Saturday, September 10, 2005

Making Sense Where None Seems to Exist

I've spent the last couple of weeks watching, stunned, as the events along the Gulf Coast have played out on TV and in the papers. What seems most obvious is that the magnitude of Katrina's impact will be far reaching and ultimately bigger than any of us can imagine. But bigger than the disaster, I am confident, is the spirit of the world community that is opening it's wallets, homes and hearts to aid the victims.

We are a different country today for many reasons, one of which is that we are now the recipient of foreign aid from other countries. This assistance ranges from millions of dollars and millions of barrels of oil from several Arab countries to money and telecommunications equipment from Sweden to about $6,400 from Bosnia-Herzegovina. While the money and goods will help to restore many suffering peoples' lives to order, it is the symbolism that strikes me as especially significant. It reminds us that we are not alone in the world. We are a member of an interdependent global community. And maybe, despite our most relentless efforts to destroy it, there is still a resevoir of good will felt toward us by our neighbors.

This is heartening to me, because I am increasingly worried about the complex future we have created for ourselves. It is easy to find things to criticize - the war in Iraq, the bungling of hurricane relief efforts, the mounting budget deficits. It is difficult, for me at least, to imagine the solutions or the path forward, especially when we are, as a nation, so politically estranged.

At the risk of adding to that estrangement, I have to quote Thomas L. Friedman, a columnist for the New York Times. In a recent opinion piece, he wrote:

"The Bush team has engaged in a tax giveaway since 9/11 that has had one underlying assumption: There will never be another rainy day. Just spend money. You knew that sooner or later there would be a rainy day, but Karl Rove has assumed it wouldn't happen on Mr. Bush's watch - that someone else would have to clean it up. Well, it did happen on his watch.

Besides ripping away the roofs of New Orleans, Katrina ripped away the argument that we can cut taxes, properly educate our kids, compete with India and China, succeed in Iraq, keep improving the U.S. infrastructure, and take care of a catastrophic emergency - without putting ourselves totally into the debt of Beijing."

I read this earlier this morning, and have reread it several times. Beyond the fact that I respect Mr. Friedman's analytical and observational skills, this piece resonated with me because it illustrated the "underlying assumption" that I have been troubled by, but couldn't put into words. "There will never be another rainy day. Just spend money." Assume someone else will clean up the mess.

Here's a starting point for building a better future: Let's assume that there will be a rainy day. Better yet, let's assume there will be lots of them - not to wallow in gloom and doom, but to be prepared. Let's recognize that our resources - financial and human - are limited and that we have to make thoughtful choices about how to spend them. Let's pick our battles carefully - defend ourselves against agression, and use our strengths to aid our weaker neighbors but not to be the agressors.

It's a real boost to the national ego to talk about ourselves as the "lone remaining superpower". But it's time to realize that our power came from preparation, integrity, compassion and restraint, not as a result of swaggering around the world like a cowboy with a credit card. I think in Texas they call that "all hat and no cattle".

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