. Suppose every college or high school made New Orleans a focus over the coming year, working, from the perspective of every possible discipline, to explore the interconnected roots and lessons of the disaster.

After 9/11, author Vicki Robin and some colleagues created what they called "conversation cafes" (www.conversationcafe.org), which brought together people of differing beliefs to reflect on how to move forward from the tragedy. Though their outreach was relatively limited, the cafes offered a powerful experience for those who participated, and a model to build on. Imagine if we extended these conversations on a broader scale, mixing brainstorming, exchange of perspectives and emotional sustenance. In a time when it's easy to feel overloaded, paralyzed with "compassion fatigue," Robin sees a chance to create "containers where people can grieve, process, see deeper truths, have new creative ideas."

Another model comes from community discussions that transformed Nebraska's tax codes forty years ago. In the early 1960s, a group of University of Nebraska economists used the University's statewide network of adult education extension offices to organize workshops, county by county, where people could discuss different ways to make a highly regressive state tax system more fair. The existing system had long weighed disproportionately on family farmers and low-income residents. Now, involving local organizations such as the Farmer's Union, Farm Bureau, and the Grange, the economists invited people to see for themselves how a range of approaches would affect them and their neighbors. "If people just really had a chance to look at the numbers," one of the faculty members recalls, "we felt they could come to an intelligent decision. But they had to have a context to analyze the system, and this seemed a perfect use of educational networks that were already in place."

The workshop leaders pursued their task without laptops, computerized spreadsheets, interactive Websites, or any of the other tools that would now make a comparable process far easier. But participants examined who was getting a free ride, how to make the system more equitable, and the likely results of specific policy changes. Local and statewide media amplified the debates. It took a half-dozen years of follow-up education and debate, but Nebraska finally passed a far more progressive graduated income tax, which a Republican governor signed into law.

The issues embodied in Katrina's destruction of New Orleans are more difficult than a single state's tax codes, but could be addressed through a similar process of discussion exploring a series of interconnected questions: What are the costs of neglecting America's core infrastructure, like the Bush administration's $71 million cuts in the budgets for maintaining and repairing the levees? How do we challenge a pervasive cronyism, where being the friend of a top Republican fundraiser places the former head of the International Arabian Horse Association in charge of America's national disaster responses? What are the hidden costs of choices of destroying swamps that traditionally acted as buffers to tropical storms? How do we address America's widening economic and racial divides, embodied by those left behind in the rising floodwaters? How do we rebuild a devastated New Orleans in a way that it won't just get flooded again, while honoring the right of return for those outside the sleek tourist zones? At what level of disaster do we take seriously the costs of global warming, and begin joining other nations in acting on it? Can we do any of this while giving $120 billion a year in tax cuts to the wealthy and fighting a $100 billion-a-year Iraqi war? And how can we keep our hope for change alive in a time of so much disaster and human pain?

The US has never faced the comparable destruction of one of our major cities, so we're all in new territory. We need to resist Bush administration proposals to lift wage and environmental protections, give no-bid contracts to companies like Halliburton, and pay for rebuilding by slashing other social programs like Medicare, Medicaid, child welfare programs, and student financial aid. But if we're going to have a chance of succeeding in offering more proactive alternatives, we'll need to involve some of those ordinary and often apolitical Americans who watched in horror as the floodwaters rose.

We could complement the more intimate discussions with visible public forums. During the height of the nuclear arms race, Physicians for Social Responsibility scheduled multi-day forums throughout the country to focus public attention on the nuclear threat. They involved a variety of high profile speakers, including Nobel laureates, talking about the impact of the nuclear arms race attack from every perspective they could muster--the likely immediate death toll in the wake of a nuclear attack, technological escalations that were reducing the margin for human error, the arms race's economic cost, and alternatives for de-escalation. The events mobilized large numbers of citizens and got major media coverage wherever they were held. They played a significant role in challenging the arms race.

We could adopt a similar model around New Orleans. Create a tour with high-profile experts on global warming, the politics of infrastructure, America's economic and radical divides. Include voices from the city and those now exiled. Challenge Americans to think again about why the disaster happened, and what how we can best proceed in its wake.

We could also use the wake up call of the disaster to take a similar approach with one of the most difficult challenges it raises-the impact of global warming. Focusing just on that one overarching issue, we could hold high-profile local forums about the increase in extreme climate events like hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, droughts and forest fires; about impacts on public health through the migration of disease-carrying insects like the mosquitos that carry West Nile virus; about the impact on agriculture of changing weather patterns. These could feature scientists, journalists, religious leaders, businesspeople like alternative energy experts or representatives of insurance companies increasingly hit by climate-related property casualty losses. The goal would be to use the window of concern opened by Katrina to foster serious discussion in communities that aren't normally exposed to it.

Finally, we can complement local conversations with coordinated national discussions. As David Dyssegaard Kallick writes in The Nation, New York City citizen groups came together in the wake of 9/11 to create the Labor Community Advocacy Network to Rebuild New York (LCAN). Their members met among themselves to determine their joint priorities, then pushed, with some success, for more equitable directions for post-9/11 reconstruction. (Their suggestions for the displaced Gulf Coast communities are available at www.goodjobsny.org) Major labor, environmental and social justice groups could similarly meet and talk out issues like where to generate the funding for reconstruction, how to balance protection against future floods with rebuilding the devastated communities, how give displaced residents the maximum possible voice. The more we can clarify our own priorities, the more effectively we can articulate them to others.

We tend to think of crises as highly visible calls to action, but real crises build up in the shadows. They're revealed when clear disaster strikes or when citizens succeed in sufficiently dramatizing their impact on the public stage. Legal segregation was a daily crisis if you were African American, but not if you were white-until activists made it visible. The poisoning of our environment was unnoticed until ordinary citizens raised hard questions. Few talked about the destruction of America's infrastructure until the water from Lake Pontchartrain spilled over the levees. What we do from this point forward will determine whether the underlying crises that created and compounded the New Orleans disaster get addressed.

If we reach out broadly enough, progressive activists wouldn't control the direction of the resulting conversations, but we'd have a chance to talk to others of differing views and reflect on our own. From my experience, the disaster has opened up a space where citizens ordinarily resistant to key questions about our nation's direction are suddenly far more receptive. Whether that opening leads to a new wave of citizen engagement or closes with distraction and time depends on the opportunities for reflection and participation we can create.

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