One year ago today, the U.S. failed to protect its citizens from a massive hurricane. Throughout the gulf-coast states, particularly Louisiana, the poor battled for their lives as a corrupt and ineptly administered government proved too distracted to offer sufficient help.
Katrina became a symbolic moment for the United States. For some, it finally woke people up to the Bush administration’s callousness and incompetence. After spending most of the time during the disaster on vacation (where he always happens to be) or eating up bar-b-que with an equally corrupt press, Bushie tried to appease an angry nation by dipping Air Force One down to a lower cruising altitude so he could look out the window at the flooded New Orleans. Imagine that people said that he didn’t care!
We should not forget the suffering and death created both by the hurricane and the inability or unwillingness of government agencies to act. How the media directs us to remember the event, however, should garner our scrutiny.
Over the past couple of weeks, television has inundated me with advertisements for Katrina anniversary programing. Though I have not seen the actual documentaries or movie-of-the-week, the commercials alone have left me a bit, well, creeped out.
Discovery Channel, in particular, has been relentless in pushing their Surviving Katrina two-hour special. In addition to interviews with actual survivors, Discovery promised never-before-heard emergency phone calls and home video from the dark hours in the Superdome. They promise a story of hope and endurance.
All of it has left me with a bit of a sour taste. On one hand, I think recording and preserving the stories of Katrina survivors should be a priority. Local historians and archivists should be out and about collecting as many interviews as possible.
Perhaps I am just too cynical, but I disdain Discovery and other media outlets' decisions to reinvent the Katrina story as one about survival. Obviously I am not suggesting that those who survived aren’t heroic. Quite the contrary. I also am not looking at how any particular person tells his or her story about Katrina. Nor do I think that news media should focus on the macabre by showing tons of dead bodies (though I suspect they would really like to do so for the ratings).
Rather, I am disturbed by the repackaging of Katrina at the one-year mark. Current manifestations of the Katrina story depend on a time-worn tale of those “triumphing over adversity.” The basic message now seems to be, “Yeah, so the government grossly failed, but, look at the bright side! People lived through it and now it’s all okay. See? People don’t need government – We can handle any problem as individuals!”
One of the most glaring examples of this came in the form of an AP story released early this morning. The core of the article discussed a Harvard study on Katrina-survivors’ mental health. Rather than focusing on the study’s conclusion that Katrina survivors are twice as likely to suffer from mental illness than the same population prior to the storm, the AP writer called the report a “testament to the resilience of the human spirit.” Moreover, he claimed that, though severely traumatized, the survivors “had forged a surprisingly powerful inner strength that steeled them against suicidal despair.”
So our benchmark for success seems to be that the Katrina survivors aren’t offing themselves in drastic numbers. We, therefore, can totally feel okay about the depression, crises, panic, and other psychological maladies that resulted from the catastrophe. Not to be glib, but why not also celebrate the fact the dead don’t have any signs of mental illness whatsoever? Sure their lives will never be the same, but the dead sure don’t need any Xanax.
Of course, U.S. notions of race has been one of the most significant elements of the Katrina story. Indeed it’s the most talked about part of the story that’s not really talked about at all. Katrina uncloaked a nation, particularly a national media, ill-at-ease even broaching the idea that race might have been a factor in who survived and who did not.
In the aftermath of Katrina, few could (though some tried to) repugn realizations that racial and economic status remain intertwined in this nation. During the crisis weeks, however, most of the major news organizations refused to consider that African Americans suffered disproportionately from the storm because of institutional inequalities that had (have) yet to be resolved in the U.S. Kanye West’s direct allegations against George Bush, Jr. and the media left the news outlets aghast. Though they largely condemned and censored his remarks, they also showed that they had no idea how to even respond to him or conduct a discussion about race and economic class.
When it became apparent they simply could not ignore the issue any longer, most of the news outlets showed how ill prepared they are to really think about racial difference. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer probably won the golden-foot-in-mouth prize that month. “You simply get chills every time you see these poor individuals,” he told his audience, “so tragically, so many of these people, almost all of them that we see, are so poor and they are so black...” Yes, that’s a real quote for those who missed it the first time around.
Current media advertisements or news articles on Katrina focus on African Americans, particularly African American women. By focusing on their stories, the media wants us to gaze at the story, but also feel that we can simply close the book once we hear their tales. Katrina, under this thinking, had a clear beginning, middle, and end. We are told we can appreciate that the survivors had remarkable courage and, therefore, walk away from them after a momentary pause.
Stories of faith in god and self-sufficiency prove to be favorites. The right-wing Heritage Foundation could not write a better advertisement for their misguided notions of “self-help” and “self-reliance.”
Meanwhile, voices of anger that demand change get little, if any, attention. Barbara Major, a New Orleans activist, points out that Katrina only magnified already existing inequalities in the city. The urban U.S. has a long history of failing to provide for the working class, especially African Americans. “People were outraged that people were dying. People been dying," she told the AFP, "They should have been outraged that children didn't get a decent education. That there wasn't decent housing here (just) like in every other city in the United States."
We should not be afraid to challenge the media’s efforts to sentimentalize the bleaker elements of our recent past (including both 9/11 and Katrina). Instead of interrogating the basic failures and schisms in our society that resulted in unnecessary suffering, we are being handed commodified and bathetic inventions. Rather than exploring unresolved anger, the media implicitly claims that there are “healthier” ways of thinking about Katrina. African Americans can tell their story, but only if that story centers of self-sufficiency and ends in redemption. Those who point out racism or fail to show the appropriate lofty spirituality need not bother showing up to the television studio. Being angry, they say, just isn’t helpful at all.
Mainstream visions of Katrina’s anniversary amount to a major cop-out. Sure, the government could have done more, but look at how all these individuals survived all on their own anyway. It reminds me of people who, upon being challenged for doing atrociously selfish actions, pause long enough to say, “Oh, gee, maybe I could have handled that better.” Simply by stating that they could have done better essentially allows them off the hook from any responsibility. Hey, they expressed a momentary flash of understanding – What more do we want?
In the same way, Katrina’s anniversary coverage gives minor lip-service to the federal and local government’s mistakes, but then redirects attention to those good people who persevered. It continues to ignore the federal dismantling of state protections for the poor and the environment that has been almost ceaseless since Reagan/Bush-I. The federal government has consistently cut funds for cities. On top of that, white flight has reduced tax revenues in municipal areas. We are never asked to consider real social and governmental reform. Our nation could devote tremendous resources to developing urban and rural areas that lack necessary social services. Rather than just hearing the Katrina survivors' stories, we need to remember that much of their suffering could have been prevented in the first place.