"So many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this, this is working out very well for them." - Former First Lady Barbara Bush, visiting the SuperDome after Hurricane Katrina
In an effort to avoid the treatment of marginalized groups that was spotlighted in the days, weeks, months, and possibly years, we are obligated to reshape the discourse that has marginalized these groups throughout history. Public dialogue positions discursively the poor as lazy, evil, and liminal figures that threaten our long standing puritan ethics; this same dialogue perpetuates the Manichean philosophies that made the creation of the "old racist lie" possible: "The 'old racist lie'...involves...the...notion of whiteness as purity (Dyer 1997). Whiteness as purity, in the sense of racial integrity, was the presumption that made the thought of black rapists and captors of color so sinister" (Carol Mason, "The Hillbilly Defense", pg 46). The "old racist lie" extends beyond captors and rapists, classifying people of color as being inherently predisposed to criminal behavior, and thus unable to be trusted. When the long standing, subconscious assumption that poor people are lazy and evil and people of color are criminals that cannot be trusted, it is no surprise that the government, and the figureheads we associate with the government, sees the treatment of the poor and Black communities in the fallout of Hurricane Katrina as acceptable. These assumptions make it possible for the priviledged to give no consideration to the evacuees' communities and attachment to their homes, some of which had been in the same family for generations, and claim eminent domain, taking away the physical component of their communities. The public discourse, in tandem with these classist and racist assumptions, places the survivors of Hurricane Katrina - at least those who are not white, wealthy, or involved in the political arena - as objects, outside of anymeaningful discussion about their treatment, their displacement, their ability or inability to return to their homes, and how the nation can effectively help them to rebuild their communities. By positioning these marginalized groups as objects and rendering them unable to speak on their own behalf, we, societally, avoid being confronted with our involvement in the oppression of these people, and "[rob] them of their historical and political agency" (Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Feminism Without Borders, pg. 39).
Now, Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath is largely ignored by the news media, despite the fact that so many struggles still continue. The families that have returned to the area to rebuild their homes are facing various struggles: many are struggling on one income, usually the man's income - men will make more, even in low paying construction jobs, than women will -, while the women stay with the house, struggling to clean and rebuild, an enormous task with which to saddle one person. The families that have not yet returned are struggling with the negative identities that their "host" communities have assigned to them, and struggling against internalizing these identities (lazy, criminal, and often an exaggerated version of "the welfare mother", to name a few). Having been denied their voices and their agency in public discourse, the struggles of the Hurricane Katrina survivors are far from the minds of the many Americans that were moved only enough to write a check in the weeks following the storms landfall. Public discourse continues to roll along, unchanged, few people having made the horrific realizations about the marginalization of the poor and Black communities, long before the storm, that amplified the descimation of New Orleans: "Now
it wasn't on the nightly news no more/Suddenly it didn't matter to you no more/In the end almost nothing changed/What the hell, what was that for?/(Seems like we don't even care)" (Jay-Z, "Minority Report").
Public discourse can be shifted; by breaking ourselves of the assumptions that allow us to objectify marginalized groups, by discontinuing our abjection of "other" communities, we can open space for the marginalized to reclaim their agency and become subjects that speak to their own needs on their own behalf. Developing a discourse that discourages homogenizing and does not objectify marginalized communities, we can develop a discourse that allows for communitarian ethics, that is not motivated by the profit margins of our everexpanding capitalist interests and our neoimperialistic, evangelical government and social institutions.
Lyrics to Jay-Z's "Minority Report", featuring Ne-Yo
[Intro: News Excerpts]
The damage here along the gulf coast is catastrophic.
There's a frantic effort under way tonight to find
survivors. There are an uncounted number of the dead tonight...
People are being forced to live like animals...
We are desperate...
No one says the federal government is doing a good job..
And hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people...
No water, I fought my country for years..
We need help, we really need help..
In Baghdad, they they drop, they air drop water, food to people..why cant they do that to their own people?
The same idiots that can't get water into a major American city in less than three days are trying to win a war...
[Verse 1 - Jay-Z]
People was poor before the hurricane came
But the down pour poured is like when Mary J. sang
Every day it rains, so every day the pain
But ignored them, and showed em the risk was to blame
For life is a chain, cause and effected
Niggas off the chain because they affected
It's a dirty game so whatever is effective
From weed to selling kane, gotta put that in effect
Wouldn't you loot, if you didn't have the loot?
