Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Disaster and Us

For those of us who can’t take our eyes off the videos from Haiti, there is something uncanny in the fact that people are walking about without issuing deafening screams, even as they pass by collapsed buildings and corpse after corpse.

There is a long tradition that in disasters, the natural devastation is followed by human savagery - lootings, shootings. Read from this perspective, we know to expect the worst when we start reading Kleist’s short story, Earthquake in Chile. In that story, an earthquake in St. Jago, Chile occurs just before Josephe, a nun, is about to be beheaded for sacrilege. Her crime was that she conceived a child and gave birth to a son, the father of whom was Jeronimo, her former tutor.

In the confusion of the earthquake, the execution doesn't happen. The archibishop dies. The guards flee. Josephe, goes back to her convent, finds her boy, and then searches for her lover, Jeronimo, who has miraculously survived the collapse of his prison. As the next day dawns, the couple find themselves in the midst of refugees who are busy helping each other. They welcome Josephe, Jeronimo and the baby. Then one of them says that at the only church that had been spared, a mass was going to be said, and all agreed to go there. Josephe and Jeronimo at this point are thinking that they will beg for mercy from the viceroy and surely be spared, along with their child. In the church, the canon preaches a sermon that builds to a crescendo of blame, in which the earthquake figures as a punishment for the sinfulness of St. Jago, like the devastation wrought upon Sodom and Gommora. In the exaltation and rage of the crowd, Josephe is recognized and surrounded, and so is a man who is taken for the father – until Jeronimo cries that he is the father. Then he, Jeronimo, and Josephe are surrounded and clubbed to death.

A careless reading of this story would be that man is beast to man. Kleist, in reaction to the French Revolution, is warning us against mob violence. A more careful reading would distinguish between the crowd of refugees with whom Jeronimo and Josephe mingle and the crowd in the church. The difference is, in the church, the structure of organized power – the power that had run St. Jago – asserts itself again.

Rebecca Solint’s last book was about this very topic – the strange discrepancy between the government and media portrayal of disasters – as crises that require eminent force – and the reality of the testimony of disasters.

“We should not be surprised, then, that what transpires in the immediate aftermath of a disaster is nothing like the popular version. People rarely panic or stampede, nor do they often immediately engage in looting or other acts of opportunism. The Scottish-born mathematician Eric Temple Bell, who witnessed the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, saw “no running around the streets, or shrieking, or anything of that sort” but instead people who “walked calmly from place to place, and watched the fire with almost indifference, and then with jokes, that were not forced either, but wholly spontaneous.” Another survivor, San Francisco editor Charles B. Sedgwick, noted-perhaps somewhat hyperbolically-that “even the selfish, the sordid and the greedy became transformed that day-and, indeed, throughout that trying period-and true humanity reigned.” This phenomenon of “surprising” human kindness and good sense is replicated time and again.”

Solint’s Harper essay was published just before Katrina hit. Of the reasons I have to curse and forget the 00s, Katrina is as important as Iraq – in that it revealed what I believed, intellectually, but not in my heart. Intellectually, I’ve always known that the poor – which would include myself – are shit in the U.S. But in my heart, I have never really thought that. Watching the film, shown over and over again, of the guys on Claiborne taking out a drug store (that, in the eighties, was my drug store, when I lived in that neighborhood), I could only absolutely identify with them.

I had come South, from New Haven, in 1998 with the intent to live in New Orleans again – that was my original plan, and I merely fucked up by marooning myself in Austin. In 1995, if I had gone through with my original plan, I might well be one of the corpses of Katrina. No transportation out, a minimal amount of money, no place to stay and no person to take me in – of such are the victims made. That's me. It tore something in me to see the condemnation pour in upon the 'black hoodlums" as the country let NOLA sink into the water.

