Katrina and the Politics of Disposability
News reporting on the aftermath of Katrina blames the victims rather than helps them.
The dominant media has spent a great deal of time commenting on both the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the five-year anniversary of 9/11. Unfortunately, they have neither gone beyond conventional spin nor made much of an attempt to connect the two events, which together reveal much about the political uses of the less fortunate.
The tragedy of 9/11 has been used by the Bush administration to legitimize its war on terror and the resulting massive amount of suffering, death and hardship that war imposes. The people of Iraq and the soldiers who fight there have become fodder for the neoconservative dream of a Pax Americana. The five-year anniversary of 9/11 afforded William Kristol and Rich Lowry, editors of the Weekly Standard and the National Review respectively, the occasion to argue in a jointly written op-ed for the Washington Post that the answer to winning the war in Iraq was simply a matter of providing more troops to secure Baghdad. Reinforcing the never-ending use of military solutions for political problems, President Bush appeared on prime time television calling for national unity and, without irony, argued, “The safety of America depends on the outcome of the battle in the streets of Baghdad.”
In the current blitz of media remembrance, memories of the 9/11 victims legitimate the discourses of militarism, national honor and patriotism, while Katrina invokes memories of pathology.
A year later, and the victims of Katrina are not only deemed unworthy of state protections, but dangerous and disposable. What does it mean, for example, when CNN’s Anderson Cooper returns to the scene of the crime named Katrina and, rather than connecting the Bush’s administration contempt for social programs to the subsequent catastrophe, focuses instead on the rumors of crime and lawlessness that allegedly spread over New Orleans after the hurricane hit? What are we to think when Juan Williams, a senior correspondent for NPR, writes in a New York Times op-ed that the real lesson of Katrina is that the poor “cause problems for themselves,” and that they should be condemned for not “confronting the poverty of spirit?” Williams invokes the ghost of self-reliance and self-responsibility to demonize those populations for whom the very economic, educational, political and social conditions that make agency possible barely exist.
Only a few dominant media journalists such as Bob Herbert of the New York Times attempted to articulate a politics of government abuse that unites both Baghdad and New Orleans. Of course, this last issue is difficult, for here we must connect the painful dots between the crisis on the Gulf Coast and that “other” gulf crisis in the Middle East – between the images of U.S. soldiers standing next to tortured Iraqis forced to assume the indignity of a dog leash and the images of bloated bodies of a redundant populace floating in toxic waters after five long days of government indifference. How else can we explain the Bush administration’s refusal to allocate adequate funds for hurricane and flood control in New Orleans while spending billions on the war on Iraq? What does it mean when a government prioritizes tax relief for the ultra-rich and ignores the most basic needs of minorities of class and color?
A new politics now governs American policy, one that I call the politics of disposability. It is a politics in which the unproductive (the poor, weak and racially marginalized) are considered useless and therefore expendable; a politics in which entire populations are considered disposable, unnecessary burdens on state coffers, and consigned to fend for themselves. Katrina laid bare what many people in the United States do not want to see: Large numbers of poor black and brown people struggling to make ends meet within a social system that makes it difficult to obtain health insurance, child care, social assistance, savings, and even minimum-wage jobs.
In their place, the youth are offered bad schools, poor public services and no future, except a possible stint in the penitentiary. As Janet Pelz in the Sept. 19, 2005 Seattle Post-Intelligencer rightly insisted, “These are the people the Republicans have been teaching us to disdain, if not hate, since President Reagan decried the moral laxness of the Welfare mom.”
As the social state is hollowed out, the category “waste” no longer simply includes material goods but also human beings. This is a result of a revised set of political commitments that have given up on the sanctity of human life for the populations rendered “at risk” by global neoliberal economies. Instead, the right has embraced an emergent security state founded on cultural homogeneity. This is a state that no longer provides Americans with dreams; rather, it protects Americans from a range of possible nightmares.
Defined primarily through a discourse of “lack” in the face of the social imperatives of good character, personal responsibility, and hyper-individualism, entire populations are expelled from the index of moral concerns. Defined neither as producers or consumers, they are reified as products without value and then disposed of.
Zygmunt Bauman writes in his brilliant book, Wasted Lives, these groups are “leftovers in the most radical and effective way: we make them invisible by not looking and unthinkable by not thinking.” When young black and brown youth try to escape the politics of disposability by joining the military, the seduction of economic security is negated by the violence that is compounded daily in the streets, roads, and battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their symbolic fate is made concrete in the form of body bags, mangled bodies and amputated limbs – sights rarely seen in the narrow vision of the dominant media.
The public and private policies of investing in the public good are dismissed as bad business, just as the notion of protecting people from the dire misfortunes of poverty, sickness or random blows of fate is viewed as an act of bad faith. Weakness is now a sin, punishable by social exclusion. The state’s message to unwanted populations: Society neither wants nor cares about nor needs you. Bauman observes that dominant “power is measured by the speed with which responsibilities can be escaped.”
To confront the biopolitics of disposability, we need to recognize these dark times in which we live and offer up a vision of hope. We need to work to create the conditions for collective and global struggles that refuse to use war as an act of politics and markets as the measure of democracy. Making human beings superfluous is the essence of totalitarianism. Democracy is the antidote in urgent need of being reclaimed.
The tragedy of both gulf crises must do more than provoke despair or cynicism, it must spark a politics in which the images of those floating bodies in New Orleans and the endless parade of death in Iraq serve as a reminder of what it means when justice, as the lifeblood of democracy, becomes cold and indifferent in the face of death.