September 14, 2005
In his 1935 State of the Union Address, FDR spoke to a nation mired in the Depression, but still marinated in conservative values: "Continued dependence" upon welfare, said FDR, "induces a spiritual disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber. To dole our relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit." Behind FDR's statement was the conviction that, while the government must step in in an emergency, in normal times, men provide the food, clothing and shelter for their families.
We did, until the war pulled us out of the Depression and a postwar boom made us, in John K. Galbraith's phrase, The Affluent Society. By the 1960s, America, the richest country on earth, was growing ever more prosperous. But with the 1964 landslide of LBJ, liberalism triumphed and began its great experiment. Behind the Great Society was a great idea: to lift America's poor out of poverty, government should now take care of all their basic needs. By giving the poor welfare, subsidized food, public housing and free medical care, government will end poverty in America.
At the Superdome and New Orleans Convention Center, we saw the failure of 40 years of the Great Society. No sooner had Katrina passed by and the 17th Street levee broke than hundreds of young men who should have taken charge in helping the aged, the sick and the women with babies to safety took to the streets to shoot, loot and rape. The New Orleans police, their numbers cut by deserters who left their posts to look after their families, engaged in running gun battles all day long to stay alive and protect people. It was the character and conduct of its people that made the New Orleans disaster unique.
After a hurricane, people's needs are simple: food, water, shelter, medical attention. But they can be hard to meet. People buried in rubble or hiding in attics of flooded homes are tough to get to. But, even with the incompetence of the mayor and governor, and the torpor of federal officials, this was possible. Coast Guard helicopters were operating Tuesday. There were roads open into the city for SUVs, buses and trucks. While New Orleans was flooded, the water was stagnant. People walked through to the convention center and Superdome. The flimsiest boat could navigate. Even if government dithered for days -- what else is new -- this does not explain the failure of the people themselves.
Between 1865 and 1940, the South -- having lost a fourth of its best and bravest in battle, devastated by war, mired in poverty -- was famous for the hardy self-reliance of her people, black and white. In 1940, hundreds of British fishermen and yachtsmen sailed back and forth daily under fire across a turbulent 23-mile Channel to rescue 300,000 soldiers from Dunkirk. How do we explain to the world that a tenth that number of Americans could not be reached in four days from across a stagnant pond? The real disaster of Katrina was that society broke down. An entire community could not cope.
Liberalism, the idea that good intentions and government programs can build a Great Society, was exposed as fraud. After trillions of tax dollars for welfare, food stamps, public housing, job training and education have poured out since 1965, poverty remains pandemic. But today, when the police vanish, the community disappears and men take to the streets to prey on women and the weak. Stranded for days in a pool of fetid water, almost everyone waited for the government to come save them. They screamed into the cameras for help, and the reporters screamed into the cameras for help, and the "civil rights leaders" screamed into the cameras that Bush was responsible and that Bush was a racist.
Americans were once famous for taking the initiative, for having young leaders rise up to take command in a crisis. Did we see any of that at the Superdome? Sri Lankans and Indonesians, far poorer than we, did not behave like this in a tsunami that took 400 times as many lives as Katrina has thus far. We are the descendants of men and women who braved the North Atlantic in wooden boats to build a country in a strange land. Our ancestors traveled thousands of miles in covered wagons, fighting off Indians far braver than those cowards preying on New Orleans' poor. Watching that performance in the Crescent City, it seems clear: We are not the people our parents were. And what are all our Lords Temporal now howling for? Though government failed at every level, they want more government.
FDR was right. A "spiritual disintegration" has overtaken us. Government-as-first-provider, the big idea of the Great Society, has proven to be "a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit."
Either we get off this narcotic, or it kills us.