Flood and fire. New Orleans and San Diego. Superdome and Qualcomm. Black and white. The juxtaposition of class opposites is Marxism’s most familiar trope. We’ve been told, however, that classes don’t exist in consumerist America — in the parking lot of Target we are all equal. And besides, “class war” today is a phrase used only by Republicans to describe the propaganda of their Democratic opponents. And yet, unless Californians are deaf, what we heard after last week’s fires was more than the sobs of ruined homeowners; there was a howl that accompanied the tearing off of bandages concealing our racial, political and — yes — class wounds.
Long before the blazes were anywhere near contained, the rhetorical ash began raining down from the blogosphere and elsewhere, as both ends of the political spectrum saw in the fires grave portents for the republic. The most visceral dialogues involved comparisons between the wildfires and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It seems unfair to match specifics when you are speaking of two completely different kinds of natural disasters that unfolded on very different topographies. Not to mention one evacuation scenario that existed in a state that lives and dies by the automobile, and another in a city whose urban grid and low-income populace were served by a self-contained, public transportation system. These obvious differences didn’t stop anyone from making such comparisons. Not for a minute.
Elected Republicans, rank-and-file conservatives and libertarians saw only a Darwinian contrast between the Superdome and Qualcomm Stadium. On one side of their dialectic was a Lord of the Flies meltdown — a regime of oxygen tanks, insulin needles and broken toilets. On the other, a veritable Renaissance Faire of suburban largess — bottled water, free massages and frozen yogurt. To men and women of the right, the contradiction was smug confirmation of the rewards of self-discipline, family values and respect for property — in short, confirmation of a superior political civilization.
A natural-born backbiter, President Bush nevertheless showed admirable self-discipline by confining his gloating about California’s resiliency to an oblique swipe at Louisiana’s outgoing Governor Kathleen Blanco when he noted during his San Diego visit, “It makes a significant difference when you have somebody in the statehouse willing to take the lead.”
Others were not so sanguine.
“The displaced people at Qualcomm stadium,” wrote one poster to a conservative Web site [transcribed exactly as written here and in the blog posts below], “are white, civilized educated and are successfull enough in life to know that this is a temp situation that doesnt require much govt help. Contrast this with NO after Katrina when the exact opposite type of people were housed.”
Or, as another poster wrote to a “white pride” site about a TV news clip:
“The people shown at Qualcomm were almost all White, while the Superdome footage looked like Haiti, or worse. The reporter was stating how peaceful and helpful everyone was in San Diego, while the NOLA negroes acted worse than wild animals.”
This prompted another person to find in Qualcomm a metaphor for American society:
“It’s the same for any schoolyard playground. Whites often pitch in and build/repaint kids playground equipment to keep it looking nice and well kept. Blacks will let their areas go to absolute filth and complain that no one’s giving them money or keeping it up for them. They blame it on racism. I blame it on their worthless, garbage people.”
If Qualcomm was a cradle of metaphor, the fires themselves provided an excuse to burnish long-standing agendas. The Stephens kangaroo rat, that reliable piñata of developers and off-road enthusiasts, suddenly and improbably figured as one key suspect in the wildfires by both a Free Republic poster and HumanEvents.com’s John Berlau. Another poster complained about environmental fanatics who coddle all those trees around Lake Arrowhead — the ones that require so much government red tape to cut and contributed to the Slide and Grass Valley fires. Many bristled at the very language employed by the media during the crisis, decrying as “politically correct” the L.A. Times’ use of the term “undocumented workers” instead of the preferred “illegal aliens.”
Anti-immigrant forces, indeed, had a field day during the fires, especially after the L.A. Times and San Diego Union-Tribune reported that six Mexicans were arrested and deported after they were caught stealing supplies from the stadium. When a few Latinos were arrested on suspicion of setting fires, it was seen as further proof of the perfidy of Washington’s immigration laws.
The vitriol against Mexicans, even — or especially — in the blogs of the Times and Union-Tribune, underscored the shrill pitch of the ongoing immigration debate. Suddenly, like the Stephens kangaroo rat, Latinos were on the wrong side of the fires. As a man complained to one blog:
“You know, one of those cats with the ‘mexican rake’ was blowing ashes off the sidewalks and onto all the parked cars. When he saw me he offered to blow off my car.”
The opinion firestorm soon jumped from Mexicans to Muslims.
“Isn’t there a verse in the Koran about the ‘breath of Satan’?” darkly wondered one Free Republic poster, amid speculation, fanned by Fox News’ Steve Doocy, that members of al-Qaeda had taken matches and gas cans in hand up into Southern California’s canyons and foothills.
Not surprisingly, when a bogus CNN.com page appeared announcing that MEChA terrorists had claimed responsibility for setting the fires, more than a few posters were quite willing to accept the gag at face value — especially since the prank, which had been grafted onto a real CNN dispatch, cautioned that “No suspects have been identified, though they are probably brown.”
IF KATRINA WAS George W. Bush’s Vietnam, then the wildfires are his Desert Storm — an opportunity to redeem his can-do credentials and rewrite the history of the New Orleans debacle. There was no shortage of media accomplices to help him carry out this sleight of hand. Even FEMA pitched in this week by staging a fake press conference at which the agency’s staffers posed as reporters to ask FEMA deputy administrator Harvey E. Johnson Jr. softball, Hallmarky questions about the agency’s gallant service out on the coast.
Our own Republican governor also basked in the glow, as it were, of the incendiary event. The mantra from Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Republican half of Punditstan was, “All the firemen, trucks and super scoopers that have been on Christmas layaway since the 2003 Cedar Fire couldn’t have stopped this awesome outburst of nature.”
This self-satisfying refrain was challenged by Orange County fire Chief Chip Prather, who claimed that, in the case of the Santiago Fire, at least, “It is an absolute fact, had we had more air resources, we would have been able to control this fire.” The governor became apoplectic — not only had he been contradicted, but Prather’s J’accuse shone a revealing blacklight on the right’s don’t-tax-me philosophy and its utterly mendacious myth of self-reliance.
None of this is to say that the rumor mill wasn’t cranked by the left too. (Or rather, the traditional center that Fox News and others have successfully rebranded as the left.) Liberal claims that the fires might have been extinguished much sooner if only the state’s National Guardsmen weren’t in Iraq have a slightly disingenuous ring to them, along with the sinister observations about how quickly Bush visited Republican San Diego County and not Democratic Los Angeles (ignoring the scale of loss in the two counties). What is clear, though, is that the level of political debate, such as it exists, is so thoroughly polarized that even natural calamities will set off the rawest civic emotions. And that, behind the photo poses of the Bushes and Schwarzeneggers, seethe many Americans who feel threatened by forces far scarier than wildfires.