Thursday, August 27, 2009

Looking Back at Katrina

The Guardian's Comment is Free blog enlists Rebecca Solnit to reflect on Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans four years ago this Saturday. What Solnit focuses on mostly is the rumor mill that developed in the wake of the storm, and how it was fueled by racism and unrealistic views of human nature.

We all remember the rumors - murderers in the Superdome, mass violence in the streets, yadda yadda yadda. Of course, none of that actually happened, but that didn't stop the rumors. Solnit blames racism, and it's hard to say she's wrong. By now, most of us have read A.C. Thompson's disturbing article about murderous wackos in Algiers Point who took it upon themselves to shoot black people who wandered into their neighborhood.

By and large, though, I think a lot of the post-Katrina rumor mill and its persistence (people still believe there was chaos in the streets, despite the facts saying otherwise) is that, put simply, people have been reading "Lord of the Flies" too damn much. "Lord of the Flies," of course, is William Golding's darker-than-dark book that details the breakdown of human relationships in the absence of a society. Recent movies like "Watchmen" only reinforce our notion that without a meaningful power structure, human nature is such that society will descend into chaos. So when Katrina came along and created what was essentially anarchy for a couple of days, people just expected bloodshed and chaos.

The fact is, though, that human nature is one hell of a lot brighter than we seem to think it is. No order collapsed in the wake of Katrina, and no dog-eat-dog Hobbesian struggle followed it. Conversely, there were many heartwarming stories of people actually helping others. The violence that was perpetrated during Katrina wasn't brought about by poor people who suddenly lacked a place in the power structure but by the people at the very top of that power structure - police departments and the rich white people in Algiers Point. They were motivated by the fear that their privilege was under attack, while the rest of New Orleans just wanted to help each other.

I made my first trip to New Orleans this past March, as part of a building project called Historic Green. As such, I spent a good deal of time east of the canal, and I was impressed by the extent to which what remained of the Lower 9th community looked out for each other. But then I realized something - why the hell should I be surprised? Is it really a shock that poor black people look out for each other the same way middle-class white people do, and that such a community pulls together in the face of tragedy the way communities often do? We weren't surprised by Greensburg's resilience - why would we be surprised when the people of the Lower 9th stick together too?

Our attitudes towards poor black people tend to be somewhat patronizing, I've found. I wonder whether we have two different views of human nature - one that assumes that privileged people will maintain their communities when the social order breaks down and one that assumes that poor black people will descend into everyone-for-themselves chaos without strict social controls. Similar philosophies, I note, underpin our attitude toward crime and law enforcement in general. We look at poor black people like the kids in "Lord of the Flies:" helpless and destined to bloodshed if some benevolent social force doesn't keep them in place.

So screw this "Lord of the Flies" bullshit. Katrina, if we look at it the right way, taught us differently - that communities are often stronger than they look to the outside observer, and that all people, regardless of race and class, tend to pull together when disaster strikes. It's just human nature.


Beth said...

Have I ever told you that this is my most hated book ever?? Mainly b/c I don't agree w/ the idea that man will destroy itself if left w/o societal structure, but also b/c there are NO females in that book. None. Perhaps that was part of his point, but leaving out half of humanity and then claiming that total chaos would break out w/o rules seemed beyond stupid to me.

Mike said...

Is it possible that without the societal structure we're born into, we would end up breaking down? In other words, we might not all slaughter each other if we start out with a structure and then it's taken away (e.g., Katrina), but if we started off with no structure at all we would break down? It doesn't make "Lord of the Flies" any less full of shit, but it's just a thought. (Disclaimer: I've never actually read the book, since my middle school was apparently different than every other one in the country, but I know it by reputation and "The Simpsons" episode that drew directly from it. "And eventually, they were rescued by, oh, let's just say, Moe." That kills me every time. Anyway.)

Matthew B. Novak said...

That is one of the best Simpsons episodes of all time. "I'm so hungry I could eat at Arby's!"

As for the issue... I've been preaching it for a long time and Aristotle has beat me to the punch more than 2000 years ago... Man is a social animal. We can't help but be born into a structure because it exists naturally. Hobbes, Rousseau and Locke were off their rockers to think of people as individuals. Humans are, by nature, communal, social animals.