Thursday, September 01, 2005

The politics of weather redux

My earlier claim that, in not taking a direct hit from Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans had 'got lucky', was more than just one person's macabre error. Seeing the apocalyptic scenes from the city, it's astonishing to recall that Katrina narrowly missed the city, and that in the immediate aftermath, people were sighing with cautious relief. The catastrophe happened afterwards: it's a catastrophe of mismanagement, incompetence, and class callousness staggering in scale.

Mayor Nagin has issued a 'desperate SOS', which makes clear what has been obvious for days: that the 'rescue efforts' are grotesque jokes. Those few who did get out of that last-ditch-planned fucking shithole of a stadium got put up... in another stadium. After reports of shots and fires, the helicopters, the 'relief' were pulled out for the sake of 'security', while the starving begged for help. So that's thousands of people deserted. The poor, the young, the disabled, the sick who obeyed their instructions and sought the 'safety' of the Superdome are faced with the truth: there may have been 'teasing' by implying otherwise, but there are no buses coming to evacuate them. There is nothing planned. They are now being told that the city will 'allow' them to 'march' on the expressway 'in an effort to find help'. Jesus fucking Christ, don't do us no favours. You'd laugh, if you weren't gazing at a city's population of poor left, literally to rot.

One man at the dome was shown repeatedly, with disbelief at the lack of provision, saying: 'They sent everybody here officially.' So what, did he expect a plan? He obviously hadn't taken account of the fact that like the majority of those left, he is poor, and black. Thought experiment - imagine if the Hamptons had been the place hit. Imagine the response.

A city's poor population are being left to die. The entreaties of locals on the news are unbearable to watch. I think the look in their eyes is the one you get when you're made to understand that you're expendable.

Newsnight reports that the police are being told to 'abandon the search for survivors, and focus on stopping looters'. The armed representatives of the state have their orders: whatever you do, men, protect the commodities from those hungry. There's still some supply, and there is undoubtedly demand for food in New Orleans, but it's not effective demand, and nothing gets to fuck with the curves on that graph.

Where do you even start?

The lack of planning for/giving two shits about the poor? The wittering on about 'looting', ie the clear, unambiguous prioritising of property over human life? The none-more-post-horse-escape stable-door bolting in terms of 'disaster funds'? The wide-eyed ingenu act from Bush? 'I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees!.' Oh really, Mr President? So there were no extended warnings written months back, exactly describing what would happen? No concerns about lack of funding? The US Army Corps of Engineers didn't beg for more flood defence money for the last three years, and have a fraction of it granted? You-all didn't cite Iraq as the reason for that? You utter fuck.

Reporters are groping for metaphors - Jonathan Rugman (wmv file) offers 'apocalyptic venice' - and while that kind of aestheticisation normally sticks in the craw, I find myself forgiving it somewhat: it seems a sincere attempt to express a genuinely unprecedented spectacle.

Not only the utter fucking ineptitude, but the race-and-class-inflected nature of this catastrophe is so utterly, nakedly, blatantly obvious, that they're very hard to write out, no matter how the gears of the ideology-machine spin. Most of the interviewed refugees make it clear: 'Bush doesn't care.' 'He's playing golf.' 'That's where our tax money went.' And even the lamest media is saying the same thing: this is a third-world crisis in the richest country in the world; this is appallingly managed; it's the poor who are suffering. And you keep hearing the 'I' word - Iraq.

This could be a serious political crisis for the administration, because of the situation's peculiar ideological truculence. Unlike 9/11, this time, there's no baddy to blame. The attempts to turn looters into bogeymen has some purchase - particularly when the despair of some who've received the clear message that they are subhuman, and are in a horrendous situation, means they are behaving as they are expected to - but in fact even the mainstream media has been to some extent distinguishing 'bad' looters and 'ordinary' people taking things like food and nappies: even that utterly woolly exemption-to-contumely clause is a wedge that undercuts demonisation. But the frankly disgusted responses of many to Bush's grinning demand for 'zero-tolerance', his reprimand to the starving trying to find some crackers, illustrates how hard the scapegoating's going to have to work here. In the words of the Mayor, 'it's hard to argue' with someone trying to feed themself. (He's heroically overcome this, however, and told the police to get on with the key task of property protection.)

Now mainstream news is doing precisely what gets socialists into trouble for being 'tasteless': making links between a 'natural' catastrophe and a seemingly unrelated policy - in this case, the war. It's hard not to when the inadequacy of the flood defences, the inadequacy of the national-guard presence, are explicitly because of the cost, financial and human, of Iraq.

There's other hugely important impacts, of course - oil prices, the dollar slump. But it's clear that neither in political, nor in ideological terms - and you can fucking forget about humanitarian - has the US government responded adequately, even in its own terms. In the astounding nakedness of its indifference to the life of its own poor, the government has therefore left itself visible, questionable. If anything good can come out of this appalling crisis, maybe it's a critical focus on the despicable priorities in place here. And I submit that the judgement should be more than 'sluggish'.

[PS: Carl Freedman, the Marxist literary theorist who is based in Baton Rouge, has promised us an account from the ground, to be posted soon.]