The Post-Katrina Era
By George Lakoff,
-- -- It is impossible for me, as it is for most Americans, to watch
the horror and suffering from Hurricane Katrina and not feel
physically sore, pained, bereft, empty, heartbroken. And angry.
The Katrina tragedy should become a watershed in American
politics. This was when the usually invisible people suddenly
appeared in all the anguish of their lives -- the impoverished,
the old, the infirm, the kids and the low-wage workers with no
cars, TVs or credit cards. They showed up on America's doorsteps,
entered the living rooms and stayed. Katrina will not go away
soon, and she has the power to change America.
The moral of Katrina is mostly being missed. It is not just a
failure of execution (William Kristol), or that bad things just
happen (Laura Bush). It was not just indifference by the
President, or a lack of accountability, or a failure of
federal-state communication, or corrupt appointments in FEMA, or
the cutting of budgets for fixing levees, or the inexcusable
absence of the National Guard off in Iraq. It was all of these and
more, but they are the effects, not the cause.
The cause was political through and through -- a matter of
values and principles. The progressive-liberal values are
America's values, and we need to go back to them. The heart of
progressive-liberal values is simple: empathy (caring about and
for people) and responsibility (acting responsibly on that
empathy). These values translate into a simple principle: Use
the common wealth for the common good to better all our lives.
In short, promoting the common good is the central role of
The right-wing conservatives now in power have the opposite
values and principles. Their main value is Rely on individual
discipline and initiative. The central principle: Government
has no useful role. The only common good is the sum of individual
goods. It's the difference between We're all in this together
and You're on your own, buddy. It's the difference between Every
citizen is entitled to protection and You're only entitled
to what you can afford. It's the difference between connection
and separation. It is this difference in moral and political
philosophy that lies behind the tragedy of Katrina.
A lack of empathy and responsibility accounts for Bush's
indifference and the government's delay in response, as well as
the failure to plan for the security of the most vulnerable: the
poor, the infirm, the aged, the children.
Eliminating as much as possible of the role of government
accounts for the demotion of FEMA from cabinet rank, for Michael
Brown's view that FEMA was a federal entitlement program to be
cut, for the budget cuts in levee repair, for placing more
responsibility on state and local government than they could
handle, for the failure to fully employ the military, and for the
lax regulation of toxic waste dumps contributing to a "toxic
This was not just incompetence (though there was plenty of it),
not just a natural disaster (though nature played its part), not
just Bush (though he is accountable). This is a failure of moral
and political philosophy -- a deadly failure. That is the deep
truth behind this human tragedy, humanly caused.
It is a truth that needs to be told, starting now -- over and
over. There can be no delay. The Bush administration is busy
framing it in its own way: bad things just happen, it's no one's
fault; the federal government did the best it could -- the problem
was at the state and local level; we'll rebuild and everything
will be okay; the people being shipped out will have better lives
elsewhere, and jobs in Wal-Mart!
Unless the real truth is told starting now, the American people
will accept it for lack of an alternative. The Democratic response
so far is playing right into Bush's framing. By delaying a
response for fear it will be called "partisan," the
Democratic leadership is allowing Bush to frame the tragedy. And
once it is framed, it is hard to reframe! It is time to start now.
Hurricane Katrina should also form the context in which to
judge whether John Roberts is fit to be chief justice of the
United States Supreme Court. The reason is simple: The Katrina
Tragedy raises the most central issues of moral and political
principles that will govern the future of this country. Katrina
stands to be even more traumatic to America than 9/11. The failure
of conservative principles in the Katrina Tragedy should, in the
post-Katrina era, invalidate those principles -- and it should
invalidate the right of George Bush to foist them on the country
for the next 30 years.
John Roberts, as chief justice of a conservative court, would
have enormous powers to impose on the nation those invalid
principles. Do not be fooled by the arguments of "strict
construction," "narrow interpretation" and the
avoidance of "judicial activism" that will be brought
forth in the hearings. What Roberts is brilliant at is the use of
"narrow interpretations" to have maximal causal effect.
Narrow interpretation, in his hands, can serve the purpose of
radical conservative judicial activism.
Consider a small example, the Case of the Hapless Toad. The
Constitution empowers Congress to regulate "commerce ...
among the several states." This clause has been interpreted
by the Court to make it the constitutional basis for much of civil
rights legislation and all major environmental laws.
Over the past decade, the Court has been diminishing the powers
of the federal government over the environment by limiting the
scope of that clause, even limiting the application of the Clean
Water Act. A completely narrow interpretation could eliminate all
environmental laws (e.g., clean water and air, habitat protection)
and threaten our civil rights. Roberts has written in favor such a
The case concerned a developer who wanted to build a large
housing tract in California that would destroy one of the last
remaining breeding grounds of the arroyo southwestern toad,
threatening its continued existence. The U.S. Courts of Appeals on
Washington, D.C., upheld the right to life of the toad species
under the Endangered Species Act. But Roberts, in a July 2003
opinion, wrote that the Interstate Commerce Clause, on which the
Endangered Species act is based, should not apply to "a
hapless toad that, for reasons of its own, lives its entire life
Such a narrowing would threaten the legal basis of the
Endangered Species Act. Anti-discrimination legislation is also
based on the Interstate Commerce Clause. What about discrimination
wholly within one state? Were Roberts to apply a similar narrowing
criterion, much of anti-discrimination law would go out the
The point is simple. Narrow interpretations can have massive
causal effects and be a form of radical judicial activism in the
conservative cause. After the Katrina Tragedy, we cannot afford a
radically activist Chief Justice with the same philosophy that has
failed America so badly. The ultimate moral and political issues
apply in both cases. John Roberts as Chief Justice would be a
danger to our democracy and possibly to our very lives.
George Lakoff is the author of Don't
Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate'
(Chelsea Green). He is Professor of Linguistics at the University
of California at Berkeley and a Senior Fellow of the Rockridge
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