Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The New Blaxploitation

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.


Anonymous said...

NBC had a really good, not at all Triumph-of-the-human-spirit, show narrated by Brian Williams, I believe. I was surprised as hell to hear him so plainly lay the failures of post Katrina New Orleans and the Gulf Coast at the feet of the federal government. At one point he even said something about the "cold" years of the Bush administration if I am not mistaken.


Anonymous said...

I'm in Houston, Texas, where we're settling in with the idea that the Katrina "evacuees" are really, no joke, "new permanent residents". Maybe it'll be a new group of Texans, you know - first Winter Texans, now Katrina Texans.

Anyway, HISD recently reported that one-quarter of Katrina children in the district were retained. (That's government double-talk for failed a grade and held back.) The teachers are pretty frank about it; this was not a case of disruption or stress or anything in the world except the truly crappy state of New Orleans schools.

You know that Texas has nothing to brag about when it comes to public schools, especially in large multi-lingual urban districts like Houston. But, Jesus, a QUARTER of the Katrina Texans held back a year?

(There's also an element of self-selection I should mention here, in the interest of completeness. Houston ran a generous, efficient housing voucher program and hurricaine evacuees who weren't making it in other cities came to Houston.)

Doug said...

Wonderful post, GayProf.

The biggest thing I took away from
Katrina (the event itself, not any of the trash in the media), is that we cannot rely on the government for anything.

My reaction was (and is) to try to become more self-sufficient in all things. We are in the process of installing solar power on our house, and we are contemplating a rainwater cistern. We know that if (when) a disaster strikes our area, the government will be the last place we can go for help. We need to provide for ourselves the necessities of modern life (fresh water, electricity, food), because the government-controlled channels for those necessities will not function in an emergency.

Anonymous said...

We should be trying to replace a government the does not believe in government with one that does. We should at least expect that we would have a government that will not sabotage itself at every available opportunity to prove its point that government does not work. The assholes in this administration don't want to do any of the things that we think they should do, and they are happy to prove that government isn't there to help and that you ought to be self-sufficient. Building a water cistern and an eco-crapper are fine things to do, but they aren't going to help anyone else when the next disaster arrives. Only a sytematic destruction of the current administration's foul policies and distorted philosophies will make the United States a place to be proud of.


Margaret said...

Great post. I've heard some pretty thoughtful things on NPR, including one absolutely heart-breaking story told by a "survivor" in their StoryCorps series... it really emphasized not survival, but how this catastrophe lives on with the people who were there.

Also, as Anon #1 mentioned, Brian Williams was a surprise to me both during the crisis and now again one year later. For a guy who was brought on supposedly to attract the "NASCAR demographic" to the news (according to one report I read), Williams has done some pretty interesting coverage of Katrina.

tornwordo said...

I can't believe that video. I'll never look at him the same. If you cry out to the people in power, and the people in power are heartless, what can you do?

I agree with you that's it's abominable to wrap the whole thing up with a pretty "courage and survivor" bow.

Larry said...

I'm not trying to dodge the issue, I just wanted to compliment your choice of Tahmoh Penikett as your "cuurently stalking" guy. I love him :)

Doug said...

I agree, Whit. I vote for those whom I think are more honorable in their intentions. I write letters and emails to my elected officials. I donate money to organizations whose goals would create a more inclusive, equitable society. I have attended rallies, though I haven't "marched" on anything. I also haven't volunteered for any political movements (though I've been asked to participate in cold-calling and corner sign-holding, neither of which I believe are effective).

Other than these activities (and armed insurrection), what else specifically can we do to speed the downfall of the current administration and its policies?

r said...

Wonderful, thoughtful post, prof. Thank you for reminding me to think.

Anon # 2 said:
"The teachers are pretty frank about it; this was not a case of disruption or stress or anything in the world except the truly crappy state of New Orleans schools."

I'm rather surprised about this. I mean, how do the teachers know it's not the...oh, I don't know... disruption of losing your house, your friends, possibly your family that might cause these kids to fail a grade and need retention?

I'd love to see that study, because I know I'm certainly no expert when it comes to something like this. Blaming it on the New Orleans schools is silly in my opinion. But again, it's just my opinion

Anonymous said...

Not to ruffle feathers, but I saw Bush on tv today in New Orleans giving one of his standard "we will survive speeches" and people were applauding at all the usual Bush speech moments.

If he was in New Orleans, and people were actually applauding his canned remarks, then who exactly was he speaking to?

I just wish someone would've had the balls to cut him off and say "You can leave now. We've gotten this far without you, and we'll manage the rest of the way."

Anonymous said...

With all of what has happened in N.O. I still don't understand why the Federal government (or experts and the media, etc) doesn't even talk much about relocating the entire city, and leave the below-sea portion of N.O. as a green zone. Too expensive? Too controversial? This is what leadership in government is all about. The disaster was predicted, and now that it happened, it looks like we are going back to square 1. Everyone is thinking of the K. disaster as a new opportunity to make money by rebuilding the levies, roads, houses, etc. But no one thinks long term. Who cares if 150 years from now there is another flood in N.O.? We can just sweep the dust under the rug and get on with our business of the day which is to win as many seats as possible in the *next* elections.

Anonymous said...

