Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For You. Period. (Thoughts on Patriotism, Pt II)
I was a bit overwhelmed by all the 9/11 related blogs and news stories so I took a day and a step back to think about the “big picture.” After much reflection I would like to propose the following amendment to JFK's famous "ask not" charge: Ask not what your country can do for you. Period. Unless you are ready to be disappointed.
9/11 is also called “Patriot Day." So, I am (once again) thinking about the notion of patriotism and how it has been exploited in the context of national disasters to quell public outrage and foster complacency. Cloaked behind the call for patriotism is the message: silence your protests, forget about the government’s indifference toward the safety of the public, don’t worry about its prioritization of the needs of big economic interests over the needs of the general citizenry. And if you don’t heed this advice, well, you’re not a “good American.”
According to this message you either have to be Condi or Kanye, and there’s no in-between (although I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being Kanye. If I saw him on the street today I’d thank him for his honest post-Katrina commentary). Rightly so, this doesn’t quite sit well for most of us, especially in light of the government’s own relative lack of patriotism, displayed in its continued sluggishness in addressing the health needs of deserving Ground Zero heroes and 9/11 victims, and in its shamefully inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina, among other instances.
The post-9/11 plight of the rescue workers is yet another reminder that we should have no or little confidence that our country will protect us, even after we take care of our country. If this is how our heroes are treated, then look at what happened with Katrina and ask yourself if you are genuinely surprised. (You shouldn't be.)
Katrina was a worse-case scenario. There, you had a pre-disaster group that had little political and economic power, lacks racial privilege, and has little so-called "cultural capital" to persuade the government to give a good damn, or a good levee, about their welfare. Two years later, Katrina survivors rely heavily on fellow citizens to do what the government should prioritize doing, and meanwhile "W" heads out there to tell them "I hope people understand that we [the Federal Government] do [care]... we're still paying attention. We understand." Do you, now? Two years later, we've got around 40% of New Orleanians still displaced. Many of the homeless population, now doubled due to Katrina, have been camping out at the park across from City Hall as a constant visible reminder of the government's unmet obligations to its people.
9/11 was the warning bell for Katrina. Look at it: SIX YEARS LATER, and people who literally sacrificed their lives and their health in order to help in emergency relief efforts, are still clinging to the hope that the hollow “tributes” accorded them will be matched by substantive compensation and health care. Kudos to representatives Maloney, Nadler, and Fossella for the bi-partisan 9/11 Health and Compensation Act they're pushing to address this continued need. Nadler says:
““It is simply not enough to honor the courage and humanity of the heroes of 9/11 with words. We must also offer them concrete support in their time of need… For the thousands who are sick due to exposure to World Trade Center toxins, including our heroic first responders and area residents, workers, and school children, the federal government must provide appropriate monitoring, treatment and compensation [and] help those still suffering the consequences of this lingering national tragedy.”
It's about time, that's for sure.
As we wait on the proverbial rooftop to be rescued, my general Kanye-ness is at least a little bit comforted (only a little, mind you) by the fact that our judiciary offers a civil court system that keeps public record of, and provides an avenue of redress for some of these grievances. Through this mechanism many Ground Zero Heroes are fighting what looks like a gross misuse of Congress’ $1 billion set-aside which, according to Senator Schumer was supposed “to pay appropriate claims [for compensation], not fight claims." Advocates in the Gulf Coast are using the system to hold FEMA accountable for both its shoddy, life-endangering relief work, and also for obstructing people's access to legal aid out of fear that people would want to sue them.
What does it mean about our government’s values and the real end effects of the tort deformers that a concern over saving money is keeping the government from helping HEROS and INNOCENT displaced citizens in their time of need? It isn’t very American, and it definitely doesn’t show any patriotism.