In the course of being a sportswriter, I have spent an inordinate amount of time in Houston, a curious city that, by my count, had at least four areas that legitimately could be called “downtown.” It’s one of those places that I’ve been to enough that I can get around it pretty well once I’m on the ground there. Which is why it saddens and angers me when I look at the TV and see all the familiar streets and neighborhoods underwater due to the catastrophic event that is Hurricane Harvey. I know those places where the cars are floating. I’ve driven and walked the streets now being plied by boats of every kind and description.
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There is something else I know about Houston. The city, and the region around it, is the petrochemical and extraction industry capital of the western world. Enron was headquartered there. (Briefly, the company held the naming rights to the new local ballpark.) There is no question that, once the floodwaters recede, assuming they ever do, there is going to be an ecological disaster area that will take decades to clean up. Like many of the executive agencies under this president*, the Environmental Protection Agency is underfunded and understaffed, and both problems are getting worse, not better. (This is not even to mention the fact that it is headed by Scott Pruitt, an energy industry sublet who doesn’t believe in climate change, or that there are members of the House of Representatives who want to eliminate the EPA entirely.) The future habitability of the fourth-largest city in the country is very much an open question. The government simply was not ready for this, and it is not ready for what is coming afterwards, either, because, frankly, we haven’t cared enough about our participation in our political commonwealth to make it ready. We didn’t care enough to keep the government out of the hands of a towering top-down assemblage of fools and charlatans.
At some point over the weekend, I cracked wise that the president* soon would tweet that his hurricane was bigger than any of those that made landfall during the presidency of Barack Obama. Now, I think it might be the first thing he says when he finally makes landfall there this week. It was quite a few days for him. He took another whack at dismissing transgender soldiers and sailors. He pardoned the egregious Joe Arpaio. He hinted that he might reverse the DACA policy. He plugged a book by Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke, in whose jails people die of thirst, and who makes Arpaio look like Dorothea Dix. And, of course, he kept tweeting Wow as the rain fell and the damage mounted.
As it happens, I agree with Steve M that he’s probably just smart enough to come out of this without accidentally tying his own shoes together again. The NYT already is halfway to giving him credit for not doing so. Engaged! He’s engaged! For a president of a country which is watching one of its largest cities turn into an inland sea, this is the equivalent of noticing that the president is not in a coma. The real test is going to come in the next few months, when the shambles he’s made of the various federal agencies becomes tragically obvious. If they’re not underfunded and understaffed, they’re peopled at the top with, at best, inexperienced hacks and, at worst, with saboteurs like Pruitt, or outright loons.
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The EPA is only one example. There is no question that the Department of Housing and Urban Development will be expected to be heavily involved in the lengthy reconstruction effort. Alec MacGillis last week published an expose of how howlingly bad HUD has become under the leadership of Dr. Ben Carson. Deep in that story we find that the HUD official in charge of the Houston area is one Beth Van Duyne, the mayor of Irving, whose main political activity heretofore had been her active fight against the phantom menace of Sharia law in the United States, and for her clumsy intervention in the famous “clock boy” faux-trage. From the WaPo:
It began with a February Facebook post by Mayor Beth Van Duyne responding to stories about a Muslim mediation panel comprised of arbitrators settling civil disputes using Sharia law in non-binding decisions, with reports that the panel was located in an Irving mosque. Van Duyne began referring to the tribunal as a “court” and warned that foreign law can’t be applied when it “violates public policy, statutory, or federal laws.” “Sharia Law Court was NOT approved or enacted by the City of Irving,” she wrote, adding: “Our nation cannot be so overly sensitive in defending other cultures that we stop protecting our own. The American Constitution and our guaranteed rights reigns supreme in our nation and may that ever be the case.”
I’m sure she’s right on top of the housing calamity that’s befallen Houston. This should work out splendidly.
This is a result of neglect, not on the part of this administration, for which neglect is a business plan, but on the part of all of us. We allowed citizenship to decay to the point that we now do not recognize the most fundamental truth of the American experiment: that The Government is Us. It is not Them. The creation of a political commonwealth is ongoing and it starts anew, over and over again, whether we participate in it or not, because somebody always will. Pericles warned us eons ago, when he warned citizens that we may have no interest in politics, but that politics always will have an interest in us. Our ignorance of this fundamental fact is the reason we now find ourselves in a situation in which a political calamity has to address a meteorological catastrophe. Harvey’s giving the Houston the high water, but we’ve all in our own way given it the hell.
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