Baby needed food and you stuck on the roof
Helicopter swooped down just to get a scoop
Through his telescopic lens but he didn't scoop you
The next five days, no help ensued
They called you a refugee because you seek refuge
The commander-in-chief just flew by
Did he stop? No, he had a couple seats
Just proved jet blue he's not
Jet flew by the spot
What if he ran out of jet fuel and just dropped
hu, That woulda been something to watch
Helicopters doing fly-bys to take a couple of shots
Couple of portraits then ignored 'em
He'd be just another bush surrounded by a couple orchids
Poor kids just 'cause they were poor kids
Left 'em on they porches same old story in New Orleans
Silly rappers, because we got a couple Porches
MTV stopped by to film our fortresses
We forget the unfortunate
Sure I ponied up a mill, but I didn't give my time
So in reality I didn't give a dime, or a damn
I just put my monies in the hands of the same people that left my people stranded
Nothin' but a bandit
Left them folks abandoned
Damn, that money that we gave was just a band-aid
Can't say we better off than we was before
In synopsis this is my minority report
Can't say we better off than we was before
In synopsis this is my minority report
[Verse 2 - Ne-Yo]
So many times I'm, covering my eyes
Peeking through my fingers
Tryin' to hide my, frustration at the way that we treat
(Seems like we don't even care)
Turn on the TV, seein' the pain
Sayin' such a shame
Then tryin' to go on with my life
Of that, I too, am guilty
(Seems like we don't even care)
So we send a lil' money, tell 'em it's alright
To be able to sleep at night
You will pay that price
While some of these folks' lost their whole life
(Seems like we don't even care)
Now it wasn't on the nightly news no more
Suddenly it didn't matter to you no more
In the end almost nothing changed
What the hell, what was that for?
(Seems like we don't even care)
[Outro: News Excerpts]
...Buses are on the way to take those people from New Orleans to Houston
...People are dying at the convention center
...Their government has failed them
...George Bush doesn't care about black people
Lyrics found at: http://www.elyrics.net/read/j/jay,,Z-lyrics/minority-report-lyrics.html
In these lyrics, Jay-Z highlights a troubling aspect of the American approach to aid, at the personal, public and governmental levels: "Sure I ponied up a mill, but I didn't give my time/So in reality I didn't give a dime, or a damn/...Damn, that money that we gave was just a band-aid." So quick we are to throw money at those in need; we rarely ask how the people we are "trying" to "help" would prefer for us to help. Instead, we hand the less fortunate a check, usually with strings attached, and pretend we've expended our best effort. This is one of the major flaws in our "system" of "aid". Unfortunately, considering our long standing discourse about the poor and about Black communities, this flaw is not surprising: it is far easier to throw money at those in need and hope they find a way to "fix" themselves, to be more like us, than it is to take the time to ask very simple questions: what do you need? what do you need for me to do? in what way do you want me to go about doing that? To ask those questions requires expending personal energy, sacrificing time, and - *gasp* - actually caring about other human beings, each of which is not benefitial to the bottom-line in our individualistic, capitalist society: energy is to be expended at work and, maybe if you have enough left over, at home with your family; time is money (and goodness knows we can't sacrifice money); and caring about other people is the complete antithesis of the slogans shoved down our throats by society ("Be all you can be", "Because you're worth it", "Have it your way", "Love your style", etc.).
If a picture says a thousand words, what does this photograph say?
"And the fact is, many times, as we know from watching tornado coverage
or any other natural disaster coverage, the poor people usually are in
the neighborhoods that are the lowest or the most exposed or the most
vulnerable. Their housing is the most vulnerable to a natural disaster,
and that's just always what had happened" (First Lady Laura Bush, http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2005/09/20050902-7.html). Before I move on to commentary on this statement, I would like to encourage you to read the entire news release at your leisure... it makes for some "colorful" reading! Now on to the meat and potatoes... In a society that promoted an ethic of care a statement like "...and that's just always what had happened" would not be uttered. How is that we can know that poorer communities tend to lie in dangerous areas, by some magic force, of course, and not at least mitigate for these kinds of disasters? As evidenced by phrases like "the wrong side of the tracks", "the wrong side of town" or "the bad neighborhood(s)", we have been socially aware of the fact that socioeconomic locations translates itself into geographic locations, whether it be in swamp lands, a trailer park on a hill, etc.; still, as a society comprised of the self-absorbed with no interest in caring for people beyond those involved in our daily interactions, we have not mitigated for potentially devastating occurrances, let alone asked why this is the rule and not the exception, how we can change it, and why we've accepted this as "just the way it is". Instead of invoking an ethic of care, we "[leave]
'em on they porches" and ignore the underlying problems until we can write a check to cover the damages caused by a disaster to which they were left vulnerable:
"While this Second Emergency Supplemental Appropriations for Hurricane Katrina Response provides an additional $51.8 billion for hurricane relief, much more will need to be done" (Hon. Kendrick B. Meek, Statement on the Second Emergency Supplimental Appropriations for Hurricane Katrina Response - Extension of Remarks, September 8, 2005, http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/D?r109:5:./temp/~r109SiULWH::) (my apologies for the highlighting, I could not find a way to remove it; it came up highlighted after a Library of Congress THOMAS search).
