Great Flood of New Orleans

Rahul Mahajan

Posted Sep 8, 2005      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Great Flood of New Orleans

As a major city lies underwater, thousands of dead rot, and tens of thousands of the living starve and dehydrate, a country’s autocratic ruler at first continues his vacation, declines generous offers of foreign assistance, and then minimizes the tragedy.

After a growing outcry, said autocrat switches gears, visits the affected area on a special set constructed for a photo-op, diverting or grounding rescue efforts while he’s there, and makes sure to go nowhere near the masses of refugees.

His vice president goes on with his vacation while the country goes through its biggest disaster in nearly a century and his secretary of state shows her concern by shopping for $7,000 shoes.

As soon as the disaster hits, the autocrat’s cadre of lickspittle sycophants jumps into action, trying to shift the blame from an increasingly unresponsive, bureaucratic, arrogant, and authoritarian government to the unworthy victims of the disaster and their supposed propensity for violence, theft, and general immorality.

Had this happened in North Korea or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, everything would have fit perfectly into America’s effortless demonology, and it would simply have reinforced our views of how everything really is in this best of all possible worlds.

Instead, it happened right here in America. So stark are the realities of the Great Flood of New Orleans and the subsequent response that, for a few days, even the hysterical self-congratulation of a culture that has lost any ability to understand itself was halted ? although it seems to be reasserting itself.

This disaster almost defies analysis, certainly in anything short of book length, but a few things have become clear:
Until Thursday, three days after Katrina made landfall and two days after the levees were breached, the overwhelming primary concern of the administration was the effect of the disaster on gas prices nationwide. Even in the most cursory inspection of the president’s words on Thursday itself, this fact jumps out, perhaps most strikingly in the following sentences: “In our judgment, we view this storm as a temporary disruption that is being addressed by the government and by the private sector. We’ve taken immediate steps to address the issue,” which are immediately followed by a list of steps relating to oil and gasoline. At first, a truly nonsensical statement ? the drowning of New Orleans is a “temporary disruption” ? it gains clarity when one remembers the president’s speech patterns and cognitive abilities. He and his cabinet had just been feverishly discussing the price of gasoline, and had decided to say that the storm had caused only a “temporary disruption” in the supply of gasoline. As is his wont, Bush simply robotically repeated that phrase without giving context.
FEMA’s primary concern in the first days of the disaster, and, frankly, even in the last few days, was to assert its authority over state and local forces rather than, say, helping the victims of the disaster. According to Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish, on Meet the Press: at one point on Saturday, FEMA came and cut the emergency communication lines of the Jefferson Parish sheriff’s office; the sheriff restored them and posted armed guards to protect them against FEMA.
There is the first opening in ages (9/11 was another one, but a very difficult one) for a serious national dialogue about race, but it won’t be easy. The divergence between the left’s understanding of race and racism and that of the mainstream has never been wider.
The particularly disgusting autocratic, incompetent, reflexively government-destroying Bush administration is particularly to blame for this response. But blame is shared much wider, as well. This is an indictment of late American neoliberal capitalism in no uncertain terms and of the reflexively individualistic bent of this entire society. The most striking example is the fact that there was no evacuation plan ? the residents of New Orleans just left in their cars, clogging up the highways and, even though there was plenty of space in those cars, leaving behind the 100,000 least able to ride out the storm ? but there are many others. This is also the first opening we’ve seen to talk about the systemic problems with capitalism, instead of just the symptoms.

In the days to come, people across the country will be searching for answers. They won’t get them from what laughably passes as the political opposition in this country. They’ll get them from the left or from nobody.

Posted at 11:03 am
September 3, 2005

Right Wing Crazier Than We Can Suppose

The eminent biologisgt J.B.S. Haldane once said, famously, that “the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”

Mahajan’s addendum: The right wing is not only crazier than we suppose, but crazier than we can suppose.

