Whether natural or manmade, extreme events often tell us something important about human beings, revealing their priorities and reflecting their character. So it was with Hurricane Irene, which allowed certain prominent proponents of right-wing ideology to expose themselves in full.
Irene happily turned out to be an event far less extreme than expected, at least so far as most of the East Coast was concerned. But nobody could be sure of that until Monday afternoon. So while millions of people still had reason to fear much worse, two of the leading Republicans in Congress sought to use the approaching hurricane for their own partisan and ideological purposes — and exposed just how little they care about the suffering of Americans who might be unlucky enough to be struck by disaster.
It was an object lesson in what we can expect from the right in power — and an irritating reminder of how badly conservative government failed six years ago when Hurricane Katrina struck.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor set the tone earlier in the week, when he issued a statement following the 5.8 magnitude earthquake that sent tremors northward hundreds of miles from Richmond, VA — the state’s capital and his hometown. Always more eager to display ideology than compassion, Cantor told reporters during a tour of the quake’s damage in his district “the problem is that people in Virginia don’t have earthquake insurance.” Of course, earthquake damage is exceedingly rare in the East, so most homeowner policies don’t include such coverage (as any insurance expert could have informed Cantor). To him “the problem” is not that his constituents suffered unforeseeable destruction and needed relief, but that they were not sufficiently clairvoyant to buy protection in the private sector.
Then Cantor insisted that before Congress approves any federal support for the earthquake’s victims — a category of aid usually approved quickly and without debate — there will have to be cuts elsewhere in the budget. Last spring he made the same egregious demand, after a series of record-breaking tornadoes ripped through the Midwest and South, killing hundreds of people and inflicting billions of dollars in damage. Holding disaster victims hostage to his agenda of cutting Medicare and Social Security is simply legislative strategy to Cantor, presumably because he feels that they merit no assistance if they didn’t insure themselves in advance.
Only days after the earthquake, however, Cantor signed a letter from the entire Virginia Congressional delegation to President Obama, asking him to issue a federal disaster declaration for their state in anticipation of the oncoming hurricane. Such a presidential directive, said the letter, “would ensure the full partnership and resources of the federal government to support the commonwealth’s efforts to ensure the public’s safety and quick recovery from the direct and indirect effects of Hurricane Irene.” So in the final days before the hurricane struck, even callous Cantor got worried about its potential effects on his district — and wanted the federal government to commit resources in advance for its recovery. This time he forgot to demand any budget cuts to offset such spending, which suggests that he is hypocritical as well as mean.
Then came Ron Paul, the Texas Congressman and persistent presidential wannabe, who laughed when asked on Fox News whether the government ought to help hurricane victims. “Where would the money come from?” he chortled. “I have precise beliefs in [sic] what we should do and I want to transition out of dependency on the federal government.”
Even more extreme than Cantor, Paul said he believes that we cannot afford to assist anyone injured or ruined by natural disasters, and that the nation would be better off without any federal relief efforts (and without environmental protections of any kind, or any regulation of the safety of food, pharmaceuticals, consumer products or transportation).
“We should be like 1900,” Paul said, without mentioning how brutish, dangerous and short life tended to be for most Americans back then.
To insist that we must revert to a more primitive and predatory way of life may well be Republican dogma these days, but it isn’t the ideal of America that most citizens have cherished for the past century or so. The coming elections will test whether traditional standards of community and decency — in other words, our national character — can survive the advent of the Tea Party.