The Republican Party is looking for a few more loonies

Every time I think Republicans cannot get any crazier, I am proven wrong. The latest example is of course Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO), who last week said that women who are raped have this heretofore clinically unknown ability to ward off rapist’s sperm, thereby not getting pregnant. But this can only occur in the case of a “legitimate rape”.

Silly me, I had no idea that rapes could be classified between legitimate and illegitimate. I thought by definition rape had to be non-consensual sex, but not in the crazy world of Republican ideology. I’m not sure but I think their wacky thinking runs something like this: some women secretly want to be raped. Maybe they go down dark alleys in miniskirts hoping some rapists leap out from behind trashcans. Why would they do this? Because they are so desperate to conceive that the only way they know how is to get raped. Going into bars and winking at strange men doesn’t occur to them. This sort of rape, in the view of Akin I imagine, is an illegitimate rape. If the woman welcomes the chance for rape and gets pregnant, consciously or unconsciously, she must want the child and thus she should not be allowed to have an abortion.

Thinking about this preposterous logic for a bit, there must be all sorts of illegitimate rapes. If your perverted and abusive father decides to rape you, well, no matter how vile it was that he raped you, you still love your father, right? So of course this is not a legitimate rape. Carry the child to term. Live with not only the shame of being violated by your own father, but having to explain or hide this from your child for life, as well as support him with no help from the government. After all, this child deserves life, even though being the product of incest he or she may well suffer genetic deformities.

Akin’s amazing and wholly unscientific beliefs raised howls of concerns from fellow Republicans. The howls came not for his beliefs but because he had the audacity to express them. (Naturally, he had many supporters, including women in his own district.) After all, his views are now codified in the 2012 Republican Party platform, which, if Tropical Storm Isaac ever leaves the vicinity of Tampa, will be routinely adapted by Republican delegates at their convention this week. That’s right. The Republican Party platform calls for all abortions to be outlawed via a constitutional amendment, with no exceptions for rape, “legitimate” or otherwise. It’s all about respect for life or something.

It’s hardly news that their respect for life ends at the moment of birth. From that moment on, new mother, you are on your own. Do not expect one penny from the government for your child. In fact, don’t expect the government to provide any prenatal care for you to carry your pregnancy to term either. Anyhow, once your child is born, forget about food stamps, forget about WIC supplements, forget about welfare, and forget about any form of government assistance. Your new baby can die of starvation and disease for all the Republican Party cares, because any of that is socialism, which is much worse than having no respect for life before birth. Hope instead for charity from non-governmental organizations. When questioned on the topic during the Republican presidential debates, that was Ron Paul’s solution. Magically, churches and private charities will step up and help all these poor children, even though they proved incapable of doing it before we invented these child welfare programs, as evidenced by all the homeless kids in the streets back then. Presumably in the new Republican order child protective services are out as well, at least at the federal level. If, like in the nineteenth century, life impoverishes these children then it’s okay if your kid ends up on the street. Maybe he can scrape together a living shining shoes or something. He has to learn self-reliance and personal initiative anyhow. Eating dog shit for dinner builds character. Children should embrace devastating poverty: it is an opportunity to prove your mettle.

The whole Republican Party has embraced crazy and unworkable ideology over reality. Try to find just one position in their party platform that is congruent with actual science. Please let me know if you find one, but I can save you the research: you won’t. Tropical Storm Isaac right now looks like it is bearing down on New Orleans, which almost seven years ago to the day devastated New Orleans and surrounding areas. President Bush dealt with the situation eating a birthday cake with John McCain on the tarmac in front of Air Force One. He entrusted FEMA to a former director of an Arabian horse association. He showed his respect for life by allowing senior citizens to drown in New Orleans nursing homes.

So what among other things would the Republican Party do today if their policies were adopted? To read from one plan, newly minted vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s plan, NOAA’s budget would be severely curtailed. The National Weather Service is part of NOAA, as is the National Hurricane Center. Some Republicans, like Ron Paul, would be thrilled to get rid of the Commerce Department altogether. (NOAA is part of the Commerce Department.) Which would leave it to the private sector to make hurricane predictions. Doubtless The Weather Channel would step up, buy their own weather satellites and hurricane spotter airplanes. Of course, hurricane forecasts would only be available to those who could afford to pay for it.

