Friday, August 28, 2009
An Inglorious Anniversary: Hurricane Katrina
Even with the advent of twenty-four hour cable news channels, some worthy stories get submerged underneath the deluge of echo chamber and profit motive. Many big stories are fighting for control of the news cycle at the moment. The death and burial of Ted Kennedy and the omnipresent bickering over health care reform are to name the two heavyweights of the moment. While this is unavoidable because our attention spans can only contemplate a certain amount of information at a time, in a more ordinary year, we'd be gearing up to commemorate the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina which arrives on our shores tomorrow. At minimum, I hope the blogs perform an essential service to us all that the media simply is too swamped with other concerns to properly bring to light.
Growing up the WASPy, predominately Calvinist environment that characterizes most of the South, I always found New Orleans a fascinating and puzzling anomaly that openly and unashamedly flaunted its opposition to the conventions of ninety percent of the rest of the region. Roman Catholic when its surrounding states were proudly Protestant, unrestrained, hedonistic and Pagan instead of buttoned-up and proper, it stuck out like the biggest sore thumb you'd ever hope to know. In large part, this is due to how it was settled over time. As a port city, New Orleans had been privy to a tremendous diversity of ethnic, cultural, religious, and class diversity that made Dixie seem bland. A strong French influence, married to French settlers' proclivity to intermarry with Native Americans, combined with open interaction between Africans and African-Americans due New Orleans' vital role in the slave trade gave it its unique flavor. The city changed hands between competing European imperial powers several times and had at times been ruled variously by Spain and France, then became part of the United States as a result of the Louisiana Purchase.
Many of us raised in not quite so libertine surroundings frequently ran off to New Orleans to explore a primal side of us frowned upon by our parents, our teachers, and our culture. To this day, people I know can instantly bond by telling New Orleans stories, and they invariably revolve around the same kind of youthful indiscretions that we all had to some degree: a night of drinking too much and vomiting in the street, a one-night-stand with someone barely remembered, and a memory of Mardi Gras' excess of publicly displayed mammary gland. The guilt and shame, not to mention the hangover the next day was a fairly potent cocktail of self-loathing, but in time that memory faded and we always returned to New Orleans to start the process anew.
The Pat Robersons of the world found it easy to chalk Katrina's arrival as some sort of justified punishment wrought by an angry, vengeful God upon the Sodom and Gomorrah of our times. Not only is that harsh and self-righteous, it's also an unfair characterization. But, hyperbole aside, New Orleans always had a dirty, sleazy underbelly to it that one either tip-toed past, feeling somehow morally complicit by daring to skirt past it, or justified within oneself for some silent, unexpressed reason. A police force well-documented as one of the most brutal, most corrupt, and easiest to bribe was one of these dubious distinctions. A high crime and murder rate, due in no small part to the intersection of drugs, prostitution, and petty theft is another. The physical dirtiness of the French Quarter and Bourbon Street mirrored the dirtiness of the illegal activities lurking somewhere in the shadows. Most port cities, I am aware, have a reputation as not being the cleanest, but New Orleans' variety of dirty was its own brand, one that smelt like the combination of decaying fish, grime, and the sickly-sweet aroma of animal droppings.
The poverty and stratification I saw when Katrina ripped off a scab few cared to attend to was no surprise to me. The impact it made on the American psyche might have made people recognize that good intentions, fairy dust, and a wave of the magic wand don't magically end poverty or discrimination based on income disparity. I suppose I could draw race into the equation, but to me that's far too easy and far too facile an angle to pursue. Racism is rarely all about black versus white. Far more often race is only one level and one particular lens that is part of other interwoven factors that include class, education, money, power, and control. Invoking race conflict makes for good theater and it makes it easy for the media to report, but if we seriously wanted to fix the problems of Katrina, we'd need to take a much broader interpretation.
My rationale for writing this post is a fairly simple one. When people take hold of tragedies like Katrina and use them for their own ends without really understanding the full context, then I get supremely annoyed. When people oversimplify complexities to score political points, then we're all dumber for the act. When people take hold of "the South" and use it to project and air their version of everything backwards and wrong with our culture, then I get similarly frustrated. It would be tempting to pounce on the same infuriating soundbytes like "heckuva job, Brownie" or "George Bush doesn't care about black people." To be sure, some pundits, bloggers, columnists, talking heads, and experts will do so from now and for years to come. Yet, as long as we don't take into account the larger picture, then the plethora of lessons learned from Katrina will be forever whittled down and unnecessarily pruned to a relatively straightforward story of how Americans were outraged at an incompetent, unpopular President, and they were reminded that racism had not yet consigned to the dustbin of history. The lessons of Katrina speak to each of us, regardless of political ideology or conviction. These stories go beyond easy human interest or convenient talking point. Though I didn't live there and though I wasn't an evacuee, New Orleans forms my story and my identity, too. Katrina is your story, too.
This v-blog talks a bit more about how Katrina's impact goes beyond the run-of-the-mill outrage.