There are countless examples of media word-storms but the deluge from Hurricane Katrina in sound and print copiously illustrated is over the top, the coverage pushing aside a newly named chief justice of the Supreme Court and also the violence in Iraq. Every conceivable point of view floods the perspective leftward and rightward far beyond previous limits. Katrina and her aftermath aroused sympathy and outrage, finger pointing and frustration; it created a swirl of passions that changed an ordinary word-storm into a rampaging tornado. Everyone with access to viewer/reader no matter how poorly or well qualified, close or distant, illiterate or eloquent contributed; the word-twister touched down, cleared existing terrain and revealed along with its real debris a bounty of dumb observations and idiotic pronouncements.
Even if I had resources to gather all of them I wouldn’t have the stomach for it. What follows is a motley collection, not an outline but a collage or, symbolically, a sample of spicy-hot gumbo.
By way of introduction consider Jonathan Alter’s excellent survey in the Sept. 19 issue of Newsweek. This long and valuable piece is spoiled in its finale by two incredibly dumb paragraphs.
The third from the end starts with a question: “What kind of president does George W. Bush want to be?” The rest of the paragraph reveals the question to be neither rhetorical nor facetious nor sarcastic; it is real. But how can it be? After almost five years in office everyone can see the kind of president we’ve got and while Katrina may cause him to want to be different he has shown little inclination to actually try.
Mr. Alter’s penultimate paragraph quotes Margaret Schuber, principal of a New Orleans middle school currently an evacuee in Atlanta: “I didn’t realize there were so many people suffering socio-economically.” This is pure undiluted bullshit.
My roots are in New Orleans: I went to high school there, I taught school there, my oldest brother retired there after 35 years in New Orleans schools, my youngest brother was assistant postmaster, and much more. Mama and Daddy died there. New Orleans is as much a way of life as it is a city. What sets it apart is its centuries of nurturing two parallel and symbiotic worlds, one white and one black, the former symbolized on Mardi Gras Day by the Rex parade and the other by the simultaneous parading of King Zulu.
A casual conventioneer or a Mardi Gras tourist would have to be brain dead not to notice ubiquitous dire poverty. A resident cannot but rub shoulders with a subculture of suffering, endemic, severe and firm; a school principal cannot but rub more than her shoulders.
Rather than quote Shuber to underscore Katrina’s surprise unveiling of people in raw, un-civil circumstances, Mr. Alter ought to have used it to illustrate how these same people survived like human cockroaches—below the surface, irrepressible and menacing, how their middle school principals voice counterfeit words. Shuber’s academic jargon hardly depicts the reality: New Orleans‚ schools are situated in jungle enclaves where parents have been under-educated for generations. They’re penniless. They live hand to mouth. Destitution is real and far more painful than mere socio-economic suffering.
Poorly educated principals and lazy editors have lapses and may with effort be redeemed. Opinionated dunces may not.
Take Brian Pitts of CBS, for example. Asked what was different about Katrina compared to other natural disasters he had covered, Mr. Pitts replied that victims in other parts of the world—Indonesia and Sri Lanka were named—handled their suffering with more equanimity because, he surmised, they had less and expected less than the poor citizens of New Orleans. Thus, Mr. Pitts might just as well have concluded: The poorer you are the less you expect and so when disaster strikes the less you will suffer.
Another opinionated dunce occupying a lower rung on the celebrity ladder is syndicated columnist Thomas Sowell. He had a week to ponder the situation before declaring himself capable of understanding how people “who chose to stay” in New Orleans might regret their decision, but he found their reaction in angry assaults, rapes, shootings and lootings not only unfathomable, intolerable but downright un-American.
Opinionated dunces like these two are usually unaware of their benighted condition.
Before continuing I must take a brief detour. Statements from the head of the Department of Homeland Security and from presidents Clinton and Bush introduced guilt as an energizing element in the storm giving the coverage a surreal tint.
In his televised appearance two days after landfall, Mr. Chertoff, secretary of DHS, appealed to the public to send money and his plea has since been echoed in puppet-like appearances of the presidential odd couple, 41 and 42. Government, therefore, not only needs our tax dollars to pay for FEMA but it also solicits our tax-deductible contributions to non-government relief agencies. Blessed are we who see the degradation of poor blacks and do penance by emptying our pockets.
I can think of no better retort, irreverent though it be, than the one appearing in “Boondocks,” the comic strip by Aaron McGruder: “Who’s Katrina? And why is everybody sending this broad money?”
Finally, brace yourself for three blistering word-showers emanating from the Big House.
Three days after Katrina hit the president looked down from the window of Air Force One, a flying Big House, and deemed conditions on the ground to be “twice as devastating” as they appeared from up there [his word, my italics]. He might have said “10” or “20” or “one hundred” and indeed higher guesses came days later when he actually walked about and hugged people “down there.” Twice!
The secretary of state who less than two centuries ago would have been dubbed a “house niggra,” interrupted her shopping, stepped before the cameras and supported “massa” by identifying herself with the “field niggras” milling around the Superdome with whom she shared skin color and nothing more.
The twice-anointed First Mom, recruited to stanch the leak in her son’s sealed bubble, left her own Big House to publicly extol the generosity of her fellow Texans. Then, with dignified aplomb put her aristocratic foot into shit by observing that “so many of the [field niggras] were underprivileged, you know, anyway” that the accommodations provided “worked very well for them.”
My formulation and inserts may be offensive but the substance is true.
Be reassured. Katrina disrupted but did not destroy New Orleans’ lifestyle. By and by les bons temps will roll again.
Meanwhile, run for shelter!
Marvin Chachere is a San Pablo resident.