Reason simply plays no part in the Republican Party. It’s all about crazy ideology. It’s all about staying true to principles, principles that repeatedly have been proven false. Mitt Romney’s plan for the federal budget is fundamentally and mathematically flawed, as documented by many nonpartisan organizations that have studied it. But that doesn’t matter, first because they won’t admit they can’t do math and second because they must be true to principle, no matter what. The orthodoxy says taxes must be cut, particularly for the richest and somehow draconian cuts in services (but not the military, naturally, which will get an increase) will balance the budget. As if taking all that money out of the economy will somehow have a positive rather than a negative effect on the economy. Ideology, like religion, does not require reason. It simply requires unyielding, unreasonable and crazy faith, the sort, sadly, rampant in churches principally in Republican strongholds. It’s the sort of faith that lets you blithely ignore the scientific consensus on global warming and evolution.

And so boldly the Republican Party sails off in search of ever righter and crazier ideological waters. It is ideology so weird and reckless that their hero Ronald Reagan would be beating on the doors of the Democratic National Committee asking for readmission to the party.

Can you believe the unbelievable? Can you vote for policies that have proven catastrophically incorrect not once but twice? Can you suspend all the evidence and believe your president was not born in the United States and is a secret Muslim? Can you ignore the fact that our president actually loosened gun control laws and yet believe he is trying to take away your guns? Can you believe that President Obama wants to turn the United States government over to the United Nations? Can you believe that two plus two equals five? Can you believe that women who have suffered a “legitimate” rape have some secret spiritual powers to kill bad rapist sperm but let the good sperm, like your father’s, go through?

You can? Then the Republican Party is for you. And they have a big tent, because there are plenty of crazy people under it already, and they need just a few more to gain control and ensure complete national dysfunction. They are doing it, of course, on principle.

Like moving an aircraft carrier with paddles

As you might expect on my forum we have been discussing Hurricane Katrina. Who is to blame? Who is not to blame? Some fault New Orleans mayor C. Ray Nagin for not having fleets of school buses ready to ferry citizens to safety. Others criticize the Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco for not having an effective response to Hurricane Katrina. (It is harder to be effective when a third of the state’s National Guard is stuck in Iraq.)

Those of us living outside Louisiana are more focused on the response by federal officials. FEMA director Michael Brown dutifully fell on his sword. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff so far seems to be dodging responsibility, but he may be called to account in time. President Bush now says that he takes responsibility for the poor response by the federal government. These are surprising words from him, since he has spent the first five years of his presidency avoiding accountability. Naturally, his admission does not mean that he is planning to resign. Atonement seems to consist of spending in only a few months more money on hurricane relief and reconstruction than we spent so far for the entire Iraq war. Doubtless, his political adviser Karl Rove is pushing him to do so because he is fearful that some otherwise red states may flip to blue. It takes a heap of money to satisfy over a million very angry and displaced citizens, if it can be done at all.

It is human nature to cast blame. In this case, there appears to be plenty to go around. I would like to suggest that perhaps Congress was also to blame by creating the Department of Homeland Security in the first place.

Just in case you are wondering if I hate America and want terrorists to run free, that is not how I feel. I just wonder if creating a centralized cabinet level department, amounting to the largest reorganization of the federal government in fifty years, was the smartest way to protect our homeland. As a long-term strategy, perhaps it made some sense. In the short-term those of us who have been around the bureaucracy a while knew what to expect: a lot of dysfunction and chaos.

The last agency I worked for, the Administration for Children and Families is a typical example of what happens when agencies merge. When I arrived in 1998, the agency was still quite obviously still the two agencies it had been prior to 1991. The reality was that it still acted like the two agencies it had been: the Family Support Administration and the Office of Human Development Services. Each was still doing its own thing, right down to using dissimilar email systems. Sure, they were trying to become one integrated agency but it was still a daunting process. Each agency had a long legacy of doing things their own way. Each had programs that had to keep going in spite of the merger. So merging the two agencies into one agency in reality was something that was very hard to do. It was a little like running and juggling at the same time. It is possible, but most of us do not acquire this skill easily.

By government standards, the merger that produced ACF was not too complex. After all, these were just two agencies that needed to come together, not a dozen. In addition, they belonged to the same department before the merger. By the time I left, thirteen years after the merger, integration finally felt achieved. For one thing, the agency was finally using one email system.

