The All-Too American Tragedy of New Orleans

Here (below) is a piece I did for an excellent left internet newsletter — Dissident Voice. It’s about class, race, capitalism, oil, empire, and Katrina. Driving across Illinois on I-80 this evening, I tuned in briefly to Republican-dominated talk radio (Chicago WLS 890 AM)…..ctd.

I was informed by Sean Hannity that all of the concerns voiced in this artricle — concerns with global warming and petro-addiction, with racism, with corporate rule, automobile domination, with plutocratic tax cuts, with the massive diversion of societal resources from social health and civil infrastructure to empire and war on Iraq and more —- “have nothing to do with this terrible tragedy.”

None of these are “legitemate issues,” Hannity said. Even to mention these things, Hannity intoned, is to engage in the morally bankrupt political grandstanding that is “typical of the left” (a category that seems —in Hannity’s doctrinaire mind — to include everyone who doesn’t think that George W. Bush is “a great American” and who doesn’t support what Hannity calls “the president’s war for freedom”). The “only legtimate thing do right now,” Hannity insists, “is to be giving money to charity so that Americans can help Americans through this American tragedy.”

“American tragedy?” You bet: read on.

And by all means give to the Red Cross at http://store.yahoo.com/redcross-donate3/

The All-Too American Tragedy of New Orleans:
Empire, Inequality, Race and Oil
by Paul Street
September 5, 2005

“This is not the America that I grew up in.”

“This is not the America I know and love.”

“I can’t believe this is happening in America; it seems more like something from the Third World, like Baghdad or Bangladesh.”

Such is the incredulous commentary of three corporate media talking heads I’ve heard reflecting on the terrible events occurring in New Orleans in the tragic wake of tropical storm Katrina.

The talking heads are off base. The historic events unfolding in New Orleans are very much about what the (to be a little more specific) United States of America has become. They are the predictable outcome of steep societal disparities and related perverse political and policy priorities that reflect the interrelated and petroleum-soaked imperatives of “American” Empire and Inequality.

“Civilized” “America” consigns vast swaths of its large black populace to extreme, concentrated, and highly segregated poverty in shamefully forgotten urban ghettoes where practically Third World living conditions have long prevailed even without “natural disasters.” The residents of these all too invisible First World slums — majority black New Orleans’ sunken Ninth Ward is one of many examples — languish at the bottom of a militantly hierarchical socioeconomic regime where the top 1 percent owns more than 40 percent of the wealth and the top 10 percent owns two-thirds of the wealth (and probably more than 90 percent of the politicians and policymakers). By 1999, economist Thomas Shapiro notes, the “net worth of the typical [American] white family was $81,000 compared to $8,000 for the typical black family.” By 2002, black net worth had sunk to 7 cents on every white dollar and more than a million black children were living in what social researchers now call “deep poverty” — at less than half of the federal government’s notoriously low poverty level. According to recent reports, unequal health care causes more than 100,000 black Americans to die earlier than whites each year and middle-aged black men die at nearly twice the rate of white men of similar age.

The victims of concentrated poverty and related racial hyper-segregation in New Orleans lacked the vehicles and financial resources to escape and purchase lodging at a safe distance from the floodwaters. As the New York Times acknowledged last Friday, “race and class are the unspoken markers of who got out and who got stuck.”

“America” is structured around an atomistic, petroleum-addicted transport technology: the automobile. “American” government starves public transportation but maintains an exorbitantly expensive, taxpayer-financed public infrastructure of and for the automobile, trucking, and gasoline industries. “Asphalt Nation’s” privileging of the private auto over collective transit is part of why so many poor people were marooned in a living Hell.

It’s also part of the explanation for Katrina’s occurrence and intensity. Global warming, significantly driven by human carbon emissions (by modern petro-capitalism) generated by cars, trucks, and planes, is part of why hurricanes are becoming more frequent and intense. As richer whites fled New Orleans in gas-guzzling SUV’s, leaving behind the city’s blacker and trapped poor, they contributed to future disastrous meteorological occurrences. Meanwhile, the White House oiligarchy used Katrina’s disruption of Gulf Coast oil drilling as a pretext to call for the relaxation of environmental restrictions on domestic petroleum extraction — something that will push nature’s furious revenge to new levels of human destruction.

Speaking of petroleum, “America” has been starving basic civil and social infrastructure while spending hundreds of billions of dollars on the immoral, bloody, and monumentally illegal occupation of Iraq. Countless “Americans” are noticing the absurdity of a federal government that can’t promptly rescue citizens in one of its own cities at the same time that state invests in a costly, deficit-feeding, and failed imperial operation half-way across the world.

