The impending catastrophic landfall of Hurricane Gustav has suddenly reminded us of Hurricane Katrina. More to the point, it's reminded the Republican and Democratic parties.
This is striking, considering that those parties' presidential conventions frame the first hurricane's anniversary, though neither actually falls on it. Three years before the Democrats left Denver, tens of thousands of people were streaming out of New Orleans (while thousands more were stubbornly, helplessly, staying put, partly because Mayor Ray Nagin had downplayed the severity of the approaching storm and partly because many of them lacked the means to get out).
The Republican convention in St. Paul is scheduled to begin three years after the evacuation of the Superdome. The anniversary of the hurricane’s landfall—of the breaching of the levees and the disappearance of the Lower Ninth Ward beneath a fetid gumbo of contaminated water lies between the two conventions like a no-man’s land between two hostile armies.
As I write this, both parties are scrambling to adapt to the probability that New Orleans will be the scene of a second disaster. John McCain has done everything short of put on a yellow Sou'wester. This is a good thing.
But is it churlish to point out that neither convention had, or is scheduled to have, among its dozens of featured guests and speakers, a survivor of Katrina? (There may have been a few on hand at the “New Orleans All Star Jam-Balaya” the Democrats threw for their delegates, and maybe the Republicans were reserving a seat for former Mississippi Senator Trent Lott. You may remember that Lott lost his beach house in the hurricane: one of President Bush’s earliest recorded responses to the disaster was his promise to build him a better one.)
The absence of such persons seems like an odd omission, given that at previous gatherings both parties made prominent use of emblematic tragedies—9/11, the Iraq war, the AIDS epidemic—and their survivors. The Republicans alone had Mary Fisher’s “Whisper of AIDS” speech in Houston in 1992 and Deena Burnett in New York in 2004, as well as along with a TV ad in which Ashley Faulkner, whose mother had died at the World Trade Center, was shown being hugged by the President and telling viewers, “He’s the most powerful man in the world, and all he wants to do is make sure I’m safe.”
Of course it makes sense that no Katrina survivors will be speaking for the Republicans. A The Republican president had no interest in keeping them safe. At the height of the crisis, Bush was seen clowning with a guitar given him by the visiting president of Mexico. (Just before that, he had been seen giving John McCain a birthday hug.)
The reason the political parties showcase certain kinds of sufferers at their conventions is to signify their compassion for victims of war or terrorism or disease, their solidarity with their suffering, their determination that others shall not suffer as they did. That pretty much rules out the GOP’s reserving a speaking slot for a former resident of Gentilly who now lives in a FEMA trailer.
But what about the Democrats? Given their reputation as the party of compassion—not to mention the advantages attendant upon reminding the viewing public of the opposition’s most glaring failure after since the invasion of Iraq—you’d think they’d have jumped at giving the podium to someone who lived through Katrina. Ideally, someone from New Orleans - , a Terence Blanchard or a Mac Rebennec - or any one of the hitherto unknown men and women interviewed in Spike Lee’s epic documentary When the Levees Broke, whose stories of loss, humiliation, and endurance burn the heart like brands. Imagine how one of those stories would sound if it were told on prime-time television, before to 50,000 rapt conventioneers and millions of Americans.
The problem lies with the stigma that clings to Katrina’s survivors—that is, to its poor, black survivors. For all the indignation their plight aroused in the American media, there are still the lingering suspicions as to why so many of New Orleans’s (African-American) residents failed to get out before the storm hit. There are the persistent slanders (the appropriate word for a story that continues to be circulated long after it’s been proved untrue) about snipers shooting at rescue helicopters and perverts raping babies in the Superdome. There are still folks who nodded approvingly when Bill O’Reilly shook a finger at African-American youth and told them that the lesson of Katrina is “if you don’t get educated, if you don’t develop a skill and force yourself to work hard, you’ll most likely be poor, and sooner or later you’ll be standing on a symbolic rooftop waiting for help. Chances are that help will not be quick in coming.”
If the victims of 9/11 were exceptional sufferers, the victims of Katrina are designated ones, designated in the sense that their suffering is to a certain degree taken for granted. This is confirmed by the lack of coverage given New Orleans before August 2005, the years in which 23 percent of its people lived below the poverty line; when more than half of its elders were disabled; when the city’s murder rate was ten times the national average, with some of the killing attributable to rogue police officers.
What made the survivors of 9/11 exceptional is that, in the popular imagination, they weren’t supposed to suffer. That is no more than most Americans think of themselves. The corollary is that a designated sufferer is supposed to suffer, his suffering being something that he brought on himself. The origins of this conceptual division are bound up with race and class, but the division itself has an almost mystical character. It is beyond the reach of empirical evidence or reason. This is simply how it is. This is simply what’s supposed to happen, and who it’s supposed to happen to.
In a year in which an African-American man stands a good chance of becoming our next president, some things still haven’t changed.
Causes Peter Trachtenberg Supports
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Mercy Corps, Move On, Oxfam