One of the most important ways we can move towards developing a society that cares for rich and poor, white and "brown", male and female (etc.) alike, is to ask ourselves why. Why do we hold these "beliefs" about people different from us? Why do we accept the symptoms and methods of marginalization as "the way it is"? Why is it so much easier to deal in abstract methods of aid, such as mailing a check or charging a donation to a credit card - or on the national scale, to draft resolutions allowing the reallocations of money - than to actually get our hands dirty and help? The list goes on; and these are not easy questions with which to be confronted, but they are essential steps towards changing public discourse and action from something that is divisive in its perpetuation of assumptions, myths, and generalizations about people, to something that can be used as a tool to better understand and help people.
In the interest of not inducing anyone who reads this with a massive headache, I will end this post here... but rest assured, there's more to come (just what you wanted to hear, isn't it?).
“A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on
sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is
necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death.” – Albert Eistein
Before the federal government and large scale relief organizations began to move efforts towards New Orleans, churches and local faith-based organizations stepped to the plate to begin immediate relief work. While the political agenda of many faith-based organizations can be, and often are, the antithesis of Transnational Feminist ideals, the manner of their reaction to this catastrophic event should be emulated: local action, specific to the needs and issues of the community. Jill Vickers establishes this position in Gender, Race, and Nation: “…our method must include local, national, and transnational dimensions, because although women worldwide face similar international forces, they live in different local situations, their movements are locally situated, and the nation-states in
which they live may be responding differently to both international forces and local reactions” (pg. 81). Although such disasters have struck in places the world over, the communities of small,
faith-based, local organizations responded specifically to the local situation. “Even as evacuees-turned-refugees were being helped, local churches from throughout the South, along with religious organizations from around the country, flooded into the devastated areas to
deliver food, water, and comfort. Meanwhile, the large federal and private
organizations like FEMA and The Red Cross began the process of mobilizing for the massive job ahead” (Eddie Thompson, “Faith-based Communities Saving the Day”,
In order for the government or large scale relief organizations to respond at the local level in such an immediate time frame would require that “very state would have to build hundreds, maybe thousands of relief centers” (Eddie Thompson). This kind of mitigation, however, is not economically sound, and not viable for the short-term profit margin with which our government and politically influential big businesses are so concerned; much like the inability to prepare an adequate plan for a disaster in New
Orleans, other than to offer a shelter of “last resort”, the SuperDome:
“While New Orleans is inherently vulnerable to hurricanes — much of the city lies below sea level — governments at all levels refused to take necessary precautions to [minimize] risk or ensure a safe and orderly evacuation procedure… ‘But at least $250 million in crucial [Army Corps of Engineers levee] projects remained’, wrote Philadelphia Daily News writer Will Bunch. ‘Yet after 2003, the flow of federal dollars toward SELA dropped to a trickle. The corps never tried to hide the fact that the spending pressures of the war in Iraq, as well as homeland security — coming at the same time as federal tax cuts — was the reason for the strain. In early 2004, as the cost of the conflict in Iraq soared, President Bush proposed spending less than 20% of what the corps said was needed for Lake Pontchartrain, according to February 16, 2004 article in New
Orleans CityBusiness.” (Lee Sustar, “New Orleans Crisis: Bush’s Iraq War
to Blame”, http://www.greenleft.org.au/2005/641/33849)
(my own emphasis added).
So how can we better prepare local networks that can deal with a disaster like Hurricane Katrina, and subsequent levee breaches, without falling into the trapping of faith-based, or otherwise discursively oppressive, political agendas? How might we realistically mitigate for these circumstances, rather than just providing last resorts, while respecting community values, networks, necessities, etc.?
…more to come on this topic.
"New Orleans, like Mexico City, was already a dysfunctional city
before the crisis, a capital of crime, illiteracy and poverty. While
state and local government surely failed the city, the federal branch
bears the heaviest responsibility. This administration has neglected
the problem of global warming, which increases the intensity of
hurricanes; has attacked social services on behalf of its ideological
commitment to the private sector; has invested disproportionately in
war; and has let New Orleans levees and its safety net fall into ruin.
Its policies have only deepened the class and racial divides that
Katrina laid bare in New Orleans. Healthy and able-bodied people with
means could flee the storm, but no preparations were made to evacuate
the city's poor, who are overwhelmingly black, and the sick and
"With Katrina, as with the Mexican earthquake,
government at all levels was, for many crucial days, indecisive and
lethargic in its response and hostile to citizens who came to the
rescue. Buses were sent away empty while people drowned. City dwellers
who sought to save themselves were often opposed by local authorities,
sometimes at gunpoint" (Bell Gale Chevigny, http://www.alternet.org/katrina/25516/)(my own emphasis added).
In my previous post, I discussed the material realities faced by the victims of Hurricane Katrina after the impact of the storm. It is important to discuss the fact that, in addition to the society fallout after the disaster, the binary encoding of information about people also affected public policy before the impact of the storm, and was revealed during the throes of panic and pain in the days immediately following the hurricane's landfall.