That incidentally racist overseas operation has complex and shifting aims and origins, but it has always been very much about Iraq’s possession of vast petroleum reserves and the economic and related geo-strategic significance of Middle Eastern oil. Reflecting Uncle Sam’s bipartisan determination to control Persian Gulf oil and to maintain imperial credibility, hundreds of thousands of US troops and vast federal resources are tied up in the dangerous violation of the oil-rich Arab world.

Large numbers of US citizens are wondering how much more quickly and effectively New Orleans’ marooned poor could have been helped had the federal fortune squandered on the Iraq war been free to serve the general welfare and provide for the common defense at home. As numerous mainstream journalists and commentators have been observing, moreover, there are good reasons to suspect that federal dollars diverted to that criminal war could have prevented the all-too predictable (and predicted) drowning of New Orleans.

Meanwhile, Uncle Sam spends untold billions on the opulent maintenance of a global empire of more than 700 military bases located in nearly every nation on the planet. Those bases are disproportionately built in proximity to global oil resources, reflecting what Michael Klare calls the conversion of the US military into “a global oil protection service.”

They are part of an imperial “defense” budget that equals the rest of the world’s total military expenditure. This “defense” budget (mainly dedicated to what the Pentagon calls “forward global force projection”) amounts to more than $600 billion when properly calculated. United States “defense” expenditures outweigh federal domestic expenditures on education by 8 to 1; income security by 4.5 to 1; nutrition by 11 to 1; housing by 14 to 1; job training by 32 to 1. Someone else will have to find the relevant fiscal disparities between empire abroad and flood prevention at home, paying special attention to the Bush administration’s refusal to move money intended for News Orleans’ levees to war and “homeland security.”

These right-handed fiscal priorities provide some common sense context for the remarkable occurrence of New Orleans’ Mayor issuing “a desperate S.O.S.” and New Orleans resident Daniel Edwards’ observation that Uncle Sam can “do everything for other countries, but…can’t do anything for [his] own people. You can go overseas with your military, but you can’t get them down here.”

Along with the very American phenomenon of widespread gun availability, “America’s” huge military budget provide context for the telling scene outside the New Orleans Convention Center: crowds of poor black families chanting “we want help” as armored state vehicles cruised nearby carrying gendarmes brandishing automatic weapons. It’s called Guns over Butter. . . and Bottled Water. And it’s as American as Apple Pie.

“America” might feel less compelled to choose between guns and butter/bottled water (and flood prevention and public transit and sustainable energy policies and…fill in the blank) if federal policymakers weren’t so dedicated to piling yet more tax-cut caviar on the plates of the already super-opulent few in the “advanced” world’s most unequal and wealth-top-heavy society. By the end of last year, the total cost of the Bush administration’s tax reductions reached $297 billion, helping sink federal revenues to their lowest level as a share of the US economy since 1950 and creating “deficits as far as the eye can see.” Twenty-four percent of the great national tax giveaway went to “America’s” wealthiest 1 percent, whose households received an average tax cut of $35,000.

This spectacular private enclosure of the fading American fiscal commons has combined with monumental military expenditures to boost the publicly financed super-profits of high-tech “defense” corporations and to drain resources away from civil-engineering and disaster-preparedness programs that might have preempted the annihilation in New Orleans.

There should be no mystery about why so many black poor people and others in New Orleans and elsewhere across the disproportionately black and poor Deep South were so terribly exposed and unprotected in the wake of a not-so “natural disaster.” Their tragic and terrifying experience is all too predictable and all-too quintessentially [United States of] “American”. It is the natural outcome of the “indispensable nation [Madeline Albright]‘s” longstanding failure to acknowledge, confront, and overcome what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the triple evils that are interrelated”: militarism-imperialism, economic exploitation (capitalism), and racism.

Truth be told, the US has been sinking in a toxic stew of Empire and Inequality for quite some time. The tragedy of New Orleans is just the latest and best example to date of the “American” peoples’ need to complete their many unfinished revolutions, including the one that drew to its final close when the last federal troops left Louisiana in 1877.

Paul Street is the author of three books to date: Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, October 2004); Segregated Schools: Class, Race, and Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York, NY: Routledge-Falmer, 2005); Still Separate, Unequal: Race, Place, Policy, and the State of Black Chicago (Chicago, IL: The Chicago Urban League, April 2005). Street’s next book, Racial Apartheid in the Global Metropolis (New York, NY: Rowman-Littefield) will be published in late 2006. He can be reached at: [email protected]

Related Dissident Voice Articles
* Rodney King in New Orleans by Mike Whitney
* Katrina: “Bipartisan” Betrayal by toni solo
* The New Orleans Looters Are the Bush Progeny by Mike Whitney
* New Orleans and the System that Destroyed It by Gary Leupp
* State of Marriage Took Precedence Over State of Louisiana by Jason Leopold
* Paul Allen’s Other Yacht by Paul Rogat Loeb
* Kanye West is My Hero by Justin Felux
* The Devastating Impact of Hurricane George by Mike Whitney
* “Transformation”: How Rumsfeld Smashed the National Guard by Mike Whitney
* The Perfect Storm by Chris Floyd
* Waiting for the Outside World by Mike Ferner
* They Are Dying at This Moment by Brandy Baker
* Zero Tolerance: Bush Gets Tough as New Orleans Suffers by Jack Random
* Global Warming & Widespread Blackouts, Just as Deadly as Terrorism by Jason Leopold
* The National Guard Belongs in New Orleans and Biloxi, Not Baghdad by Norman Solomon

The brilliant left sociologist C. Wright Mills once said that the core purpose of meaningful analytical work on social and political affairs was to make relevant connections between individual pain and structural inequality. The point of such work, by Mills’ reckoning, was to de-atomize personal difficulty and relate it to broader contextualizing forces of class, race, bureaucracy, and unjust power and authority.

The dominant authoritarian and neoliberal ideology of our time works in the opposite direction. It tells us to separate the personal from the societal. It expects us to think of ourselves and others as purely autonomous sole actors — a veritable mass of self-produced Robinson Crusoes (with Crusoe’s slave Friday deleted from the formulation), each living on his or her own island of possessive-individualist economic rationality and “personal responsibility.”

How interesting is was, then, to observe dominant American corporate media — the leading institutional architect and guardian of authoritarian homeland ideological security — working to fit the square pegs of “Tropical Storm Katrina” into the round holes of the nation’s atomistic, state-capitalist, and neoliberal doctrine. The flooding of New Orleans and the subsequent marooning and severely delayed rescue of much of that predominantly black city’s disproportionately non-white poor population was in many ways the natural and predictable outcome of a number of structurally entrenched socioeconomic and sociopolitical problems reflecting the dialectically inseparable evils of American empire, inequality, racism, and petroleum-addiction. The richly interconnected problems include: racial apartheid and black hyper-segregation; a transportation infrastructure built around the expensive and climate-heating (carbon-spewing) personal and family automobile; economic racism; environmental collapse; and the broad diversion of American public resources from civil infrastructure (including flood prevention), civil rights, and social health (including poverty-reduction, education, and health-care) to pay for war and empire (including more than 700 military bases located in nearly every nation in the world) abroad and plutocratic tax-cuts at home.

At the most immediate level, the New York Times acknowledged on the front page of its September 9th edition that “race and class were the unspoken markers of who got and who got stuck” in New Orleans.” Two days later, Times reporter Jason DeParle noted that “what a shocked world saw exposed in New Orleans last week wasn’t just a broken levee. It was a chasm of race and class, at once familiar and startlingly new, laid bare in a setting where they suddenly amounted to matters of life and death. Hydrology joined sociology through the story line, from the settling of the flood-prone city, where well-to-do white people lived on the high ground, to its frantic abandonment.” Since the 1970s, DeParle noted, New Orleans “has become unusually segregated,” so that “the white middle-class is all but gone, moved north across Lake Pontchartrain or west to Jefferson Parish — home of David Duke” (and of higher ground).

In a society where the atomistic auto trumps public transit, “evacuation was especially difficult for the more than one third of black New Orleans households that lacked a car.” While race and class have always been “matters of life and death” in the American experience, of course, Katrina’s tragic aftermath has provided perhaps the most graphical and literal illustration in the way that American societal arrangements apportion “freedom” — a term that George W. Bush beats to death but never bothers to define and whose limits and contested meanings and complex meanings he never (of course) appreciates — in racially and socio-economically selective and unequal ways. We all know who got “left behind” (to take two words [themselves looted from the Children's' Defense Fund] from Bush’s regressive educational “reform” program) to rot in a living Hell in one of the nation’s great, historic cities.