Now look at this new Department of Homeland Security. Pieces of DHS came from the Treasury, Health and Human Services, Justice, Transportation, Agriculture, Defense and Energy departments. It also absorbed portions of independent agencies like the FBI and GSA, and the entire Federal Protective Service. Before the merger, these agencies rarely talked to each other.

Of course, each of these agencies had previous missions that were left largely intact after their consolidation into DHS. While the DHS secretary had authority over these agencies, the reality was that getting them orchestrated was and continues to be a big and frustrating endeavor. To take one example, a new DHS performance based personnel system needs to be created. Meanwhile these agencies are having a tough time continuing their old mission. Why? Because a lot of chaos is being thrown at them. Just because INS became ICE did not mean that immigrants were going to stop coming into the country. Second, they have new or expanded missions directed by the DHS secretary. Third, boundary lines and responsibilities became unclear. They may be there on paper, but working through the low-level intricacies to implement these changes is very difficult. Fourth, they are being pressured to make all these big changes very quickly. The result is that instead of having a dozen or so agencies that in the past were reasonably effective in their individual missions, now there are a dozen or so agencies with reduced ability to carry out their missions. They seem like they are stuck in the tar pit.

There are possible ways around this sort of bureaucratic mess. One way is to have centralized budgetary authority but to continue to let each agency to perform its mission relatively freely. In other words, the DHS secretary could set goals for what needed to be done but leave the strategy and implementation to the individual agencies. The downside is that each agency may misinterpret what they should do, and there may be turf battles. The upside is the things that each agency can probably carry out its individual missions fairly well, since sand is probably not gunking up their engines.

It appears though that DHS, trying to bend to the will of the president and Congress, promised the moon. They would do it all, and they would do it all very quickly. It was a stupid thing to promise of course. However, good civil servants simply salute and do their best to make it so. Unfortunately, their best cannot possibly meet Congress’s unrealistic and stratospheric expectations. Congress always asks for the moon, and they want it yesterday. They expect elephants to dance immediately.

The result is a lot of bureaucratic dysfunction, some of which I believe was sadly but predictably manifest in the response to Hurricane Katrina. It was the idea of homeland security meeting the sad but predictable reality of how fast a new large organization can meet its new mission. Instead of acting like a well-trained police force, we had the Keystone Kops. Should we act surprised if they were never sent to the academy?

Our government is of course very large because it is being asked to manage large, difficult and multifaceted problems. Believe it or not it can do many things very well. I ought to know. I have been a civil servant for over twenty years. My current agency, the U.S. Geological Survey, is amazingly well run and effective. However, it has also largely been left to itself. It retains the same name it had when it was created in the 19th century. As a science organization, it is largely left alone to do its science. I have little doubt that if it were pulled apart and its pieces stuck in different departments that it would devolve into a collection of inefficient pieces.

A new department like DHS can be envisioned like new large aircraft carrier just out of the dry dock. The crew is new, coming on board, finding their quarters and checking out the ship. The crew consists of people who worked on completely different kinds of ships and boats. So right now, the crew is trying to figure out how to get the engines to run and to steer the ship. It will come in time. Nevertheless, for now expecting DHS to move efficiently is like trying to move this aircraft carrier with many long paddles from the flight deck. Perhaps with everyone rowing at the same time even this behemoth ship will move. However good the idea of DHS was in the abstract, do not expect it to be smooth sailing for many years to come. Let us hope those out to destroy our country have many other distractions or are more inept.

The Illusion of Safety

It is not very often that I find myself agreeing with a Republican. Yet it happened recently. Moreover, of all the unlikely people I agreed with, it was Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert. Speaker Hastert suggested, at least initially, that the City of New Orleans should not be rebuilt.

Asked whether it made sense to spend billions of federal tax dollars reconstructing a city that sits below sea level and remains vulnerable, Hastert said: “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

Hastert since backed off his remarks. How he says:

“My comments about rebuilding the city were intended to reflect my sincere concern with how the city is rebuilt to ensure the future protection of its citizens and not to suggest that this great and historic city should not be rebuilt,” Hastert said in a statement sent to news organizations Thursday.

Clearly, he soon realized that his remarks were politically incorrect. Naturally, he was pounced on for his remarks. My favorite liberal blog had numerous diaries and stories pummeling him for the remark. The common thread was that Hastert was being an insensitive and uncaring jerk. Hastert may be that way in real life for all I know. I have never met him. In this case, Hastert may have been blunt, but I also think he was right.

It may be that the kindest act the government can do for New Orleans is to bury it. The city had a great run but Hurricane Katrina should have sobered up everyone. New Orleans is no longer viable as a city in its current location. Perhaps that is why its population has been declining. It will likely decline a lot more after this disaster.

Nearby Bay St. Louis, Mississippi was destroyed by Hurricane Camille in 1969 and subsequently rebuilt. Now Hurricane Katrina has destroyed it again. Bay St. Louis though is comparatively small compared with New Orleans. In addition, it is above sea level. Arguably, after Hurricane Camille, Bay St. Louis should have been rebuilt further inland. However, given its size, it makes no economic sense to rebuild New Orleans. It will suffer the same fate again. No levee can be built high enough to keep the city from its ultimate fate. The higher the levees go the more force the river can apply to the levees, which makes them more likely it is to be breeched. When that happens, more people will die needlessly and it will probably happen much more quickly.

What is needed is some tough love. Yes, we need to help the residents of New Orleans and affected parishes rebuild their lives. We should certainly continue to provide temporary shelter and emergency aid. However, when it comes to rebuilding these residents’ lives, we need to help them do it elsewhere. The government should provide incentives for these dislocated citizens to rebuild their lives inland. It should offer disincentives for rebuilding their lives in New Orleans.

Of course, I know how difficult this will be for the affected families. Many likely have roots in New Orleans that go back generations. While I have never been to New Orleans, I know it has a unique culture, wonderful people and many fine historic buildings. Perhaps these institutions should be preserved. Perhaps the city could become a tourist destination only. Nevertheless, I do not think people should actually live in the city again. The risk for its inhabitants is unacceptable. Those who choose to do so should be required to sign a statement disclaiming the government from all financial liabilities for their decision.

New Orleans is really part of a natural coastal flood plain. Just as development is strictly limited on the Outer Banks of North Carolina (homeowners who choose to build houses there generally cannot afford homeowner or flood insurance) those who choose to live in New Orleans or anywhere along our hurricane coasts have to bear the enormous risks to themselves and their property for their decision. We do not bail out gamblers who lose their fortunes in Las Vegas. Similarly, we should not reward New Orleans residents with low cost loans or grants to rebuild their houses.

The response to Hurricane Katrina was clearly bungled at all levels of government. However, the situation was exacerbated by the folly of having so many people living in such a dangerous area. Clearly more should have been done to evacuate people who did not have the means to leave the city. Clearly the local, state and the federal governments should have done a much better job preparing for huge disasters like Hurricane Katrina. While more lives could have been saved, it is folly to think this disaster could have been prevented.

Since 9/11, in particular we have expected our government to keep us safe. Certainly, the government should do a lot to keep us safe from known threats. However, even a premier superpower like the United States has its limits. When a Category 4 or 5 hurricane hits a coastal area with 140 mile an hour or plus winds, and sends storm surges of twenty feet or more above sea level then all the government can do is wait out the event and pick up the pieces as best it can. If you live along a Gulf Coast and you expect the government to keep you and your property safe from hurricanes, you are deluded. Unless everyone lives in hurricane-reinforced structures like the USGS Hydrological Instrumentation Facility (which I happen to know about through my job) homes are going to be destroyed. (The HIF, by the way, sheltered hundreds of people during the storm and emerged reasonably intact.) Even if you are fortunate enough to live in such a facility, there are still no guarantees. Mother Nature can undo any work of man. If it does not succeed through a calamity, it occurs through the slow but steady march of time.

So here is the sad reality: the government cannot protect its citizens from lots of threats. Even the threats that we want it to protect us from are largely out of its control. After 9/11, we want assurances that similar incidents will not recur in the United States. The government can do a lot to deter such events, but it cannot necessarily prevent all of them. We can do obvious things like screen passengers and baggage entering the country. Nevertheless, with thousands of miles of borders that we have never succeeded in securing, someone with the will and the means can get into our country. Considering our success rate at capturing illegal aliens, a determined terrorist will find a way to get into our country.

We must wake up and acknowledge government’s limits. We cry out to government to protect us from terrorism, natural disasters, crime, unsafe medicines and foods, gun violence, disease and from millions of other things. Fear is our greatest motivator. Politicians have played on our fears to keep them in office. It may be that because politicians could not protect us adequately from Hurricane Katrina that voters will throw the bums out, and put Democrats back in charge. As a partisan Democrat, I certainly hope so. While no government can make life completely safe for everyone, the Democrats have a much better record of these accomplishments than Republicans do.