Via Americablog, this just in from Agape Press, organ of the American Families Association:
Rev. Bill Shanks, pastor of New Covenant Fellowship of New Orleans, also sees God’s mercy in the aftermath of Katrina—but in a different way. Shanks says the hurricane has wiped out much of the rampant sin common to the city.

The pastor explains that for years he has warned people that unless Christians in New Orleans took a strong stand against such things as local abortion clinics, the yearly Mardi Gras celebrations, and the annual event known as “Southern Decadence”—an annual six-day “gay pride” event scheduled to be hosted by the city this week—God’s judgment would be felt.

?New Orleans now is abortion free. New Orleans now is Mardi Gras free. New Orleans now is free of Southern Decadence and the sodomites, the witchcraft workers, false religion—it’s free of all of those things now,” Shanks says. “God simply, I believe, in His mercy purged all of that stuff out of there—and now we’re going to start over again.”
Another case in point: Fred Phelps and the mouth-breathers of picketing the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq and saying that these deaths are God’s punishment to the United States for tolerating homosexuals.

These are, of course, extreme elements of the right wing, but they are also not aberrations but epitomes of its exclusionary logic.

Patriotism, jingoism, and old-time religion are the horses the right wing rode in on; they all derive their true force not from great respect for our political system or for personal virtue, but rather from pure tribalism, the division of humanity based on a simple binary exclusion.

But if you start by privileging the nation and the Volk above all, next you exclude those members of the nation who don’t do the same. Sometimes, they become greater enemies than the various foreign terrorists and subhumans of the rest of the world.

The Revs. Shanks and Phelps carry that so far that they have turned that exclusionary logic on the right wing—especially Phelps, who is now deriding a war that only the right wing really supports.

Counterproductive from the point of view of taking power, but, as we Texans know, you dance with the one what brung ya, even if it happens to be mindless prejudice and unreason.

Posted at 1:56 pm
September 1, 2005

Oh, the Humanity—Or Lack Thereof

Bush is truly beyond belief. I just watched him live in his second address to the nation about the unfolding human drama and tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. Although I suppose it was an improvement from clowning around and playing guitar, his speech, like the first one, was all about oil refineries, pipelines (which “carry refined product”), shipping regulations, and his administration’s determination to keep gas prices down.

The man really is incapable of pretending to care. The plight of a bunch of poor African-Americans in Louisiana and Mississippi obviously doesn’t concern him and he’ll make no effort to act as if it does.

Particularly telling was the fact that, although the talk was to present George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton as overseers of a nationwide fundraising relief effort, neither of them spoke. Even his tin-eared and wooden-hearted father, let alone the pain-feeling Mr. Clinton, would have dramatically upstaged him in the impersonation of a human being.

Everyone should watch this nine-minute video about the people in the New Orleans Convention Center and the way they were essentially abandoned for several days. You can read the transcript with any browser, but you need Internet Explorer to watch the video.

Also check out this a-caption-is-worth-a-thousand-words commentary on racism in America.

Posted at 3:07 pm
August 29, 2005

Radio Commentary—Iraq and Exit Strategies

Public dialogue about the war has shifted. The right wing is organizing anti-Cindy demonstrations ? the kind of thing they normally don’t worry about since, after all, their side is in power.

The constitutional deadlock in Iraq has deprived the Bush administration of cheap propaganda points for the time being.

Andrew Krepinevich has an article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, based on lengthy discussions with military officers, calling for the United States to completely change its strategy in Iraq and implicitly admitting the insanity of the endless search-and-destroy missions that constitute the military’s actual role there.

Craig Smith, in Sunday’s New York Times, finally discovered the entirely untold but crucially important story of U.S. unwillingness to arm the so-called Iraqi army it’s creating. Somehow, the plan, we are told, is to devolve fighting to Iraqi forces, even though simultaneously we make sure those forces are not really armed to fight effectively. The reason, of course, is not those forces’ much-remarked-on lack of training, but the fact that the United States can’t trust them because it has no friends in Iraq.

