New Orleans, before the inundation, and today; NYT photo
Feeling anxious and short-tempered these days? I’ve noticed it everywhere since the news of Katrina’s destruction and aftermath has sunk into public consciousness. More arguments overheard. Road rage picking up. Those who tend to moodiness are positively morose. The rhetoric on all sides seems to have been ratcheted up. The NYT in its lead editorial today snapped (emphasis mine):
George W. Bush gave one of the worst speeches of his life yesterday, especially given the level of national distress and the need for words of consolation and wisdom. In what seems to be a ritual in this administration, the president appeared a day later than he was needed. He then read an address of a quality more appropriate for an Arbor Day celebration: a long laundry list of pounds of ice, generators and blankets delivered to the stricken Gulf Coast. He advised the public that anybody who wanted to help should send cash, grinned, and promised that everything would work out in the end.
The commentary from the right wing was, not surprisingly, to blame everything on the godless poor and disenfranchised: The stories are all blather about looting and the shot fired at an evacuation helicopter shuttling 20,000 desperate homeless from the New Orleans dome to the Houston dome, and announced (unenforceable) “zero tolerance” policies for price-gougers. If people who had suddenly lost everything due to simple unpreparedness for an inevitable disaster, the right-wing pundits said, and whose plight was apparently being ignored by the rest of the world, would simply exercise patience and self-discipline, there would be no problem. In the apparent complete absence of law and order, if the people sitting in the darkness, cut off from telephone and other communication with anyone, would simply avoid the tendency to use their gazillions of constitutionally protected semi-automatic weapons to shoot at anything that moves, everything would be fine. The more extreme right-wingers even blamed the disaster on their god’s wrath over abortion and homosexuality.
Comments on the blogosphere have been likewise intemperate. I have been astonished at the anger that has erupted on the pages of bloggers who are outraged and distraught over this predicted and entirely preventable disaster. Imagine if you were the US Director of Homeland Security, the largest and most heavily-funded government operation in the history of the world, and that not only did you not heed warnings dating back years that the exposure of below-sea-level New Orleans to hurricane damage was one of the three greatest security risks to the country, you oversaw the diversion of millions of dollars earmarked for addressing that risk to the fraudulent war in Iraq, which created rather than reduced US security risk. Would you expect to still have a job? Meanwhile the Bush administration, with the National Guard and other emergency forces fully conscripted and overextended in the Middle East, has done essentially nothing. New Orleans is a city without light and power, without communications, without essential services, without sewage treatment, without safe food and water, without housing. They’re still waiting for help from this utterly inept administration.
What’s going on here? What is it about events far away in New York or New Orleans that makes us all so edgy? I remember in the days after 9/11 people seemed likewise unable to concentrate, and on short fuses. But this North-America-wide skittishness, irritableness, was not evident after the Asian tsunami, which elicited some grief but otherwise more positive, sympathetic emotion.
What do 9/11 and Katrina have in common, and what is that doing to our heads?
The fact that both events were preventable has to fill us with almost irrational fear. They happened. They could have been prevented, but boy would it have been difficult. They could easily happen again, and the trillions that have been spent on ‘homeland security’ and will likely be spent rebuilding New Orleans could well be totally wasted, when it happens again. What Bush has done since 9/11 has greatly increased the likelihood of a recurrence of a terrorist attack in the US. The focus on rebuilding New Orleans will be putting things back the way they were — there is no money (half of the people of New Orleans have no flood insurance, so the rebuilding will be substantially at public cost, and Bush’s imperial war and tax giveaways to the rich have left nothing to pay for it) for anything beyond refugee-level housing for the flooded-out residents, let alone for building expensive levees to protect New Orleans from the next hit.
The fact that both events have brought out the worst in human nature must be deeply unsettling to those who believe that, at heart, we all want to do the right thing, and that, in times of crisis, we will pull together. What are we to make of large segments of the population who clearly believe it’s “every man for himself”, that we have only limited responsibility for the welfare of others? What are we to make of dice-throwing politicians who take reckless chances with human lives to line the pockets of their cronies and to secure cheap oil? What are we to make of the misspending of trillions of taxpayer dollars for ‘security’ that actually makes citizens’ lives less secure? What are we to make of price-gougers who tell desperate victims that if they won’t pay ransom for vital necessities, they’ll sell it to the next rich idiot, who doesn’t even need it? What are we to make of struggling survivors who are so cynical about life, law and order and their neighbours that they think nothing of exploiting a crisis to kill, rape, steal and destroy, simply because they can, and because “the Man never did nothin’ for me”? Are we humans really that base and despicable under our veneer of civilization? And why?
The third recent event that has engendered these same responses, and has the same frightening common attributes, but to a lesser degree, was the inability (most evident in 2000 and 2004, but preexisting) of the US election process to reliably reflect the will of the voters. Like 9/11 and Katrina, the unresolvable doubt over who actually won the electoral college vote in these two elections was entirely preventable. And like those events, this doubt brought out the worst in humanity — blatantly corrupt government and corporate officials, conspiracy theories with a frightening ring of credibility, exploitation of the system’s weaknesses to deliberately disenfranchise the poor and discourage future participation in the voting process, and nagging doubts about whether the democratic process has been hijacked. The fact that this is a political disaster rather than a humanitarian one (it has completely undermined the credibility of the US as a defender of democracy in other countries, and the legitimacy of all elected officials in the US) may cause us to shrug off the comparison, but we should not. The angst that we felt when we read the evidence of tampering and the complete lack of verifiability of the voting machines in Florida and Ohio is not that different from the angst we felt after 9/11 and Katrina — dread, fear, helplessness, the sense that everything is spiraling out of anyone’s control.
Lakoff has explained how hard it is for us to understand and process anything that doesn’t fit with our ‘frames’, and how desperately we tend to cling to our personal worldviews. Events like these, I would suggest, come dangerously close to shattering our frames and destroying our worldviews, and to some extent make us, at least temporarily, slightly insane. To the progressive, giving up on the view that most people are good, caring, honest, and fair is sickening. To the conservative, giving up on the possibility that if you live a diligent, moral life you have a chance of being safe and secure, is equally sickening. These worldviews are our levees, and when they break, the result is profound and destructive.
Katrina, 9/11, and the broken US electoral system are victories for short-term, cynical, negligent thinking over long-term, dispassionate and compassionate thinking. They are victories for terror and helplessness over reason and self-control. They are victories for the dark side of our nature over its bright side. The shocking awareness that violence, abuse of power, and inhumanity can so easily, and so often, wash over us with such destructive force, like the waves smashing the levees of New Orleans, is enough to make us all crazy.
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