As a major city lies underwater, thousands of dead rot, and tens of thousands of the living starve and dehydrate, a country's autocratic ruler at first continues his vacation, declines generous offers of foreign assistance, and then minimizes the tragedy.
After a growing outcry, said autocrat switches gears, visits the affected area on a special set constructed for a photo-op, diverting or grounding rescue efforts while he's there, and makes sure to go nowhere near the masses of refugees.
His vice president goes on with his vacation while the country goes through its biggest disaster in nearly a century and his secretary of state shows her concern by shopping for $7,000 shoes.
As soon as the disaster hits, the autocrat's cadre of lickspittle sycophants jumps into action, trying to shift the blame from an increasingly unresponsive, bureaucratic, arrogant, and authoritarian government to the unworthy victims of the disaster and their supposed propensity for violence, theft, and general immorality.
Had this happened in North Korea or Saddam Hussein's Iraq, everything would have fit perfectly into America's effortless demonology, and it would simply have reinforced our views of how everything really is in this best of all possible worlds.
Instead, it happened right here in America. So stark are the realities of the Great Flood of New Orleans and the subsequent response that, for a few days, even the hysterical self-congratulation of a culture that has lost any ability to understand itself was halted - although it seems to be reasserting itself.
This disaster almost defies analysis, certainly in anything short of book length, but a few things have become clear:
Until Thursday, three days after Katrina made landfall and two days after the levees were breached, the overwhelming primary concern of the administration was the effect of the disaster on gas prices nationwide. Even in the most cursory inspection of the president's words on Thursday itself, this fact jumps out, perhaps most strikingly in the following sentences: "In our judgment, we view this storm as a temporary disruption that is being addressed by the government and by the private sector. We've taken immediate steps to address the issue," which are immediately followed by a list of steps relating to oil and gasoline. At first, a truly nonsensical statement - the drowning of New Orleans is a "temporary disruption" - it gains clarity when one remembers the president's speech patterns and cognitive abilities. He and his cabinet had just been feverishly discussing the price of gasoline, and had decided to say that the storm had caused only a "temporary disruption" in the supply of gasoline. As is his wont, Bush simply robotically repeated that phrase without giving context.
FEMA's primary concern in the first days of the disaster, and, frankly, even in the last few days, was to assert its authority over state and local forces rather than, say, helping the victims of the disaster. According to Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish, on Meet the Press: at one point on Saturday, FEMA came and cut the emergency communication lines of the Jefferson Parish sheriff's office; the sheriff restored them and posted armed guards to protect them against FEMA.
There is the first opening in ages (9/11 was another one, but a very difficult one) for a serious national dialogue about race, but it won't be easy. The divergence between the left's understanding of race and racism and that of the mainstream has never been wider.
The particularly disgusting autocratic, incompetent, reflexively government-destroying Bush administration is particularly to blame for this response. But blame is shared much wider, as well. This is an indictment of late American neoliberal capitalism in no uncertain terms and of the reflexively individualistic bent of this entire society. The most striking example is the fact that there was no evacuation plan - the residents of New Orleans just left in their cars, clogging up the highways and, even though there was plenty of space in those cars, leaving behind the 100,000 least able to ride out the storm - but there are many others. This is also the first opening we've seen to talk about the systemic problems with capitalism, instead of just the symptoms.
In the days to come, people across the country will be searching for answers. They won't get them from what laughably passes as the political opposition in this country. They'll get them from the left or from nobody.
Rahul Mahajan teaches at New York University. He has been to Iraq twice and reported from Fallujah during the siege in April. He maintains a blog Empire Notes
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