Assumptions about the residents of New Orleans, based on their race, their socioeconomic status, and the "character" of their city influenced the discussion about and public policy regarding them, even before Katrina struck, though the effects of these policies remained invisible until the storm's fallout. Pre-Katrina, (by 2002 census tables) New Orleans, tied with Corpus Christi, TX, was ranked the 13th poorest city in the nation, with a poverty rate of 21.7 percent (http://www.census.gov/acs/www/Products/Ranking/2002/R01T160.htm), with a median household income of $28,645 annually (http://www.census.gov/acs/www/Products/Ranking/2003/R07T160.htm).
Now, as discussed in the previous post, the class of an "object", as most of the evacuees have become, affects how we view and speak about them. People who are members the poor and/or Black communities are viewed by the public eye to be lazy, defective in some way, or criminal - they are seen a liminal and, thus, dangerous threats to mainstream, middle class mores, as evidenced by the following passage:
"Poor blacks in New Orleans sued to stop the government from
replacing public housing slums destroyed by Hurricane Katrina with
mixed-income dwellings. The government plans to raze more than half of
the damaged low-income housing units it oversees in the city and
replace them with units the agency says will be better and safer.
got to put it back the way it was,' said Chester Numrod, a drug dealer
whose dilapidated public housing was destroyed by flood waters. 'How am
I supposed to run my business in a 'better and safer' neighborhood? My
rights are being violated.'
"'The government has an obligation
to take care of these people and restore them to their prior state,'
said Judith Browne, co-director of the Advancement Project, a national
civil rights organization that filed the suit. 'Many feel uncomfortable
with the idea of living mixed-in with law-abiding working people. It's
a source of embarrassment for them.' "The majority of New
Orleans residents were either criminals or on welfare before the Aug.
29 storm, but a higher percentage of generally better-off families and
individuals have returned. Mayor Nagin has expressed concern that this
may change the character of the city." - John Semmens, columnist for The Arizona Conservative
"The majority of New Orleans residents were either criminals or on welfare before the Aug. 29 storm..." - wow. Some one has not done a bit of fact searching: the percentage of poor in New Orleans (21.7%) by no means constituted a majority; neither does a crime rate of 673.4 per 100,000 people support that the majority of New Orleans residents were/are criminals (http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/cius_04/offenses_reported/offense_tabulations/table_06.html). Despite the fact that this statement is easily refutable, it is an assumption that prevails in public and governmental discourse (kind of odd that government statistics can refute government "opinions", huh?). The policies following from these assumptions can be highlighted by the reaction to Hurricane Katrina, although, in this circumstance, the action stemming from public policy was highly intensified. In order to deal with the "welfare-receiving criminals" left in New Orleans after the storm's impact and the structural failure of the levees, it is reported that, along with the importing of police forces from around the nation, the state and/or federal government (and possibly private businesses) brought in the services of the Blackwater mercenary group (http://www.alternet.org/katrina/25320/ and http://www.truthout.org/docs_2005/091005A.shtml). "Mercs" (as if the National Guard rolling through in tanks was not enough to scare the left-behind residents), patroling New Orleans with M-16s, a group authorized in Iraq and Afghanistan to use lethal force with no criminal reprecussions - why would such "reinforcement" be called in, by the government or by the private sector, if the prevailing assumptions about the poor and/or Black communities were not implying that they are criminals? This reaction is indicative of the fact that these were the attitudes regarding these communities long before Katrina ever made landfall; public policy does not shift so radically in a matter of days (as anyone who has had the pleasure of waiting on government services will tell you).
Anyone who is looking to help the rebuilding effort in the areas impacted by Hurricane Katrina, may find some worthy avenues of doing so here:
This is their mission statement:
"Mission Statement: Radical Reference is a collective of
volunteer library workers who believe in social justice and equality.
We support activist communities, progressive organizations, and
independent journalists by providing professional research support,
education and access to information. We work in a collaborative virtual
setting and are dedicated to information activism to foster a more
And this is their statement about Katrina relief:
"This page is meant to aid people in their research to discover
socially responsible venues of Hurricane Katrina relief. We are
attempting to help you find relief efforts that meet one or more of
- Have direct grassroots connections to local communities and organizations (especially of poor people and people of color)
- Are organized in such a way to empower local communities,
directed by or accountable to local communities and fostering
democratic decision making by local communities (especially poor people
and people of color)
- Have a strong social justice agenda, building local capacity
to resist oppression and build grassroots democracy, rather than simply
providing charity or immediate services.
- Are less well known than some of the bigger national organizations, where a relatively small donation can make a big difference.
This page is a research aid, not a recommendation from us.