Nevertheless, if Democrats get back into office by persuading voters that they will keep America safe they too will be guilty of wholesale pandering. It is foolish to promise that the government can keep its citizens completely safe on any issue. All government can do is improve the odds. Arguably, it should have been a lot better in deterring 9/11 and preparing for Hurricane Katrina. Yet life is uncertain. No government, no matter how competent and well funded can make it certain.

However, government act progressively. It can do a lot to minimize future calamities. In the case of hurricanes, it can penalize those who choose to live near the coast and reward those who live away from our coasts. The chances of this happening in our democracy though are slim. We voters insist that our politicians tell us what they want to hear. So we voters need to sober up too. We need to realize that any government has natural limitations. We need to use our forebrains and vote logically. We should not be pulling the levers for politicians who tell us what we want to hear. Instead, we should be supporting those who have realistic plans for those areas that the government can competently manage.

Life is uncertain. We can be alive at one moment and dead the next. We will all die in time. We will all suffer our share of disasters, heartache and misery. Suffering, as the Buddhists (and others) have pointed out, is an unpleasant fact. We cannot wish it away. We can certainly minimize it, and government can do a lot to reduce unnecessary suffering. Nevertheless, we must all suffer. Despite our best-laid plans, some shit is going to happen. We must come to terms the uncertainty of our lives. It is sensible for many of us to take steps to minimize life’s risks. Nevertheless, our lives are like rolling a pair of die. It is foolish to think we will get snake eyes every time.

Thank God for Allies

At the United Nations, our unconfirmed U.N. Ambassador John Bolton keeps up the vitriolic rhetoric at the United Nations. You would think that after the worst natural catastrophe in the United States in most of our lifetimes that he might be a bit more demur. Sadly, this is not the case. We Americans are extraordinary fortunate to still have allies. Yes, even those damned effeminate and pussy whipped Frenchies seem to be anxious to help the United States out through the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina.

Aid (or at least offers of aid) is pouring in from countries of all types. Germany, France, Spain, Great Britain and Canada are all working their refineries overtime for us. Europe is drawing from its strategic gasoline reserves and shipping much of it to the United States.

“It’s self-evident that we support the American bid,” German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder told a news conference in Berlin.

France echoed Schroeder’s remarks: “This request is consistent with efforts for solidarity with the American people,” the Industry Ministry said in a statement.

Meanwhile, the International Energy Agency announced that its members would release an extra two million barrels of oil a day to help stabilize oil markets. About half of this amount is in the form of already refined gasoline stocks to be provided by European countries. In the United States, our immediate problem is not a lack of oil. It is a lack of refining capacity. While we may still see gas lines in the short run, over the next few weeks we should see the situation ease as our foreign friends step in to help us through a tough time.

Non-petroleum aid is flowing in too. Even erstwhile enemy Cuba is offering to fly in 1,110 doctors and 26 tons of aid. The country of Sri Lanka, hit by the devastating December 26th tsunami, is sending aid. It may be a token amount, but it demonstrates how powerful the forces of international compassion can be when disaster strikes.

That some of these countries still count us as friends shows how fortunate our country is. If they were to respond to our country the way we have vilified some of them over the last few years we could just as easily been left high and dry. Perhaps we would have deserved our comeuppance. I have to assume their leaders are cut from some better cloth than ours. Perhaps this outpouring of international support is just a logical reaction to the horrible news stories from our gulf coast that are being sent across the world. Or more likely we are still drawing from the legacy of cooperative international leadership that was typical of the United States from Roosevelt until the election of Ronald Reagan. Or perhaps our allies recognize that our current government is an aberration and that sensible government will return by 2008.

For whatever reasons we Americans should be grateful for this charity, because the conduct of late of our so-called leaders suggests that we do not deserve it. Let us not forget that after 9/11 our NATO allies provided aircraft and other facilities to guard our own coastlines. Yet, when some of these same allies refused to support us in our illegal invasion of Iraq, we railed against them. We hissed at them. No less than our own Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld rudely dismissed Germany and France as part of “Old Europe”.

