Katrina’s punch line

The great, late and Jewish Groucho Marx, a particular favorite of mine, was once confronted by some anti-Semitic nitwits who had barred his daughter from swimming in a country club pool. His response: "She's only half Jewish. How about if she only goes in up to her waist?"

He not only created a classic line, but in the same breath skewered — and made significantly smaller — his child’s stupid, hateful antagonists.

Did Groucho change their minds with this verbal smack? Of course not. But as angry as he was, he didn’t stoop to conquer. He didn’t add to the pool of mindless, purposeless antagonism, he didn’t kick the sneering bigots in their microscopic balls. He did what he did best, using humor as a weapon to ridicule the ridiculous, then took his daughter — and his money — elsewhere.

There’ve been no jokes yet about the horror on the Gulf Coast, just as there were none for an uncustomary length of time after the hideous hate crimes on Sept. 11, 2001. It was appalling during that interim to even think there ever would be, yet of course there were. Tasteless, absolutely. But it’s how much of this country defends its psyche — whistling past the graveyard.

But how will anyone find anything funny about the loss of people, places, cultures and heritage in the waters of Katrina? I suppose President Bush calling the political hack that he put in charge of FEMA by the collegial nickname “Brownie,” could be said not to have as much to do with Michael Brown’s name as the fact that he stepped in so much of the brown stuff — but it’s a stretch.

We’re all examining the dilatory and amateurish response by our government to this homeland disaster for signs of what could happen to us in the next terrorist attack. When that happens, our defenders and emergency responders may be the same incompetents who let a military aid ship sit off New Orleans and do nothing for days after the storm hit, while they tried to figure out what to do.

We’re parsing their words and inaction looking for racism, which is certainly there, and opening public consciousness and debate in a re-examination of America’s caste system. No one could have crystallized the issue more perfectly than the grande dame of the Bush dynasty, former First Lady Barbara. When her son and his minions finally started getting aid to disaster victims, she said, with an aristocratic chuckle, that it all seemed to be working out for these “underprivileged” wretches.

The bodies are still being found, collected and counted. Thousands of displaced children, many without parents, are starting school far from home in communities nothing like their own. The remains of as-yet uncounted homes and businesses are being cleared away, especially around the Canal Street base for most media in New Orleans, to be certain that those newsies who are too frightened or lazy to wander far from official briefings will have “good” photo ops. The religious fundamentalists who now inflict their perverse cruelties on this entire country through George Bush, the slow-witted son of a Machiavellian father, are saying Katrina was heaven-sent comeuppance for a latter-day Sodom and Gomorrah.

I saw a doctored image this morning. It shows both George Bushes dressed for fishing and grinning, the younger proudly holding up a small fish. In the background, black people wade waist deep in a flooded city street.

The current President Bush’s approval rating is now the lowest of his two terms. Maybe those who elected him are finally starting to get the joke.

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