One storm has passed, but another looms. New Orleans stands on the frontlines of what is shaping up as a battle over visions of America.
Administration officials have tripped over their tongues, poll numbers have fallen and the media has developed a bark. But let’s not underestimate the Bush administration’s ability to craft a silk purse from a sow’s ear: Karl Rove will eventually get everyone on message.
What is the message? Ooze compassion. Much as Lewis Carroll’s gluttonous Walrus told the oysters he was eating, Bush effectively said to the people of New Orleans, “I weep for you. I deeply sympathize.”
But behind the tears of compassion, $5,000 handouts and talk of uplift is a gleam in the eye of more forward-thinking Republicans. In the same way that 9⁄11 provided cover for an invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration seems poised to turn Katrina to its advantage. Attention all vultures: Opportunity knocks.
The big oyster: New Orleans, where more than 7 million visitors each year generate more than $7 billion in revenue. As a new frontier for real estate developers, the city has potential as an urban playland of theme parks, hotels, convention centers and casinos. Thanks to hurricane cleansing, vast tracts of New Orleans Parish are free of huddled masses and it’s a buyer’s market: Property is changing hands in New Orleans at a record rate.
Should this come to pass, the new New Orleans will need its service employees – there will be more toilets to clean, dishes to wash and beds to make. And while this army of low-wage workers won’t be able to afford the condos sure to rise from the mire, thanks to President Bush they won’t be homeless. They can homestead – put down stakes in one of the trailer-park townships that will be established in geographically convenient locations. The New York Times reports, “FEMA is thinking like the onetime Soviet planners, mapping out new towns that in some cases will have as many as 25,000 mobile homes, spread across hundreds of acres.” Perhaps they’ll double as rafts when the next hurricane hits.
While that free enterprise dream of a reborn New Orleans has yet to become reality, the administration has used the disaster to incubate a number of pet proposals. It set up a school voucher system for displaced children – a friendly payback to the religious right. It suspended the Davis-Bacon law requiring federal contractors to pay their workers prevailing wages – a move that increases the profits of contractors like Halliburton and Bechtel, which, as in Iraq, have been rewarded with no-bid reconstruction contracts. It exempted industries in hurricane-affected areas from EPA regulations, allowing corporations to avoid the costs of pollution control. And it plans to give $2 billion in tax breaks to corporations who do business in the Gulf Opportunity Zone, making redevelopment all the more lucrative.
Following Katrina, Rep. Richard Baker (R‑La.) went off the compassion message when he was overheard telling lobbyists, “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.”
Back on message, Bush said, “This poverty has roots in generations of segregation and discrimination that closed many doors of opportunity.”
That’s undisputedly true, but in a strange permutation of racial politics, the color of the skin of those displaced by Katrina has been used to deflect attention away from a system of class oppression that is an equal opportunity disabler.
While race certainly has its role, American poverty is most firmly rooted in a class system – a system maintained by an economy that allocates the wealth of society to those who already have the most. One of the ways that wealth is created is to ensure that unskilled workers are not paid a living wage.
“We will renew our promise as a land of equality and decency,” said Bush, perhaps envisioning a chicken in every pot in the trailer park. His new New Deal for the new New Orleans.
Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.