It will take many months for New Orleans to be even in a position to rebuild. Rebuilding that city, along with many others along that part of the gulf coast, will take many years. Thanks to the benevolence of other countries, Americans will be spared a lot of unnecessary agony. Ironically, a lot of this international aid might not have been necessary had our government not failed so miserably managing its response to this hurricane. Our failure is a direct result of a leadership whose attention is focused on the wrong priorities. Now many of those nations that we so recently scorned and pilloried are rushing to help us.

Just as good neighbors make a good neighborhood, good relations with other countries make for a better world community. We can see this goodwill manifested once again in this latest time of need. I would hope that we would learn a lesson from this goodwill. However, so far we see nothing from “Ambassador” John Bolton that would indicate he sees much value in cooperative working relations with other countries unless they echo the perspective of the United States. As for our Secretary of State, Condi Rice found it convenient to spend her holiday shoe shopping and seeing Spamalot rather than high tailing it back to Washington to coordinate international relief.

Therefore, expecting much of a change of behavior for our current administration is likely pointless. However, hopefully the American people are now fully awake and sober. We may pretend otherwise but we are one world. Consequently, we had better all learn to get along together. We must learn to scratch each other’s backs. It is a shame that the United States, which for so long epitomized international cooperation, now has to painfully relearn it. When progressive government is put back into place in 2006 and 2008, I am hopeful that the United States will once again reenter the international mainstream.

Meanwhile, from one U.S. citizen to the rest of the world, I would like to say that we are thankful and appreciative that you are coming to help in our time of great need.

Time to take off the rose colored glasses

Like many Americans, I am trying to grasp the scale of the disaster inflicted by Hurricane Katrina. Words seem to be inadequate. News accounts, images on TV and in the newspaper go far beyond poignancy. It is hard to fathom the agony that many of my fellow citizens are dealing with. It is hard for me to even know how to adequately respond. I gave money to the American Red Cross, like I usually do in these situations. Yet I also feel like I should be doing more. I feel like I should be rolling bandages or something. But for now I am too shocked to do much differently.

We all have had our brushes with disaster during life. The closest my wife and I came to disaster happened a day after we settled on our first house, a townhouse. The previous owners rented the place and did not care too much about maintenance. Some bozo “fixed” a toilet problem with a wing nut. It came loose and the toilet went on perpetual overflow mode. We arrived the next day to paint (it happened sometime after closing) to find the ceilings down and inches of standing water on the ground floor. All we had was a verbal promise from our insurer that we were covered. And after the closing costs we were as poor as church mice. At the time, it seemed insurmountable. However, in a month it was mostly a bad memory.

The scale of our little “disaster” would not register as a pinprick to someone trying to survive today in New Orleans, Biloxi or one of the many communities inundated by Hurricane Katrina. None of our resources applied to this problem can keep what appears to be thousands of people from dying in the fetid lake that is now New Orleans. Hundreds or thousands are likely already dead.

My cousin Beth was one of the luckier ones. She had the presence and the money to get out of the city. She owns a house in New Orleans. She has no idea whether it is still standing. If it then it is likely looted. She will be lucky if she is permitted to return to her house within six months. Her assets are now largely what she managed to cram into her car. Nevertheless, she made it out safely. She is staying with her brother in St. Louis. My family is thinking of taking up a collection for her, and we are providing offers of shelter as she considers other jobs. Perhaps she will eventually return to her job in New Orleans but it sounds like it is gone with the wind and the water. Of course, she left many friends in New Orleans. She has no idea how many are alive or dead.

I get the impression that the media is making a lot less of this disaster than it should. This may be because New Orleans is currently so inaccessible. Scary posts like this suggest that the final death toll may conservatively be in the tens of thousands. For some perspective, this would be even a larger death toll than the hurricane in 1900 that struck Galveston, Texas and killed 6,000 people. However, in 1900 Galveston was a relatively small city. America has grown since then. New Orleans itself has 1.3 million people.

I am torn between wanting to point fingers and throwing my hands up in despair. This exact scenario was not exactly unanticipated. Clearly much more should have been done to avoid this catastrophe. The money the Army Corp of Engineers requested to shore up levees and add pumps turned out to be a fraction of their request. It appears that war in Iraq and tax cuts were more important than the boring business of shoring up levees. So of course, I am angry. Yet my anger must be nothing compared to the citizens of New Orleans. It is all gone and life for those who remain is a chancy game of surviving thirst, hunger and heat stroke.

