Sunday, November 27, 2005

Is New Orleans a glimpse of things to come?

I am not necessarily talking about global warming in my question. It could be earthquakes, it could be peak oil, it could be something completely unforeseen, an asteroid landing in Kansas (OK, an ID asteroid with a sense of irony). But what New Orleans is coming feel like to me is the feeling you have on those occasions when you wake up in the morning with a feeling that you have forgotten something important. (Then I remember: we had this huge disaster three months ago.) In that scant time, a growing TV-mediated memory hole has begun swallowing the very images the networks brought to us such a short time ago.

I guess the subtitle of this blog entry should be: Media as mnemoniphage. The daily news as brain-suckage. The public imagination as re-recordable media.

We saw it happen, and we--most of us--were horrified at the devastation, and furious at the paralyzed governmental response to it. Slowly, finally, people were rescued. People sent money, volunteered to help. Then the whole thing dropped out of sight.

The dispossessed and displaced went away.

Now, though, we have an unknown number of refugees--I am going to use that term, though it may upset some, because refugees is what they really are, and, like refugees the world over, they have essentially already been cast aside and forgotten--who are well on their way to becoming a permanent underclass. Or rather, well on their way to joining an enduring underclass we already have with the permanent homeless already living in the heart of the American Empire.

Just as an example, here in Austin, most of the Katrina victims are existing in cheap apartments on the outskirts of town, many of them a mile or two beyond the last stop on the bus route. And their rent runs out soon.

FEMA, busy spending the taxpayers' money on a giant welfare project to help out the stockholders of Halliburton, says, essentially, tough shit, folks, you're on your own. Get a job.

Some of them have. Most would like to. But many of them, as any honest Republican can see (my little joke, sorry), are not going to be able to do that.

It would be an interesting experiment to put your average Republican moralist in the same situation. Pay their rent for several months, but take away their cars and their drivers' licenses and burn any diplomas they might have gotten through the accident of having had parents who could help out with tuition.

Plus, throw away their computers and cell phones and electronic address books and move all their friends to secret locations. Deprive them of contact with their usual, um, support network and resources, which, though they imagine them to have been acquired by the sweat of their brow, are mirages which can be dispensed with as readily in our experiment as the associations and friendships and sources of help formed among people who really worked for a living and for whom the sweat of their brow was not a metaphor was ripped away in reality.

In other words, let them be reborn behind a version of Rawls's veil of ignorance, which was the philosopher's conceptual device for having us think about fairness--an imaginary world we create where we can make the world according to whatever ideology we wish, except that we will not know what our original position in it will be, where we will be born in it, what our education will be, what our abilities will be, what our sex will be--what kind of world would you like to see under those circumstances? An interesting question.

But to get back to the matter of our national forgetfulness: how does the memory hole work? Well part of the mechanism is obvious--the media have moved on to new stories: daily disasters never stop.

But as for the psychological mechanism--and I'm just guessing here--I think it works because of fear. (My subtitle above is misleading--the media doesn't do it to us, we do it to ourselves.) Americans can now visualize future disaster happening to them. To us. We don't wanna think about it. No one wants to confront an idea like a New Orleans happening to their neighborhood, or their town, or all the people they know--it's like confronting mortality, it's not in our comfort zone. But the fact of covering it up and forgetting about it is exactly what endangers us all, when disaster does happen again, and surely it will.

I wonder if the fear-response to New Orleans is a variant of the fear-response to 9/11? In both cases, the response has been ineffective and irrational. In one case we handed over the keys to the bus we are all riding in to a psychotic drunk driver. And in the other case, we are just trying to forget about it. Is fear the reason? I can't think of any other answer.

No comments: