Saturday, September 03, 2005
The end of civilisation
The unfolding Hurricane Katrina disaster in the USA's southern states is exerting an unusual hold on audiences throughout the western world. It is because it has brought to life possibly our worst nightmare - the complete breakdown of civil society. Images from New Orleans remind us of things we had previously seen only in post-apocalyptic movies such as the Mad Max series.
New Orleans may be an extraordinarily quirky city but it is (or was) a modern western metropolis. "There but for the grace of God..." is our private fear.
It is not so much the breakdown of law and order, bad though that is. It is the sudden and complete loss of basic amenities that the developed world takes for granted: food, water, power, sanitation and healthcare.
A clearly angry journalist, Paul Mason, reported from Baton Rouge in Louisiana on last night's BBC2's Newsnight. He explained that the violent lawlessness in New Orleans was the work of a small minority and that the remarkable thing was that most people were acting responsibly with a strong community spirit. He was reflecting the anger of local people outraged that their problems are being depicted to the outside world in a somewhat different light.
Many media, politicians and government officials have chosen to portray the disaster in racist terms. In today's Guardian, novelist Darryl Pinckney unpicks this agenda, showing not only how poor black people have been left to fend for themselves, but also how they are now being positioned as the chief culprits.
The images of black people emerging from broken glass fronts with armloads of clothes or cigarettes bring to mind the LA riots, as if to say: this is what black people do at the first breakdown of public order.No-one could have prevented the hurricane, but its effects could have been mitigated to a much greater extent. If there are culprits, they are the politicians who cut back on investment in flood prevention and disaster preparations, despite clear warnings. The Bush administration has taken a lot of flak this week (which gets stronger the closer you get to the scene of the disaster). It is hardly surprising that the administration should respond by launching a PR operation to shift the blame elsewhere.
More generally, this disaster has demonstrated both our complete dependence on communal infrastructure and people's strength when they act in community. It brings into sharp relief the interdependence of people in the modern world and ought to serve as a salutary lesson to advocates of an atomised individualism.
PS: According to one demented source, the disaster isn't the fault of the blacks but of the gays.
The federal official in charge of the bungled New Orleans rescue was fired from his last private-sector job overseeing horse shows," the Boston Herald reports. "And before joining the Federal Emergency Management Agency as a deputy director in 2001, GOP activist Mike Brown had no significant experience that would have qualified him for the position."
His past experience? Before joining the Bush administration, Brown "spent 11 years as the commissioner of judges and stewards for the International Arabian Horse Association, a breeders' and horse-show organization based in Colorado."
You couldn't make it up, could you?
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