Week of the Living Dead

A splinter in the eye is the best magnifying glass.

—Theodor Adorno

Future historians can debate the exact moment when the freewheeling coverage of Hurricane Katrina gave way to media martial law. Was it when Fox News, after days of unlikely fairness and balance, began suggesting that the relief effort was now going well? When NBC blocked West Coast viewers from seeing Kanye West tell a fund-raiser’s viewers that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people”? Or when perma-chipper David Brooks beamed that the New Orleans debacle had really boosted Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 presidential hopes?

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For me, the turning point came on Saturday night when The Cryptkeeper sprung Larry King from his suspendered sarcophagus to host a three-hour broadcast with such fabled disaster experts as Eric Clapton and Magic Johnson. The show built to the appearance of Celine Dion, whose galloping emotionalism for once found a worthy cause. The Québecois diva launched into a teary, arm-waving, heartfelt speech about her sadness and frustration at what she’d seen in New Orleans, but King, eager to squelch such a display of true feeling — you could hear him impatiently gargling his phlegm — didn’t acknowledge Dion’s anger. Instead he praised Dion for contributing a million dollars to the relief effort (she deftly swatted aside the compliment) and then asked her to sing. Yes, the mangy old hack was trying to recapture the celebrity-driven America of just one week earlier.

Although Katrina’s devastation was centered along the Gulf Coast, her saga became a bleak snapshot of our national soul. “It defies comprehension that the United States can look like this,” said CNN’s Jeanne Meserve on Wednesday, an idea that became the week’s mantra. The chaos in New Orleans was like something you’d see in Liberia or Sierra Leone, observed CNN’s undervalued Jeff Koinange, one of the rare black reporters on our screens, not something you expect in the richest country in the world. Put simply: This couldn’t be America.

The problem, of course, is that it was. Not only did Hurricane Katrina shatter our illusions of exceptionalism — no god singled out the U.S. for exemption from disaster — it challenged our belief in the fairness and efficiency of our social order. When the 17th Street Canal was breached, another levee burst in our national consciousness. What poured in were truths normally ignored by our national media and, let’s be honest, most of us in our daily lives.

Within hours, even the dimmest viewer couldn’t fail to notice that those trapped in hellish conditions were precisely the people who routinely remain invisible in this country — the poor, sick, aged and uneducated, most of them black. The ones Michael Harrington famously dubbed The Other America.

Suddenly, the Others were right in front of our noses, and the major media — predominantly white and pretty well-off — were talking about race and class. Newspapers ran front-page articles noting that nearly six million people have fallen into poverty since President Bush took office — a nifty 20 percent increase to accompany the greatest tax cuts in world history. Feisty columnists rightly fulminated that, even as tens of thousands suffered in hellish conditions, the buses first rescued people inside the Hyatt Hotel. Of course, such bigotry was already inscribed in the very layout of New Orleans. One reason the Superdome became a de facto island is that, like the city’s prosperous business district, it was carefully constructed so it would be easy to protect from the disenfranchised (30 percent of New Orleans lives below the poverty line).

Still, such statistics and anecdotes don’t fully capture the primal feelings unleashed by what happened in New Orleans. As the natural disaster turned into the man-made disaster, and the city sank deeper into chaos, rage and despair, the crisis seemed less like a pointed Ralph Ellison portrait of invisibility than a George Romero horror movie where the living dead become a metaphor for everything white consumer society wants to repress — poor people, black people, dying people. In a nasty touch Romero would doubtless appreciate, many rescue workers appeared terrified of the very victims they were supposed to be rescuing.

While Katrina spotlighted Americans we seldom see on TV, it also provoked an American media we see just as rarely — engaged, aggressive, skeptical. Why, these folks were actually behaving like journalists. For once, the reporters were outside the bubble. There was no “Green Zone” in the Big Easy as there is in Baghdad, and everywhere the correspondents looked, they were overwhelmed by death and destruction, and enraged by the government’s failure to act. Normally a smirking android, Fox News’ Shepard Smith actually wept, and furiously yelled at a cop to find out when nearby victims would get help; meanwhile, in a much replayed clip, CNN’s posh-boy Anderson Cooper filleted Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu for giving overly political answers during their interview.

