Journalist Joan Walsh

The journalist discusses the political implications of Hurricane Harvey.

Joan Walsh is National Affairs Correspondent for The Nation and her recent piece, “Everyone’s a Socialist After a Natural Disaster”, was one of the most read on following Hurricane Harvey.

As Salon’s very first news editor, Walsh served as editor in chief for six years and authored the 2012 book What’s the Matter With White People? Finding Our Way in the Next America.

She previously worked as consultant on education and poverty issues for community groups and foundations including the Rockefeller Foundation and Annie E. Casey Foundation.

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Follow @joanwalsh on Twitter.


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Tavis: Pleased to welcome Joan Walsh back to this program. She is The Nation’s national affairs correspondent and writer of the recent piece titled “Everyone’s a Socialist After a Natural Disaster”. She joins us tonight from New York. Joan, good to have you back on.

Joan Walsh: Great to be back with you, Tavis. Thank you.

Tavis: “Everyone’s a Socialist After a National Disaster”. Tell me more.

Walsh: Well, I was just struck by Texas Senator Ted Cruz demanding instant Hurricane Harvey relief which, of course, the people of Texas, the people of Houston in particular, they deserve that. But, you know, Ted Cruz, he held up our relief for Hurricane Sandy five years ago here in New York and continues to basically lie about it by saying that he opposed the bill because it contained so much pork.

That really wasn’t true. The things that he thought were pork were things like funding for Head Start programs, but they were programs that were destroyed by Hurricane Sandy.

There were other things like that that, if he had taken the time to understand the bill, he would have known they weren’t pork, and he didn’t seem to care. So I was kind of calling out the hypocrisy of certain Republicans like Senator Cruz wanting aid when it’s for their constituents, but not for anyone else.

Tavis: What do you think ultimately is going to happen? What’s this aid package going to look like when all is said and done for Hurricane Harvey?

Walsh: You know, I think they’re going to get a lot of aid. I don’t know if it’ll be enough. I don’t know how it’ll be distributed. You know, I have some concerns about that.

But when you have a Republican Congress and a Republican president and the Republican leadership of Texas, I hate to say it, but I think that there will be a little bit of partisan favoritism. While at the same time, Democrats believe in spending on this stuff, so I don’t know that any Democrats are going to hold it up.

You know, people are people and the people of Houston and the Gulf Coast and parts of Louisiana very much need the aid. So, you know, I think I’m more concerned, though, as I’m sure your audience is, with the long-term. You know, I think that people are getting help. People are returning home, but some people won’t be able to return home at all, it looks like.

You know, Houston is a really unique place. It’s the capital of our petrochemical industry. It’s been developed without a lot of care and attention to the issues of flooding. It’s been developed without a lot of care and attention over the years to issues of pollution, certainly to issues of environmental justice.

So a lot of the low-income residents of color are going to be hard put to return to homes that may be polluted with petrochemicals. We have an ammonia factory that exploded. There’s going to be a lot of careful and difficult cleanup and some of these problems so many years in the developing, Tavis, are going to be years in the solving.

Tavis: We’re going to go to Houston in just a few moments when you and I finish talking to talk to Dr. Robert Bullard who, as you know, is known as the father of environmental justice, and get his take on the very issues you’re talking about now and what’s going to happen.

He wrote a book some years ago that I’m fascinated to talk to him about tonight where he basically made the argument that, when the government comes in after these disasters, oftentimes they do more damage than good certainly to communities of color.

I want to get his take on what he thinks is going to happen to the poor, to the indigent, to those colored folk, if you will, in Houston once the government starts to spend this money that we think is going to go to these depressed communities. We’ll see. So we’ll talk to him a little bit later in the program.

But you said something a moment ago, Joan, that I want to go back to. I want to ask a broad question and give you a broad palette to paint any way you want. But what do you make of the politics — and I do mean that unapologetically — the politics that we often see played around or connected to natural disasters?

It would seem to me that’s the last time, the last place, where you ought to want to play politics. Yet, to your point, there’s so many politics played with money and with other issues relative to these so-called natural disasters.

Walsh: Well, you know, we’ve certainly seen that over and over, especially when the victims tend to be low-income and tend to be Democrats when the states are blue states or the regions are blue regions, big cities. So I think that’s unfortunate.

I think that, you know, we had a lot of Republicans, including Paul Ryan, wanting to see certain funding cut, to have Sandy aid back in the day, five years ago, be somehow revenue neutral so that other programs had to go if we were going to make room to help the people who were out of their homes and needed so much help.

