It’s a pretty familiar meme by now. After the explosion at the West Fertilizer Plant in West, Texas, some progressives couldn’t wait to weigh in on how Texans had deregulated business, implying that the 15 dead and 200 injured deserved what they got. Respectable journalists didn’t usually take things quite that far, but this was the lesson many heard when the articles went viral on social media.
When Moore, Oklahoma was devastated by a tornado more than a mile long, thousands of people tweeted to remind us that Oklahoma senators James Inhofe and Tom Coburn had voted against Hurricane Sandy relief in New Jersey and New York. Host Cenk Uygur echoed this sentiment on The Young Turks after responding to President Obama’s quick response with a quick, “Yeah, that’s not what I would’ve done. He continues:
As I read the stories, nine kids were killed, and there are these heroic stories about the teachers covering up the kids so they wouldn’t get blown away… So I feel tremendously for the people of Oklahoma, but, uh, their two senators are the most vile, ignorant senators there are in the country. And James Inhofe and Tom Coburn consistently vote against relief for other states. They did it on Superstorm Sandy, and they do it all the time. In fact, there was a $12.9 billion for future disaster mitigation which might’ve helped Oklahoma that they voted against. So if I’m President Obama, I would be tempted to say, ‘I will give this disaster
relief to Oklahoma because I’m the President of the United States and I represent everybody. But I will do it immediately after Coburn and Inhofe come out here and give a public apology to the rest of the nation for consistently voting against federal aid when you needed it. But they come begging to me for federal relief.
You can see the entire video here:
This interview was published on May 22, but be assured that similar sentiments were going viral even as Oklahoman first responders dug bodies from the ground. The Huffington Post was one offender, but by no means the only one.
Let’s pause here and consider the subtext of these statements. They seem to say, “I am sorry for the people of Oklahoma but only because I have a generous and magnanimous soul. I don’t really think the people of Oklahoma deserve my compassion.” This kind of “compassion” is offered for the sake of appearances – and allows the speaker to maintain his own sense of personal benevolence while dehumanizing entire segments of population and blaming the people of Moore, Oklahoma for their circumstances. For Uygur and those like him, the victims and survivors of the storm are nothing but the “deserving poor.” For secularists, the thinking gets pretty Old Testament – even children must pay for the sins of the fathers.
So, I’d love to hear from Uygur and others who have taken this position: When precisely would you halt the rescue mission while waiting for an apology for Inhofe and Coburn? Would you finish digging corpses out from the rubble? Would children be allowed to continue receiving emergency hospital care, or would that depend on their parents’ voting records? And how might you determine which adults are most deserving of care while waiting for federal funds? Would a Democratic voter registration card be sufficient to keep you in the hospital? What if some registered Democrats are Old South Dixiecrats who voted for the senators? Or should everyone who lives in Oklahoma pay for the votes of some once the local funds run out?
Uygur is promoting a really disgusting logic here – and one that should never, ever be confused for progressivism. He’s suggesting that the masses of people who are represented by two senators should receive assistance based on whether or not two of their elected officials show sufficient contrition. Never mind that most Southern states – and states thought of as “red states” in general – are usually far more politically divided than people realize. Up until the most recent election, more than 40 percent of voters chose Coburn’s opponent in every election of his life.
In 2010, only 29 percent voted against Coburn but in this case, the Democrats ran a virtually unknown candidate with little funding – policy analysts in Oklahoma tell me it was never a serious campaign, just a placeholder to keep a name on the ballot. Likewise, Jim Inhofe has never won an election by more than 57 percent. That’s a lot of Democratic voters.
But. And this is important: Even if every single Oklahoman had been unified behind the right, you would still be a soulless piece of shit for thinking of Oklahomans as Republicans rather than people worried about their friends, families and neighbors this week.
New York and New Jersey residents who are new to storm relief are incensed that their cities are still rebuilding. Well, so the fuck is New Orleans. And Princeville, North Carolina – the first town in the United States incorporated by African-Americans – was flattened by Hurricane Floyd in 1999, and it will never be rebuilt at all. Of course New York will be rebuilt.
It will not happen equitably – and undoubtedly poor people and people of color will make the most sacrifices. But forgive us for noticing that the magnanimous white liberals of the Northeast didn’t give a shit when our towns were destroyed – and have probably never, let’s face it, even heard of Princeville.
I live in North Carolina, an evenly split purple state – perhaps the most purple in the Union – commonly viewed by outsiders as red. I am certainly as liberal as anyone in America. We get both powerful tornadoes and devastating hurricanes here in the Southern Mid-Atlantic. I am not going to forget that when tragedy struck the people of Oklahoma, many liberals in the Northeast were more interested in using victims and survivors as object lessons rather than demonstrating meaningful compassion for them. I’m not going to forget, next time someone I love is harmed in a powerful storm, that your sympathy for my loved one who loses her home is contingent on her voting record. Nor will I forget that you might just think she shouldn’t be pulled from the rubble if she happens to be a Republican. And I certainly won’t forget the nausea I felt considering the fact that so many people on my political “side” will be self-satisfied and smug next time any of us in the Southern part of the country suffer a mass tragedy. You thought we deserved this all along. I’m not planning on expecting much from you – even now I remember that, when my state passed Amendment One, you were a lot more interested in making “cousin marriage” jokes than showing meaningful solidarity with LGBT people here.
What so often gets lost in these discussions is the fact that politicians are not mirror images of the people. If a far-right candidate gets elected anywhere outside the South, the media provides ample analysis and context explaining why. The Democratic Party in the district imploded and left a power vacuum. The Democrats ran a shoddy candidate and couldn’t get their act together in time to win. Lots of money from the Koch brothers and other far-right billionaires flowed through the state to buy the election.
We do not get the luxury of the benefit of the doubt when we make regressive political choices in the South. Even though our states are disproportionately poor, it doesn’t seem to occur to anyone that it might be easier – and cheaper! – to buy an election in a poor state than a rich one. What it costs for Art Pope to influence an election in North Carolina is far lower than what it might cost in New York. We are easy prey, and our people are the ones who suffer most because of it.
Then, to add insult to injury, progressives cast us as America’s deserving poor every time they’re not using us as punchlines. I do vote for the more progressive candidate in each election, and I’ll keep doing so because I support progressive policy no matter how smug, arrogant and unhelpful I might find Cenk Uygur, Bill Maher or any other number of smug Northeastern liberals who cannot bring themselves to view the residents of “red states” as fully human citizens whose deaths are as tragic as those left in the wake of Sandy.
I did not condemn Sandy relief efforts on the basis that Princeville was not rebuilt. Instead I checked on my friends and family in the path of the storm system. I’d love to see residents of poor states in the South receive the same basic courtesy. Cenk Uygur and others could even show solidarity with meaningful progressive activism ongoing in Oklahoma. That would be much more useful than showing up to make cruel, inhuman pronouncements over barely cold
dead children, just like the members of Westboro Baptist Church.
Photo by the National Guard, licensed under a Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution license.