Amid this new atmosphere of intense desperation to salvage America’s imperial mission in Iraq, there is a sudden proliferation of “exit strategies” from various corners. Some of them are hopelessly muddled; others are attempts to perform political tasks that the antiwar movement should be highly wary of.

Juan Cole’s 10-point exit strategy, presented on Democracy Now, involves a continuation of the war by other means ? instead of using ground forces, the United States offers close air support to the massively human-rights-violating Iraqi security forces it has created. This, like Krepinevich’s article, is effectively a suggestion about how to win the war, in the guise of an exit strategy. Such strategies will look very good to progressive but pusillanimous Democrats who are not up to the task of admitting that the United States cannot win in Iraq.

Tom Hayden has put forward a plan, supported by some peace groups, that involves appointing a U.S. peace envoy who negotiates with all Iraqi factions, including the insurgents. Unfortunately, negotiations, especially by this administration, will simply involve attempts to win by coercion what it hasn’t been able to win by outright force.

I don’t entirely dismiss talk about “exit strategies.” I believe the primary task right now is to put some flesh on “Out Now,” the consensus position of the antiwar movement, and develop it as a credible position; currently, most people don’t think it is. But people will be putting forward exit strategies, and it will be important to judge them.

Some criteria by which an exit plan should be judged:

What is its target audience? Bush and his coterie should not be the targets. They will withdraw further and further into their bunker as all forces turn against them, refusing to back down from their goals even as they flail wildly in a tactical sense. Nixon didn’t give up on winning the Vietnam War until April 30, 1975; Bush makes Nixon look reasonable. The targets are dissident elements of the elite, in particular cowardly progressive Democrats, national security analysts who see that the occupation is imperiling U.S. interests but still think withdrawal might be worse, and non-right-wing media opinionmakers and journalists who to date have believed themselves to be far cleverer than the antiwar movement.
Second, what is it trying to salvage? Dreams of American imperial hegemony in the Middle East are not worth salvaging. Prospects for liberal democracy in Iraq have been seriously vitiated by the conduct of the occupation—if and when it comes, it will be as a result of long hard struggle by Iraqis and not some clever exit plan. Even salvaging American face is not a goal the antiwar movement need get behind. In my earlier ruminations, I identified one legitimate goal ? somehow arranging things so that U.S. withdrawal does not hand a huge victory to Zarqawi and global jihadi forces. Second, salvaging at least the possibility of stable oil production and export is something the world, and all Iraqis, can agree is worthwhile.

I do believe the antiwar movement will and should get involved in the discussion of withdrawal and how to do it. But all plans must be judged primarily by the politics they embody; the ones we’ve seen so far do not stack up well.

Posted at 10:21 am
August 22, 2005

Radio Commentary—Our Heart of Darkness

Caroline Elkins? book, Britain?s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya, is a remarkable piece of revisionist history. Spending the last ten years studying the Mau-Mau uprising and the British counterinsurgency campaign, poring through old British colonial records and supplementing her research with extensive interviews of hundreds of Kenyan survivors, she has completely overturned the conventional, widely-accepted story of horrific Mau-Mau savagery and civilized British restraint.

Even the old official figures hardly support the widespread feeling that the Mau-Mau was among the most barbaric uprisings of the 20th century. Officially, the Mau-Mau killed fewer than 100 British, and 1800 collaborators, while the British killed 11,000 of them and detained 80,000 in prison camps.

The truth, however, is far different. Among Elkins? first discoveries was that, although, like the Germans, the British kept extensive files on their activities, most of them had been destroyed decades ago. The pattern of destruction, she says, is that ?any ministry ? that deal with the unsavory side of detention was pretty well emptied of its files, whereas those that ostensibly addressed detainee reform, or Britain?s civilizing mission, were left fairly intact.?

