About twenty five years ago, barely out of my teens, I moved to New Orleans where I found a job as a delivery driver for Coca-Cola in Gretna, which is just across the Mississippi River. I delivered soft-drinks all over the city, from the French Quarter to the New Orleans housing projects.
The projects were a dangerous place for a white man. On the Coke truck, the practice called for a white driver to recruit a black coworker to ride shotgun. If the criminals in the projects saw the black man, the white driver was safe. If a white driver went in alone, he stood a good chance of being robbed and the truck cleaned out.
New Orleans has been a city in trouble for a very long time. When I arrived there as a young man, my liberal Minnesota upbringing prepared me to believe that the root cause of the city's problems was poverty and racism. But the direct experience of the city revealed a much bigger problem - an ethic of government dependency and a political spoils systems that bred selfishness and corruption.
Call it what you will - The Great Society, the War on Poverty, the welfare state -- we saw the great socialist experiment that started in the 1960s come crashing down when Hurricane Katrina roared into New Orleans. The Great Society was ostensibly created to help the poor, but has in fact institutionalized poverty with the most devastating consequences reserved for the poor themselves.
The blame game is on, led by the Angry Left. They follow Gramsci's dictum: progress is incremental; if you cannot win the hearts and minds of the people by reason, then attack the moral credibility of your opponent. It's an old trick that has proved effective in the past but is slowly losing steam. The quick and generous aid of many American gives lie to the charge that America is a racist nation. And the spectacle of blacks preying on blacks in the Superdome and on the streets of New Orleans gives the lie to the idea that blacks constitute a monolithic "community" and that people like Rev. Jesse Jackson or Rev. Al Sharpton speak for them all.
Hurricane Katrina is a test of the moral character of our nation. The argument about where blame should be laid is only superficially a question about responsibility. On a deeper level it involves how the anarchy and suffering witnessed by the American people should be understood and perceived. Americans are being forced to ask if the failure in New Orleans is testimony to the culture-destroying initiatives of the Great Society, or is it due to not enough government intervention. Is the response to the civic breakdown more political involvement in the affairs of the community, or has the intrusion contributed to the disorder?
In answering that question Americans need to consider that contemporary liberalism has an increasingly intolerant, even totalitarian reach. New Orleans revealed the plight of many inner cities. Law enforcement can be arbitrary and often feared by the people it is supposed to protect. Education of the poor is a national disgrace despite the billions poured into inner city schools. Social policy is geared toward the destruction of the two parent family rather than its preservation. Racial demagogues preach a gospel of victimization that erodes the necessary self-dignity and self-confidence needed to rise above poverty.
Keeping the poor in poverty was not the intention when the great socialist experiment began with Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, but the widespread belief that motives rather than consequences justify ideas keeps the destructive policies in place. The belief plays on the goodwill that rests deep in the American character. When Americans hear the moral appeal to help the poor embedded in yet another Big Government prescription, many support it with little reflection.
Angry recriminations will fill the air, commissions will be convened, and bureaucracies will be reshuffled. Politicians will compete to see who can spend more billions on new social programs to "cure" what ails New Orleans. The shrill demagoguery from the Angry Left will increase, and the Democratic Party may lurch even further to the left as its leadership clutches more desperately to the power they sense is eroding.
New Orleans and Katrina will change this country. It will give more definition to that deep unease about the direction of this nation that many Americans have felt since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. What remains to be seen is whether the American people, when faced with the same old failed solutions, will finally say - enough.
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