the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2005 October 4


Irony, to use the simplest definition, is the difference between expectation and reality. The expectations and realities of the Katrina disaster show that irony can be measured in acre-feet.

When a category-five hurricane is bearing down on a city, the damage is expected to be severe; it is expected to be quick, dramatic, and a product of the great winds. When Katrina weakened and altered course to avoid a direct hit on New Orleans, the predictions seemed to have been foiled. But the destruction of New Orleans was not averted. It happened instead through a rising water level that gradually covered most of the city and cut off road traffic to the few areas that remained above water. It was flooded, in other words; but the usual picture of a hurricane-induced storm surge was nothing like the eventuality.

If New Orleans were to be flooded, it should naturally come from the Mississippi. This great river drains much of North America, carrying the water of hundreds of rivers down to the ocean. The Mississippi, as if an aqueduct, runs high over the city, hemmed in by earth and stone that humans have packed along its former banks, hoping to have the mastery. The river is always fighting to chart its own course; if it didn’t blast though its artificial banks, it could easily have spilled over them after enough rain upstream. But it was the low-lying, placid Lake Pontchartrain that flooded New Orleans instead; it was not a torrent from upstream that flooded the city, but a backflow from downstream.

The Mississippi Basin is by far the most important in the United States, and New Orleans commands its outlet to the sea. In a seafaring, shipping culture, this gives it great significance. All the products of all the basin would traverse the waterways leading to New Orleans, thence to the rest of the world. It was a natural capital of commerce. But it is only the interchange of river barges and ocean vessels that makes the Mississippi Delta a good site for a port. There are far better ports in the days of highways and airplanes. And without the river, needless to say, no one would settle in a swamp below Lake Pontchartrain. And yet as the river’s value has diminished, the city has grown. It is the critical mass of urbanization: people move to a big city because it is a big city, even a big city in a cypress swamp meters below sea level.

New Orleans is not on the ocean, so it is only one of many places on the lowermost Mississippi that would have served as well or better. The oldest part of New Orleans, like the French Quarter, was relatively-high ground and took a relatively-small amount of damage. So the original siting of the city was sensible enough. What we think of as central New Orleans would have been a good location for a small city supporting one lower-Mississippi port among many. This would have been a city too small for a sports stadium or a convention center, so those areas could have been used for things more practical.

And the Mississippi shouldn’t even be in New Orleans. The city was settled along the river as it happened to run at the time. It would long ago have meandered onto another course, away from the city, but engineers forcibly routed it towards New Orleans, in order to perpetuate the myth that the city was exactly where it needed to be. The river and its great delta port became fixed in time as well as place, forever located in one of the least-desirable configurations. New Orleans sits in a basin, partially of human making, where water would naturally collect. The levees ward off the lake and the river. Huge pumps siphon rainwater from the ground into canals that are routed to the lake. Any failure of this system and New Orleans is, not solely metaphorically, a sinking ship. Its population, dependent on human technology just to stay above water, finds itself clinging to bits of wreckage and hoping for rescue.

That rescue, as we all saw, was slow in coming. And as it has come, so has an unfamiliar and uncomfortable feeling among the compatriots of the displaced. Thousands of miserable poor black people, begging Washington to come to their aid, hoping to see the troops of the US military drop in and save them. Not Liberia, not Haïti: New Orleans. We have paid a psychic price for this, and on top of the Iraq war we have lost something. The sense in the United States that we can do pretty much anything is in abeyance. That is a good and bad thing. Surely our hubris was palpable and destiny-forming. On the other hand, a sense of empowerment is necessary to venture. It is possible for the United States to become so despondent and doubt-ridden that it attempts nothing, not even the good and necessary things that the world, believe it or not, counts on the United States to do. There could be no future Iraqs, for good or ill, but also no prospect of any good we have done or could have done in Liberia and Haïti. We were isolationist once, gradually became powerful, and then found ourselves indispensable, whether because the world pointed it out or because it just dawned on us. We rightly credit ourselves with being necessary (though by no means sufficient) to victory in the world wars, and after the second we became so dominant that even the military (and moral) failures of Vietnam did not long alter the perception of others or of ourselves. The hyperpower image that some believe died in Manhattan and some in Baghdad ignores what the United States does all around the world every single day to exert its strength, and whether for good or ill is irrelevant. Its opponents even more than its supporters continue to assert that the United States has a military, economic, and cultural stranglehold on the entire world. It is an exaggeration, but ‘hegemony’ certainly is not.

