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Thursday, September 08, 2005

An American sees his country from afar

This piece by retired bishop John Shelby Spong well describes the light in which the United States of America is seen from other parts of the world.

"Hurricane Katrina and American Priorities

I hesitated at first to write about Hurricane Katrina and the devastation that has been visited on the city of New Orleans and the people of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Television stations have been giving 24-hour-a-day coverage to this almost unimaginable disaster. American citizens have been both numbed by the tragedy and overwhelmed by frustration at their inability to help. There seems little more to be said.

Two other things fed my initial hesitancy. First, during the whole course of this storm, I had been in Europe on a lecture tour that began in Sweden on August 25 and will not conclude until September 28 in England. So I possessed only a European lens through which to view this disaster. I wondered if that limitation would hinder my ability to assess this story fairly.

My other source of hesitancy resided in the fact that my travels throughout the world in the past five years have made me aware of the unpopularity of the Bush administration on every continent and I feared that Europe's coverage of this tragedy might reflect this negative bias. Even in Great Britain, America's staunchest ally, the attitude toward our present government is overwhelmingly hostile. Tony Blair would have fallen by now if he had any viable opposition. The unpopular and ill-conceived war in Iraq is a major part of that world opinion, but that war served only to exacerbate already existing feelings of a perceived America First mentality that is insensitive to the needs of other nations. Perhaps that feeling was born on the first day of the Bush presidency when the president cut off all funding to family planning clinics around the world that might do abortion counseling. The approval of his religious constituency was placed ahead of the needs of human beings in the poorest countries of the world. Perhaps it grew with America's withdrawal from the Kyoto treaty on global warming when, right or wrong, profits for American businesses were deemed to be more important than our world's common environment. Southern Hemisphere nations are already today altering their lifestyles to deal with the reality of Antarctica's ozone depletion that stems, ironically enough, from Northern Hemisphere pollution.

The way this administration treated the United Nations in general and Hans Blix in particular fed this growing negativity. This Swedish diplomat, who chaired the UN's team investigating the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Saddam's Iraq, had reported that these weapons were in all probability nonexistent. No one in this administration was pleased with these findings, though it turned out Blix was right. Perhaps it was because this nation plunged into the Iraqi conflict unilaterally, with its "shock and awe" campaign of bombing before the Blix report was finished, with little international support and with the active opposition of France, Germany, and Russia. Perhaps this negativity was due in part to our apparent lack of concern with Iraqi civilian casualties, which to many of the world's people, whose skins are not white, was another _expression of our latent racism. No matter what the reason, no government of this nation in my memory has been viewed with such intense suspicion and hostility as this one. So I wondered if I could trust the objectivity of these European accounts.

Then it occurred to me that the people in America might be interested in how they are viewed from abroad. That would be a unique angle on this human trauma. After I had begun to work with that perspective, which was, I confess, anything but pretty, I finally came to a place where I could make computer connections and thus gain the ability to compare American coverage with European coverage. I looked at the story nationally through the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the Chicago Tribune. I sampled regional press outlets from Atlanta to Houston. Finally I read the very local coverage in New Orleans itself. I discovered the details were not substantially different in America, but the tone was. In America there was an embarrassment — a sense of shame — followed by a slowly developing sadness that the face of American poverty, suffering because of the incompetence of early efforts to help, was being flashed across the world. In Europe there was more of a sense of incomprehensibility that the world's greatest military and economic power could so totally bungle the rescue task. Those nations that depended on American power for protection quaked in their boots at our apparent impotence. Those nations that have always feared American power and potential intervention felt emboldened in their independence. Everywhere people wondered why it took five days before food and water, to say nothing of medicine and medical care, could reach the people trapped in that city. Was that all our nation could do to deal with a crisis, the slow approach of which had provided ten days' warning — and at least three of those days were focused specifically on New Orleans, which was clearly in the path of the storm's eye. If this was the best effort our nation could make to deal with a well-advertised natural disaster, what confidence could anyone have that this nation was ready to handle a terrorist attack that would come with little or no warning? Is the fact that our president was vacationing in Crawford, Texas — while this storm sped across the Atlantic and into the Gulf — symbolic of this government's attitude and of its state of preparedness for any tragedy? The president left Texas as the storm drew nearer but only to give an unrelated, fund-raising speech in California. Did that represent detachment from reality?

There is always plenty of blame to go around when tragedy strikes a nation. Blame is nonpartisan. Pearl Harbor was struck in 1941 with a Democrat in the White House. September 11, 2001, and Hurricane Katrina occurred on a Republican watch. Blame is normally diffused by claiming surprise for one's unpreparedness. It did not work at Pearl Harbor, since Japanese naval forces had been on their journey through the northern Pacific for days. It will not work now for an even more obvious reason. Several years ago the New Orleans daily newspaper, the Times-Picayune, ran a story about the state of unpreparedness of this city for meeting what it called the "inevitability of a massive hurricane making a direct hit on New Orleans" at some date in the future! That article described in eerie detail what would happen if the levees broke under the impact of the water surge from the storm. It chronicled the plight of the New Orleans poor, who, the article said, were predominantly black, and would be trapped in the city because they did not have cars in which to escape. It described the lack of plans for evacuation of the victims, for getting food and water to the survivors, for providing medical care for the chronically sick and aged. This article laid bare exactly the circumstances that have now happened. Any attempt on the part of any official to claim that no one anticipated the magnitude of this natural tragedy must be quickly dismissed as nothing more than political "backside covering."

