Wednesday, June 21, 2017

"Let them eat cake!"

I'm a little surprised that this article at Slate never gets around to the real world experience of New Orleans after Katrina.

You will remember the tales of apocalypse and chaos coming out of the city:  the gangs roaming the Super Dome, raping and pillaging at will; the looting of the stores (or, in the famous AP photo, the white people feeding themselves, while the blacks were looters); even the people being turned away on the bridges out of town by police afraid the chaos was a contagion and would spread to them.  The stories sounded like this:

At stake in stories of disaster is what version of human nature we will accept, and at stake in that choice is how will we govern, and how we will cope with future disasters. By now, more than a week after New Orleans has been destroyed, we have heard the stories of poor, mostly black people who were “out of control.” We were told of “riots” and babies being murdered, of instances of cannibalism. And we were provided an image of authority, of control—of power as a necessary counter not to threats to human life but to unauthorized shopping, as though free TVs were the core of the crisis. “This place is going to look like Little Somalia,” Brigadier General Gary Jones, commander of the Louisiana National Guard's Joint Task Force told the Army Times. “We're going to go out and take this city back. This will be a combat operation to get this city under control.”
Combat operations because civilization was washed away with the flood waters.  As I say, one of those things was true:  the police did panic and block at least one bridge, and turn back American citizens who needed their help.  But the police didn't see human beings then:  they saw agents of chaos, Typhoid Marys of disaster, a plague of human locusts.  They saw the end of civilization as they knew it, and the rule of nature "red in tooth and claw," where life is "nasty, brutish, and short."  It wasn't quite like that, however:

As the water subsides and the truth filters out, we may be left with another version of human nature. I have heard innumerable stories of rescue, aid, and care by doctors, neighbors, strangers, and volunteers who arrived on their own boats, and in helicopters, buses, and trucks—stories substantiated by real names and real faces. So far, citizens across the country have offered at least 200,000 beds in their homes to refugees from Katrina's chaos on, and unprecedented amounts have been donated to the Red Cross and other charities for hurricane victims. The greatest looter in this crisis may be twenty-year-old Jabbar Gibson, who appropriated a school bus and evacuated about seventy of his New Orleans neighbors to Houston.

We've absorbed the lesson of lawlessness and rapine so deeply that I remember, in my Houston neighborhood, the sign on a boarded up house (protection from the hurricane, not abandoned) with the boards covered in a scrawl that read:  "Looters will be shot."  This was when Rita descended on Houston even as the Astrodome was still full of refugees from New Orleans and fear of Katrina was so strong the highway from Houston to Dallas, all 250+ miles of it, was one giant traffic jam of fleeing people in cars.  It wasn't the fear of a hurricane that drove them; Houston has had its share of hurricanes.  It was fear of the apocalypse, of the breakdown of civilization.  The only thing civilized about that endless line of cars is that people didn't try to ram other cars out of the way, or take off across country in a desperate bid to flee.

But as I say, none of the breakdown of civilization and resort to gangs and tribalism and rule by those who were most ruthless and had the most guns occurred in New Orleans.  It was reported that way by the most respected journalists in America, and none of them lost their jobs for being liars, or apologized for having no idea what they were talking about.  Nobody was punished for repeating rumor and innuendo and plain fiction and fantasy as truth, because it fit the narrative we'd all agreed upon, and besides most of the faces in the Superdome were black ones, so it made it seem even more true (see that AP photo set again if you doubt it).