So though it may be temporary, Katrina has left us with uncomfortable ideas of ourselves. We look hapless in the face of our own desperation. Making threats against insurgents in Iraq is one thing. But the governor of Louisiana attempted to provide reassurance by making it perfectly clear how readily, with what zeal even, lawbreakers would be shot. This wasn’t implied or metaphorical. She went out of her way to talk about killing criminals. It was just the most obvious of many breakdowns of social expectations. George Bush may have his excuses for reading to children in the moments after the September 11 bombings, but he should have known not to spend his time ranching during a major catastrophe. A broadcaster, Anderson Cooper, bawled out US senator Mary Landrieu on television for lavishing gratitude on colleagues who did something personally and politically easy and self-serving. A fair complaint, and surprising, because, the self-congratulatory title of Andrea Mitchell’s book (‘Talking back ... to presidents, dictators, and assorted scoundrels’) absolutely not withstanding, we know that broadcasters are among the biggest suck-ups in existence, and had Andrea Mitchell spent her career actually talking back to the scoundrels she was trying to cover and interview, she’d have had no career whatsoever. And Cooper can hardly be the voice for those who suffered in Katrina, whatever his pretensions. But neither can Ray Nagin, who might come to define haplessness were he not overshadowed by George Bush, who takes haplessness to soaring heights of achievement that ought to contradict the very nature of haplessness. But for the obvious suffering, it might have been academic and somewhat amusing just how pathetic the United States and everyone in it has seemed in the aftermath of Katrina.

The predicted cost of rebuilding the gulf cities is two hundred billion dollars, which was a startling-high figure when it was quoted as the cost of the Iraq war. Now it is a startling-high figure that no one is startled by. We have apparently come to think of this as a manageable number. Haven’t we paid for the Iraq war without noticing any pain? But that, of course, is because we have paid for the Iraq war by borrowing the entire sum. It is perfectly in accord with expectation, then, that George Bush has ruled out tax increases and refused to name any spending cuts to produce the two hundred billion dollars for rebuilding the gulf region. He means to borrow it, and never worry about repaying it. Needless to say, his offer for the federal government to pick up the check was hollow. It is easy, anymore, for Congress and the president to fund things, which is why states and localities demand that they do so, as in this case. States and localities must ultimately pay for their government costs, and are cautious about incurring them, because state and local politicians will be held accountable at the polls for the resultant tax increases or offsetting spending cuts. Since nobody really pays when the federal government pays ― not federal taxpayers, not members of Congress, and sure as Hell not George Bush ― there is no generosity in the offer. Go ahead, add another two hundred billion dollars to the federal debt. We owe so many trillions of dollars already without a scent of a plan for how to repay it that the new addition is not worth considering. But when George Bush offers to pay the entire cost of the rebuilding, he deserves ― and I have calculated this number to the cent ― no credit whatsoever. He was never going to pay anything at all.

Is this money we should spend? The answer, obviously, is no, and it is only made more obvious by the fact that advocates of this rebuilding project are so clearly assuming it without any rational consideration. Of course we will rebuild New Orleans, they say, how could it possibly be otherwise. A world without New Orleans is unimaginable. I am not sure, though, why this must be the case. No one is arguing in any compelling way about what, exactly, the rest of us stand to lose if we do not rebuild New Orleans. Those who lived there have already lost it once, so we are discussing whether to pay for an opportunity for them to lose it all again. And it will be a costly opportunity even if we never have to re-rebuild it.

I am pretty sure that if we took twenty trillion pennies and dumped them on the ground in New Orleans, we could fill in all the low spots and raise the levees quite a bit. A thin layer of dirt over the top and voilà ― a brand new city on much higher ground. And solid ground, let me tell you. Levees made of the best plumbing material there is. It would be a city of wealth, in the most direct way possible. But as ridiculous as the idea is, it is not far from what is being proposed, and actually being executed. There is a way to describe an expenditure that replicates an original expenditure that was unnecessary, for something that has not since become necessary, and which will almost certainly be shown to still be unnecessary when the expenditure is rendered pointless by the repeated destruction of the thing. It would be: a waste of money.

I should note that my brother and sister-in-law moved to New Orleans bare weeks before the hurricane, so that she could attend graduate school at the University of New Orleans. For her, the location was unique and thus irreplaceable. She was seeking out a specific academic opportunity, which had only emerged in a specific academic community, which happened to be located in New Orleans. But it only happened to be located there. She is not studying bayous or Yat culture. Her entire department could be transplanted to Shreveport and be the better for it. She cannot effect this by herself; but since this is a social decision, then collectively we need to consider the option. At the very least, all those evacuees who are leaning towards permanent resettlement elsewhere should not be given a material incentive to return to New Orleans. We should not make it easier for people to do something that is not ultimately in their interest or society’s.

