Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The thin veneer

According to the news this evening, the floodwaters in New Orleans are starting to recede ... but it will be weeks, months, before that stricken city can begin to return to a faint resemblance of normality. Of course, we will have moved on to the next big sensational story in the 24-hour news universe well before that. I'm laying bets that CNN will all but forget about Katrina in a week or so.

This prospect bothers me. I feel as though we should be starting and ending every news night with those horrific images of the people stranded on their roofs, huddled in sweltering, filthy shelters, and peering in abject fear from behind cracked doors, until the broader lessons have been learned. Our memories are too short; the spin machines are gearing up to full power, and what big-picture issues are there are getting swamped (poor choice of words) by anecdotal boy-rescued-by-dog types of stories. Too soon those images of human beings reduced to bestial conditions will have faded from memory. I only pray there isn't a celebrity breakup in the next few days to speed up the process.

Watching an interview with a Canadian couple who had been trapped in the midst of the chaos, I felt an uneasy sense of life imitating art, or at least, life imitating B-movies: they survived largely because they managed to hole up with a few others in a dowtown mall, where they found a decent cache of food and protection enough from the roving gangs without. Their description of the nights full of terror, hearing the screams and howls in the dark outside, of seeing men and women reduced to glassy-eyed zombies, made feral by fear and hunger, echoed Dawn of the Dead so strongly that I know I'm having nightmares tonight. It may seem odd or inappropriate to make this filmic connection, but that experience of living in terror of people regressing to base, primal violence strikes me as the most elemental lesson this catastrophe should be teaching. While there are many stories of heroism and sacrifice, they are vastly overshadowed by the mere anarchy loosed on the city by the stripping away of the thin veneer of civilization. The old adage that any society is only three meals away from revolution came crashing down on the US a week ago when the underclass of a major city were violently cut off from whatever last wisps of hope existed in their lives.

A few things to think about:
1. New Orleans is the 9th poorest city in the States.
2. The city is 3/4 African-Americans, the vast majority of whom live around or under the poverty line. In all the images of the hordes of refugees, I did not see a single white face.
3. Several large buildings in wealthy areas, such as the casino, could well have handled the overflow of refugees, but instead bolted their doors against them. The affluent actually hired armed security guards to patrol their properties, leaving most of the refugees to cram into the sweltering and unsanitary stadium.
4. FEMA and other environmental groups were aware well in advance of Katrina's size, power, and trajectory; the resources were present to evacuate people, yet nothing was done beyond issue the call for people to get themselves out of the city -- leaving those without vehicles without any means of escape.
5. This past June, the Bush administration sliced $71.2 million from the budget of the New Orleans Corps of Engineers, a 44 percent reduction.
6. The Office of Technology Assessment is a governmental advisory group that used to produce such plans as "Floods: A National Policy Concern" and "A Framework for Flood Hazards Management." It was eviscerated by the Republicans.
7. Thirty-five percent of Louisiana's National Guard is currently serving in Iraq. Most of their heavy vehicles that would have been ideal for getting in and out of the worst-hit areas are likewise in Iraq.
8. The vast majority of the money that had been devoted to the upkeep and repair of the city's levees--the very levees that burst and flooded the city--had been "re-allocated" to the war in Iraq and Homeland Security.

In the end, I think it's no surprise that the people of New Orleans feel abandoned by their government and their country, because the abandonment was happening long before the hurricane struck. And it should come as no surprise that a segment of the population reacted in the brutal way they did -- because, as any first-year psychology student will tell you, for people to have such a disregard for human life they usually must first regard for their own as worthless.


amy said...

maybe a faint ray of hope in hearing so many southerners declaim against the Bush Republicans.

Lesley said...

Hey, I found your blog through UWO, and will continue to follow it. I liked how you put down the points about NOLA. Great blog!

iceman said...

Eloquently argued and tragically true!

Anonymous said...

Certainly, very eloquent. But why demonize the (black) citizens of New Orleans who were denied access to the mall? Why use language like "roving gangs"? Why not call the (white) "Canadian couple" members of a "hoarding gang" instead?

I wouldn't worry about a celebrity breakup affecting the news; already, the celebs are making the front pages--flying in bottled water on their personal lear jets, hugging babies, tut-tutting the US government, and getting their photo ops. No doubt there will be a telethon with $17 million-per-movie actors like Tom Hanks telling us to donate.

Chris in NF said...

Because, anonymous, we must surely differentiate between people caught up in tragic circumstances and those who foment further violence by looting gun stores and embracing the anarchy. I said that that behaviour was understandable given the circumstances; I didn't say it was excusable. My liberal guilt only stretches so far.And I'll go out on a limb and imagine that if you were in a similar situation, you'd be loathe to open your doors to a large number of people with guns determined to do you and yours violence.

But the language I used was somewhat misleading ... the people in the mall were not under siege, nor had they built barricades -- they were just taking advantage of the cover provided, and they were with a fairly sizable group of like-minded people.

As for demonizing the underprivileged black population of New Orleans, my point was that that had been going on for years, decades ... and the "roving bands" were pretty much just playing the role their society had set for them again and again and again.

As for the celebrity issue, you're undoubtedly right. Now that Sean Penn has made his tour, I suppose this officially counts as a grade-a disaster.

Justin Power said...

Well said, Chris. I never made the connection to Dawn of the Dead, but I think the allusion is apt.

In regards to media coverage, I happened across a BBC editorial the other day that could fuel MIT lectures for days.

Has Katrina saved US media?

An excerpt:

"Unlike Watergate, 'Katrinagate' was public service journalism ruthlessly exposing the truth on a live and continuous basis. Instead of secretive 'Deep Throat' meetings in car-parks, cameras captured the immediate reality of what was happening at the New Orleans Convention Center, making a mockery of the stalling and excuses being put forward by those in power. Amidst the horror, American broadcast journalism just might have grown its spine back, thanks to Katrina."


"[The US has] a timid and self-censoring journalistic culture that is no match for the masterfully aggressive spin-surgeons of the Bush administration. But last week the complacency stopped, and the moral indignation against inadequate government began to flow, from slick anchors who spend most of their time glued to desks in New York and Washington."