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Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Partisanship in the face of tragedy

One of the most distressing parts about watching the news and reading blogs is how partisanship trumps clear thinking. A catastrophe like Katrina only highlights this problem.

People who are otherwise very smart will automatically blame and demonize "the other side" no matter what the issue is. Irrational hatred almost always beats intelligence.

Taking Katrina as an example, the blame game started immediately - somehow it was Bush's fault. When the tragedy was only a day old, Kyoto was the reason to blame Bush; now it is the delays in getting aid to the victims. But the Bush-haters were foing to blame him and Republicans no matter what happened.

As I write these words, I have no idea whether New Orleans' mayor and Louisiana's governor are Republican or Democratic. But from seeing other disasters over the years, it is clear to me that the local and state authorities are the first people that need to make decisions - and that is how it should be. Imagine the outcry that would happen if the Federal government would take over responsibility for every disaster over the objections of the town and state! Picture the criticism that would have rained down had Bush unilaterally imposed martial law on New York City after 9-11!

No, during 9-11, New York City had competent leadership. From seeing him rant and rave on TV, New Orleans had no leader. I am also not seeing any effective leadership from the governor. We are seeing results now that the military has taken over - no other institution on the planet has as much experience in quickly building an infrastructure from scratch - but no one can doubt that there were unacceptable delays in getting aid to those who need help. There is plenty of blame to go around, and very few people who care more about truly finding out the real reasons for the problems instead of assigning blame to whomever they are hating this year.

There is just as much irrational hatred and partisanship on the red side of the divide. There is as little thought behind knee-jerk hatred of George Bush as there is behind visceral hatred of Hillary Clinton. To be sure, there is plenty to criticize about both of those people, but throughout the blue-red divide most of the criticism is emotional, with intellectual underpinnings coming only as an afterthought. Both sides will latch onto strange conspiracy theories and never let go. And it is also somewhat understandable that the party in power will be criticized more while the ruling party can afford to act above it all, so the smug self-congratulatory tone that the right sometimes shows is also misplaced - they were blaming Bill Clinton for everything not so long ago.

Perhaps the funniest and most egregious example where partisanship overruled even the fundamental philosophies of each party was during the 2000 election fiasco, when Republicans who are all for states' rights and limiting the power of the federal government were forced to argue the exact opposite to the Supreme Court; and Democrats all of a sudden became the states' best friends. Ironically, a truly ideological right-leaning Supreme Court would have been far less likely to help make Bush president.

Right now the nation faces an unprecedented challenge. Energy that goes towards irrational and unthinking blame would be far better used in coming up with ways to help the victims of Katrina.