The Christian Socialists have asked me to write about Katrina for the British. Here we go...
In 1756 news of the earthquake at Lisbon reached all parts of Europe. For Voltaire, who most famously explored the earthquake’s destruction in his Candide, the disaster revealed that knowledge and optimism wither in the face of raw chance, provincialism, and greed. In 2001, the demolition of New York’s Twin Towers prompted a national quest for acts of heroism to redeem the martyrdom of the dead.
Now, in August 2005, an American city has been destroyed. What do Americans talk about? Do they emphasize existential despair or national cooperation? It’s now October, and Katrina barely survives as an item of press. The disaster’s memory drifts silently out of sight.
American reactions have veered from outrage to apathy. On the week of Katrina’s arrival, even the patriotic Fox News began to fissure with dissent, as mayors broke into tears on camera, Louisiana legislators accused FEMA representatives of committing “murder,” and rapper Kanye West screamed hysterically at his interviewer.
In the weeks after Katrina, Americans talked less about the kind of moral reckonings New York prompted. Competing claims of local and federal blame were too complex to hold the public’s attention. After a month, serious complaints surfaced only on conspiracy websites.
Did Katrina really tell the world nothing? Disasters usually tell us plenty. Disaster in America, suspects the European and Asian press, may have revealed something deadly and strange in the American conscience.
What is missing, when one examines the American media, is a reckoning with American values as Katrina exhibited them. Moral values inform the choices about whether a society makes plans to take care of its most vulnerable citizens. Without doubt, in New Orleans, the poor, the black, the sick, the incarcerated, and the elderly were left behind.
We might have known this for years, but Katrina laid it bare: America is out of sympathy with the poor. The New York Times insinuates how local charity in Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas quickly gave way. After a month, hosts wondered why the impoverished evacuees had yet to move on, recover, and seek work. Local and voluntary provision of charity is, of course, the officially preferred recourse, in these days of neo-Conservatism; no state or federal institution is rushing to supplement their work, nor does the public seriously feel that any should. At the major conservative think tanks of DC, the American Enterprise Institute and Heritage Foundation, economists describe poverty as a natural punishment for lack of effort. America, that is, embraces the utilitarian workhouse model that caused so much permanent damage in nineteenth-century Britain and Ireland. Katrina, in this view, merely exposed the poor to a vulnerability from which they ought to have saved themselves.
America has no moral vision left adequate to put these failures into context. Discussion of Katrina died out among San Francisco and New York liberals first. Louisiana was too far away, the mistakes of the Bush government too numerous to bother fighting for this one. Meanwhile, darker forms of opportunism abound in the disaster’s wake. Bush’s economists touted the disaster as a grand opportunity for actualizing their dreamed-of experiments with truly free trade: pet companies will rebuild the city freed of labor and environmental regulations; public amenities from sewers to welfare will be privatized from the beginning. Scientologists and Southern Baptists rush to the disaster scene like a carnival, racing each other to convert the desperate masses. A brave, shimmering new world of free enterprise and individual responsibility mesmerizes the American conscience.
Katrina should have alerted us to how far this ideology could go towards denying the importance of human dignity, urban culture, and human history. Instead, Katrina illustrates that America has reached a stage of apathy from which it is incapable of turning back by itself.