Reconstructing that history, she finds that, in fact, the British detained or confined, at one time or another, about 1.5 million people, nearly all of the Kikuyu, the tribe that took the Mau-Mau oath. British colonial policy, though it made the occasional nod toward bringing the light of Christianity to the heathen, was comprised of enforced starvation, squalor, and disease, forced labor, routine torture, castration, rape, and murder and savage beatings both by deliberate policy and at the whim of settlers who enforced a reign of terror. Elkins believes, although nobody will ever know for certain, that many tens of thousands and quite likely hundreds of thousands were killed by the British; certainly, if one includes the collateral effects of disease and starvation, the higher numbers are quite likely.

The cruelty and savagery, the sheer despair visited on 1.5 million people, most of whom never even picked up a weapon, takes hundreds of pages really to do them justice; it?s not possible to do that here.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the whole sordid affair is the constant description of the Mau-Mau as representing some sort of elemental evil. Their oaths of resistance, accompanied by traditional Kikuyu rituals, were routinely described as subhuman degradation on a scale that poor civilized Westerners could not even fathom.

The colonial secretary, Oliver Lyttelton, wrote, ?The Mau Mau oath is the most bestial, filthy and nauseating incantation which perverted minds can ever have brewed ? [I have never felt] the forces of evil to be so near and so strong as in Mau Mau. ? As I wrote memoranda or instruction, I would suddenly see a shadow fall across the page ? the horned shadow of the Devil himself.?

And this was a man who knew as well as any what the British were doing to the Mau Mau.

Plus ca change, plus c?est la meme chose. Denunciation of perceived enemies in terms that draw more from Christian demonology and visceral fears of moral contagion than from rational analysis, while we simultaneously inflict on them far worse damage than they do on us ? sounds familiar, no?

The Israeli occupation of Palestine is one obvious parallel. Readers of the New York Times could on Sunday see an op-ed by Elie Weisel decrying the Palestinians? lack of sympathy for the suffering of the Jewish settlers in Gaza. It is hard even to communicate how disgusting this is. But what?s really important is not the extreme moral bankruptcy of Weisel but his uncritical acceptance as some sort of universal spokesman for the moral conscience of humanity ? and, conversely, the Mau-Mau’ing of the Palestinians.

Another is the so-called ?war on terrorism.? No decent person could do anything but condemn the nihilistic and cruel London bombings, but there was something truly nauseating about the chorus of calls for Muslims and Islamic societies to admit their evils coming from people who would never dream of understanding the evils of Britain or the West.

One of the imperatives for the antiwar movement right now is to use the failed occupation of Iraq to shake the blind faith in the moral supremacy of the West in general and the United States in particular that is shared even by most critics of the war.

Audio file

Posted at 10:41 am
August 15, 2005

Radio Commentary—Iraq Withdrawal, Part 5

Today is the beginning of the Gaza withdrawal. It is the 58th anniversary of independence for India and Pakistan. And it is the 60th anniversary of “V-J Day.”

Iraq commentary:

Last week, I wrote about elite fears that a precipitous withdrawal would inflame worldwide jihadi sentiment. This issue must be addressed head-on, not ignored or brushed aside with glib, unconvincing slogans.

Actually, the Gordian knot of Iraq, insofar as political violence is concerned, is composed of three distinct strands: the American occupation and the resistance to that; the burgeoning sectarian conflict between Sunni Arab, Shi’a Arab, and Kurd; and the actions of a small number of fanatical extremist Sunnis who target all Shi’a as infidels and collaborators.

Ordinarily, that third group, representing only a handful of fanatics, would not loom particularly large in the Iraqi polity. It is the peculiar dynamics of war, foreign-imposed anarchy, and easy availability of high explosives that gives this group an effect out of all proportion to its constituency; it has killed 2700 Iraqis in the last three months and disrupted life immeasurably.

What few outside the antiwar movement seem to realize, and what elite dissidents must be told, is that the U.S. presence is the very factor that takes these three strands and tangles them into the seemingly indecipherable knot that is Iraq today.

