Whose Victory, Exactly?

Last week my son’s elementary school raised several thousand dollars for hurricane victims by washing cars. My other son’s preschool announced without fuss that a boy from New Orleans would be joining the class. My employer is organizing help for the company’s Gulf Coast employees, my local bookstore is collecting money for the Red Cross and my favorite radio station raised $54,000 last weekend. Every church or synagogue attended by anyone I know is, of course, raising money, housing evacuees or delivering clothes to victims.

To put it differently, nearly every institution with which I come into daily contact — my library, my grocery store, my search engine — has already donated time or money to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, and I don’t think this makes me or my community unique. A Zogby poll conducted last week found that 68 percent of Americans had donated money to hurricane relief. An ABC News/Washington Post poll published yesterday found that 60 percent had already donated, and a further 28 percent intend to. Those percentages mean that donors must represent a huge range of political views, economic classes, even aesthetic preferences. Indeed, among the fundraisers listed in last weekend’s Post were a jazz concert, a tea dance, a “Christian music” concert and a rehearsal of Verdi’s “The Sicilian Vespers.” No wonder the Red Cross has already collected more than half a billion dollars; no wonder it was impossible to get on to the Salvation Army’s Web site at peak times last week.

But those percentages also mean that it is important not to draw hasty conclusions about the ultimate political impact of this tragedy. More specifically, it’s important to ignore the hasty conclusions that have already been drawn, both here and abroad, about the victory of “big government” and the death of a certain kind of American individualism. The German chancellor — once again using American politics in his election campaign — has already called the disaster an argument for “strong government.” Polly Toynbee, a columnist for Britain’s Guardian, declared that Katrina revealed “a hollowed superpower . . . a country that is not a country at all, but atomised, segmented individuals living parallel lives as far apart as possible.” A Los Angeles Times article, headlined “A Comeback for Big Government,” more objectively quoted lots of experts agreeing that in the wake of the hurricane, the administration will “put aside its interest in small government.”

But while it is true that the government’s relief effort looks set to dwarf anything it has tried before, consider what the actual experience of the disaster has already been — not theoretically, not on paper, but in practice. Listen, for example, to volunteers who prepared 92 boats to help evacuate people from the rooftops of New Orleans. They were ultimately kept out by Federal Emergency Management Agency bureaucrats because, among other things, they didn’t have life preservers. Or listen to the volunteers who organized 100 doctors to treat 400 sick people at a converted Baton Rouge warehouse — until they, too, were told by the government to shut down, reopen and then shut down again. Or to the hundreds of firefighters who, according to the New York Times, responded to a nationwide call for help and were then “held by the federal agency in Atlanta for days of training on community relations and sexual harassment,” while women were raped and lives were lost in New Orleans. Compare their frustration to the joy experienced by 8-year-olds across the country, washing cars for the Red Cross.

By the same token, consider the effectiveness of the relief strategies so far. With great fanfare, the federal government announced it would distribute debit cards to Katrina victims. The result was chaos, anger and expectations of fraud. Quietly, the Red Cross has been paying evacuees’ hotel bills. The result is that 57,000 people have time to plan what to do next. Massive government efforts to get people into massive shelters have led to dissatisfaction, delays, long lines and frustration. But private initiatives — ranging across the political spectrum from MoveOn.org’s Hurricanehousing.org, which is advertising space in thousands of private homes, to First Baptist Church in Athens, Tex., which has just installed six new showers — are helping people find better housing faster. Over the longer term, it’s also pretty safe to bet that people who relocate thanks to a church, find a job thanks to a charitable Web site, and get by thanks to their extended families are going to do a lot better, economically and psychologically, than the people who hang around waiting to be helped by a government jobs program and a government trauma counselor.

I’m not saying anything radical here: I’m not calling for the abolition of FEMA, and I certainly think there’s a role for government in disaster and evacuation planning. But it is true that the worst failures of the past two weeks have been big government failures. The biggest successes, by contrast, have come out of this country’s incredibly vibrant, amazingly diverse and fantastically generous civil society. Sooner or later, it will be impossible not to draw political lessons from that paradox.

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