You know, that attitude can’t prevail. It should just be a basic understanding that we might fight about the levels of education funding or we might fight about tax rates, but that basically we should have formulas in place that let us know what people need when a tragedy like this strikes.

But, you know, the other part of politics, I have to say, has to do with how we prepare for these disasters and the fact that, you know, there was an attempt to cut FEMA’s budget. President Trump proposed an 11% cut to the FEMA budget before this disaster hit. I hope he’ll reconsider that. I assume he will.

We’re also looking at Hurricane Irma bearing down on the Caribbean and Florida perhaps in the next few days. So, you know, the idea that we can pinch pennies and underfund disaster relief, the idea that back in the George W. Bush era, that this is a political plum and you put your buddies in charge and you don’t hire competent excellent people. That’s got to go.

I think that there’s a real lack of seriousness about some of this. And then you just add on. You said I could have a wide palette, you know, a wide palette

Tavis: Take it, take it [laugh].

Walsh: I’m going to take it because we’ve got to talk about the implications of climate change and the fact that we are seeing — you know, Houston’s seen three 500-year storms in three years. We can’t call them 500-year storms. We can’t talk about 100-year storms.

We seem to have a disaster like this, you know, every late summer and we are not taking the manmade, the person made, threat to the environment seriously enough, especially under this president who has put someone who’s an ally, Scott Pruitt, a long-time ally of the petrochemical industries, in charge of the EPA.

They have gutted the environmental justice program. They are making it hard for real science to come out of the EPA. There are lots of staff positions that have gone unfilled in this kind of attrition. Let’s cut the budget by just, you know, letting people leave and not caring whether they were actually doing good and necessary work.

This is a disaster that I think is going to expose a lot of what has happened in the Trump administration and a lot of the Republican philosophy toward climate, toward justice, toward the economy and toward disaster. It’s really going to open a lot of eyes, and I think it’ll open the eyes of some Republicans in Texas as well.

Tavis: How is it, to your mind — humor me for just a second — how is it, to your mind, Joan, that the Republicans will continue to deny the science? How will they, with a straight face, continue to say that climate change is a hoax? How will they continue to say that global warming is a joke? How do they continue that?

It’s one thing to have a political point of view. It’s one thing to deny the science. But the reality is going to continue to be what we saw in Houston. Irma is bigger than Harvey as we speak. There’s another storm, Jose, coming behind Irma.

So these things are gonna happen and continue to happen more and more with greater force. How will they, with a straight face, I ask again, continue to make the argument that these realities are not real, that they’re unreal?

Walsh: I think they are so beholden to their donors in the petrochemical industry and the extractive industry category that they really have a major stake in not seeing the truth or not admitting the truth. I think a lot of them are too smart not to see it, Tavis.

But there is an industry built around climate denialism and, you know, the American people, a minority of them, elected a president last year who insists it’s a great Chinese hoax and that it’s a matter of the Chinese trying to put something over on us.

In fact, if there is any kind of putting something over on us, it’s the fact that the Chinese are investing wildly in alternative industry and are really coming to potentially corner an industry that should have been ours, that should have been creating jobs for Americans here if Republicans really cared about jobs.

They care about their donors. I don’t like to be quite so determinative to tie everything to money, but I just don’t think that there’s any other way to explain it.

And I think that they have a media empire in Fox News that has, you know, made a joke out of climate change and likes to talk about how much snow we’re getting and, oh, there’s no global warning, that depicted former vice president Al Gore as some kind of a lunatic for his very correct and earnest and sincere and sober — not crazy at all — warnings over the last two decades.

There are a lot of people who share the blame and I think not enough Americans vote with this — not enough Americans vote, as you and I both know — but I think not enough of us vote with this as a real driving issue, and I don’t exactly know how we change that.

I really have appreciated the work of the environmental justice movement in taking this out of a sense of, oh, it’s just for people — you know, the environment is about people who like to go skiing or backpacking or have the means to enjoy those kinds of vacations. No, this is a real economic justice issue as well. You know, we need to be making those connections.

We need to talk about this for what it is and never be told that this is irrelevant or this is silly or we shouldn’t play politics while people are still out of their homes and perhaps we haven’t even found all of the victims of the storm yet. I don’t want to play politics with it, but this isn’t playing politics. It’s talking about what is causing disaster after disaster and this is the time for it.

Tavis: Joan Walsh of The Nation magazine on our program tonight from New York. Joan, thanks for your insights. Good to have you back on.

Walsh: Thanks for having me, Tavis.

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Last modified: September 8, 2017 at 1:38 am