Neither of the three ethnic groups really has the power to control the others completely; in the absence of U.S. troops, they would be forced to compromise, instead of perpetually jockeying for greater power and greater influence with the United States. Even a superficially democratic process like elections becomes, in this context, simply an ethnic census; similarly for the formation of the constitution. Even worse are the U.S.-supported activities of groups like the Wolf Brigade, constantly alleged to target people on a sectarian basis.

More important still, it is the U.S. presence that jams the legitimate military resistance together with the extremist terrorists.

Sunday’s Washington Post had a very instructive story. In Ramadi, a town much like Fallujah, 3,000 Shiites live among about 200,000 Sunnis. Recently, Zarqawi followers posted warnings that all Shi’a had to leave within 48 hours or suffer the consequences. Members of the Dulaym, the largest clan in the province and a key source of resistance to the U.S. military, established protective cordons around Shiite homes and the Jaish-i-Mohammed, a resistance group, engaged in pitched battles with Zarqawi followers, killing at least five.

They also put out statements saying Zarqawi had strayed “from the line of true resistance against occupation.”

This kind of divergence must be encouraged. But it is and will remain very rare under occupation. Indeed, this same Jaish-i-Mohammed was present back in June for negotiations with the U.S. military. When the various groups present were asked to sever ties with Zarqawi, their response was, “we will never abandon any Muslim who has come to our country to help us defend it.” This is the logic that will continue to animate most of the resistance, even as it deplores the killing of Iraqis by small groups.

This brings us the deeper point that the continued U.S. presence is what continues to give the conflict, not just in Iraq but worldwide, its religious character. No pronouncements from Bush about how “Islam is a religion of peace” will change or even affect that dynamic. If U.S. forces withdraw, there will still be the Sunni-Shi’a conflict, but that one has nothing like the widespread popular legitimacy of the Christian-Muslim conflict and will find it difficult or impossible to sustain itself outside the minds of Wahhabis like Zarqawi.

According to Robert Pape, whose book Dying to Win contains results of a comprehensive study of suicide bombing campaigns over the past quarter century, such campaigns occur almost exclusively in a context of foreign occupation by forces of a different religion; removal of the American cancer from the Iraqi body politic will, if his conclusions hold true, have the near-immediate benefit of eliminating the peculiarly frightening prospect of suicide terrorism.

In any case, the long and short of it is that Iraqi forces, however constituted, are far more able to deal with the global jihadi/al-Qaeda faction in their countries than the Americans are. It is a struggle that does not require F-15’s and 2000-pound GPS-guided bombs, but rather moral clarity and moral legitimacy, two things the U.S. presence in Iraq cannot possibly summon up in the foreseeable future.

These ideas are what dissident elites need in order to realize that the best thing for America right now is to figure out how to lose as gracefully, rather than as destructively, as possible.

Posted at 10:51 am
August 9, 2005

Nagasaki Day

We’ve just been through the 60th anniversaries of two of the most indelible crimes against humanity in our history. One doesn’t wish to let such a portentous anniversary pass without comment, although generally there is the problem that it’s difficult to find something new to say.

This year, however, things are a little different. I have mentioned before that Gar Alperovitz’s book The Decision to Drop the Atomic Bomb: Hiroshima and the Architecture of an American Myth is the key source to read in order to begin to understand an issue almost irretrievably clouded by decades of U.S. state propaganda.

Alperovitz seeks to show, partly by looking at transcripts of Japanese diplomatic communiques interecepted by the United States under an operation code-named MAGIC, that the United States was well aware that Japan was in dire straits and seeking desperately for any sort of negotiated settlement with the United States that would preserve the emperor’s position.

There’s a lot more in the book, for example the creation of the Hiroshima myth, the story that the bomb saved countless lives. Alperovitz traces the evolution of the myth, documenting the way that the number of lives saved soared as the political imperatives became clearer.

Undoubtedly, the majority of his work stands and will stand any test of time. Recently, however, some scholarship has brought into doubt the question of just how ready Japan was to surrender and how much the United States could have known about it.

