Michael Ignatieff wrote a brilliant piece, The Broken Contract, in last week’s Sunday New York Times Magazine which claims that the federal government’s feeble response to the victims of Katrina is not merely another incidence of the type of racial injustice that has beset American history from time immemorial. Ignatieff places the failure in a context that embraces the racial element while transcending it in a way.
I found the piece breathtaking not only conceptually, but also for its eloquence and powerful writing. In reading it, you knew you were in the presence of a powerful and probing moral and political mind.
I have to say that the few times I’ve heard Ignatieff interviewed by Charlie Rose on PBS (talking about Iraq) I found him unpersuasive and dithering. He seemed to want to justify our involvement, while also wanting to be critical of it at the same time. It seemed like an intellectual exercise in futility. My problem with him could be summarized by The Scotsman’s sobriquet, “the militant liberal.” The phrase makes me very uncomfortable.
But on the subject of the philosophical and moral issues involved in the Katrina disaster, Ignatieff really comes into his own. As a writer myself interested in some of the same moral questions, I found myself saying: “Damn, I wish I could conceive of ideas and express them half as eloquently as he has here.” Such writing deserves awards and I hope the Pulitzer committee noticed it.
He works from the premise that all Americans feel, whether implicitly or explicitly that they have a contract with their government by which it is obligated to protect them from the vagaries of arbitrary, chaotic societal forces and the forces of nature:
A contract of citizenship defines the duties of care that public officials owe to the people of a democratic society. The Constitution defines some parts of this contract, and statutes define others, but much of it is a tacit understanding that citizens have about what to expect from their government. Its basic term is protection: helping citizens to protect their families and possessions from forces beyond their control…There is enough agreement, most of the time, about what the contract contains for America to hold together as a political community. When disasters strike, they test whether the contract is respected in a citizen’s hour of need. When the levees broke, the contract of American citizenship failed.
The most striking feature of the catastrophe is not that the contract didn’t hold. That is now too obvious to argue about…What has not been noticed is that the people with the most articulate understanding of what the contract of American citizenship entails were the poor, abandoned, hungry people huddled in the stinking darkness of the New Orleans convention center.
“We are American,” a woman at the convention center proclaimed on television. ..
“We are American”: that single sentence was a lesson in political obligation. Black or white, rich or poor, Americans are not supposed to be strangers to one another. Having been abandoned, the people in the convention center were reduced to reminding their fellow citizens, through the medium of television, that they were not refugees in a foreign country. Citizenship ties are not humanitarian, abstract or discretionary. They are not ties of charity. In America, a citizen has a claim of right on the resources of her government when she cannot – simply cannot – help herself.
…The people of New Orleans believed that, as Americans, they were entitled to levees that would hold, an evacuation plan that would actually evacuate them and a resettlement plan that would get them back on their feet. They were entitled to this because they are Americans and because these simple things, while costly, are well within the means of the richest society on earth.
…When government failed so dismally in New Orleans, the betrayal was of the same order: it was no longer possible to believe in the contract that binds Americans together.
In the following passage, he implicitly criticizes Bush’s constant attempts to divert attention from overall government failure by touting the individual acts of competence by federal agencies and their workers:
This betrayal cannot be made better by charity and generosity…Private benevolence cannot heal the wounds – of humiliation and abandonment – caused by government failure. Nor can exemplary performance by some agencies – the Coast Guard, for example – do that much to redeem the abject performance of others.
In this passage, Ignatieff echos my own critique of the Army Corps’ lamentable failures in designing New Orleans’ levees and flood walls:
The failures were…failures of political imagination. Officials and engineers in charge of the levees reasoned like actuaries, building to a standard designed to protect only most of the people most of the time. Had they reasoned with any degree of political imagination, they might have started from the premise that there are some harms that a government must protect its people from, however unlikely they may turn out to be, whatever the cost. In America, a levee defends a foundational moral intuition: all lives are worth protecting and, since this is America, worth protecting at the highest standard. This principle was betrayed by the Army Corps of Engineers, by the state and local officials who knew the levees needed repair and did nothing and by Congress, which allowed the president to cut appropriations for levee renewal.
He excoriates public officials for not testing out their evacuation plans in the real world and instead relying on statistical projections and theoretical concepts:
[A] betrayal occurred in evacuation plans that assumed that citizens could evacuate by car. It turned out that 27 percent of city households did not own a car…The people involved in municipal, state and federal government simply did not care enough about their own professional morality to find out the true facts. Public officials simply didn’t bother to cross the social distances that divided them from the truth of the New Orleans population. These social distances between rich and poor, between black and white are stubborn and are likely to endure, but the most basic duty of public leadership is always to know how the other half lives – and dies.
…Why weren’t ordinary New Orleans citizens consulted about the evacuation plan? The people in poor wards of the city would have picked its holes apart in a second. In the future, one simple test of an evacuation plan’s adequacy should be: Have the people who are likely to be evacuated been fully consulted on its contents?
I apologize for quoting so much from this article and hope neither Professor Ignatieff nor the Times will mind. This should be read, discussed and debated as widely as possible and I just thought I’d try to do my small part in distributing it a little more widely.