At Gristmill, David Roberts makes an eloquent point about our disturbingly ambivalent national response to the destruction of New Orleans:
Unlike the response to 9/11, about which we are so eager to gush -- oh, the heroism! the unity! -- here we want viscerally to turn away because our own pathologies have been revealed, and those pathologies don't sit well with the American triumphalism currently in vogue.This is well said, and it brings up a couple of thoughts.
First, it's important to realize that 9/11 never unified New York, let alone the country. I took the 9 train downtown a week after the attack, and I can tell you that the level of tension and mistrust was enormous, particularly when some poor Sikh happened to get on the train. The myth of a unified post-9/11 America is a remarkably ethnocentric and egocentric one, and it really ought to be discarded; among other things, it completely ignores the situation in which people with skin darker than George Bush's found themselves after the attacks. While waiting for some Indian take-out in Jersey City, I remember seeing Pakistani families whose cars were festooned with American flags, and whose children had flags on every piece of clothing except their shoes. This wasn't unity, so much as difference desperately trying to minimize itself for the sake of self-preservation.
And even among whites, things were immediately fragmented; there was already conflict between people who decided to bet the farm on the closest thing we had to a leader, and people - like me - who saw Bush's weakness, cowardice, and culpability on that day as unforgivable.
As for heroism, there was indeed a great deal of it on 9/11, but BushCo cheapened it by calling every victim a hero. To die suddenly, uncomprehendingly, at one's desk when an airplane crashes into one's office isn't heroic; it takes nothing more admirable than bad luck. Nonetheless, Bush was as eager to proclaim everyone who died in the WTC a hero as his minions currently are to convince us that anyone who didn't leave New Orleans is a fool or an animal, notwithstanding the fact that the loss of life in both disasters was exacerbated by the inability of ostensibly responsible parties to implement an evacuation plan.
In my opinion, it would take real heroism to live in the Superdome for five days, while looking after children or an elderly relative. But the people in the Superdome aren't heroes to anyone in media or government, so far as I can tell; even by those generous souls who don't blame them for their own misery, they're too often portrayed as hapless losers who pose yet another logistical problem, or illustrate yet another rhetorical point. It's almost as though these thousands of people had blundered unasked into the Superdome out of mere instinct, like fire ants, instead of following official instructions under the reasonable assumption that they'd be given adequate shelter and food and water.
If you really want to see unity in America, you need only look at the poor. I don't mean by this that they exemplify human fellowship, though God knows they generally do a far better job of it than the classes above them. I mean that they're a literal unity - a mass - that functions somewhat as did the Queen's magic mirror in the story of Snow White, by confirming the onlooker's good opinion of herself.
This is one of the worst dilemmas of the poor. In a culture where success is, of all things, a moral issue, the spectacle of poverty reassures the wealthy of their own excellence. But if wealth implies personal virtue, poverty logically implies personal vice; the looting, to the very limited extent that it focused on the rather sad acquisition of soggy luxury items, confirmed something many observers seem to have suspected all along, which is that "these people" want unearned status; they want the good things in life without having to prove themselves worthy. Thus, looting in New Orleans was a grave offence against the very moral order that had abandoned desperately poor people to lawlessness in a drowning city. Once again, the poor had to be counted, weighed, and found wanting, inasmuch as they so obviously lacked the resources to contend with the hardships heaped upon them as just punishment for their poverty.
There's more daily heroism in the ghettoes of America than has ever been displayed in any presidential cabinet or corporate boardroom. But this goes unnoticed, because the poor - the black poor, in particular - are conceptually unified to such an extent that a handful of rather pathetic criminals can easily be made to represent ten thousand desperate but law-abiding families. And since these poor are a unity, collective punishment seems perfectly reasonable. The excuses one might make for the sociopathy of, say, Ken Lay aren't applicable here; Lay - no matter how hardened a criminal he may be - remains an individual from whose actions one can allegedly draw no conclusions about his class. Poor blacks, by contrast, are a unity; the guilt of one of them - or even the rumor of it - makes all of them suspects, now and in perpetuity. Upperclass criminality is a tiny blemish that can be covered with make-up and ignored until it goes away, while the misbehavior of the poor betokens a contagious sickness that goes to the bone.
This alienated, fanatic view of things is a comfort that Americans need to start living without, and to make the intellectual and moral effort necessary to overcome it would be to display real heroism. As Robert M. Jeffers notes, Aaron Broussard understands the real issues perfectly:
Bureaucracy has murdered people in the greater New Orleans area and bureaucracy needs to stand trial before Congress today....Take whatever idiot they have at the top, give me a better idiot. Give me a caring idiot. Give me a sensitive idiot. Just don't give me the same idiot.These are wise words, and they apply equally well to our idiot media, our idiot economists, and our idiot legalists and sociologists. They apply to the whole shabby, self-justifying apparatus that devotes itself to uncovering moral deficiencies at the bottom of society rather than the top.
The lesson of Katrina is not that blacks are animals, or that a heightened susceptibility to disaster implies that the poor are "life unworthy of life"; the lesson is that the people who consider themselves experts in planning, ordering, and running this society are both incompetent and vicious. As Marilynne Robinson suggested, "Maybe the great drag on us all is not the welfare mother, but the incompetent engineer."