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Harvey’s double irony

Image: Texas Military Department

Given their almost instinctive enmity toward all things Trump, it is hardly surprising that BBC news programmes have drawn the link between a climate change denying administration and catastrophic coastal flooding of precisely the kind that climate scientists have been warning about for decades.

In addition to pulling the USA out of the Paris Agreement to limit climate change, Trump has cut the funding of the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, both of which play an essential role in researching and mitigating climate change.  All mention of climate change has been removed from the White House website.  And nobody is entirely sure whether Trump is serious when he claims that climate change is a Chinese hoax.

Were it not so devastating for those ordinary souls caught up in it, to have the worst tropical storm in US history deposit more than a metre of rainwater on America’s fourth largest city would look for all the world like poetic justice.

There is, however, a far deeper irony to be found not so much in the flood itself, as in the unfolding failure of the response to it.  Texas senators, you will remember, recently cheered Trump’s proposed 11 percent cut to a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) whose support they are now desperately crying out for; just as they has previously attempted to veto a government support package for the victims of Hurricane Sandy.

Hostility to government runs deep in the USA.  In the words of one of its most popular presidents:

“The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

In the minority libertarian tradition, the sentiment is principled.  The general proposition is that the state can never do something better than an enabled community would do for itself.  No doubt all of us can think of examples from our own lives where a grass-roots community solution to a problem would be better than the bureaucratic top-down, one-size-fits-all one imposed by central government.  This said, only the most extreme of libertarians will claim that a citizen’s militia is better than a centralised army, navy and air force for defending a nation.  Most also accept that a centralised legal system with a police force strong enough to enforce it is also a prerequisite to a functioning economy.  Once you’ve conceded the point, you’ve lost the principle.  As the aftermath of Harvey demonstrates, some government, at least, is essential to a modern complex society.

Like British Tories, however, American Republicans are not principled libertarians at all.  As essayist John Michael Greer observed: “conservatives have never seen a state handout they didn’t love… except, of course the one’s that go to the poor.”  To conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic, ‘rolling back the state’ is a highly selective process.  As Jennifer Rubin at The Washington Post notes:

“The anti-government crowd, however, seems indifferent to actual abuse of power, one key reason to keep government limited and transparent… In sum, they hate the functioning, responsible and professional part of government while they embrace the authoritarian, abusive, erratic Trumpism we now see…

“Part of the anomaly is surely attributable to jaw-dropping lack of empathy for people who do not look like them (e.g. poor immigrants, minorities) and to rank partisanship (President Barack Obama’s support for Solyndra is bad, but Big Ag subsidies are fine).”

While conservatives spend billions shaving pennies off welfare programmes, they turn a blind eye to the unregulated billions that flood out of the Treasury every year in the form of corporate welfare.  While decrying the poor and the disabled for daring to hold out a hand for help, they remain mute about the multi-million dollar/pound lobbyists whose sole purpose is the soft corruption of government… not least because many of the same politicians go on to lucrative careers with the same corporations that lobby them.

The irony of the weekend’s weather in Texas is that the same conservatives who are threatening to shut down the US government by refusing to raise the debt ceiling – and the people who voted them into that position – have suddenly woken up to the limitations of individual resilience in the face of a breakdown in a complex and interconnected society.  Suddenly those words uttered by Ronald Reagan seem absurd.  When you are up to your neck in cold, filthy water, suffering electric shocks from the exposed wiring that runs through the walls, and slowly dying from hypothermia, the most welcome words in the English language turn out to be: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’

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