The organizations and efforts listed here are not personally known or
recommended by the editor or Radical Reference. Where available, we
will hilight attributed recommendations by other recognized progressive
and radical entities. Suggestions for additional information can be
sent to info [at] radicalreference.org."
go to for example: http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/D?r109:2:./temp/~r109xlFCkk::
and go to for Rep. info: http://www.dccc.org/races/candidates/WV_03_Nick_Rahall.html
"Driving back north, we saw dozens of virgin FEMA
trailers around Pearl River, Mississippi, stout, compact, and white;
they put me in mind of the cemeteries we have in New Orleans, of our
tombs. I didn‚t expect to see those same trailers still sitting there a
few weeks later on our drive back to New Orleans, but there they were.
Rows of fresh, ready trailers, unused.
"After seeing New Orleans, we were anxious and ready to report to anyone we met, with word and image, the horrible circumstance of the city and our outrage over the feeble response by FEMA, and of the Red Cross, whose
presence we did not even see in New Orleans at all.
"Except no one cared. No one. People we spoke with treated the demise of New Orleans in the same abstract way they reacted to AIDS in Africa, tsunamis in Indonesia, monsoons in India. I thought at first it was simply a failure of imagination, so I held up my thumb and penned a crescent near the very top. „This,‰ I said, holding out my thumb, „is
New Orleans, and this,„ pointing to the white sliver above the pen
mark, „is all that is left of New Orleans.‰ Still, it did not matter to
them. There was an inscrutable tension whenever I brought up New Orleans. Every offer of sympathy was paired with some kind of accusation: the illogic of the city‚s geography; the sinful nature of the place; anger that New Orleans would be rebuilt with taxpayer money in the same vulnerable location. Rebuild New Orleans somewhere else, they argued, far away from hurricane threat" (Angelica, http://www.annerice.com/nu_katrina.htm)(my own inflection added).
This passage illustrates reactions that, as I've noticed since the gravity and level of destruction that Hurricane Katrina visited on the Gulf Coast began to unearthed, are far more typical than most of us would like to think. How many times have we heard questions like: "Why would anyone build a city in such a vulnerable place?" or "They're not seriously going to rebuild in the same place, are they"? Or statements like: "Well, maybe now they can start over... I mean, all those criminals and all that corruption - maybe they can start with a clean slate." These questions, statements and assumptions about New Orleans, the Gulf Coast, the victims and the survivors have a profound effect on how relief is handled and how the impacted people are treated.
In order to pass through FEMA checkpoints, photo identification is required; reports of evacuees scamming FEMA abound (see, for example: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/13310790/); immediately following the impact of Katrina, "[t]he only government group anyone [saw was] the police with sawed-off shotguns threatening to arrest everyone who is walking around on the streets" (http://news.pacificnews.org/news/view_article.html?article_id=bd12b34b1b2d0535ba8514f06a746e14). I'm sure I could expand this list extensively, but the bottom line is that we have this notion that the survivors of this disaster are nothing but potential criminals of whom we should be wary. And, as typical of the society we live in, we racialize everything: in our ways of "understanding" the world around us, we encode information and position the information into oppositional categories (this is good; this is bad, etc.); in a nation with such a history of intense racial, and associated class, tension, we encode race, and by extension class, into these oppositional binaries, associating a whole host of myths and assumptions with "white people" and with "black people", "rich people" and "poor people". Kanye West, in his off-script commentary on an NBC special, for which he received both praise and intense criticism, exposed the role that media plays in perpetuating the myths and helping us to further encode these binaries: "I hate the way they portray us in the media. You see a black family, it says, 'They're looting.' You see a white family, it says, 'They're looking for food'...with the way America is set up to help the poor, the black people, the less well-off, as slow as possible" (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/09/03/AR2005090300165.html).
When we view people, and determine their worth, through the binary lens, there are "good" people and "bad" people. In the binary our society has taught us to encode information through, the poor, Black, gay, other-than-Christian, or uneducated, etc. are "bad". If these people are "bad", it is not a far stretch to consider them less-than-human, as objects to be used, talked about, abused, etc.; these assumptions make it possible for people to be apathetic to human suffering. The response documented in the passage I included above are evidence of this train of "logic" and subsequent apathy. Evacuees, faced with these assumptions about them, are treated with a complete lack of empathy, suspicion, and even outright hostility. Assumed to be potential criminals or con artists, as the media would lead us to believe, or to be lazy people, as the president seems to believe, evacuees, having suffered so much tragedy, have to struggle in the communities they find themselves in, having been displaced, or in the areas of the impacted areas they are trying to rebuild, to tend to themselves and their families while simultaneously struggling against the identities that the public and social institutions have already assigned to them.
What in the world could the Bush administration possibly gain from portraying the Hurricane Katrina victims in such a light? Why, our government would continue to appear moral and upright, silly! Why do they need to maintain that appearance? To further legitimize their questionable practices, of course!