Of course, the Bush administration is famous for manipulating the media, and normally, the first people to New Orleans would have been a PR team doling out an official line for the reporters to dutifully parrot. But this time, there were no flacks to do the spinning. And so the city’s story was told by those suffering at the Superdome, survivors carting around dead loved ones or shocked foreign tourists who couldn’t believe that America couldn’t do better than this. The reigning voices of “authority” came from overwhelmed local officials or cops who’d lost their homes and watched their fellow officers cut and run.

The Gulf Coast itself was smaller than the abyss separating the disaster’s visible reality from the gibberish being spoken by federal bigwigs supposedly in charge of managing it. Talk about your living dead! Days into the crisis, Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown was asked about all the people stuck at the Convention Center. When he replied that he’d just heard about it, I’d swear Ted Koppel’s toupee began growling. “Don’t you ever watch television?” the Nightline host snapped in disbelief. In fact, the official rhetoric was so deliriously out of touch that even pro–Iraq war pundits like Andrew Sullivan began wondering out loud whether the administration’s obliviousness to reality was also happening in Baghdad. (Yep.)

In Creole culture, evil spirits are known as jumbies, and it was hard to imagine three better examples than the government’s main mouthpieces. Far from being reassuring, the sinister-looking Homeland Security czar Michael Chertoff possessed the mediocre hauteur of a dinner theater Voldemort. As late as Thursday he was hailing the “really exceptional” work being done by his relief teams. It’s a rare man who can be quite so grand about flaunting his own lack of credibility.

In contrast, Michael Brown embodied the evil of fecklessness, being kicked from interview to interview like a bean bag. Nothing in Brown’s past suggested he had the slightest qualifications to run FEMA. Bounced from his job with an association devoted to Arabian horses, he only landed a government job because Joe Allbaugh, FEMA’s then-head (and Bush adviser), had been his college roommate. To find a resumé this dismal, you’d have to look at the man in the Oval Office.

Of course, the president isn’t merely the government’s ultimate frontman — he’s the guy who put the other two jumbies in place. Dubya may not tolerate dissenters, but he evidently has an endless tolerance for fuckups. “Brownie,” he said in Mississippi last Friday, “you’re doing a heck of a job.” The correct term, I believe, is hell of a job.

Hurricane Katrina was the third major catastrophe of Bush’s presidency, and each time he’s made the same mistakes. On 9/11, he disappeared for so long that aides had to lie and claim that Bush — the commander in chief, you may remember — had been told he couldn’t return to D.C. When the tsunami hit Asia last January, the vacationing president didn’t bother to publicly express his condolences for 72 hours. Because this latest catastrophe was happening in his own country — and in the red states, for crying out loud — his lack of empathy for Katrina’s victims startled even those who voted for him. Couldn’t he at least fake some concern rather than engage in silly guitar tricks? In the midst of Monicagate, Clinton would’ve turned up in waders and begun feeling the Convention Center’s pain. (Though I do wish Willie would stop covering for Bush. Sure the ol’ pussyhound’s fighting for his legacy, but it depresses me to see him serve as a fig leaf.)

Even when forced by popular opinion to take the mess seriously, Bush couldn’t rise to the occasion. His advance men did their best to stage his events, cleaning up a section of Biloxi before he arrived (a Potemkin disaster area!) and finding two photogenic black chicks for him to hug. But no matter. He still turned in a bum performance. He talked inappropriately about good times he’d had in New Orleans (lots of tweeners, no doubt). He joked about rebuilding Trent Lott’s fancy Mississippi house (well, that’s a relief). And, of course, he tried to cover his ass for, among other things, cutting funds to help protect the Big Easy from flooding: “I don’t think anyone anticipated the breach of the levee.” This was so egregiously untrue — people had been discussing this for decades — that to say this to the citizenry was an act of contempt.

Faced with such failures, Karl Rove’s flying monkeys reverted to their playbook. They sent the president back to Mississippi where he stood with popular African-American Bishop T.D. Jakes — Bushie, thou art loosed! — and began flooding the Gulf with Cabinet figures ordered to talk about the radiant future, not the bungled past. Predictably, they also began smearing. Sunday’s Washington Post reported that the White House had begun blaming local and state government for the disaster-relief disaster. Some of these officials had been clownish, but Rove specializes in the Big Lie. One “high Bush official” actually faulted Louisiana’s Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco for never declaring a state of emergency, though one minute’s research shows this to be untrue. As ever, the Bush administration felt more at ease tearing down honorable, devastated people — like Jefferson Parish president Aaron Broussard, who sobbed openly on Meet the Press— than it did displaying its vaunted compassion.

