The Politics of Katrina

Consider this: in the United States, unlike any other advanced country, many people fail to receive basic health care because they can’t afford it. Lack of health insurance kills many more Americans each year than Katrina and 9/11 combined.—Paul Krugman, NY Times, September 19, 2005

          One of the most striking and compelling facts about the elaborate rituals of menstruation, especially menarche, and related male puberty rites, is the prevalence of the feast. After a number of days, weeks, months or even years, the maiden or youth emerges from her/his seclusion, a heavily regulated occasion involving strict adherence to particular rules, self-discipline, and frequently some kind of ordeal. Then, the young person is bathed, and dressed elaborately. And then, the community arrives, and there is a great sharing of resources. Integral to these crucial, germinal and worldwide rituals has been the feast, accompanied by talking, healings, music and dance, in which everyone participates and partakes of whatever bounty exists. In some cultures the initiates held back their own appetites, and if the boy had been expected to arrive with a deer he had killed, he did not eat any of the meat, distributing to others instead, and learning the lesson of community sharing. Likewise, if a maiden made a huge cake or bowls of cooked grain, she might be expected not to eat, or to eat last. In other places with similar rituals, the men cook, and the women are fed first.

          These essential values of sharing in order to solidify community have continued even into mass culture, through philosophies and practices. Religions, beginning with temples that acted as resource redistribution centers for agricultural produce and crafts, have kept these values intact through centuries during which the originating, that is to say, germinal, rituals have been suppressed. These values have been preserved by retaining ideas of “grace”—usually stemming from the mother, the female side of religion. When ideas of grace as bounty of divine love and abundance available to all are replaced by narrow, purely self-centered ideas of personal accomplishment and elitist religions, (“we are saved/you are damned”) community values of sharing begin to disappear.

          When a mass society has forgotten even the vestiges of the germinal rites of sharing, especially those related to women’s rituals, the philosophy and practice of selfishness (and individualism to the detriment of the group) begins to prevail. A feudal philosophy of taking care only of “one’s own family” to the exclusion of others—those who inherit or otherwise get lucky in the economic system define themselves as “blessed by god” and therefore righteous, no matter how they act, while the poor, dispossessed and otherwise exiled are understood as “cursed by god”—and abandoned whenever possible. The self- fulfilling prophecy of this distorted and selfish righteousness—a form of cronyism—leads the privileged to hold back assistance even in the face of dire need. The justifications they use for their “lifestyle” of extreme privilege leads them to make up blind fantasies about the poor, such as we have witnessed over the people who did not leave New Orleans prior to Katrina. The head of FEMA actually blamed the poor for “choosing” to stay; he seemed unable and obviously unwilling to absorb the fact that the definition of poor means no car, no money, no access to airplane tickets and hired busses—in short, no choices.

          As Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times September 19, 2005, confirming the widespread belief among 2/3 African Americans and 1/3 whites that race is the primary reason New Orleans and surrounding areas were left stranded for four, five days following the storm:

          But in a larger sense, the administration’s lethally inept response to Hurricane Katrina had a lot to do with race. For race is the biggest reason the United States, uniquely among advanced countries, is ruled by a political movement that is hostile to the idea of helping citizens in need.

          Race, after all, was central to the emergence of a Republican majority: essentially, the South switched sides after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Today, states that had slavery in 1860 are much more likely to vote Republican than states that didn’t.

          And who can honestly deny that race is a major reason America treats its poor more harshly than any other advanced nation? To put it crudely, a middle-class European, thinking about the poor, says to himself, “There but for the grace of God go I.” A middle-class American is all too likely to think, perhaps without admitting it to himself, “Why should I be taxed to support those people?”

          Above all, race-based hostility to the idea of helping the poor created an environment in which a political movement hostile to government in general could flourish.


          A philosophy of selfishness has permeated nearly every sector of the country, and even across groups whose roots began in community and equality: labor, civil rights, feminism all had values of intense and highly effective sharing thirty five years ago. Now even these communities, whose existence as social forces depend upon solidarity across differences, are split by class divisions, in a country led for too many years by right wing “independence from government” ideology, and the simple fact that in a market economy in which the tax base is manipulated toward the wealthy, some folks prosper and some folks slide downhill.

          Yet the impulse and ethic of sharing with those in need runs through our common humanity like a strong spine, an axis of practices passed down through our ancestral lineages. We survive as a species in large part because we know how to share in times of need and we know how to share to prevent times of dire need and crisis. Ordinary, everyday people know how to pour out our hearts in sharing.

          The ethic we inherit from ancestral rituals calls for celebration of abundance through sharing with those less financially fortunate, and to do the giving in structurally effective ways. That is, not with the dependency strings and manipulated stipulations so characteristic of the patronization of liberals and democrats, nor with the seedy hypocrisy of republican promises for “compassionate conservatism” while meantime siphoning off resources for already rich buddies. Societies look out for the needs of all citizens not because people are occasionally struck with bouts of compassion (or guilt), but simply because it is the right thing to do, the right way to live: it is an appropriate and balancing method of economic exchange, to give back from a place of prosperity, to share from a place of common humanity, and as a way of paying for services received outside the marketplace (such as the arts, spiritual leadership, past benefits of underpaid labor, the inestimable value of diversity) in an economic ethic of gratitude for our lives in society. Sharing is the single most effective method of homeland security.