Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Katrina and the Politics of Blame

As regular readers know, this isn't really a politics and current events site. Most of the time, any politics or current events enter as riders on things rhetorical, medieval, or generally literary. Hurricane Katrina is a temporary foray into current events, mostly because I wanted to supply a place for locals here in Troy a way to get information on how to help out.

So, it will may come as no surprise that my comments on Hurricane Katrina and the politics of blame have more to do with rhetoric than politics. Some days ago, I noticed some people in the blogosphere expressing surprise that CNN's coverage of the Katrina relief efforts were the most positive of all the cable news outlets [though this weekend they seem to have turned a corner ... if you are part of the relief effort, expect CNN to join the throng attacking you. No good deed goes unpunished, as the cliche goes]. I wondered why that was myself, since one would think that CNN's ideology would have put them on the front lines of the attack.

At first, it seemed to me that the blogosphere was divided among the usual faultlines. Bush-haters began with the message that global warming, caused by Bush's explict refusal to ask the Senate to ratify the Kyoto Treaty. That approach never really caught fire among the Bush-haters, though, probably because it was hard to keep a straight face while making it. The Bush-apologists, on the other hand, simply rolled their cyber-eyes.

After a few days, two new parallel memes began to emerge. One was that the response was deeply flawed, and reflective of Bush Administration failures in Iraq, the economy, or whatever that particular blogger particularly hated Bush over. The other meme was the dark hint that perhaps the Bush Administration was ignoring the situation along the Gulf coast because so many victims were black (and, presumably, Democrats). Bush-apologists responded rather flaccidly to both of these memes (probably because refuting two tracks simultaneously doesn't make for good soundbytes), arguing that there would be time for apportioning blame later. Seeing that Bush-apologists wouldn't fight them on the issue, Bush-haters went into full conspiracy mood, suggesting that the Administration was actively hindering rescue efforts, and had (apparently) been waiting the last three centuries for this opportunity to get rid of New Orleans/blacks/cajun cooking. The Bush-apologists then responded by going off the rails themselves, casting blame on the Democratic mayor of New Orleans (which, they fail to note, is only one city of many affected).

Then, a few days ago, as I was thinking about CNN and the responses of various bloggers, and I noticed a subtler trend, one of geographic proximity. I noticed that even the most rabid Bush-haters who were in the South were not apportioning blame on Bush or FEMA or anyone else. Neither were the Bush-apologists blaming Nagin. I also noticed that the early Bush-apologist meme that we shouldn't be blaming anyone for the tragedy was held by Bush-despising faculty at my home institution. In fact, I began to detect a gnawing anger among the faculty in the dining hall at the way the media were portraying the event.

I think geography may explain this. While there are certainly exceptions to the rule, as a general trend bloggers close to the Gulf coast have been slow to cast blame, whereas bloggers from elsewhere exploded with a hair trigger. This would also explain why CNN seemed slower to cast blame, since you can hardly live in Atlanta and not be aware that New Orleans, lower than sea level and surrounded by water on three sides, has been doomed from its founding. I think nearly everyone in the South who saw the images of Interstate 10 probably uttered the same scatological expletive that I did, knowing full-well what it meant for access to hurricane-stricken areas. But what of bloggers from New York? Chicago? Seattle? Are they simply nuttier, or more ideologically-driven in their Bush hating/apologizing? I think, instead, they are simply unaware of the geography and of the nature of hurricanes coming out of the Gulf. Some bloggers for whom I have a great deal of respect said some indefensible things, and some bloggers whom I expect to forward any wild-eyed meme suddenly became very measured in their rhetoric.

My own opinion about blame, you ask? Mark Twain once said (though the attribution is in question), "Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it." If you can no longer see the joke embedded in the quote, you've gone in the wrong direction.


  1. Interesting commentary. My criticism of the katrina response has nothing to do with either my politics (unabashed democrat) or my geographic location (north-easterner).

    What I don't understand is why resources weren't staged closer in to the gulf coast when it became clear that a huge cat 4/5 storm was barrelling down.

    It doesn't take an advanced degree in planning or in engineering (neither of which I have) to understand that New Orleans is feet below sea level and it's the storm surge stupid.

    Regardless of ideology, the problem is lack of infrastructure, lack of co-ordination, and short memories. It's not as if we've NEVER had devistating hurricaines before. This is one natural disaster whose response we should have had down pat. And instead of trying to learn (finally *really* learn) the lessons of responding to natural disaster, the real issues are going to be buried in political rhetoric.

    And that's a damn shame because the 2005 storm season isn't over yet and we're just at the begining of a decades long active hurricaine cycle.


  2. LJCohen,

    Let me start by saying how much I enjoy having poets visit my site, since I have spent so much time visiting theirs!

    As for your criticism, "What I don't understand is why resources weren't staged closer in to the gulf coast when it became clear that a huge cat 4/5 storm was barrelling down," I think there are two answers to that.

    The first is that resources weren't staged closer BECAUSE a category 4/5 storm was on the way. As far away as Troy classes were cancelled. When you are talking a storm of this magnitude, you have to remember that "close" qualifies as several states away, and even further for resources on the sea.

    The other is simply a matter of history. You are absolutely right that "It doesn't take an advanced degree in planning or in engineering (neither of which I have) to understand that New Orleans is feet below sea level and it's the storm surge stupid." The problem is that this has been true for three centuries. New Orleans can't go into full high alert every time a major storm system moves through, or else the city (and indeed the entire Gulf Coast) would be uninhabitable for the months of September through November. Instead, the response has been to plan for the small-to-moderate stuff, and pray against the big stuff. That strategy worked well for nearly 300 years.

    In other words, I think people are losing track of the relative nature of distance and time. Another large hurricane will wipe out New Orleans again ... but it may not be for another three centuries, or it may be next year. Denizens of the Gulf Coast have understood that such devastation is predictable in its inevitability, and unpredictable in its actual occurance.

  3. Sloan,

    I respectfully disagree. There are ways to pre-stage resources out of harm's way, particularly with a hurricaine as they move fairly slowly and can be tracked. It is not monday-morning quarterbacking to look at the response and see the gaping holes in planning and chain of command. Unfortunately, it is difficult to talk about this without being accused of having a political agenda.

    Ostensibly, we *have* structures in place to coordinate medical/triage/emergency responses to natural disasters. (NDMS anyone?) In truth, the infrastructure for these organizations has been stripped in the interest of short term thinking.

    I continue to be astounded in the lack of foresight and planning in this country vis a vis infrastructure as compared with places like Holland where they continually update the flood control systems for a country that is mostly below sea level.


  4. LJCohen,

    I'm afraid you are right that this is a difficult subject to talk about without being accused of having a political agenda. But ... let's face it ... right now the discussion demonizing Bush/Blanco (Nagin seems to be falling to the wayside) is politically motivated. This should not discourage people of good will from discussing the issues, but should give us pause about our rhetoric.

    By the way, do you really think Holland is a fair comparison? Of course we have less flood control infrastructure than they ... most of our country is ABOVE sea level. It seems to me that's a bit like criticizing people living in the Great Plains for being less well prepared for avalanches than people living in the Rocky Mountains.

  5. Dr. Nokes,

    Your metaphor (see, I *am* a poet!) does not work in this case, since both of these areas have the same geographic vulnerabilities.

    Holland encompasses about 25,000 square miles. All of Louisiana about 50,000 square miles. I don't know how large New Orleans is alone, but I think I am making a relevant comparison. Both areas are essentially below sea level. The largest difference that I can see is that when your entire country is suceptible to flood, you prioritize it in the national interest. Not so when only one of 50 states is at issue.

    Thank you for the dialogue.