More than just the levees broke in New Orleans on Aug. 30. The tissue of pretense we’ve carefully constructed over our social condition tore away as well in the gusts of Hurricane Katrina–gone with the wind, you might say. What the storm and subsequent flood washed bare was the undeniable inequality that still plagues us as Americans.

On television, the chattering class sputters and gases about the slow response to a catastrophe, meaning Hurricane Katrina. And, indeed, the slow-motion reaction from state and local officials, the Federal Emergency Management Administration, and the White House was–to start with, at least–unconscionably lethargic. But what else is new? And that incompetence, serious as it certainly is, is not the half of it.

Think of this. It is nigh on a century and half since our president signed the Emancipation Proclamation, yet the conditions for tens of thousands of African-Americans in New Orleans didn’t appear to be much advanced beyond what they were when carpet baggers roamed the South. Furthermore, you and I both know that New Orleans is not the worst of places to be black in this country–and some of the places with the most work to do are well above the Mason-Dixon line, which is also a well-known fact.

Inequality and injustice stretching back 350 years and more: Talk about your slow response to a catastrophe!

After a shameful start, the politicians recovered quickly, doing what they do best. They began scrambling to fling blame as far from themselves as they could manage. Hey now, they seemed to shout, let’s everybody form a circle and point the fickle finger of blame somewhere else–at the politico on your right (if you’re from a blue state) or on your left (if you’re from a red one).

Inquiries and investigations be damned, I say. The artful dodgers already are evading at full speed. And if recent history is any guide, their cynical subterfuges will be the most successful aspect of the entire fiasco.

Right now, ardent promises are ringing through the marbled halls of government. (Let’s just listen to how many echoes there are a year from now.) President Bush has called for $60 billion to set things right in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D.-Nev., says it will take $150 billion. And neither of them will say where we’ll get the dough. Still, if money alone could do the trick, I’d embrace federal deficits as far as the eye could see. But it won’t, you know.

Don’t get me wrong. Money certainly is essential. We’ll need it to restore sanitary conditions, rebuild schools, build back the infrastructure, improve the levees, restore the wet lands, etc., etc. But money alone won’t touch the underlying problem, the problem that really should trouble us. Money alone won’t provide a social balance that will save tens of thousands of poor people from being twisted cruelly in the next big wind or when an earthquake punches through the earth, or a drought cracks the soil and chokes the crops.

In fact, the money mostly will go to make the rich richer, through fat-cat contracts and back-door boondoggles. Call me a sourpuss, but you just wait and see.

Nope, only face-to-face decency and enlightened education have even the remotest chance of working on the real problem. And who’s going to hold his breath for that?

So, in answer to the question on a thousand lips in Washington and in capitols around the nation–Who’s to blame?–I offer the only honest answer I can think of:

I am. I’m to blame.

I haven’t done enough to mend the social compact. I haven’t insisted effectively enough that we have honest and honorable leaders. I haven’t shouldered enough responsibility for my fellow human beings. I’ve too often turned away in silence when I should have spoken up.

But I’m not alone, you know. And it’s not just a white man’s burden, either.

The whole sorry mess makes you think of John Donne, doesn’t it? No man is an island entire of itself, he wrote.

Each man’s death does diminish me, just as he said. In fact, every soul in poverty also impoverishes me. Therefore, let me put it this way:

Send not to know to whom the blame belongs. It belongs to me … and thee.