What do you do when parts of the country undergo a natural disaster that upends homes and devastates millions?
If you’re a soon-to-be-two-times-impeached U.S. president, maybe you waffle back and forth between approving wildfire relief, wielding aid as a political chip. If you’re a Republican senator from Texas, maybe you mock California as “unable to perform even basic functions of civilization, like having reliable electricity.” If you’re from a blue state, though, maybe you take to social media and gloat about how even though “it’s real cold, … your lights and heat are still on,” and maybe you blame people for getting what they voted for.
Two weeks ago, unusually severe winter storms led to a mass utilities failure in Texas and left more than 4 million homes and businesses in Texas without electricity for several days, disproportionately hurting lower-income and predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods. People, many of them Californians who had just experienced the fiery version of a natural disaster months before, made a ruthless mockery of the state and its people on social media.
I couldn’t help but mourn how blue state exceptionalism had turned liberals cruel.
Here’s my disclaimer: I was born and raised in the suburbs of Atlanta, decently sheltered from areas of Georgia that would’ve been recognizably “Southern.” I’ve grown up with the Internet, TV shows, movies, books all writing the South was backwards, unteachable and unsalvageable, and I believed it. The first moment I could, I escaped to college in California, the furthest from Georgia of the schools I’d applied to.
In my time here, I’ve come to see that there’s a widely held sensibility amongst Californians that their state — its geographical peculiarities, its history, its culture — is exceptional. At Stanford, I even took a class, The American West, that tried to make this point — though, to be fair, it did do so with many caveats. And I do see how that narrative could be hard to resist: this place has seen incredible growth and productivity, it boasts of multiculturalism and diversity, it serves as the home and cultural center for art, technology and science.
But California is far from a utopia. Indigenous people were brutally murdered in what was essentially state-sanctioned genocide in the 1850s; today indigenous groups still fight tirelessly for their land, visibility and reparations. California championed anti-Chinese legislation in the late 1800s; this past week the Bay Area and Los Angeles saw surges of anti-Asian violence and xenophobia fueled in part by Covid-19. California’s agriculture industry has exacerbated its own water scarcity problems, aggravating the severity of deadly wildfires in the last couple of years. And that isn’t even including the sorts of problems like rampant homelessness and economic inequality that this state shares with so many other parts of the country.
So it wasn’t until I had spent some time in the bluest of the states that I understood how reductive it was to scapegoat the South for all of the country’s problems.
There’s an argument to be made that this sort of political and cultural strategy does a great disservice to the many progressive politicians and activists advocating for change in the red states. It erases the work of leaders like Stacey Abrams, whose voter organizing efforts turned Georgia into a battleground state (and into a target of an indignant Trump’s lambastations). It treats the South as a monolith, where partisan gerrymandering and voter suppression have blurred out the complexity of neglected populations’ voices.
But I’d like to discuss a pattern that’s less talked about: how Californian exceptionalism, and in a sense blue state exceptionalism, feeds into a dangerous lack of self-awareness. Racist, anti-queer, anti-poor rhetoric and violence is treated as an anomaly when it happens in California. In this way, liberals, whose policy preferences happen to align with the state in which they live, can absolve themselves of responsibility from what are actually systemic issues plaguing the entire country and aren’t just “red state problems” to fix — such as how human activity has intensified natural disasters like wildfires and severe storms, which end up disproportionately impacting low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.
I don’t mean to suggest that the severity of oppressive politics is felt equally between people who live in different regions of the country. But I do think it is useless to blame bad outcomes on the geographic location in which they take place as opposed to the structural systems that bolster inequality, to which we all contribute. The view that American exceptionalism is a myth has been a widely legitimized critique for decades — the self-congratulatory idea that the United States is uniquely virtuous provides comfort for many, but it distills some of the hardest truths about terrors we’re all complacent in. I think it’s time we give blue states that same treatment.
I don’t believe that everyone should assume all the blame for what were clearly failures on the part of specific people and processes. Some have rightly criticized Texas politicians who tried to cast the fault onto renewable energy, when in fact the utilities breakdown stemmed from the state’s insistence on maintaining an independent power grid beyond the jurisdiction of federal regulators, that was ultimately limited in its ability to import power to meet increased demand. Texas utilities and legislators had for years ignored warnings to “winterize” its power infrastructure following a similar 2011 cold weather event that left 1.3 million homes without power in its peak.
I also don’t believe that we shouldn’t be allowed to pass judgment on people who disagree, sometimes fundamentally, with our own politics. But it’s different when we’re smug about what people living in a red state — whether they voted for it to be that way or not — deserve during a natural disaster. Surely people don’t deserve to die inside a truck at the age of 75 while trying to retrieve a spare tank of oxygen, or to freeze to death underneath an overpass in Houston, or to have to bury an 11-year-old son after he succumbs to hypothermia in an unheated mobile home.
What’s particularly concerning is what happens when such offhanded lack of empathy meets anthropogenic climate change. At the end of the day, natural disasters don’t see red or blue. They’re not a convenient opportunity for you to be right. They’re not some punishing vehicle doling out to people what they “deserve” for voting red. They’re themselves a result of collective human cruelty and self-interestedness.
Today, the power in Texas is thankfully back on — just in time to see a disrupted Covid-19 vaccine distribution, collapsed homes, destroyed belongings and hurting communities. Latest estimates put the financial cost at upwards of $200 billion, but that doesn’t encapsulate the value of the nearly 80 (and counting) lives lost and the strength it’ll take for hundreds of thousands of families to rebuild.
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