We are the weeds

My previous post on Katrina and its aftermath focused on the contribution made by incompetence – albeit willed and cultivated incompetence. This post is about malice.

As I wrote earlier,

FEMA is now functionally subordinate to the Department of Homeland Security, founded after September 11; this may help explain why FEMA’s interventions in New Orleans placed such an emphasis on securing the perimeter of the city and ensuring that nobody, as a general policy, moved. The triumph of the Homeland Security worldview: natural disasters as a public order problem.

Apparently the Homeland Security worldview predates the Department itself; here’s a passage from the FEMA article I quoted earlier:

In the 1980s, the Reagan administration endowed FEMA with extraordinary powers to keep the country running – powers bordering on martial law, critics argued. The agency became responsible for “continuity of government” plans devoted to salvaging national authority in the event of a nuclear attack. Other plans, drafted by the likes of National Security Council aide Oliver North, laid the groundwork for rounding up rabble-rousers in the event of societal breakdown, whatever the cause.

Larry Bradshaw and Lorrie Beth Stronsky’s story, in case you haven’t read it already, is a graphic illustration of how this approach works out in practice. Now picture the forces of order going from house to house as the floodwaters subside, taking survivors away to ‘refugee camps’, in handcuffs if necessary (I heard that last detail on BBC Radio 4 this morning). And picture the forces of order waiting outside New Orleans until they had built up a large enough force to pacify a supposed insurrection. (Not for the first time, China at Lenin’s Tomb has got the goods: the army had no delusions about their remit – it was not to secure human life and bring supplies, but to suppress an “insurgency”.) If the aftermath of Katrina is a problem, in other words, the survivors aren’t the people who have got the problem – the survivors are part of the problem. In the words of a FEMA staffer at an Oklahoma internment camp, You don’t understand the type of people that are about to come here.

What type of people is that? Here’s Barbara Bush, wife of one President and mother of another, visiting a stadium in Houston which was being used as a holding camp:

What I’m hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality.And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this – this [she chuckles slightly] is working very well for them.

And here’s her boy, visiting Mobile, Alabama:

The good news is — and it’s hard for some to see it now — that out of this chaos is going to come a fantastic Gulf Coast, like it was before. Out of the rubbles of Trent Lott’s house — he’s lost his entire house — there’s going to be a fantastic house. And I’m looking forward to sitting on the porch.

Even if we forget who Trent Lott is, this is dreadful, Marie Antoinette stuff. All those people have lost everything? They’ll be OK – after all, my friend lost his house, and he’s building a new one… If we remember that Trent Lott is the Republican who endorsed the segregationist Strom Thurmond (“we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years”); and if we remember that most of the people who got stuck in those New Orleans internment camps are Black… I’m not suggesting that George W. Bush and his government are pursuing an actively racist agenda – that they saw the chaos caused by Hurricane Katrina as an opportunity to to treat poor Black people like dirt. I suspect it’s worse than that. I’m suggesting that the government is genuinely attempting to mount an effective response to the disaster – but that its criteria for an effective response don’t exclude treating poor Black people like dirt, and may even encourage it.

It’s as if the government is running two sets of books on its responsibilities to the public. There are the deep-rooted assumptions of the social contract: if we have a government, and if it intervenes in our lives, it must surely intervene to maximise the safety of its citizens and prolong our lives – all our lives, without distinction. But then there’s a political contract, which isn’t cited openly but informs the government’s rhetoric as well as its policy-making – and that contract says, quite plainly, that those people don’t count. Hence, perhaps, a certain genuine bafflement on Bush’s part in the face of the public reaction to the aftermath of Katrina: what’s up with them? they knew what they were voting for, didn’t they?

Here’s Alasdair Gray in 1982 Janine:

[Frazer] was telling us about Machiavelli’s The Prince. “Listen,” he said, “you have just conquered a neighbouring state, right?, and you want to conquer another. So what do you do to the defeated people to stop them revolting against you when you withdraw most of your army?”
We could not answer because we had not read Machiavelli.
“Easy!” cried Frazer, “You split the population into three, take most of the wealth away from one-third and divide it with the rest. The majority have now profited by being conquered. They accept your government in return for your help if the minority start a civil war to get their own back, a civil war which will not occur because the impoverished losers know they are bound to be defeated. The conqueror can now repeat his manoeuvre elsewhere. What I don’t understand,” said Frazer, “is why no
governments have taken Machiavelli’s advice? Surely the first to do it would conquer the world?”

Alan, who seemed not to have been listening, said, “They do.”
After a pause I said, “You don’t mean the British Empire.”
“No. I mean Britain.”

I don’t think this is a question of racism, in other words. (A friend of mine once wrote that she saw just as much evidence of a class structure in the US as she had in her native Britain; the only difference was that Americans persisted in referring to class as ‘race’.) The concerted neglect and casual brutality which have characterised the US government’s response to Katrina seem to be the product of an authentically Machiavellian philosophy of government, which holds that leaders can gain consent by mobilising their subjects against one another. We don’t get many hurricanes here, thankfully, but we’d be kidding ourselves if we thought that this was someone else’s problem:

Mr Blair said he wanted to change the culture of the criminal justice system. He called for “an historic shift from a criminal justice system that asks, first and foremost ‘How do we protect the accused from the transgressions of the state or police?’ to one whose first question is ‘How do we protect the majority from the dangerous and irresponsible minority?'”.

A criminal justice system which downgrades the presumption of innocence, the better to neutralise the ‘dangerous and irresponsible minority’. An emergency management system which lets people die, the better to control poor and unruly survivors. All we need now is more votes for the decent folk – and perhaps that’s not far away (Non-registration was highest in densely populated urban areas with mobile populations, particularly inner London, and areas of economic deprivation).


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