Yes, I think that we could do a whole lot more than we are doing. I do not understand why every helicopter owned by the U.S. government in the continental United States has not been mobilized to get stranded citizens out of the city. I do not understand why we cannot at least drop food and bottled water to those who are on the brink of perishing. However, I also know that disasters are by their very nature chaotic. The best-laid plans have to adapt to the reality on the ground. I am sure there will be a commission a few years from now that will detail the myriad mistakes that were made. Moreover Bush, if he is still in office, will make sober sounding speeches saying that the United States will be prepared next time. Yet we all know that when things return to something resembling normal that we will go back to politics as usual.

Will they really? This disaster has the potential to spiral far beyond the flood ravaged and wind affected areas. Naturally, gasoline prices are sharply increasing across the nation. Nevertheless, I am more concerned about whether gas will be available at all. We are already seeing gas lines in places we do not expect, such as in Orlando, Florida. I read in the paper that my area is served by a petroleum pipelines from New Orleans that are not operating: there is no electricity to pump the oil up to be refined. Therefore, I will not be surprised if I am also a tangential victim of this storm. I guess if I survived gas lines in the late 1970s, I can do it again.

I am baffled and befuddled by some of my fellow citizens. I have never been to New Orleans or Biloxi and I am sure they are (were) wonderful places. Nevertheless, why would sensible people choose to move to a place that is ripe for disaster? New Orleans itself is below sea level. Storms happen. Are these Americans absent the common sense gene? I have a sister in Fort Lauderdale whose boat was damaged when Hurricane Katrina passed through. This was when it barely qualified as a hurricane. She is dealing with it. She and her husband dodged many hurricanes in their years in Florida. Every year it is one or more high stakes gamble with Mother Nature. This time their lifestyle received a bad wound. Is any coastal Florida lifestyle worth this gamble to life and property?

I imagine that New Orleans will be rebuilt. Yet I also wonder why. It is inevitable that something like this will recur some time in New Orleans’ future. It will happen to Miami one of these days too. Ditto for every major city along the East Coast and the Gulf Coast. Is it natural selection that causes us to move to these places? Or are we inveterate gamblers who thrill playing against the odds? Or are we so caught up in the present that we cannot imagine the probable consequences of our choice?

With sea temperatures warmer than a century ago, it does not take a meteorologist to understand cause and effect. The increased temperature adds to the potency of the hurricane. Seas are warmer at least in part because of manmade global warming. Some would argue that this is precisely what happened in New Orleans.

Meanwhile rising sea levels will slowly encroach on our coastal areas. Perhaps we can hold them off indefinitely. The Dutch seem to have figured out a way to reclaim the North Sea in spite of all odds. However, I personally doubt that Mother Nature can be defeated in the end. Every state needs laws that limit or even prohibit development near coastlines. It simply invites trouble.

As Cindy Sheehan is a harbinger about our War in Iraq, so is Hurricane Katrina a likely harbinger for our nation’s future. If we were smart, we would take heed. A few weeks ago, I said I felt like we were at the end of the best of times. Hurricane Katrina may make it official. I want to say that gas lines, a recession and serious inflation are not in our immediate future, but I feel it in my heart. Just as Iraq collapsed our house of cards internationally, Katrina shows just how vulnerable we are to natural disasters. Bush has been Nero playing the fiddle while Rome burned.

Therefore, my fellow Americans, it is past time for all of us to wake up. Do not smell the coffee. Smell the raw sewage and decaying bodies in New Orleans. Get used to the idea of costly gas and waiting in long lines for gas. You should hope that as inflation returns that your job is not a casualty. Admit that you sinned when you bought that SUV. I hope you can buy a hybrid at any price. Nevertheless, as I warned a couple times the era of cheap oil is over. It is time to acknowledge the obvious. You should downsize your life, pay down your debts, fatten your bank accounts and live prudently. You should be paying attention to macro trends. Do you live within a few miles of your job and convenient groceries? If you do not then you should be working to rearrange your life. You too may be like a victim of Hurricane Katrina if you are too dependent on your car.

Hurricane Katrina is likely to be the biggest natural disaster for my country in my lifetime. As horrible as 9/11 was, this disaster is far worse. If we must find someone to blame then we best look in the mirror. Yet so far, we do not seem to grasp its magnitude or ultimate significance. We think that in a few weeks or months that things will be back to normal. I hope so too. But I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore. A new and greyer dawn is breaking. It is time to peer over our windowsills, steel ourselves and grapple with its ugly reality.

