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30.8.07

Glover proclamation useful for both sides of history debate

Last year at this time, Shreveport Mayor Cedric Glover formally commenced his run for that office. In the ensuing year, his biggest controversy has been ... a proclamation?

Believe it or not ... controversy broke over the declaration of April as Confederate History Month, with both white Republican Bossier City Mayor Lo Walker and black Democrat Glover proclaiming as such (along with the Louisiana and eight other states, one being Massachusetts – which has a black Democrat governor). Glover caught particular criticism for doing so, and this demonstrated precisely why Glover thought it was important to have a period set aside to study the history of the conflict.

One the one hand, self-appointed and largely-ignored monitors for what they consider black identity excoriated Glover for his support of the idea, that the “city's first black mayor would align himself with the Sons of Confederate Veterans” (the organization that promotes the event), meaning that Glover “sanctioned the celebration.” This constipated view implies that Glover insults blacks because he endorses something that potentially gives permission to celebrate certain aspects of the Confederacy.

But the proclamation only encourages “all citizens to study the history of the conflict and events in the years from 1861 to 1865 and to contemplate the actions of the citizens of Shreveport during that era.” Since when has “study” become equated with “advocacy?” It’s this confusion that, for example, has caused many Germans to be almost ignorant about the history surrounding the Holocaust.

Guilt has played a role in German case of non-study as well, which obviously is not a factor among those who go beyond study and celebrate aspects of the Confederacy. And just as those like Glover’s critics who bend over backwards to inject race into every issue to satisfy their political agenda, on the other hand perhaps those who laud the Confederacy do too much to try to separate it from the conflict.

Two schools of thought are called upon to try to cleanse the Confederacy of its immoral embrace of slavery to make it appear to behave as a laudable enterprise. One argues that the vast majority of those who fought for the CSA were not slaveholders (indeed, some were black) and thus had no stake in fighting a war over slavery. Instead, it’s advanced, they fought for the right of political self-determination, encapsulated in their resistance to a federal government that did not permit their states to secede to escape “tyranny.”

But this view obviously confuses the issue, both on fact and philosophically. As legions of historians have demonstrated, armed with reams of primary source documents leading up to and through the Civil War, simply there would have been no secession attempt and war without slavery existing in America. States rights, self-determination, and those kinds of issues never would have sparked controversy without southern states wanting to perpetuate the power to hold human beings in bondage.

What many forget is, at a philosophical level, the ends may justify the means, but not the reverse. For example, if in Germany the Gestapo had come asking you whether you knew where Jews were hiding and you said you didn’t know of any when in fact you did, that even though you committed an act (deception) that in isolation is immoral, that it leads to a moral outcome (protection of innocent lives) removes the act’s immorality.

However, the opposite case does not hold: moral acts by themselves (such as fighting for self-determination assuming it is to escape oppression – which itself is hardly the case that the federal government was “oppressing” the South; see below) that knowingly lead to immoral outcomes never can be evaluated in isolation to that outcome. Any serious study of the Lost Cause must acknowledge that, whatever the motive of these acts, they contributed to the continuance of unjustifiable misery and suffering.

(And many non-slaveholders knew that they really fought for slavery: for example, as Gen. William T. Sherman scorched his way through the South, his forces liberated thousands of slaves – only in his wake to have a couple of thousand of them rounded up by CSA Gen. Joe Wheeler’s cavalry. Why did Wheeler’s soldiers, if they were not fighting for slavery and were against it, follow these orders?)

The other argument is that, indeed, the South was being “oppressed,” usually argued on the basis of economics. Suffice to say, despite the incredible gymnastics and selective use of information to say the war came about mainly because of economic reasons that had nothing to do with willing acceptance of slavery in the South, almost all historians who study the question reject the assertion that slavery was not the overwhelmingly primary reason behind all issues related to the outbreak of the war.

Confederate History Month should be a time for reflection upon this period in American and local history, and a government role to acknowledge this is proper (and, as a bonus for him, perhaps politically convenient in Glover’s case). But to justify it by ignoring the basic immorality for which the South fought is like pulling a strand from a quilted whole that reduces it all to a pile of meaningless string. Likewise, to focus obsessively on that one strand of race prevents its intertwining into all of the others that make up today’s American culture and society.

Which is why the proclamation’s exhortation is especially relevant, meaning Glover passed this test. Hopefully, more successes are to follow.

29.8.07

Many lessons left unlearned from hurricane disasters

Today being the second anniversary of breached levees in New Orleans, it’s depressing to note that many have learned no meaningful lessons from the aftermath, although a few rays of hope are out there.

