America has come in for a lot of criticism in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Whilst a few foolish Greens, like Jürgen Trittin, Germany's environment minister, blame President Bush for the hurricane itself, most people have focussed on the lacklustre response to the disaster. President Bush has now stated he will accept any responsibility for this "to the extent that the federal government didn't do its job right", whilst an enquiry will soon show precisely who failed when and where.
The Economist and the Spectator ran covers last week ("The shame of America"/"What's wrong with America?") which cast the disaster as a morality tale about the state of the USA. This approach was echoed by most magazines and newspapers across Europe. The hurricane has become like a deus ex machina, exposing the shaky moral base on which America is built.
The trouble with making Hurricane Katrina a morality tale about America is that the fallguy of the story is tiresomely predictable: Bush. Bush, it is claimed, slashed levee-building budgets, ignored storm warnings, refused to evacuate poor blacks out of New Orleans, dragged his heels in rescuing them, etc.
Needless to say, the specific accusations against Bush (and America's moral base, for that matter) are quite unsubstantiated. But as often in these matters, the Big Picture is built up of pixels of ingrained prejudice, rather than of direct observation.
An interview with Condoleezza Rice in today's New York Times puts us right on one widely-held assumption - that American racism against blacks has something to do with the response to the disaster. She pours scorn on the idea that Bush is himself racist. Regarding America as a whole, she is careful not to minimise real problems about race and poverty, but she does say:
"... I also hope that around the world it's noted that (...) the United States is about 100 percent ahead of any place else in the world in issues of race. And I say that absolutely fundamentally. You go to any other meeting around the world and show me the kind of diversity that you see in America's cabinet, in America's Foreign Service, in America's business community, in America's journalistic community. Show me that kind of diversity any place else in the world, and I'm prepared to be lectured about race."
She also remembers that her first impression of Bush was when he spoke of "the soft bigotry of low expectations" whilst Governor of Texas, as this had been a negative force in her own life, and continues to be one in the lives of many.
Anyway, with so much to be ashamed of, according to its European critics, America can at least be proud of its Secretary of State.
Link to full transcript of the Rice interview:Interview With The New York Times Publisher's Group