A few days ago I watched most of "When the Levees Broke," Spike Lee’s excellent documentary about the effects of Hurricane Katrina.
One thing the movie revealed is an underlying contempt for New Orleans. The outpouring of aid from compassion fatigued American citizens, a great example of a generous people in terms of private philanthropy, to New Orleans has unfortunately done little to alleviate their situation.
Why this contempt? Is it because it’s a city with a raucous history of bawdy fun or its liberal racial- mixing? Maybe during the Victorian era this would be true, but today you can hardly say that American mainstream culture is not oriented towards fun or pluralism. Maybe it’s because they are an overwhelmingly Catholic city in a Protestant majority country. Then again, I believe that’s true of Chicago as well. Or maybe it’s because of its French roots. The history of America involved the competition of three antagonistic European empires for land and resources – the French, the British, and the Spanish. Anti-French sentiment goes back hundreds of years. A more obvious explanation is the fact the a majority of the city is American-American. Certainly the high crime rate of New Orleans might explain why it’s not held in high regard, as well as its rampant poverty. We would like to forget that these are major factors of the larger American society. If the wealthiest country in the world can’t take care of its own, what does that say about us? Classism, racism, and to a lesser extend anti-French/Catholic sentiment, might be factors. Or maybe it’s something else.
The Konye West incident was a key moment in the film. At a benefit raising event, he went off script on national television and told us how he really felt – “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.” If this was just a natural disaster, and everyone involved – politicians, the army core of engineers, FEMA - did as much as they could to prevent this disaster, it would be primarily a day of mourning, and shouldn’t be politicized by Democrats or Republican foes to score points. But it is political and it is a time for finger-pointing. Those who were supposed to protect the people of New Orleans failed them. It wasn’t because of a lack of money. This is a deliberate result of a political ideology that holds that the federal government should be involved as little as possible in the lives of American citizens. It translates as contempt for the weak and the actualization of life-boat ethics. Normal life is, for the most part, not a life boat. It’s not until people are put in life-boat situations that it becomes “dog eat dog” and the “might makes right”. Barbara Bush’s comment about Katrina victims making out well is telling. What’s more telling is her response to the victims. She gave money to business start-ups only if they bought her son’s software.
One commentator in the movie noted that Louisiana provides about 30% of America’s oil and gas, in addition to other resources, but the profits go to energy companies rather than the citizens of the state. Major corporations located in this state provide no revenue for it either. Sound familiar? Just imagine if the people of Louisiana decided to secede from the federal government. Not that they would win that fight, but it would certainly be understandable. I don’t advocate for war to gain independence, but if they ever decided to govern their own affairs and take care of their own, I’d say “vive le révolution!”