The typical ignorant response is found in what appears to be an opinion column written by Ron Fourner, who usually covers national politics for the Associated Press. Fournier attempts to link what’s going on in New Orleans on a number of public policy fronts with the remainder of the nation. Implicit in his message is that big government needs to increase its presence in order to cure what continues to ail New Orleans, and by extension the rest of the country. Some examples:

Health care: Fournier writes a big crisis has come because of the lack of its provision, particularly because the uninsured use emergency rooms and other inefficient methods which drives up costs, and while the storms created the crisis of supply in New Orleans, nationwide it’s employers reducing coverage. What he either doesn’t know or understand is that the charity hospital system in Louisiana deliberately encourages this kind of care, which existed long before the storms and nationwide it is increasing governmental intrusion into and provision of health care that discourages employers from offering health care benefits (what business in their right mind would compete against the entire federal government).

Infrastructure: he cites underinvestment in it as a growing problem, but in New Orleans the real problem has been too much government spending too inefficiently. The patchwork of agencies that oversaw flood control, including the cumbersome Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans which now sends out dire warnings of water system failure, contributed to weakening defenses prior to the storms of 2005. However, the inefficiencies of its past uses of resources helped contribute to the problem, including rejection of privatization prior to the disasters.

Education: Fournier decries the state of education in Orleans both before and after the storms, and sees it as a harbinger of things to come nationally. But if he were accurate, he would have observed it is a failure of government-run education, because charter schools which have many fewer government restrictions placed on them have done spectacularly well in Orleans in the past two years. He fails to point out that reduced government involvement in education and institution of voucher systems are the surest way to increase the quality of education for all.

Crime: he states correctly that the legal “system that was at the brink of collapse before Katrina,” which encouraged criminal activity, but fails to add that, once again, big government was to blame for this situation. A fragmented judicial system with soft-on-crime attitudes and unreliable police forces, all caused by too much tolerance for corruption and willingness for politicization, put the Orleans system into such sad shape. Reduced bureaucracy and attitudes that did not look at it as a place for patronage and payoffs would have withstood much better the collapse after the disasters.

Garbage in, garbage out; in the final analysis, Fournier is so spectacularly wrong because his approach is ahistorical: he doesn’t seem to get that big government in New Orleans, and Louisiana, through its inefficiency and increased propensity for corruption, created these problems exacerbated by the emergency conditions created by the hurricane disasters. He reveals as such when he laments the loss of confidence Americans have institutions of all kinds – blind to the reality that it is not institutions that create progress in America, but individuals not impeded by government who voluntarily (through markets, philanthropy, communities, etc.) come together to do so.

And here is where there shines a ray of hope that somebody gets it. Over in New Orleans East, a number of individuals with minimal government assistance have gone about making tremendous progress rebuilding. But even they are being held back by local government because one of the few things government can do not badly is public safety, and their efforts are being threatened by rampant crime.

Two years later, many have learned nothing from the 2005 hurricane disasters by their failing to acknowledge that more government and by itself more government money are not going to bring New Orleans back. Needed changes in attitudes which existed long before encountering the storms must precede all else.

27.8.07

Kennedy switch if for Senate run raises questions for him

One of the worst kept secrets in recent Louisiana politics became official when Treasurer John Kennedy switched from Democrat to Republican, highlighting the trend to Republican affiliation in the state and perhaps signaling Kennedy’s future intentions – and regrets for past campaign rhetoric.

As a result of the switch, the state now has the highest proportion of statewide elected officeholders since Reconstruction but the real significance of Kennedy’s move lies in the marker it may point towards his running for the Senate next year. With new closed primaries in force for that contest, Kennedy would have a difficult time challenging within the Democrat primary against two-term incumbent Mary Landrieu, and he will win reelection to his current post regardless of his label.

Thus it makes great sense for Kennedy to go for it in the GOP primary especially since, as he mentioned in his note announcing the switch, that he found his ideas of late being received more enthusiastically by Republicans than Democrats. Reviewing Kennedy’s actions and rhetoric on fiscal matters in the past two years, one would wonder why he called himself a Democrat for so long.

Presumed goal makes plausible Nagin governor run now

A run at governor would suit a dilettante, erratic politician like New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin just for the novelty of it, but probably he really has something else in mind, the strategy for which has become clearer as qualification for the office beginning next week draws nearer.

As I mused awhile back, Democrat Nagin could be interested in the office, even though he knows it is highly unlikely that he ever could win, as a set-up for a run for the U.S. House in 2008 or before depending on how quickly the current occupant Rep. William Jefferson might be forced out or cashiered over corruption charges and/or convictions. The theory is that even a losing battle statewide might help Nagin because his entrance would help gubernatorial frontrunner Republican Rep. Bobby Jindal secure the office by fragmenting leftist votes further, perhaps even getting Nagin into the general election runoff, and making a Gov. Jindal more friendly to city government that would help improve Nagin’s image, as well as “branding” him now for the run next year (Nagin is found of the concept of “branding”).