Consider the State of the Union Address that was given on January 31, 2006: a great deal of time during the speech was dedicated to keeping the U.S. competitive in the world market, "renewal in Iraq" (as the heading on pages dealing with Iraq on the White House news archive page heralds), the fight for freedom in Afghanistan, the ominous "War on Terror", the spread of democracy in the Middle East (voting in Egypt, the Palistinians voting, and reforms in Saudi Arabia), and the fact that "for people everywhere, the United States is a partner for a better life" - six sentences are dedicated to the discussion of Hurricane Katrina (http://www.whitehouse.gov/stateoftheunion/2006/index.html). If, as I've already discussed, the victims of Hurricane Katrina are at fault (not evacuating when they should have, not rebuilding fast enough) - as the government would have us believe -, why should our government take the time to discuss the issue, especially during the State of the Union Address? This ignoring of the suffering that has been, and continues to be, sustained by victims of Hurricane Katrina exemplifies the fact that "n the current political climate there is more interest in promoting the interests of capital around the globe than in protecting people and the environment" (Vanaja Dhruvarajan, Gender, Race, and Nation, pg. 296). Well, folks, there's that "compassionate conservatism" at work!!
By maintaining a lack of responsibility for the devastation on the Gulf Coast, particularly in New Orleans, that could have been prevented (the breeched levees, the failed evacuations of hospitals and nursing homes, the failure to evacuate residents without transportation of their own, etc.), the federal government comes out smelling like roses and continues to appear moral and just, supporting the questionable actions of the government on the international stage. Bear in mind that many of these actions have been taken under the guise of moral obligation: freeing the people of Iraq from the control of their dictatorial leader - and let's not forget, protecting American citizens from Saddam Hussein's "Weapons of Mass Destruction" -, liberating Afghan women, remaining economically competitive to ensure quality lives for American citizens, maintaining that torture is an acceptable practice on the basis that it could allow authorities to gain information to protect innocent lives, etc. Nevermind that each of these actions also serve a neocolonialist purpose: making Iraq dependant upon the U.S. ensure access to the approximately 100 billion barrels of oil in reserve there, the end goal of launching a war in Afghanistan is to gain access to the crude oil- and natural gas-rich areas in former Soviet Union republics, maintaining the competitiveness of American industry allows American companies to continue to exploit the laborers and governments of Two-Thirds World nations across the globe, and the torture of "suspected terrorists", who are almost always nationals of other countries, allows us to assert our dominance and superiority - we do it because we have the power to do it... President Bush said in his signing statements, as he signed anti-torture legislation, that, as Commander and Chief, he can ignore this legislation.
By shielding itself from attack concerning Hurricane Katrina, the government, particularly the Bush Administration, is able to perpetuate its image as moral and just, which supports, in the neocolonial framework that our government maintains, its actions in the international ring as being logical extensions of their evangelical, moral politics.
Photo below: http://www.bradblog.com/?p=2362
These seem to be the questions that the federal government is
asking, directly or indirectly. Rather than asking how their efforts have
failed, how they could be reallocated to do the most good, or whether the
appropriate aid is reaching the victims that need it, the federal government
seems to be placing blame: "pick up your lives already and go back from
whence you came." According to President Bush, the responsibility of
rebuilding sits squarely on the shoulders of the affected states - Mississippi
has stepped to the plate and produced results ("I was just commenting on
how clean the beaches look, and that wasn't a given a year ago. The beaches
were cluttered with debris and garbage -- the beautiful beaches here had been destroyed. And now they speak to the hope of this part of the world." – meeting with community leaders in Mississippi - http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2006/08/20060828-3.html).
What happened to Louisiana? Apparently, President Bush is of this opinion that "the folks there" are lolligagging: "And I look forward to talking to the folks there tomorrow and this evening about what we can do to work together to expedite these plans being implemented, because we funded the housing and I think when people begin to see the checks that come -- that say, okay, here's some money to help you rebuild, they'll have a lot better spirit. They'll feel a lot better about their future" (visit with United States Marine, Inc. - http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2006/08/20060828-6.html).
So it appears as though President Bush, and the federal government, toss the blame for the lack of rebuilding in Louisiana, or, more specifically, New Orleans, at the evacuees having not yet returned and for the victims that are already back in their neighborhoods, and apparently not moving fast enough. Why is our government blaming the victims? Well, much like blaming the Abu Grahib torture scandal on the "'recycled hillbillies from Cumberland, Maryland,'" blaming the victims of Hurricane Katrina for the failure to redevelop their neighborhoods is a red herring: why would the government take the blame for its shortcomings, when there are other people on which to saddle the blame (Hersh, qtd. in Carol Mason, “The Hillbilly Defense”, pg 49)?