Dominant media authorities are not generally stupid. They know very well that a commentary like DeParle’s touches on just part of the remarkable extent to which recent events have “exposed” some of America’s core societal disparities and perverted priorities. As they certainly grasped during the early moments of maximum revealed and racially disparate crisis, Katrina was lifting some of the lid from atop the ugly, oil-soaked can of class, race, and empire that lurks beneath official doctrines of “equal opportunity” and “color” — and class-blindness. Given their well-rewarded position atop the corporate-crafted, Robinson-Crusoe-fied mass culture and its underlying, heavily racialized socioeconomic regime (wherein media black net worth is equivalent to 7 cents on the white dollar), we can expect them to quite naturally frame Katrina and its aftermath around a number of privilege-friendly and power-preserving concepts within an authoritarian, selective, and diversionary narrative crafted to contain the storm’s radical potential. Their job is ideological damage control: putting the lid on the race-class-empire can.

Here are some of the key conservative concepts and narratives that we have gleaned so far from dominant media’s Katrina coverage:

1. Katrina as essentially a “natural disaster.” The richly and darkly “sociological” nature of the tragedy was too “suddenly” and uncontrollably obvious to entirely delete and ignore. Two weeks after the levees were breached (thanks to racist-plutocratic-imperialist “benign neglect” of the need to prepare for a long-predicted catastrophe), however, hydrology and meteorology can be expected to progressively supplant “sociology” (especially left, C. Wright Mills- or Pierre-Bourdieu-inspired sociology) in corporate media’s efforts to shape collective memory of the disaster.

2. A focus on “incompetence” in disaster relief management as the main socially constructed factor to merit attention. Here corporate media moves beyond a purely natural interpretation. It fails, however, as it must, to address the roles of competently and routinely imposed racial and class inequality, empire (which feeds domestic inequality and exactly numerous other and related costs at home), and petro-addiction in the construction of Katrina’s occurrence and outcome. Nobody at FEMA made the hard-right business party in power steal funds from flood-prevention and disaster management to give its leading fat cat sponsors and constituents gigantic tax reductions even as it called for “good Americans” to make a shared “sacrifice” in the “war on terror.”

3. “This Can’t Be America. It’s more like a Third World nation, like Bangladesh or Baghdad.” This frequent comment (and different versions thereof) on the part of numerous incredulous corporate media commentators and reporters minimizes the extreme levels of inequality, poverty, and related racial disparity and public sector starvation that have combined to produce desperate, practically “Third World” living conditions in places like New Orleans’ Ninth Ward — turning race and class into “matters of life and death” in such communities without the “sudden” intervention of inequality-exposing “natural” forces. More than a generation ago, of course, the self-proclaimed democratic socialist Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to warn Americans about the supreme dangers involved in the surrounding of “Negro cities” by “white suburbs.” He also spoke passionately against what he called the “triple and interrelated evils” of racism, militarism-imperialism, and economic exploitation/capitalism. Long before Katrina arrived to momentarily and partially dislodge the lid on the imperial race-class can, those “triple evils” combined to consign much of the “world’s greatest nation’s” black citizens to sub-”First-World” circumstances in isolated, invisible, inner-city eyes of the world-capitalist hurricane.

4. An obsessive focus on real and alleged black “looting” in the hurricane’s wake. Of course, “breaking in” to the privately (and corporately) owned stores that happen to warehouse commodified means of survival was the only way for many marooned New Orleans’ residents of different racial background to stay alive as the federal government took five days and more to send basic provisions. Besides adding enormous toxic racist insult to racist injury, this revealing media focus conveniently turns attention away from privileged and imperialist “elite’s” looting of the public fiscal commons — a regular and ongoing “stick-up from the top down” — to pay for its terrible wars and tax-cuts. It was darkly interesting, of course, to see white New Orleans hurricane survivalists described and portrayed by dominant media as “finders,” not “looters” when media cameras caught them in the act of stealing provisions to live.

5. A special taste for individual coping and survival stories. Engaging stories along these lines obviously carry strong “human interest” appeal. They also turn attention away from the structural and societal forces that created the collective, racially disparate disaster which made harrowing, heroic, and solitary survival stories necessary in the first place.

6. Folding discussion of how the American System created Tropical Storm and Societal Failure Katrina (TSSFK) into the categories of “political grandstanding” and “partisan finger-pointing.” Along with alleged mass black “looting,” “raping,” “shooting,” “killing,” and “pillaging,” this is a major theme in the post-Katrina ravings of such powerful hard-right corporate media talking-heads as Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and Sean Hannity.

With these and other reactionary, privilege-friendly narratives, dominant media is doing its best to close the American mind to the many ways in which Katrina might educate the populace about class, race, Martin King’s “triple evils,” and the perverted priorities of empire and inequality. C. Wright Mills would be impressed.

Leave a comment