September 7, 2005

Bridge too far

What an opportunity! Yes, now you can act just like the Waltons. On Sunday, former presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush held a press conference to announce, among other things, that Wal-Mart and the Walton family had donated $23 million to the Hurricane Katrina relief effort. Of that total, $8 million came from the Walton family, while $15 million came from the corporation they founded and run.

Obviously, this is a very generous gift, but maybe not so generous as it sounds. Let’s put it this way: If you have a family net worth of $1 million, which would place you among the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans, a proportionate gift would be $80, or less than a quarter a day. If you’re the average American family, you would only have to contribute about $20 to match, on a percentage basis, the Walton gift.

(OK, we probably shouldn’t call it a gift. It’s more like a rebate, since the people who have suffered most in the hurricane tragedy are the typical Wal-Mart customers who have made the Waltons so rich.)

In any event, this is not to disparage the Walton largesse. I draw the comparison to highlight the unavoidable truth of the catastrophe: The people who died and those whose lives were otherwise destroyed by Hurricane Katrina have been left behind, both literally and figuratively, invisible in the rearview mirrors of the Waltons and the American privileged class.

When the history of this unprecedented human disaster is written over the next decade, it is certain to include the topic of how race and wealth determined who lived and who survived, who recovered and who fell further behind.

Rap star Kanye West may have gone over the top when he claimed on national television that George W. Bush hates black people, but can anyone seriously doubt that the response of governments at all levels would have been different if the storm had flooded Hilton Head Island or Seattle or Kennebunkport, Maine? Thousands of people died because essential services were not delivered as quickly as they needed to be. A society that pretentiously believes it is superior in every way to all others, demonstrated that it is woefully inferior in many critical ways. And in an example of supreme irony, a federal government run by people who don’t believe in the importance of government showed how inept they are at running one.

The true tragedy is that we are a society with an enormous disparity between haves and have-nots, and it is that disparity, and the unavoidably concomitant lack of empathy, that exacerbated the human suffering on the Gulf Coast.

Many liberals, myself included, are liberal not because we understand how poor people live, but because we know how rich people live. We know it is wrong, and dangerous, for some to have so much and others so little. If the truth be told, America’s privileged classes don’t really understand how poor people live, although the last week has been painfully instructive.

We don’t understand how people live on $11,000 a year, which is the average income of blacks in New Orleans. We betrayed our ignorance when we asked much too often, “Why didn’t they leave?” The reality that some people actually do not own cars or, if they did, could not afford to gas them up, obviously did not occur to the people we count on to plan for emergencies like this one. It was not racism that made President Bush feel that he could prolong his vacation until two days after the storm hit and the levees broke, or that made Condoleezza Rice believe she could continue her shopping spree on Fifth Avenue. No, it could only have been a lack of understanding of exactly how hopelessly poor and helpless some Americans are.

If there is anything certain about the early history of Hurricane Katrina, it is that much of what we think we know will be proven wrong. Initial reports of people shooting at helicopters were quickly discredited. Same thing with gunfire in the Superdome. Sure, there has been unconscionable looting, violence and other inhuman acts by people for whom poverty cannot be an excuse. But none of those isolated incidents can be allowed to distract us from a national discussion of how big a gulf there is in America between rich and poor, and the consequences of that gulf for our society.

President Bush has already said that he will not reconsider his commitment to eliminating the federal estate tax. You see, it’s important to allow the Waltons to pass on every one of their 100 billion dollar bills to their heirs, because some eventually will trickle down to help the poor people of the Gulf Coast.

No, many Americans need a flood of support. A trickle won’t do.