Thursday, August 02, 2007

The Politics of Falling Down

God knows how much money is spent on t-shirts that say “Shit Happens,” and one can’t even begin to imagine the number of people, t-shirt owners or no, that have used that expression to dismiss all kinds of seemingly incongruous or incomprehensible events.

Of course, in just about any case you can name, shit doesn’t just happen. One of the uncomfortable lessons of history—especially the history of the last six-and-a-half years—is that things happen for a reason. That reason is usually not some grand plan, or God’s will, at least not by my reckoning. The fault, most often, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves.

Which leads us to a stretch of highway in Minnesota—a stretch that used to connect the twin cites of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

As I’m sure almost all of you know, a 40-year-old bridge that had stretched across the Mississippi River collapsed during rush hour yesterday, and when all the cars are salvaged from the wreckage, there could be as many as 30 found dead. The establishment media, has, in large part, turned its attention to graphic images of the collapse and its aftermath, the heroics of the first-responders, and the harrowing tales of the survivors and those looking for missing relatives.

Few news reports seem to be asking what I asked right away: How did that happen?

Bridges don’t just fall down. Especially bridges as heavily used this one. Some reports will tell you that the bridge was being resurfaced and had recently passed an inspection—what the reports don’t tell you is that the bridge barely passed.

Reports also often include an appearance or soundbite from Minnesota’s Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty, a man considered a rising star in his party with national aspirations. “This is a catastrophe of historic proportions,” says Pawlenty.

What the governor doesn’t give you is the history. I’ll leave that task to Nick Coleman, columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune:

The death bridge was "structurally deficient," we now learn, and had a rating of just 50 percent, the threshold for replacement. But no one appears to have erred on the side of public safety. The errors were all the other way. . . .

For half a dozen years, the motto of state government and particularly that of Gov. Tim Pawlenty has been No New Taxes. It's been popular with a lot of voters and it has mostly prevailed. So much so that Pawlenty vetoed a 5-cent gas tax increase - the first in 20 years - last spring and millions were lost that might have gone to road repair. And yes, it would have fallen even if the gas tax had gone through, because we are years behind a dangerous curve when it comes to the replacement of infrastructure that everyone but wingnuts in coonskin caps agree is one of the basic duties of government.

As Coleman points out, the collapse is not the immediate result of Pawlenty’s budget priorities—officials of all stripes, state and federal, have been giving short-shrift to our nation’s infrastructure for much too long, choosing, instead, to waste money on tax breaks for the wealthy, or corporate welfare, or Iraq—but how fitting a grace note is it that tonight’s scheduled groundbreaking for the new Minnesota Twins baseball stadium (which Pawlenty was to attend) has had to be cancelled because of this bridge disaster? The stadium, a private facility for a team owned by an extremely wealthy man, will receive a half-billion dollars in state subsidies.

And how fitting is it that in about a year, the Twin Cities are set to host the Republican National Convention? As conservative humorist P.J. O’Rourke once remarked, “The Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work, and then they get elected and prove it.” As all of America now knows (or so I would hope), Republicans would be hard-pressed to stand in New Orleans’ Jackson Square two years after President Bush stood there and promised to rescue and rebuild a city his administration helped destroy. What will be their rhetoric next summer when they pontificate on the failures of big government a mere ten minute drive from the pont that serves as another example of the results of their governing philosophy?

No doubt they will find a way to blame government while ignoring the fact that once again the government responsible was theirs.

Or maybe they’ll just shrug and tell the grieving families of the I-35 disaster, “Shit happens.”

For the rest of us, it’s time we realize that that these disasters don’t just happen. It’s time we realize, perhaps, that the fault lies not in our stars—it lies in our Republican stars.

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