Despite what the federal government would have the unquestioning person believe, the slow progress in New Orleans and nearby parishes is not due to a lack of effort, care or “get-up-and-go” on the part of returning, and not yet returned, evacuees. The slower progress can be attributed to a number of things, one of which being the extensive damage suffered in New Orleans – a result of the intensified flooding caused by the breach of the levees – which was not sustained in Mississippi. Another contributing factor is the contamination of water by both bacteria and the spilling of crude oil, which required massive cleanup. Yet another, and perhaps one of the most disheartening, issue hindering the ability of evacuees to rebuild has been the threat of the city’s redevelopment commission (which happens to include a handful of real estate developers) to condemn property and claim eminent domain to purchase the land, presumably to be sold off to developers. The decision to condemn, in the situation, is dependent on the number of residents to return to the neighborhood, which creates “Catch-22 for residents reluctant to invest scarce time and money into rebuilding their homes if they know the area might ultimately be condemned. And even for those determined to return, getting the resources together quickly enough might prove impossible” (Kari Lydersen, The NewStandard, February 21, 2006 – http://newstandardnews.net/content/index.cfm/items/2841).
So, rather than address the fact that evacuees are not making the desired progress because of legitimate issues (some of which the government could have, if not prevented, at least lessened the blow that would be felt), the government falls into the typical habit that our society seems to have picked up: blaming the victim(s). This is a bad habit exhibited time and time again in our society to which, I’m sure, we have all bore witness; when injustices are committed that have, at best, an undertone or, at worst, an intense underscoring of taboo issues (race, class, gender, etc.), one of the first inclinations of many people is to ask what the victim has done wrong to bring about the unfortunate circumstances. This mindset only serves to further marginalize the marginalized: by implying that the marginalized victim is at fault for injustices committed against them, they are further silenced, their agency further diminished, and they are determined to have far less credibility. By positioning discursively the victims of Hurricane Katrina as victims at fault for their own misfortunes and, as I discussed in the previous entry, as “others”, resulting from social abjection, the federal government continues to deny the victims agency and
dignity. To deny agency through the framing of discussion is to commit discursive and epistemic violence.
Combining the information in this and the previous entries, it seems we have come to a point at which we can begin to answer one of the major question I was hoping to address: “What is (are) the motivation(s) for editing the discourse about the Hurricane Katrina aftermath?” By framing the discourse as a process of abjection, the federal government positions those affected by Hurricane Katrina as objects, not subjects with agency. In further positioning the frame so that it places blame on the victims, the government further silences the objectified evacuees and victims, while simultaneously shielding itself from inquiries about its actions, or lack of action.
(Picture 5 of 5)
I think that in a discussion of discursive positioning that the concept of abjection be highlighted, even if briefly. Abjection, as theorized by Julia Kristeva, is "'that which delineates the difference between a person and the
external world, between the subject and object'" (Kristeva 1982, qtd. in "The Hillbilly Defense", Carol Mason, pg. 53). She further theorizes abjection, moving it from purely an individual's concern (expelled
bodily wastes determining boundaries between a single body and the outside, the waste) to a societal concern, "'in which expelled bodies--that is, corpses--serve as a visible border that reminds us who is to be considered a
subject and who an object in this world'" (Kristeva, qtd. in Carol Mason, pg. 53).
We, as a society, abject the different, the excess, the other; in shrugging off the abject, the waste, our society is allowed to continue, its myths to be
perpetuated, its ideologies to remain intact. Which brings me to the picture above; I chose to include this picture not just because of the juxtaposition (a corpse covered in the flag traditionally associated with freedom, prosperity and relative safety), but because it visually portrays abjection. In this photograph, the corpse is laying on the curb, a place we,
generally, put our waste for collection and disposal. Shrouded by “Old Glory”, this “object” is laying on the curb, waiting to be found and transported away to the appropriate place.
The federal government has discursively positioned many Hurricane Katrina victims – the living as well as the dead — as objects to be discussed rather than subjects with which to have a discussion. This objectification of victims is the end result of abjection and is highlighted in, among many public addresses and press releases, President Bush’s August 23, 2006 press conference.
Press statement: http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2006/08/20060823.html
In reading the press statement, it is apparent that Mr. Vaccarella is not representative of the majority of St. Bernard Parish residents, in terms of political affiliation. The residents of St. Bernard Parish, before Hurricane Katrina (I have yet to find up-to-date statistics), that affiliate with the Republican Party account for only 21.2% of all registered voters, while 59% are affiliated with the Democratic Party and 19.8% are designated as “other” in their political affiliation (statistics found at: http://www.gnocdc.org/st_bernard/voting.html). All the glowing remarks about wishing President Bush “could have another term in office”, just leaves “warm fuzzies” in your stomach, doesn’t it?! Mr. Vaccarella’s pleas for a meeting with President Bush on CNN are laced with “thank you[‘s]” and “[he’s] done a lot for us”; as “Faiz” points out, it’s no wonder he “scored” a meeting with the president, while Ms. Cindy Sheehan, after a year of protests, has been given the presidential cold shoulder (http://thinkprogress.org/2006/08/23/bush-rocky-vaccarella/). Of course, I’m sure that it helped that Mr. Vaccarella is also “a Republican Party member, active in local politics in New Orleans”, who just so happened to convince FEMA to loan him “a caravan…despite some Gulf Coast residents still living in shelters, waiting for caravans” (Michael Gawenda, The Sydney Morning Herald, August 28, 2006: http://www.smh.com.au/news/world/katrina-goes-to-washington/2006/08/27/1156617213247.html).