A more heartbreaking image than that of the bushwacking of an empty drug store came from Michael Lewis’ Wading Towards Home, perhaps one of his best essays. Lewis came from one of the aristocratic families, the ones whose relics amaze the tourists riding the streetcar down St. Charles. Back in the 80s, I lived for a while in the Audubon neighborhood, in a mansion that you can see, if you care to look, in a shot in the movie Cat People. Lewis’ family lived in Uptown, and Lewis discovered – and probably was not too surprised by the fact – that most of Uptown was dry when he drove into New Orleans three days after the supposed blockade. Everybody knows Uptown is higher than the rest of the City. And this is the info Lewis came in with:

”Beyond Uptown, here is what I knew, or thought I knew: Orleans Parish prison had been seized by the inmates, who also controlled the armory. Prisoners in their orange uniforms had been spotted outside, roaming around the tilapia ponds - there's a fish farm next to the prison - and whatever that meant, it sounded ominous: I mean, if they were getting into the tilapias, who knew what else they might do? Gangs of young black men were raging through the Garden District, moving toward my parents' house, shooting white people. Armed young black men, on Wednesday, had taken over Uptown Children's Hospital, just six blocks away, and shot patients and doctors. Others had stolen a forklift and carted out the entire contents of a Rite Aid and then removed the whole front of an Ace Hardware store farther uptown, on Oak Street. Most shocking of all, because of its incongruity, was the news that looters had broken into Perlis, the Uptown New Orleans clothing store, and picked the place clean of alligator belts, polo shirts with little crawfish on them and tuxedos most often rented by white kids for debutante parties and the Squires' Ball.”

What he found, of course, was that this was all wrong. Not only all wrong, but pathetically wrong. I still cry reading this paragraph:

“The old houses were also safe. There wasn't a house in the Garden District, or Uptown, that could not have been easily entered; there wasn't a house in either area that didn't have food and water to keep a family of five alive for a week; and there was hardly a house in either place that had been violated in any way. And the grocery stores! I spent some time inside a Whole Foods choosing from the selection of PowerBars. The door was open, the shelves groaned with untouched bottles of water and food. Downtown, 25,000 people spent the previous four days without food and water when a few miles away - and it's a lovely stroll - entire grocery stores, doors ajar, were untouched. From the moment the crisis downtown began, there had been a clear path, requiring maybe an hour's walk, to food, water and shelter. And no one, not a single person, it seemed, took it.”

This is Solnit, about what is revealed by disaster:

“The days after 9/11 constituted a tremendous national opening, as if a door had been unlocked. The aftermath of disaster is often peculiarly hopeful, and in the rupture of the ordinary, real change often emerges. But this means that disaster threatens not only bodies, buildings, and property but also the status quo. Disaster recovery is not just a rescue of the needy but also a scramble for power and legitimacy, one that the status quo usually-but not always-wins. The Bush Administration's response after 9/11 was a desperate and extreme version of this race to extinguish too vital a civil society and reestablish the authority that claims it alone can do what civil society has just done-and, alas, an extremely successful one. For the administration, the crisis wasn't primarily one of death and destruction but one of power. The door had been opened and an anxious administration hastened to slam it shut.
You can see the grounds for that anxiety in the aftermath of the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, which was the beginning of the end for the one-party rule of the PRI over Mexico. The earthquake, measuring 8.0 on the Richter scale, hit Mexico City early on the morning of September 19 and devastated the central city, the symbolic heart of the nation. An aftershock nearly as large hit the next evening. About ten thousand people died, and as many as a quarter of a million became homeless.
The initial response made it clear that the government cared a lot more about the material city of buildings and wealth than the social city of human beings. In one notorious case, local sweatshop owners paid the police to salvage equipment from their destroyed factories. No effort was made to search for survivors or retrieve the corpses of the night-shift seamstresses. It was as though the earthquake had ripped away a veil concealing the corruption and callousness of the government. International rescue teams were rebuffed, aid money was spent on other programs, supplies were stolen by the police and army, and, in the end, a huge population of the displaced poor was obliged to go on living in tents for many years.”

We will see which narrative prevails in Haiti. Look, though, for signs of the better angels of our nature.

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