Disasters like this one provide a dramatic reminder of why we need a social contract through which people commit to mutual sacrifice for mutual prosperity and security. They make pronounced the limits of a worldview in which people are atomized entities threatened by the oppressive restrictions of a government which would have the gall to spend their money. The outrage of ordinary citizens at our leaders’ failure to take reasonable measures to ensure their safety is not the sign of weakness the radical right would have us believe any call for government action to be – it’s the rightful grievance of people who know they deserve a better deal which makes the investments necessary to protect them and their families. Hurricanes are a reminder that our interests are interconnected, and that justice demands finding common cause in common challenge, not appealing to the charitable private impulses of individuals as the single means to confront public crises. We may a thousand points of light, but we share the same space.
But even as these horrific events remind us of our common vulnerability, they demonstrate yet again how deeply the impact of such threats is determined along lines of race and class. By and large, those who have been unable to make it out of the devastated city have certain things in common – and contra Bill O’Reilly, they don’t include a desire to lay in wait so they can rape and plunder. A week ago, a friend was defending the old idea that property requirements for voting make sense because they restrict voting to those who have something to lose and therefore have a stake in what government does. I suggested that if we were really to assign votes based on one’s stake in what government does, the poorest would get the lion’s share because they’re the ones who have only voice, not exit, at their disposal when the government fails them. This week shows all too graphically how high the costs can be when elite decisions and oppressive poverty make a terrible situation that much worse.