By meeting with Mr. Vaccarella and using the positive press to spin Hurricane Katrina relief, and perhaps to offset the negative images about to be released in Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, the White House ignored the majority of Hurricane Katrina victims in New Orleans; victims that are not Republican politicians, that do not think that the FEMA trailers are the best thing since sliced bread, and that cannot talk FEMA into necessary resource, let alone the resources to drive to Washington, D.C. to praise the Bush administration for their handling of the disaster. In ignoring victims and not allowing their entrance into discourse about what still needs to be done and how things failed, both during the throes of the hurricane and in the aftermath, this administration has designated the victims objects to be talked about, rather than subjects to be talked with, and taken away an avenue of agency. The victims of Hurricane Katrina are again victims, victims of abjection.
I think that in a discussion of discursive positioning that the concept of abjection is highlighted, even if briefly. Abjection, as theorized by Julia Kristeva, is "'that which delineates the difference between a person and the external world, between the subject and object'" (Kristeva 1982, qtd. in "The Hillbilly Defense", Carol Mason, pg. 53). She further theorizes abjection, moving it from purely an individual's concern (expelled bodily wastes determining boundaries between a single body and the outside, the waste) to a societal concern, "'in which expelled bodies--that is, corpses--serve as a visible border that reminds us who is to be considered a subject and who an object in this world'" (Kristeva, qtd. in Carol Mason, pg. 53).
We, societally, abject the different, the excess, the other; in shrugging off the abject, the waste, our society is allowed to continue, its myths to be perpetuated, its ideologies to remain intact.
Before we dive right in, I'm going to use this first entry to describe the framework I am going to use for this project - this way we're all on the same page.
In this discussion we will be analyzing the language used by our fabulous federal government, in public and political discourse, to discuss Hurricane Katrina victims. I am hoping to deconstruct this language, using Transnational Feminist Theories, in order to expose the material realities that have resulted from the discursive positioning of Hurricane Katrina victims. The discourse, which has been edited by the federal government through the media, has the potential to undercut local action to rebuild. I also intend to explore what forces, resulting from international relations, influenced the federal government's presentation of the region and people affected by Hurricane Katrina.
Now for some background on why I think this topic is important...
Hurricane Katrina made landfall on August 29, 2005; the resulting political response and media coverage opened a discourse about the region, the victims, and the government's handling of the disaster relief, and subsequent rebuilding efforts. By defining the terms and perspectives used in discourse, the government and media edited the framework of public discourse. By bringing a Transnational Feminist perspective to the discourse of Hurricane Katrina, the affected region and people, and the responses to the disaster the door will be opened for a more effective dialogue about the issues - a dialogue that includes those affected as subjects, rather than discursive objects - and allow the victims, communities, and local organizations supporting the rebuilding effort to request the assistance and support they need.
What exactly am I hoping to achieve in this discussion?
I am hoping to address certain key questions in this blog: What is (are) the government's motivation(s) for editing the discourse about the Hurricane Katrina aftermath? What was gained, or lost, for the United States' status on the international stage by editing the discourse of Hurricane Katrina in such a manner? What material realities for Hurricane Katrina victims have resulted from the discursive positioning of the affected people? How could we shift the discourse in order to affect positive change and support, rather than destabilize, local action to rebuild?
Where am I going to look for this information?
Since I want to look at the government's discussion of Hurricane Katrina, I am going to gather information straight from the horse's mouth (or another part of the horse's anatomy, depending on your feelings about our lovely federal governmental agencies); I will be looking at the press releases of the 109th Congress, the Federal Emergency Response Agency, and I will also pull from the news releases and speeches from the stellar White House and President George Bush, from August 2005 to August 2006. Employing Transnational Feminist theories, especially aspects highlighted by Chandra Mohanty, Carol Mason, Jill Vickers and Vanaja Dhruvarajan, will allow me to deconstruct the language used by the above listed arms of the federal government.
This project is going to be a challenge in several ways, and I am hoping for the help of you beautiful readers to keep me in check! First, because I will be trying to deconstruct language and discourse, I am running the risk of endless analysis, and I doubt that any of us wants that! =) I am also challenged to take the risks that Transnational Feminism seems to routinely face: balancing between being too relativistic and too hegemonic in approaching theory and action. Nevertheless, I hope to press beyond these challenges and explore the potential establishment of paradigms based in communitarian ethic, inclusion of critical narrative and the deconstruction of binary logic, which will open avenues for further studies and action that will affect more positive change than studies that are based on the paradigms of dominant ideology.
More to come soon (very soon, check the date... yeah)! 'Til then my friends, subvert the dominant paradigm!! Cheers!