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September 2, 2005

The Big Easy

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Don't tell me 40,000 people are coming here. They're not here.

My last post here was, vaguely, about the nature of human behaviour. How much of how we behave is learned, and how much is innate? When I posted, I hadn't expected New Orleans to become the sort of theatre it has over the past few days. Suddenly people are starting to quote Yeats and mumble things about ever widening gyres, and post rock bands everywhere are dusting off their strings, ready to play in the endtimes, the hour come around at last.

But something much more complex than an apocalypse is going on here. In a way I've seen no other natural disaster unfold, the truth of dying people has led directly not to platitudes and fundraising feel-betters, but to savage self analysis, and the uncovering of brutal truths about a nation and a world that is fundamentally sick.

I have been watching CNN--"Your Hurricane Headquarters"--and just caught the full playback of an absolutely electric interview with New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin. Declaring that he is 'pissed', Nagin burns every bridge he might still have but manages to come across as the only sympathetic politician in this entire mess - the others, he rightly says, are too busy thanking each other and holding press conferences. He talks of the horror on the ground, and savages the state and the White House for their response.

I'm watching Bush now, headed down to fly over New Orleans in Air Force One, and I see real terror in his eyes. Real, desperate and immediate tragedy, not far away empire building orchestrated by his hawks. This is a scared man, an innefective and pathetic one. There is no rhetoric that can spin this one away. And while people die, while anarchy descends, the federal government turns in on itself, aware of its paralysis, aware that all those years in the deserts of Iraq have meant nothing if they can't pump water into the poorest parts of their own country.

Could it have been prevented? Well, nobody saw it coming.

This, then, is the day when America sees the truth. All the issues of race and poverty, problems to be dealt with one day when the more immediate dangers of terror are passed, are now raging in the faces. As Salon editor Joan Walsh's extraordinarily angry and incisive op-ed says, America has seen itself, it has seen what it has done to itself, and it wants to help. It just hopes it politicians will take the lead. Walsh says a war on poverty is as futile as a war on terror, but do you remember that truism you used to love in high school about how you could feed the whole damn world for a year on a week's worth of defence budget?

And if we needed evidence of Walsh's shift, CNN is right now analysing the socio-economic disparities of the Big Easy in depth, with infographics. They seem not only surprised to be discussing it, but surprised that what they are discussing is the true, undeniable reality of the greatest of cities. "Race, Poverty in New Orleans", says the caption. If you forget the lunkhead looters for a moment, it seems the spectacle for once has been overshadowed by the truth it has exposed.

To those of you on the streets of New Orleans and throughout the South, the world will not let you keep dying. George Bush may have kept holidaying, the media may have told us you were looting, but the truth is coming through. Jesse Jackson Jr is now saying just this on the television news - who are we to say what law and order should be in unspeakable circumstances. People, he says, who "never even owned a pan before", let alone a house, now find themselves with less than nothing, in stadiums, not hotels. Heck, they're saying, why weren't they given cruise ships, not football stadiums?

Everything changes today. Am I watching America change, live on your hurricane headquarters?

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Posted by patrick at September 2, 2005 9:57 PM


New Orleans now seems like such an ominously appropriate place for Katrina to have struck. It's just as iconic a city as New York, and there is an eerie poetry to the home of jazz, decayed glamour and the world's most famous Mardi Gras, now becoming the site of the Apocalypse. Add to this the already shaky foundations of the city, high percentage of African-American population and history of slavery, and this natural disaster could not be playing out in a more interesting arena. Which is not to diminish the rage and pain of those people right now, which gave me nightmares last night. I thought this was a point of view that might be usefully added to your blog: http://www.guardian.co.uk/katrina/story/0,16441,1561996,00.html
Some of the looters are heroes to the people in the Superdome and Convention Centre, bringing otherwise non-existent supplies to the refugees.

Please keep writing on this. It seems anything can happen there now. Apparently a bomb exploded in a chemical factory. So now there's the black smoke and everything. Roll the Godspeed.

Posted by: linda at September 3, 2005 11:50 AM

curiouser and curiouser... according to this firsthand report, some of the looters were even police and the national guard.

Posted by: clare at September 6, 2005 7:20 PM

Well put Patrick. I really liked what Kanye had to say about the whole situation too. Perhaps Mr Bush shall look to declaring war on natural disasters.... instead of rectifying the enviornmental 'reforms' made under his time in office. Or I guess he can declare war on poor people...

Love Alex

Posted by: Alex at September 11, 2005 10:20 PM

remember that friday afternoon, paddy, when i had CNN on & i was telling you i had been watching a lot of fox's coverage, too? that even a few cracks were appearing in fox, when o'reilly was getting semi-blasted by his reporter Out There? well, blow me down, george clooney saw it too, and mentions the very occasion in that salon interview.

thanks for the article.


Posted by: marty at September 21, 2005 7:31 PM

Marty, I've got a downloaded video montage of various "great journalistic moments" from katrina - it's got the o'reilly stuff in there. It's linked over there in the sidebar (Reporters Gone Wild).

Clooney movie looks fascinating, can't wait to see it.

Posted by: patrick at September 21, 2005 8:12 PM

shit. had only seen a few of those clips. unreal. i'm gonna follow this shepard character....

Posted by: marty at September 21, 2005 8:45 PM

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