By Gwynne Dyer
IT’S not fair to blame United States president George W Bush for the disaster in New Orleans.
He had nothing to do w
ith the evacuation operation that left the poorest and most helpless people behind. If some of his appointees failed to give enough attention and money to the city’s sea defences, well, so have other appointees of other administrations for decades past.
But George W will get the blame, and that may set some long-overdue changes in motion.
Americans are not merely outraged by the fate of New Orleans; they are deeply embarrassed, for this has been a public humiliation seen around the world.
A visibly angry reporter for the British Broadcasting Corporation, making an on-camera report from New Orleans four days after the disaster, spoke of how the disaster had revealed “the dark underbelly of life in this country”, and that was just how most non-Americans see it.
Almost all the people abandoned in New Orleans to struggle for survival (or just to drown) were poor and black.
They belong to a hidden, Third-World America so alienated from mainstream American society that armed gangs quickly sprang up to loot and victimise the survivors.
Not Third-World, really, but Fourth-World, for most countries of the Third-World have solidarity and social discipline.
In New Orleans, even rescue helicopters were fired on, something that did not happen once amidst all the grief and despair of the tsunami disaster in the Indian Ocean countries last December.
It’s not that most foreigners are anti-American – they aren’t – or that Americans care desperately about what foreigners think – they don’t.
But they care a bit, and they know what the foreigners must be thinking.
The Dutch, almost half of whom live below sea-level, are thinking that they would never so neglect their dikes that a predictable storm would inundate one of their major cities.
They also know that if such a catastrophe did occur, some individuals might be left behind to die – no system is perfect – but that no Dutch government would forget several hundred thousand of its own citizens who lacked the money and the transport to get themselves out of harm’s way.
Similarly, Indians, Sri Lankans, Malaysians and Indonesians who bore the brunt of the Indian Ocean tsunami last December are thinking that they saw no scenes of violence and social breakdown like those that ravaged New Orleans last week.
Even in areas like north-eastern Sri Lanka and Indonesia’s Aceh province where there had been years of war between local insurgents and the government, social solidarity was the automatic response to natural disaster.
Other countries are simply stunned by the scenes of official incompetence and social collapse in the United States that have been playing on their television screens for the past week.
They already knew that the giant had feet of clay: a government that can make such a mess of a minor colonial war can also make a mess of disaster relief. But they are shocked by the fact that almost all the victims belong to the black underclass.
That is not Bush’s fault, though he has not tried very hard to change the old realities of race in America.
He will, however, get the blame for it, and the blame may not be expressed solely in words.
The last time that the United States saw the same combination of rising casualties in a futile foreign war and a heightened consciousness among black Americans of just how little of the country’s wealth and opportunity come their way, was 1965-68. And American cities burned.
With luck, they will not burn again. But similar situations produce similar patterns, and suddenly the situation in the United States begins to resemble the mid-60s.
The anger of black Americans, the humiliation felt by many Americans of every colour, and the existing unhappiness about the war in Iraq may add up to a lever long enough to move the country.
Cindy Sheehan by herself could not have produced a wave of protest strong enough to overcome the Bush administration’s huge propaganda machine.
Neither would the New Orleans disaster have been enough on its own to reawaken the revolt of the American underclass that has lain dormant since the early 1970s.
But the foreign and the domestic disasters together may actually tip the scales. That would make Bush’s last three years in office thoroughly miserable, but it isn’t really about him.
The question is: what would it do for the future of America and of the world?
America’s reputation has not been so low in the world since the Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon presidencies of 1963-73, but few foreigners really want to see the United States humiliated.
What they want is a better America, closer to its own ideals both in its treatment of its own citizens and in its behaviour in the wider world. Just about the same thing that most Americans want, in fact.
Lies can be defeated by the truth, and good can come out of evil.
The United States has taken the wrong road abroad in trying to establish American hegemony in the world, and it has abandoned many of its own citizens at home.
These things can be fixed, but only Americans can fix them. At last, an opportunity has presented itself.
* Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.