Still, why raise money and spend it on a statewide run if you are interested in a much more geographically-compact federal office – especially when just last year one ran a successful campaign in largely the same area? Worse, would that not detract from donations that could be used for a congressional run as donor fatigue could set in with races three years in a row? And why help out Jindal when Jindal didn’t lift a finger to help Nagin in his mayoral run – indeed, even to pay back Nagin for his support of Jindal in the previous governor’s race – especially since Jindal doesn’t seem to need his help to win?

True, but there are some good reasons for him to run now that mitigate these concerns. Campaigning starting now may help Nagin build a coalition vital to winning the House seat next year. In his mayoral reelection bid, among blacks really Nagin had the field to himself but that will be different for Jefferson’s seat with experienced black politicians such as state Rep. Karen Carter and state Sen. Derrick Shepherd again running for that office. In short, he must maintain as much of that 80 percent black vote base that he got in the mayoral election as he can.

One way to do so would be to assist black candidates for the Legislature this fall, by having his name on the gubernatorial ballot to stimulate their turnout. The hope would be that these extra voters would give a boost to downballot black candidates. In 2003, such assistance was moot since ethnic patterns in New Orleans districts tended to be fairly monoracial creating safe districts for black candidates. But in the aftermath of the hurricane disasters of 2005 and the subsequent disruption of voting blocs, some of these districts may be at risk not just for black candidates, but even Democrat candidates. Nagin’s running now could make the difference in keeping one or more of these offices in black Democrat hands and this would collect major favors from local black Democrat leaders and candidates – which can be translated into support in a House contest.

Yet that may not be enough to win given his presumed black opposition so Nagin also may want to use a gubernatorial campaign now to build up some white voter support as well. Especially with a new account out about Nagin’s mayoral career, one thing that appears from it is that Nagin is distrustful of Democrat Party officials and politicians. By entering the race and making it almost impossible for Jindal to lose, Nagin may be thumbing his nose at the Democrat establishment and build up some goodwill among Republican voters, campaigning in a way now and in the future to try to convince them that there will be a black Democrat elected from New Orleans to Congress, but that of all the choices he would be the least liberal and/or beholden to the Democrats. (If his entry also threw the governor’s race into a runoff forcing Jindal to go another round to win, that might also be some payback to Jindal for his lack of support of Nagin in 2006).

So there are some highly nuanced reasons why it does make sense for Nagin to run now, besides that it just might jibe with his personality quirks.

26.8.07

Katrina +2: any political, governmental learning from it?

A lot of second-anniversary ruminations about the meaning of Hurricane Katrina will assault the public this week, but perhaps the most informative is Sally Forman’s account of events around New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. It further confirms that Nagin wasn’t particularly suited to handle such a catastrophe, that Gov. Kathleen Blanco regrettably reacted to it too much through a political lens, and of the exposure of the natural shortcomings of government.

She was Nagin’s press secretary and the wife of Ron Forman, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor against Nagin last year. She resigned from her position only at Forman’s announcement of his challenge.

Forman essentially paints a picture of Nagin familiar to those who have observed him these past five years, somebody who flies by the seat of his pants. It showed in the lack of planning the city had for such a disaster, and in Nagin’s tactically-oriented but strategically-bereft response to it.

Her account of Blanco also reiterates that she let politics get in the way of the optimal response to the emergency. As we now know from her internal correspondence, almost the minute the magnitude of the disaster became know, she began to interject political calculations into her decision-making process. Forman reviews the infamous episode where Blanco rejected federal assistance immediately because she thought it would look bad politically if she did not have full control over all military maneuvers.

Perhaps most instructive, however, is her reminder of the chaos of the situation which provides yet another reminder that while there are a few necessary things that government can accomplish, this situation was not one at which government could excel. The human condition is such that when conditions of distress exist, voluntary, private sector efforts always respond much quicker and better than does government (as in most human activities) because a collective, layered institution like government very poorly translates the strengths and weaknesses of individuals and resources available into rapid action. If we had had more people able like state Sen. Walter Boasso (who jumped on a boat and helped direct rescue efforts in St. Bernard Parish) to direct private, voluntary efforts than those like Nagin or Blanco trying to make an unwieldy, ill-suited beast like government respond, the situation would not have turned out as badly.

Even if many have fantasy attitudes about what government can do well (not much), where it would best respond in this circumstance is at the local level so Nagin still deserves most of the blame for a government response that turned out poor instead of inadequate, with Blanco at the next level up a close second. Over the next few days we will see much published about the affair and to fail to acknowledge these realities in them will demonstrate some have learned nothing from the entire unfortunate event.