Since we can easily replace New Orleans with better delta ports, it is apparent that the argument for rebuilding New Orleans comes down to a few things. First, the French Quarter is a nice place to visit. Second, we would all miss our friends if our own cities were destroyed and their inhabitants scattered. Third, the only way we can make up for the embarrassingly slow and inadequate response to the disaster, for the despair outside the Superdome, is to put things back the way they were.

The failures of September 11 go back at least to the Clinton administration; but the attack happened on George Bush’s watch. Those of us who believed Bush was a miserable excuse for a leader were promised that he would have smart people around him, and that they were ready for government. They had seven months to get up to speed, and failed in the most grandiose way. The Iraq war was not as optional as its opponents claimed, but the timing was certainly discretionary and there had been several years of planning. The original claim that Iraq’s oil would pay for its reconstruction ought to have been true. But the oil money was forgone for political reasons, because to use it made the Bush administration look bad in the light of its diplomatic bungling before the war and its pathetic lack of preparation for the occupation after the war. Had Bush done a better job of making the case for humanitarian intervention, had he shown it for the moral imperative that it was, and had he and his administration planned adequately for the immediate aftermath of Saddam’s fall, the occupation would have cost less overall, and far less of it would have fallen to the United States. Katrina, finally, was all Bush. The previous staff of FEMA was competent. Had they not been, the Bush administration had four years to improve it, and the organization of the Department of Homeland Security gave them the opportunity and the motive to fix things once and for all. As soon as the size of the hurricane became apparent, Bush should have gotten himself back to Washington (he has no business spending so much time in Crawford anyway), and publicly launched a competent, coordinated federal rescue effort. But he did not, and has compensated for a poor initial response with an unstinting grant of every subsequent request for assistance.

Bush’s first election came when he was seen to be a person of inadequate intellect and seriousness, and two heroic blunders resulted. He was reelected nonetheless, and another blunder followed. After each blunder, the Bush administration attempted to repair its image by throwing hundreds of billions of dollars at the problem. And this is from an administration that has been fiscally reckless from the beginning, turning a huge surplus into a huge deficit. In addition to paying off Bush’s idiotic tax cuts, we must now pay off perhaps half a trillion dollars of debt that will be accrued largely to hide the incompetence of our elected administration. Let me put that another way: Bush has created a half-trillion-dollar slush fund in the federal treasury, and is spending it on public relations. How on Earth has he not been impeached?

The difficult question about rebuilding New Orleans could not be asked by George Bush because he so badly mangled the initial response. So it will therefore not be asked at all; the decision has been taken and the money is already on its way. The citizens of the US are apparently willing to spend whatever it takes to restore the community of New Orleans. In doing so, they will, it is hoped, show black people once and for all that we care about them. They will also have preserved the French Quarter for future Mardis Gras. But it is pretty clear that if we surveyed black people and asked them if rebuilding New Orleans would make amends for slavery, Jim Crow, poverty, and ongoing bigotry and neglect, they would soundly and sensibly answer in the negative. Some of them may also want to see New Orleans rebuilt, but the new New Orleans will be a place of privilege for whites just as the old one was. I wouldn’t call that a magnanimous gesture to blacks, and I wouldn’t expect it to even the score.

So if in the end we want the French Quarter all that bad, we can buy the whole thing and turn it into a theme park, and subsidize the housing for the workers who will serve us beer and Cajun food and make our hotel beds and sweep the streets (or not, as folksy atmosphere may require). That does not seem to me a proper function of government, certainly not a government that scoffs at public television and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Irony is the difference between expectation and reality. What is the difference between a city that is dry and likely to stay that way, and a city that is flooded and likely to be so again? The difference can be measured in dollars. The flooded city is going to be the recipient of many billions of them, while the dry city gets nothing except a share of the bill. Is this all so that the dry-city denizens will have somewhere to vacation? So that they will have a steady supply of jazz and gumbo? The truth is that we never needed the New Orleans that existed before Katrina. We never needed a city like that. And the city doesn’t exist anymore, so it is easy enough to imagine the world without it. Quick, imagine a world without a bustling metropolis on Galveston Island ― the metropolis that would have developed had Galveston not been destroyed by a hurricane in 1900. Those who are answering yes to the question of whether we should restore New Orleans are essentially answering no to the irrelevant question of whether we should have destroyed New Orleans ourselves. New Orleans is gone, and we did not destroy it. But our negligence has been paid for once, and if we restore New Orleans we will almost certainly pay again. All those who remember the images of desperate people in front of the convention center and wonder why we didn’t get those people out when there was time are contradicting themselves when they insist that we send them back. I wish that our government ― that our society ― would help create a genuine alternative to rebuilding the New Orleans that has just been destroyed. Instead, society is encouraging a restoration of the precarious city of before, and promising its residents that, should it be destroyed again, the government will be there to help them out. That’s comforting.


Original version


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