Thursday, September 18, 2008

Ike and Katrina

Although for many of us Hurricane Katrina now represents the Bush Administration’s colossal ineptitude and criminal neglect of its duties, it is useful to remember that in the hurricane’s immediate aftermath, many saw the mass of people awaiting rescue in the Superdome as living proof that dependence on the government produces individuals who fail to take personal responsibility for their lives.

So far, despite the fact that 40% of the population on Galveston Island, and perhaps an equal percentage on Bolivar Peninsula, chose not to evacuate, even in the face of warnings that to stay meant “certain death,” we’ve not yet witnessed the level of vilification of those who remained in harm’s way. The New York Times, Newsweek, and NPR have retailed stories painting the Galevestonians who decided to ride out the storm in colors that contrast dramatically with those used to render the victims of Katrina. For example, when asked, “What kind of person stays?” Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness, responded:
I heard an interview this morning on NPR with someone who was electing to stay in Galveston. This was a guy, his family and extended family, that were moving into a masonary building to ride it out. They are strong-willed, independent individuals who I think relish the idea of riding out something most of us would consider to be too dangerous to remain.
And in a commentary on “All Things Considered,” the writer Bret Anthony Johnston, observed:
But you have to understand — it's not stupidity or insanity or even pride that keeps most people in their homes during a storm: It's hope.

You hope the life you've built can sustain what's bearing down on it; hope that if a window cracks or a leak opens up, you'll be there in time to fix it; hope that if someone calls for help, you'll be close enough to offer what they need. Mostly, though, you hope you'll get lucky, hope that when those who fled ask about the storm, you can think about raising a cold one with your friends and dancing with your wife and watching your son play in the rain. You hope you can smile and say, "Oh it wasn't that bad. It wasn't that bad at all. Nothing more than a little wind."
Again, a far cry from much of what we heard about those who stayed behind in New Orleans and were killed or trapped when the levees failed.

Some may say that the difference in the responses is as plain as that between black and white. After all, the people in the Superdome, whose plight was broadcast graphically were, in overwhelming numbers, black, while most of those I saw or heard declaring their intent to stay on the Texas coast as Ike bore down were white. And yet as Adolph Reed has pointed out, focusing solely or primarily on race in explaining Katrina is to mistake symptoms and effects for causes:
What happened in New Orleans is the culmination of twenty-five years of disparagement of any idea of public responsibility; of a concerted effort--led by the right but as part of a bipartisan consensus--to reduce government's functions to enhancing plunder by corporations and the wealthy and punishing everyone else, undermining any notion of social solidarity.

The people who were swept aside or simply overlooked in this catastrophe were the same ones who were already swept aside in a model of urban revitalization that, in New Orleans as everywhere else, is predicated on their removal. Their presence is treated as an eyesore, a retardant of property values, proof by definition that the spaces they occupy are underutilized. And it's not simply because they're black. They embody another, more specific category, the equivalent of what used to be known, in the heyday of racial taxonomy, as a "sub-race." They are a population against which others--blacks as well as whites--measure their own civic worth.
Although the demographics of those who chose to face Ike rather than evacuate may turn out to differ significantly from those who couldn’t or didn’t evacuate New Orleans before Katrina, there is at least one commonality in the responses to these disasters that shouldn’t go unnoticed, namely the almost automatic turn to cultural-psychological narratives as a way of processing the social world. We now routinely dissect the body politic into subgroups whose behavior is to be understood, treated, chastised or whatever, rather than operate from a presumption of common citizenship which holds that people are, to quote Reed again, “subjects of political action with their own voices and needs.”

For some time now the ruling class has pushed a vision of government as something that only comes into play when individuals or groups, for reason of their pathologies or idiosyncrasies, fail to do what they ought to do. From that standpoint any government effort to improve the general welfare of the nation only enables self-destructive behavior that would otherwise be checked by the discipline of the market. More importantly, in this vision there's no room for the idea of politics as the means through which we, as citizens, shape the kind of society we want to live in.

Of course, when it comes to government's bailing out major investment firms, only then does the word come down that we're all in this together.

1 comment:

Kate said...

So sad and so so true.