Richard Frank, writing in the Weekly Standard (not a publication I usually give much credence to), says that more recently (mid-90’s) declassified MAGIC transcripts of Japanese military communiques paint a very different story. While diplomats may have been flailing for a peaceful solution, the military command apparently was rather intransigently preparing to beat back an invasion and showed no sign of incipient surrender under any terms.

From a different angle, Tsuyoshi Hasegawa (see article by Frank Brodhead), combing through Japanese, American, and Soviet archives, has come to the conclusion that Hiroshima and Nagasaki played almost no role in the Japanese surrender decision, which was dictated virtually entirely by the Soviet declaration of war on August 8.

This seems very plausible. After all, the Japanese ruling class might have expected that the Americans would hang a few of them, subjugate the class to U.S. strategic interests, and for the most part prop the rest of them up in power so as to rule Japan with relative ease—after making sure they had been properly brought to heel, of course. On the other hand, they could expect the Soviets to liquidate them entirely. This, of course, is precisely the difference between the American treatment of the Nazis and the Soviet treatment.

So what do we make of all this? Does the incredible intransigence of the Japanese military command and its lack of concern for civilian lives exonerate the United States?

This reminds me a great deal of an argument that always got thrown at us regarding Saddam and the sanctions on Iraq. First, we need to kill children because Saddam is intransigent and won’t cooperate fully with weapons inspections and killing children is the only way to make him cooperate. Second, Saddam is hard-hearted and doesn’t care about the children killed, so it’s not our fault that they’ve died.

I believe the logic error is reasonably obvious. In the case of Japan, it’s very clear that the rulers, like Saddam, were hard-hearted and militaristic, that they committed numerous crimes against humanity, and that they shared a great deal of the blame for what was done to their people.

But, just as in the case of Saddam, the United States knew that beforehand. They had incinerated over 500,000 civilians with their deadly firebomb raids, which by the summer of 1945 they were able to carry out without any resistance, and the Japanese military didn’t bat an eye.

So the United States set out to kill as many civilians as possible in these attacks, even though, because of the MAGIC intercepts, they were in a good position to believe the killing of civilians would make no difference to the Japanese government. They gave no warning for the Hiroshima bombing; they did give warning about Nagasaki, one day after the bombing. Civilians had no chance to flee. The bombs were set to detonate at exactly the height above the ground that would maximize the blast devastation. Everything was done to kill as many civilians as possible. And, in the end, it may not have made one damn bit of difference in making the Japanese surrender.

I don’t see that this new scholarship, important as it is, changes anything in the obvious determination that these are two of the most incandescent crimes against humanity ever committed.

Some wags like to justify the atomic bombings by pointing out the destructions of Tokyo, Dresden, etc. I’ve never quite understood why committing a crime makes committing another crime ok.

But it does bring up another interesting point. When I first read about the Manhattan project and the bombing of Hiroshima as a child, I didn’t distinguish between the firebombings and the atomic bombing. They killed similar numbers of innocent people, so they were equally bad.

And yet, in a way, horrific crimes as the bombings of Dresden and Tokyo were, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were worse. First, of course, because they started the nuclear arms race and brought us to the point where we can actually annihilate ourselves. Second, because of the radiation and lingering effects.

But there’s another way, and it’s hard to talk about logically. Freeman Dyson, in his autobiography Disturbing the Universe, talks about his experience. He worked as an analyst for British Bomber Command and, over the years, became completely disillusioned with what he called this “crazy game of murder.” Then one day, after he was out and the war for him was over, he picked up a newspaper and saw the headline, “New Force of Nature Unleashed.” He said to himself, “This is it. Childhood’s end.”

It’s always struck me that, of all the headlines put up on August 7, that one is somehow the most profound. Even now, reading it sends a chill down my spine. To discover the most profound secrets of nature and use them to incinerate over 200,000 men, women, and children is unspeakable in some way that goes deeper than logic.

Originally posted at and reprinted in TAM with permission of the author.