Doug, I wish I knew. I can't figure out how to wipe them away either. Still, I find it depressing to think of hoarding water and secreting away shotguns under the bed to protect myself in case of dire need. Surely policy change and group effort is more valuable than the efforts of individuals to protect themselves. When the Big One comes, solar panels and beef jerky are not going to protect nice middle class folks from the roving hordes. Most people can't plan dinner they're so overwhelmed by the demands of their every day life--and they aren't going to have the spare time to build a bunker. They are not going to think twice about breaking in to your house and rummaging through your cans and helping themselves to your eco-crapper.

I don't mean to give you a hard time, I just don't think any of that stuff is going to help you survive for long. Maybe I'm wrong. Drop me a line afterwards and we'll see whose still alive. I will probably be the sorry one.


Anonymous said...

The Katrina redux coverage being aired is merely a pitiful prelude to the 9/11 coverage to come.
The neocons win either way with the big government canard.Failure highlights the limitations of government and success isn't really a product of government at all, merely self reliance.
After 9/11 a wise leader would have noticed our vulnerability,particularly regarding our reliance on air transportation,and improved our national rail service.Trains moved thousands of troops during WWII, think how they might have helped evacuate N.O.
The money spent in Iraq could have gone a long way toward improving our infrastructre.Water systems, electric grids(remember the NE blackout) and sewer systems all need attention.This administration and those who elected or appointed them thought otherwise.
This November take election day off and ferry everyone you know to the polls.

Elizabeth McClung said...

well, I am loathe to jump into the waters of american politics but in this case - heave ho!

Katrina has been good at ripping away the veneer behind the power collecting - the idea that those who hold and collect massive power (like mayors, president, police, agencies) should also be ready to use that power responsibly. Apparently this is a new and shocking idea.

I watched with a sort of grim horror as Homeland Security, the largest collective agency in US history (it creates around two new departments every year) along with FEMA, the governor and the president kept passing everything back and forth in a "not our thing" scenerio. Homeland security, while ready and able able to wire tap or abduct or imprison the thousand of people, when it came to say; feeding, organizing and sheltering them, were left baffled.

Essentially, it turned out that all these agencies, which had been appropriated all these funds, had never considered an actual disaster effecting actual US citizens. How inconveniant.

Anonymous said...

I entirely agree with your point regarding the re-packaging of Katrina, especially the intertwining of different narratives of redemption and self-sufficiency. However, I don't entirely agree that race has not been a part of the response (see the lauding of Spike Lee's documentary, for instance). While I don't think the analysis of how race plays out in the government and the country's response to Katrina and its refugees has been very complex, I do think it is a feature of this discourse. What I wish is the discussion of race be more complex and nuanced, rather than falling into its own conventions depending on the speaker's place within the political spectrum. Moreover, the really silent topic, the elephant in the room of representations of Katrina isn't really race but class. Even in your own narrative, GayProf, class emerges as an addendum, tacked onto race as if it were an after effect or a mere footnote.

What I think most people find difficult to discuss in the US is class as a real condition, structuring one's life in a myriad of ways, limiting one's so-called opportunities. Just today, I think, the reports are coming out that analyze the federal census data, all of which confirm that the gap between the wealthy and the poor is wildly large. Of course, here is where race returns: the truly poor in urban centers are non-white. Race and class, then, are mutually constituitive, constantly interlocking and conflicting so they are not neatly separated, one from the other. The superficial reportage of Katrina admits that race is a factor in the response to this terrible event but what is harder to have a substantial discussion about is class and its impact. Likely, as you point out Gay Prof, because this is the land of opportunity so how could class or race *really* affect one's prospects. It is, of course, both sad and appalling that this is a part of the national fantasy of America.

GayProf said...

DH: Your point is well taken. I didn’t intend to downplay the critical role that class played in the disaster. In the U.S., it’s often complicated because race and economic class are so tied together. Still, the two are not interchangeable. Thanks for keeping me honest.

Da Nator said...

Excellent post, GP. The "survivor stories" versions seem like pap to me. One wonders how they really affect most viewers - giving them a false send of positive outcome and curtailing any instincts for guilt or further action, as you suggest, or humanizing victims who may be wildly out of their cultural comfort zones, and thus stimulating more support? Alas, I suspect the former.

And I agree with brian. Wait ‘til the 9/11 shlock heats up. It’ll make those “commemorative coins” look tasteful. This is one reason I couldn’t watch the Oliver Stone movie, despite good reviews (another reason is sheer continuing trauma, as a New Yorker and depressive).

I will say that Spike Lee’s HBO documentary is very good. It does point out the god-awful state of the NO school system pre-Katrina, and, this being Spike Lee, focuses strongly on the race and class issues. I would venture that this is probably his best film, and I’m sorry it will be ineligible for an Academy Award. Catch it, if you get a chance, and bless us with your thoughts on the subject.

Besides, it’s worth it just to see the segment where an entirely blonde, white Utah community “adopts” a black woman into their neighbourhood. I couldn’t help but turn to Mrs. Nator and yelp “oh, hoo-ray, Brighamina! We've finally got us a nigra Mormon!” Maybe they meant the best, but after 4 hours of blatant racism on film, forgive me for being skeptical.

Oso Raro said...

What they said

Conor Karrel said...

Well said *grand applause*, I've always been sickened by the sanitizing the media does in making America out to be the rightful and just ruler of the free world. Our goverment (especially now) makes huge mistakes, kills people, tortures them, creates interment camps and we simply forget about it. America has a dark and ugly past, just like every other country, but just like every other country we don't want to look at the ugly, only the hearts and flowers and little puppy dogs... this makes me terribly irritable, if we as human beings tried to understand one another better the world would be a much better place, but we'd rather sweep things under the rug and move on.