It's great to see everyone so angry at the White House, to hear people talking about race and class in this country, to feel the American people begin to awaken, after a month of Cindy Sheehan and a week of Katrina. But, call me a cynic, I don't put much stock in it. Take for example this piece in Slate, in which Jack Shafer gets excited about how angry the reporters in the mainstream media are getting about the situation in New Orleans.
Well, yes, after years of serving as cowardly mouthpieces for political leaders, it is refreshing to see newspeople show some evidence of backbone. But the problems that led to this situation existed before the hurricane hit. FEMA was hardly the first representative of American society to ignore the poor, African American population of New Orleans and other parts of the country. It does not speak well of our journalists that they literally had to spend days wading through the blood, feces, and corpses of those people before it occurred to them to demand some answers of our so-called leaders.
What we're seeing on CNN is not a revolution. Would that it were. Perhaps a revolution will start in the streets of America some time soon. But once the levees are mended and the Convention Center is evacuated, I suspect that revolution would prove as baffling to Stone Phillips as it would be to George W. Bush. Will reporters and anchors continue to ask the hard questions once the immediate crisis has subsided (or lost the interest of viewers)? (Or get similarly angry about Iraq, even now that Camp Casey has packed up?) Even as he celebrates his fellow journalists for their rowdiness, Shafer suggests an answer:
The broadcasters' angry dispatches break with the "public face" they usually give their work: polite, patient, neutral, generous. A steady diet of such confrontational reporting would probably be as edifying as a Jerry Springer show. But when the going gets this tough—when government incompetence and lies become so insurmountable—sometimes the only way to get the story is by getting mad. (emphasis added)It's hardly Network. Mr. Shafer, the going should never, ever have to get this tough. If that's what we're waiting for, we've lost our soul already.
Shafer adds a post-script to his article, in which he describes a jab Rush Limbough took at him:
Rush Limbaugh called me a liberal on his show yesterday for my Wednesday column about the news broadcasters' general neglect of race and class. Said Limbaugh, "The whole purpose of this story for Mr. Shafer and these stories on these lower level websites that hopefully they think will percolate to the mainstream press is to eventually indict the American way of life, to indict the American culture, to indict the American society as inherently unfair and racist." I can't wait to impress my friends at the American Prospect by sending the transcript over.I wish Rush were right about this. Unfortunately, he is wrong as ever (except maybe about Shafer being a liberal).
On a related note, I read about Condoleeza Rice's response to questions about the role of race in the failures of the relief effort (can't find link now). She brushed away suggestions that race played a role, saying she did not believe people were deciding whom to rescue or not rescue based on the color of their skin. That astounding lack of social-analytical thinking might help explain why she would work for the Great Executioner to begin with (it is the same simplistic thinking that allows people to ignore the obvious institutional racism with which the death penalty is applied, simply because they don't think most judges or juries would consciously say, "well, he committed a capital crime but he's white so we'll spare him" or "he's black so he deserves to die" or "his victim was black so who cares?" or "his victim was white so it's worse." I doubt that is the conscious logic on which most individual decisions rest, but the statistics speak for themselves). I don't assume there are helicopter pilots choosing to fly past black folks on rooftops in order to pick up white folks on rooftops. But has Condi not asked herself why all those black people are still in New Orleans to begin with? Absurd.
And that's not to mention the most disingenuous part of her answer, which is the suggestion that the charges of racism are being leveled at rescue workers, and not at the higher levels of government she represents. Handled like a true politician, in the most maddening sense of the word.
Finally, I don't know what vocabulary technically applies or does not apply, but "looting" does not seem like the appropriate word to use for anyone, regardless of race, who is taking food, drink, or other items for personal care. I don't even think taking a car to escape town, or some fresh clothes (not stacks, but a few changes for oneself and one's family) should be portrayed as a crime. And that is just how it is consistently being reported. Even sympathetic reporters seem to be suggesting that "some people felt the need to commit these crimes, and it's hard to blame them because I can't imagine how desperate they must be," or that "some looters only took food." Of course, this has been made worse by the now-famous juxtaposition of news photos, one showing a black kid described in the caption as "looting" food, and the other of a white kid described as "finding" it. But thinking of this as criminal or looting at all is wrong.
Beyond the race issue is our general understanding of the nature of property. According to Catholic teaching, at least, private property is a right of the individual as a reflection of the dignity of his/her work, but that right is always subordinate to the Common Good. Included in this order is the idea that one person's inablity to "legally" obtain food, provide basic necessities for his/her family, or otherwise access the material goods essential to basic, dignified human life - particularly survival itself - is a reflection of the failure of the society in which that person lives. That person has the right, then, to steal or otherwise acquire those necessary goods, and society further contributes to its own sinful condition by judging such behavior as criminal. There is little question that we have failed the people stuck in New Orleans. At the very least, I hope we can differentiate between legitimate responses to that failure, and the actions of actual looters who are wielding guns and stealing flat-screet TVs and jewelry.