With any luck, this shameful performance in New Orleans (and along the coast) will finally vanquish the enduring cliché that, unlike the supposedly dreamy left, the right is competent— you know, filled with can-do Steve McQueens and Chuck Yeagers who know how to get things done. In fact, what’s startling about the Bush administration is its mind-numbing incompetence at everything but winning elections and pushing through legislation that further enriches the rich. Even those who fervently backed the invasion of Iraq say they’re staggered at how ineptly the administration has managed the peace. Two and a half years after the invasion, the Iraqi capital still only gets four hours of electricity a day, and the airport road still hasn’t been secured. Evidently Baghdad was a dry run for the watery snafus in New Orleans.

During the 2004 campaign the Bush ticket ran as the defenders of national security. Now, nearly four years after September 11, 2001, the administration faced its first test of how it would protect Americans on their own soil, and the results would seem farcical were they not so frightening. There was no plan, no guiding intelligence, no organization — and no driving energy. While federal relief teams were insisting that it was impossible to get into New Orleans, Indiana Jones, er, Harry Connick, Jr., just went into the city — and wondered out loud why the government couldn’t.

And everyone knew Katrina was coming. If the levees had been hit by a terror attack, things would’ve been incomparably deadlier. So much for homeland security. If anything could give aid and comfort to terrorists, it’s the knowledge that, after years of spending and big talk, New Orleans unfolded as if 9/11 never happened.

Although the network anchors insisted that we were witnessing scenes we would never forget, the eerie thing about America is that we’re an empire built on forgetting. (Remember when 9/11 changed things “forever.”) We have a seemingly boundless capacity for being distracted, looking through what disturbs us — Harrington’s Other America goes unnoticed for decades at a time — and pretending that disturbing realities are somehow aberrant. It’s one thing to be horrified by the suffering in New Orleans and send off a check to the Red Cross (Americans are not ungenerous, especially in a crisis), but quite another to recognize that many of the causes of the catastrophe — the existence of a huge permanent underclass, the ongoing degradation of our coastlines, the choice to cut taxes rather than maintain our nation’s infrastructure — are a widely accepted part of life in today’s United States. They’ve become normal.

Perhaps New Orleans will shake us out of our lethargy. Writing in TheNew York Times, columnist David Brooks suggested that this “national humiliation comes at the end of a string of confidence-shaking institutional failures” — 9/11, the occupation of Baghdad, Enron . . . — “that have cumulatively changed the nation’s psyche.”

Maybe so. But the country won’t change if we forget what we saw or if our media culture does what it did after 9/11 — turns tricky realities into mythology. You saw this process at work on Sunday’s Meet the Press when, after cutting off Broussard’s heartbreaking display of pain at the tragedy he’d experienced, blowhard Tim Russert ended his show with sweet-voiced Aaron Neville singing a Randy Newman song — “Louisiana, Louisiana/They’re tryin’ to wash us away” — over a video montage of people in distress. It was exactly the sort of fake-emotional crap they churn out at the end of the NCAA basketball tournament.

There was more honesty to be found in a testy discussion on that morning’s edition of ESPN’s The Sports Reporters when Mike Lupica, a good liberal, said he hoped that the New Orleans Saints would be able to play this season’s games near the Big Easy. It might help people “feel a little better about things.”

“I think it’s possible to make people feel a little bit better,” replied the Kansas City Star’s Jason Whitlock, an African-American giant with an enviable knack for cutting through high-minded cant. “But I don’t think we need any more superficial feelings. What I have seen on TV has repulsed me. I want people to dwell in this moment and the neglect we saw in New Orleans. I don’t want people to escape from this and feel good for a moment. I want people to remember what we just witnessed over the last five or six days — the neglect of our poor and uneducated.”

Can’t we give this man Larry King’s job?

Powers is author of Sore Winners: American Idols, Patriotic Shoppers and Other Strange Species in George Bush’s America, just released in paperback. On Thursday, September 15, at 6:30 p.m., he discusses his book and Bush culture with L.A. Weekly’s Marc Cooper at the Silent Movie Theater, 611 N. Fairfax Ave., L.A. Free admission.


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