This tragedy called into question in a very public and emotional way the values that drive this nation. The world saw in graphic detail the plight of America's poor. They visually observed what we all know, that in this country the poor are in large measure identical with America's black population, making this nation's systemic racism inescapably visible to the world. Our black population has also been identical in large measure with the unemployed and underemployed. Many are poorly educated, living without proper diet or nutrition and apart from adequate health care, which in America is a business perk for the employed. The people of the world saw racial realities that this nation has preferred to keep hidden even from itself.

Twice in the last four years our Congress has passed tax bills, lowering substantially the taxes that the richest 20 percent of our people pay, while our poorest citizens, numbering 40 million, have no health care. That same Congress also resisted mightily raising the minimum wage for our poorest citizens. Both were clear priority decisions. Then we watched middle-class jobs, which blacks have only recently begun to fill, be outsourced to cheaper labor pools in other nations, while minimum wage jobs, incapable of lifting a fully employed person above the poverty level, took their places. Americans, as well as the people of the world, know that the combination of the cost of the Iraqi war with those tax cuts has drained the capacity of this country to address its eroding infrastructure, repair its inner-city schools, or fund its No Child Left Behind educational program, all of which strengthen the lifeline of the poor. This hurricane also revealed how stretched the American armed services are, since National Guardsmen from the affected states are in Iraq and therefore not available to secure their own neighborhoods. The people of the world saw a nation that is today demonstrably incapable of stopping the violence in Iraq after more than three full years and is now being revealed as incapable of addressing violence at home also. They saw a nation that in the highly trumpeted and recently passed energy bill could not ask anyone to sacrifice or to pay extra for their Hummers and SUVs as a measure against the spiraling prices of gasoline and heating oil, which this winter will as usual land most heavily on the backs of the poor. That storm, more than anything else I could ever have imagined, revealed very publicly to the eyes of the entire world a dark side of America's life.

I shudder that this was the vision of my country that the world saw so clearly. I am embarrassed by the priorities by which this nation seems to live. Above all, I resent the fact that the rhetoric of my religious tradition is being used politically today to cover the presence of greed in high places, an insensitivity toward the poor and the marginalized, and even to justify a war that was first of all unnecessary and now seems incapable of being brought to an end.

The American people will over time, I am sure, address the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina with their usual generosity. Then I hope they will proceed to address the distorted priorities of this government by massive and immediate political pressure. If that fails I hope they will then vote for a new vision of America in the next election.

— John Shelby Spong


  1. ... And... what is YOUR opinion about this??

  2. Thank you for asking, searabbit.

    My opinion? In this case, (though not in everything he says at other times) I agree with John Spong. I remember that George W. Bush was chosen as president by about half of the American people. That half is the half that relies upon brute force, military might and crazy religious extremism to get through life.

    I find it very sad that America, once a symbol and a place of hope and freedom, is now the world bully, proud of it’s military power and using any excuse to use it.

    I am no political expert, but it seems to me that Bush is simply inept. He may be a strong leader, but a leader of a great country must have more intelligence than most, not less. He must care for all his subjects, not only the rich. He must be wise. George Bush fails on all of these counts. It is astonishing to me that half of the American people seem to have chosen such a man to lead them.

    I put on my blog anything that expresses my interest in life. Some pieces I agree with, some I don’t but nevertheless regard as of great interest.

  3. Thank you for that, Malcolm. I got a ton of flack for my post about the hurricane from zealous right wingers that just cannot stop arguing with me, even though I don't argue back. And they didn't have the guts to post their comments on my own blog, they had to link to it on theirs and then I get feedback through the back door.

    What I find frightening and disheartening is the Bush supporters will hear NOTHING to the contrary about their beloved dictator, er.. I mean president. They will spit and scream to defend anything, under the guise of free speech. Freedom of speech apparently is only for the right wing.

    People on opposing sides are berated for having their own opinion. Ok, I admit to being angry when I wrote the post about Katrina and the lack of support to NOLA, but I stand by my opinion.

    It is, after all, MY opinion.

  4. I'm glad to find that people are still reading my blog. I know I don't put enough of my own thoughts here, I'll try and improve, searabbit!
    Storm, I'm surprised that you get stuff "by the back door". I would have liked to read opposing comments on my post, even if they were posted to me by email. I wonder why they send it to you that way instead of putting it where more people could see it? I think I'll have to be a bit more provocative, even though my nature is more conciliatory.

  5. ARGHHH!!! I wrote a long long comment here... and it just disappeared...
    Anyway... was telling you Malclcolm, that I come to your site daily.. ;-)
    And always learn something new... but with my lack of English vocabulary and knowledge about some subject, I don't always feel comfortable to comment...
    About this entry... I agree with all you say... but as I'm not very awared of politic myself, I don't see what I could say to add or change or argue with whoever...;-)

  6. What a shame, searabbit! I would have liked to read it. Always write your stuff in Microsoft Word first, then post it. When you see it's safely posted, then delete your Word file.

    Never mind your lack of English, just use what you have. I think everyone would prefer to have a not-quite-perfect comment than no comment at all. Your English is quite comprehensible anyway.


  7. Thankls Malcolm... I'l try to follow your advice...;-)
    BTW, I'm still tapping.. seems to relax me a lot... ;-) and I'm facing the fatal 3 weeks those days... I'm scaree... ;-(


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