We are convinced, and our literature convinces us, that the veneer of civilization is a thin one, and it will part and erupt into chaos if we aren't careful.  This is, I think, a particularly American fantasy, and it is based on history.  Columbus came here first from Europe, and immediately set about making slaves of the natives because he could.  He had the firepower and the attitude, and the natives submitted, those who didn't run away from their homes to remain free. Slavery in America started there, and continued until the 13th Amendment was passed in the 19th century, almost 400 years later.  It takes a great deal of violence to maintain a system of slavery that America was built on (when the government wasn't building the country by offering land to settlers who would venture beyond the Mississippi, or supporting the transcontinental railroad, etc., etc., etc.  California's wealth was built as much on defense contracts as on Hollywood and orange groves.).  That violence came at a psychic cost:  we grew up fearing what the slaves would do if they had the chance, how they would repay us in kind for our cruelty.  Aside from fantasies of history by Quentin Tarantino, such violence never occurred.  Freed slaves in Texas didn't engage in a bloodbath on Juneteenth (June 19, 1865, the day emancipation was pronounced in Galveston, Texas), they set up a park in Houston, Texas which exists to this day:  Emancipation Park.  But fear of justice still haunts us, and so our greatest fear now is not vampires and werewolves prowling the night, but chaos and the horrors of disorder:  not coincidentally, the fears of the ruling class about what the "lower classes" will do, a la the French Revolution.

We fear it because we know what we have done.

The collapse of Rome led to the feudal system in medieval Europe, and we look at that system as a particularly evil one, full of oppression and class distinction.  We do that because we've been taught to honor Rome (it's a British leaning, as much as anything.  They still call their circles "Circuses," taught their best and brightest Latin as if it still mattered to know the tongue, base much of their legal practice if not their laws on the Roman models left behind millennia ago, and passed on to America a veneration of Rome it ill deserves).  If you want an example of how enlightened Roman rule was, look no further than the life of Jesus of Nazareth, a man barbarously executed by a method still considered brutally inhuman today (who practices it?  Even ISIS executes swiftly, not as slowly and publicly as crucifixion.), all for talking about the wrong things at the wrong time.  If that's "civilization," give me the German tribes or the Celts on the other side of Hadrian's Wall any day.  American society is still built on that wall:  on one side, civilization, on the other, blue-skinned barbarians and "berserkers."  We process equality and democracy and the common man; but we retreat into walled compounds when we can't wall ourselves in through property values and laws, and fear those who are "NOK," because we know they are savages at heart and will take from us what we most prize.

My neighborhood, as I've mentioned before, lies just across a freeway from some of the wealthiest families in Houston.  When the new grocery store opened on my side of the freeway (within walking distance of my house, where I've lived with my family for 15+ years), people from the other side were drawn to the store, but afraid of the violence they were sure is endemic to the area.  They were sure they would be robbed in the parking lot, or worse, so the store put out cameras and hired off duty police officers to stand outside and simply wear their uniforms.  It took several years before they decided it was safe to shop at that store.  They weren't afraid for any good reason:  no robberies have occurred there (the robberies have been at another store, on the other side of the freeway, in a neighborhood where many executives of oil companies live.  You can cut the irony with a knife.), no assaults in the parking lot.  But still, that freeway is a "wall" that keeps the good people safe, and the bad people out.

American society is divided along these lines everywhere, and the tripwires of fear are almost impossible to disarm.  I think the fear is because they know they are outnumbered; that the vast majority of people in this country are not as privileged as the wealthy minority.  And they think that we, like them, think only of possession, and our only way to possess is through theft and robbery, that our natural recourse is to violence.  So they buy guns, and hire private security, and pay for local police forces (the neighborhoods are in villages politically separate from Houston) to keep them safe from violence that never comes.  They are convinced these measures are all that keep the violence on our side of the freeway.  That, and money; because rich people are not inherently violent, only poor people are.  The poor are violent because, having nothing, they have nothing to lose.  They have nothing to gain, either, from violence, but that doesn't figure into the equation.  We are "NOK" to them (not that I am poor, but neither am I rich enough to live across the freeway), and they fear most that which is not them.

We all do.  The question is:  why?  Why do we believe so little in democracy, in the ideals espoused in our most famous founding documents?  Why are we so convinced our civilization is a thin veneer which will soon be swept away to reveal a ravening chaos that isn't even the nature of the jungle, but something so much worse?  I don't want that and you don't want that, but "they" do.  And who is they if not you and me, to someone else?

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