Day By Day

Friday, August 28, 2009

Revisiting Katrina

The British perspective on America is always interesting and often informative, sometimes ludicrous. So it is with Rebecca Solnit's piece in the Guardian on Katrina.

First the ludicrous. Ms. Solnit starts by asserting that the "Birthers", those who question Obama's eligibility for the presidency by asserting that he has never provided adequate documentation for the fact that he was born in American territory, are driven by racism. Granted the Birthers are a bit silly, but racists? What of the Democrats who challenged McCain's eligibility on the same grounds [he was born in Panama]? Are they racists too? Ms. Solnit seems to be doing what she accuses Americans of doing -- of fitting facts into the procrustian bed of preconceived narratives. Brits, probably because of their obsession with their colonial past, are quite willing, even eager, to see racism everywhere. And, at the end of her piece Solnit again dips her toe into paranoid sillyness. She asserts that because of global warming we will be encountering more and more disasters and so it is important to study the disaster that struck New Orleans. Having thus identified herself as a "warmist" hysteric her criticism of the "birthers" loses much of its force. She, no less than they, is imprisoned within a comfortable, self-serving narrative.

Now the interesting. Ms. Solnit shows that much of the suffering of Katrina was the result of a press corps that ran out of control and abandoned all professional standards.
The story, as the mainstream media presented it at the time, was about marauding hordes of looters, rapists and murderers swarming through the streets.
And, acting on the basis of erroneous media reports, local and State officials responded brutally.
There were supposed to be a lot of murder victims and murderers in the Superdome, the sports stadium the city opened up as a refuge of last resort. The rumours were believed so fervently that they were used to turn New Orleans into a prison city, with supplies and would-be rescuers prevented from entering and the victims prevented from evacuating. The belief that a Hobbesian war of all-against-all had broken loose justified treating the place as a crime zone or even a hostile country rather than a place in which grandmothers and toddlers were stranded in hideous conditions, desperately in need of food, water, shelter and medical attention.
Her conclusion:
Katrina was a fairly terrible natural disaster. But it turned into a horrific social catastrophe because of the response of the people in power, spurred on by their willingness to believe a hysterical, rumour-mongering media.
Read the whole thing here.

The gross errors Solnit points to were committed by the national media and by local and State authorities, all of whom performed abysmally. By contrast the Bush administration and FEMA deserve relatively little of the blame for the unfolding disaster. This, to my mind, is quite accurate, although public perception at the time [in large part because of the narrative presented by the MSM] was exactly the opposite.

What is most informative in Solnit's account is her depiction of the ways in which the local population responded to disaster. In the Algiers section of the city armed vigilantes, spurred on by media reports of widespread violence and looting, took up their guns to defend their neighborhood. As a result, apparently, several innocent people were wounded or killed. But otherwise there was little evidence of the violence reported in the MSM. By and large the public, both black and white, behaved "beautifully" were "humane and resourceful", "took care of each other, went to great lengths to rescue each other."

So what we had in Katrina, more than anything else, was an institutional breakdown, in the press and in local and State goverment, that dramatically worsened an already bad situation. It was not a rampaging population out of control as authorities suspected and the media reported, nor was it a failure of the federal administration as political hacks repeatedly asserted. Nor was it the race war so many on the Left proclaimed. Yet political activists, mainstream journalists, and governmental authorities have systematically promulgated a series of lies that fit self-serving narratives rather than what happened.

We often hear complaints that Americans are too mistrustful of their government and the media that support it. Solnit's account suggests that may in large part be because government officials and the media are excessively mistrustful of the American people.