The Prisoner: Classic TV with Modern Echoes

Since I don’t watch much TV it was not surprising that I first saw the TV Series “The Prisoner” (starring “Secret Agent Man” Patrick McGoohan) in a theater. The year was 1976 and the place was the University of Central Florida. For a number of successive Friday nights we dorm rats would traipse down to the Student Union to watch three back-to-back episodes from the classic British TV Series “The Prisoner”. I was hooked on the first show “Arrival”. Recently I got to enjoy the series again. Yes, the complete 17 episodes are now in my DVD collection.

For those of you who have never seen “The Prisoner” it is a British produced series about a secret agent who abruptly resigns from the spy service. The actor, producer and occasional writer and director Patrick McGoohan plays the resigned spy. He returns home to pack for an extended holiday. As he packs gas comes through a keyhole in his door and renders him unconscious. He wakes up to find himself in “The Village”. The Village appears to be on a large unknown island. All the villagers seem to be people who used to work for the intelligence services and know too much to be free. So they are confined in “The Village” instead. Stripped of their names they are given numbers. McGoohan plays a man identified only as “Number Six”.

The plot is one of irresistible force meeting an immovable object. In pretty much every episode the head honcho of The Village (Number Two) tries every nefarious means he can think of to get Number Six to tell him why he resigned. Number Six of course wants to know what side Number Two is on. Has he been captured by the enemy or by his own government? Number Two refuses to tell him. All he wants to know is why he resigned. Number Six resists. “I am not a number, I am a free man!” he exclaims. When Number Two is invariably foiled by Number Six in the next episode we find a new Number Two to take his place bent on cracking his will.

For a series produced in the middle of Beatlemania the shows holds up very well. The series consists of seventeen episodes. With every episode the pressure on Number Six grows. Increasingly the strategies get more desperate and bizarre. All sorts of mind games, medical experiments and drugs are used to try to break Number Six.

It still seems a bit futuristic, even if the styles are dated and the computers are huge boxes sporting large reel-to-reel tape recorders. It has a creepy film noir all its own that includes an amorphous large object (actually a weather balloon) that tracks down escapees and miscreants and smothers them. Number Six does actually manage to escape a couple times, only to find himself back in The Village at the end.

Throughout the series one hanging question is who is the unseen “Number One”. It is Number One who gives orders to Number Two. If you watch all seventeen episodes you will eventually have the satisfaction of finding out. The series ends on an existentialist note that made many angry. But now forty years later it looks increasingly brilliant.

Essentially the series is a parable on the boundary between freedom and the needs of a larger community. Does anyone have the right not to conform and live by his or her own rules? Or all we all bound together in a common collective whether we like it or not? McGoohan plays an unyielding individual who proclaims and exercises his innate right to live his life ordered his way. Number Two represents obedience to a higher authority and the necessity of everyone to fit in.

A feeling of low-grade horror pervades the series because everything seems so ordinary. Seemingly happy people who have had their soul ripped out populate the Village. They move around and talk and do things but they don’t seem alive. They are wholly superficial. And yet some people mysteriously disappear when they don’t conform. The state watches everything and everyone, but seems abnormally obsessed with Number Six.

As a parable, the series seems more familiar these days than I would like. Since the oxymoronic Patriot Act was passed many of the things shown in “The Prisoner” are now quite legal.

For example our president is now permitted by law to detain anyone, including a United States citizen, indefinitely and without trial based on national security grounds. All he needs to say is that it is justified as being necessary for the security of the state. Potentially today anyone considered “unmutual” (a term used in “The Prisoner”) might be locked up. President Bush doesn’t even have to tell anyone who he has “detained”. Our modern day “prisoners” (potential terrorists and “enemy combatants”) can be locked up indefinitely in their own far less lovely villages, never seen by the International Red Cross and tortured by our own government. At some point they may be subjected to Village-like “tribunals” without benefit of a lawyer or the right to gather evidence in their defense. Number Two and the Village Council would approve of these tactics, I think.

Today the new Number Two no longer lives at the Green Dome. He is living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But hopefully those of us who are still Number Sixes at heart will form a critical mass and put in a more benevolent Number Two this November. Perhaps the latest Village Rules (The Patriot Act) will be repealed and we can all get back to living in glorious disharmony again.