Dark City, No Hill

The Inlander | September 7, 2005
George W. Bush’s misinterpretation of the American ideal finally flies off the tracks

“A shining city on a hill.” This quotation, paraphrased from Matthew 5:14, was Ronald Reagan’s favorite, ranking right up there with “It’s morning in America.” Our current White House occupant associates himself with Reagan’s sentiments and has quoted him liberally when making the case for individualism in the form of tax cuts, environmental deregulation, privatization, human services cuts, environmental protection degradation and subsidization of corporate America.

It was John Winthrop, who, in 1630, first applied Matthew’s words to a vision of political and economic order in New England. Today, as America and the rest of the world look in stunned disbelief at the unfolding tragedy of New Orleans, we might benefit from getting beyond Reagan’s superficial sentiments and actually read from the diary entry written by future Massachusetts governor Winthrop while he sat aboard the Arabella en route to America. His thoughts went to the question: How would that city on a hill come to be?

For this end we must be knit together. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to give up our superfluities to supply others’ necessities ... We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together ... So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. The Lord will be our God, and ... make us a praise and a glory, that men shall say of later plantations, “May the Lord make it like that of New England.”

So, you see, it was always going to be a tad more complicated and demanding than making pure individualism into an institution.

Beginning with Reagan in 1981 and spurred into a feeding frenzy by George W. Bush, we have managed through policy choices to approximate not the “community” which Winthrop urged but pre-1929 unbridled individualism. As for the poor in this game of survival of the fittest? Codified social Darwinism gets you what some have termed “every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost.” The dramatic and heartbreaking pictures of the refugees in New Orleans reveal in graphic detail what that ideology really looks like.

Just as Iraq is now being accurately referred to as “Bush’s War,” so downtown New Orleans is being referred to as “Lake George.” There is no Rovesque spinning that can deflect attention away from those deep cuts in the Army Corps’ budget requests for levy strengthening, the fact that more than half the Louisiana National Guard is in Iraq — with their equipment — or the impact of the opening up to development of environmentally important wetlands previously protected by President Clinton.

We also see in New Orleans the failure of governmental institutions. As conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks writes, “Over the past few years, we have seen intelligence failures in the inability to prevent Sept. 11 and find WMDs in Iraq. We have seen incompetent postwar planning. We have seen the collapse of Enron and corruption scandals on Wall Street. We have seen scandals at our leading magazines and newspapers, steroids in baseball, the horror of Abu Ghraib.” And now the country confronts a complete and utter failure to protect human life and an historic city against a hurricane disaster that had been predicted for years. It was as if Mohammed Atta had phoned the CIA and given them the flight numbers and the day, yet managed to succeed anyway. People are asking, “How can we expect the federal government to protect us against a dirty bomb when it can’t protect us against a flood?”

All this on Bush’s watch.

Blatherers from the far right blame the refugees for not getting out when they could and associate them with the looters. These windbags reveal a serious ignorance both of urban life and of the way we have treated cities over the past quarter-century. Why didn’t they leave? Because they’re urban dwellers who depend on city services, especially public transportation. When city services fall apart, they’re stuck.

That these services were so fragile should come as no surprise. From 1980 through today, direct aid to America cities as a percentage of city-generated revenue has declined from 26 percent to just under 7 percent, and this percentage takes into account an increase of about 4 percent during the Clinton years.

But there’s more to the shift than money. Ronald Reagan seized on President Carter’s preliminary and ill-advised recommendation that perhaps the government should consider shifting its priorities from addressing city problems to addressing population problems. By the end of the Reagan era, cities had been largely abandoned, left to fix their own problems — which included, I might add, more than a few that were dumped their way by the self-absorbed suburbs. Suburban Republican voters simply off-loaded social ills into the cities where the human services were located.

Which brings us back to John Winthrop.

Shining city on a hill?

With apologies to Winston Churchill: Some shining, some city.

Robert Herold is a columnist for The Inlander in Spokane, Wash.

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Founded in 1993, The Inlander has quickly become the most trusted source of news and entertainment information for the sprawling Inland Northwest. While the majority of our readership lives in the Spokane/Coeur d’Alene area -- a fast-growing part of the...
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