The Calvinist in the White House

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Maybe it’s Martha Stewart who got me to the point of writing about George W. Bush, who, after all, is a sort of victim of his class and upbringing. And then I can certainly credit my inspiration to the Malcolm Gladwell piece on health insurance in the New Yorker, a television interview of an author who wrote about a 1929 volcano that wiped out New Orleans. And then there’s the Iraq saga, gas prices and finally the hurricane (top, photo by Larry Fink).

I have been asking myself what the hurricane and Iraq sagas have in common and why. My answer is they both required attention to infrastracture–planning and money–and both cases the president and his men ignored warnings that their actions or lack of actions would result in problems.

Why would people who must have a brain or two in their heads to get where they are fail so miserably I wondered, and then why would they deny the failures in the face of overwhelming evidence?

Ideology, not thinking

Gladwell, in a way, provided the answer. Gladwell’s point was that the Bush administration was ideologically opposed to the role of protecting its citizens. The same kind of thinking can be seen in the Social Security privatization that Bush was pushing–each of us must pull our own weight to insure ourselves for retirement and for catastrophic health problems (sculpture by Dirk Staschke, “Bush Group”).

Bushism is Calvinism

To put it another way, the Bushites are Calvinists, sons of the first Europeans on our shores, who believed that wealth was a sign of worthiness, of grace, while poverty was a sign of moral turpitude.

And to put it still another way, the Bushites believe that America is wealthy and great because of its worthiness. They believe that God has blessed America because we have liberty and capitalism throughout the land.

As for cities with extreme poverty, their residents must be failing as capitalist, and so they deserve no help from the federal government. At least that seems to be the philosophy behind the administration’s actions.

To put it still another way, the failure to support the needs of impoverished cities is just like the failure to support the rail system. It is a failure to recognize the greater good involves subsidies to infrastructure and to our fellow human beings. Classic capitalism does not automatically lead to prosperity for everyone.

Iraq–capitalism’s failure

So now I’m up to Iraq. Donald Rumsfeld and the conservative ideologues like Wolfowitz et al. all believed that if they toppled Saddam Hussein and brought democracy, liberty and capitalism to Iraq, the Iraqis would bow down in gratitude, that the merchant class would take over, and they would rebuild Iraq, because it would pay them to do so. The money earned by the new capitalists would spread rapidly through the society, well-being would automatically flow with the new wealth, and Iraqis would live happily ever after (image by Mear).

The Bushites felt guiltless about giving expensive contracts to Halliburton and Bechtel because these are capitalists (good ol’ guys in Bushese) and therefore deserving of whatever wealth they can amass in Bushism.

Furthermore, because they were bringing Christian values to a Muslim land, they were saving them. I have to believe that there’s an assumption in Bushism that includes a belief that Iraqis can’t wait to become born agains.

All of this thinking, this layer of ideology and presuppositions, meant to Rummy and his gang that there was no need to plan for post-invasion Iraq.

So what does all this have to do with New Orleans? The people there are poor. Bushism says that poor people do not have God on their side. If they want to help themselves, they should reinforce the levees by themselves. If they fix the levees by themselves, they will earn God’s approval (image, Michael Moore and George W. Bush).

Let’s not forget this is the administration that didn’t plan to rebuild infrastructure in Iraq on the assumption that the glories of capitalism would lead to the Iraqis taking care of this themselves because it would pay for them to do what would benefit their capitalist ventures.

And let’s not forget this is the administration that couldn’t hear the dire warnings before the invasion.

And also let’s not forget this is the administration that assumed they would have a quick, clean victory with just a few soldiers in place–because God was on their side, and Hussein was in the Axis of Evil (image, a Thai cartoon on the street, from my daughter’s trip to Southeast Asia).

They could not hear the warnings that their fantasies might not be so, because their fantasies were based on ideological and religious faith. But ideology and religion are not such good ways to face real-world problems.

This same blindness to the need for government support of infrastructure is behind the FEMA budget cuts and the refusal to acknowledge the urgency of shoring up the levees way before Katrina was a twinkle in the eye of anyone’s storm.

Part of what I don’t understand about this whole religion thing, the whole assumption that God is on the president’s side, is why isn’t he asking why God has set this hurricane and the attendant disasters and failures upon his administration.

Martha Stewart for example

Which brings me around to Martha Stewart.

The world of George Bush, and Martha Stewart, is a world of entitlement. They assume they deserve what they have. And they assume that those who don’t have as much don’t deserve as much. They also assume that their friends and connections all are deserving as well. And so a handout to Halliburton of millions and billions does not seem wrong to them (some other Bush handouts–the FEMA job to Brown, the failure to call a halt to gas gouging by Bush’s oil fraternity). After all, they are deserving in Bush’s eyes. But a small handout to a poor person is wrong because poor people aren’t deserving in their eyes, or they wouldn’t be poor. This is classic American Calvinism, and disturbing (image, Josh O.S.’s image of the Bushes dancing).

This morning, my paper said that Stewart was a sweeter, softer, mellower, chastened by her time in prison. Softer to me means more empathetic. You can’t be empathetic if you’re a wealthy person and believe in Bushism–because you believe that people deserve what they get.

But in many ways, I have to admire Stewart more than Bush even with her old persona. After all, she worked hard for what she got. Dubya was born with a silver spoon, and according to Molly Ivins’ “Shrub,” he’s been carried by his father’s friends and his pack of good ol’ boys, without an iota of productivity. Yet somehow, he thinks he’s deserving of all this. He’s right. If there’s a God, God has blessed him. But not because he’s worthy. It’s because he’s connected.

Not his brother’s keeper

I find it strange that he who thinks he walks with God does not think he needs to be his brother’s keeper, except if that brother is named Jeb.

I heard on “Meet the Press” author John Barry, who wrote the book “Rising Tide” about a 1927 Mississippi River flood that devasted New Orleans. Barry said the event led to a change in how Americans viewed the proper role of government. Until then, he said, Americans thought everyone was responsible for his own success. The flood, according to the book blurb “inundated the homes of nearly one million people, helped elect Huey Long governor and made Herbert Hoover president, drove hundreds of thousands of blacks north, and transformed American society and politics forever.” Americans began to think the government should take action and should take care of its citizens, even the poor and the sick and the huddled masses.

Bush and the Republicans have been trying to turn around that trend in government. They have lost sight of the needs of others.

I propose that Bushism is dangerous because it involves a lack of imagination and a lack of vision. It has twice proven the administration’s blindness to the realities of situations and an inability to plan realistically, with stupifyingly disastrous results.

I say let’s send Dubya to prison. Maybe he’ll learn a little empathy for those to whom life has not been so kind. Maybe he’ll question some of the flawed ideology behind so many decisions that have hurt everyone but those who need the help of the government the least.

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