People Get Ready

[ make levees, not war ]

Disaster, carnival, and revolution

Posted by schroeder915 on March 10, 2006

A long post here as I put some things out there that I’ve been holding on to for a while.

Bruce Nolan, celebrating the locals’ glory at the first post-Katrina Mardi Gras:

God, what a great, conflicted place. It has long been punishing to live here, to see the kids go elsewhere to make a life, to feel the economy deflate year by year, to see the schools free-fall into chaos and worst of all, to hear the tales of so many heroic, destitute neighbors violated by looters again and again.

How can such a place hold its people? Tuesday shows you why. …

Since Katrina, things have been both incomparably worse and incomparably better. At the same time. I can’t fully explain it; but I see it.

A friend who used to work at The Times-Picayune wrote me after Katrina. Her heart was breaking for the city. She said she loved New Orleans, but it made her crazy. She moved on. She said, “New Orleans is the man I’ll never get over. But Chicago is the man I’m supposed to marry.”

Those of us who subscribe to Harper’s Magazine might never have seen this article, which was printed after we were scattered to the hinterlands. Rebecca Solnit’s article, “The Uses of Disaster,” was headed for print in Harper’s Magazine when Hurricane Katrina struck. Here are excerpts, drawn from the print version someone gave to me, and from the online version:

Shortly after midnight on September 29, 2003, Hurricane Juan made landfall near Halifax, Nova Scotia. … A professor glowed with with happy recollection. “Everybody woke up the next morning and everything was different,” he mused. “There was no electricity, all the stores were closed, no one had access to the media. The consequence was that everyone poured out into the street to bear witness. Not quite a street party, but everyone out at once” — clearing debris, rebuilding homes, sharing food, comparing notes, and in these acts generating an improbably feeling of joy — “a sense of happiness to see everybody, even though we didn’t know each other.” …

Such pleasure in the face of suffering and loss is not unusual. The San Francisco earthquake of 1906, for instance … generated similar epiphanies. …

San Francisco newspaperwoman Pauline Jacobson found the suspension of ordinary life positively festive. …

Most of us since then have run the whole gamut of human emotions from glad to sad and back again, but underneath is all a new note is struck, a quiet bubbling joy is felt. It is that note that makes all our loss worth the while. It is the note of a millenial good fellowship. …

Around the periphery of many disasters is a far larger population of people who are unhurt but deeply disrupted. Often enough, many of those people find the disruption deeply satisfying as well as unnerving. They enjoy the disruption not only of the barriers that normally separate them from their neighbors but also of their own grinding self-absorption. …

In disaster, the impact is shared, the solidarity may eclipse the suffering, and thus rather than adding to the isolation of individual misfortune such events may undo the loneliness of everyday life. …

In his 1961 study, “Disasters and Mental Health: Therapeutic Principles Drawn from Disaster Studies,” sociologist Charles Fritz asks an interesting question: “Why do large-scale disasters produce such mentally healthy conditions?” One of the answers is that a disaster shakes us loose of ordinary time. “In everyday life many human problems stem from people’s preoccupation with the past and the future, rather than the present,” Fritz wrote. “Disasters provide a temporary liberation from the worries, inhibitions, and anxieties associated with the past and the future because they force people to concentrate their full attention on immediate moment-to-moment, day-to-day needs.” This shift in awareness, he added, “speeds the process of decision-making” and “facilitates the acceptance of change.”

The state of mind Fritz describes resembles those sought in various spiritual traditions. It recalls Buddhism’s emphasis on being in the moment, nonattachment, and compassion for all beings, and the Christian monastic tradition’s emphasis on awareness of mortality and ephemerality. …

What stands out in these disaster narratives is what Jacobson called “joy in the other fellow.” Again and again, we see a latent civil society — a community — arising from the ruins of some disaster and becoming the grounds for connection and joy. …

Many official disaster-preparedness scenarios nonetheless presume that human beings are prone to panic and in need of policing. A sort of Hobbesian true human nature emerges, according to this version, and people trample one another to flee, or loot and pillage, or they haplessly await rescue. In the movie version, this is the necessary precondition for John Wayne, Harrison Ford, or one of their shovel-jawed brethren to save the day and focus the narrative. In the government version, this is why we need the government. In 1906, for example, no one quite declared martial law, but soldiers, policemen, and some armed college students patrolled the streets of San Francisco looking for looters, with orders to shoot on sight. Even taking food from buildings about to burn down was treated as a crime: property and order were prized above survival or even reason. But “the authorities” are too few and too centralized to respond to the dispersed and numerous emergencies of a disaster. Instead, the people classified as victims generally do what can be done to save themselves and one another. In doing so, they discover not only the potential power of civil society but also the fragility of existing structures of authority. And perhaps this, too, is grounds for joy.

The events of September 11, 2001, though entirely unnatural, shed light on the nature of all disasters. That day saw the near-total failure of centralized authority. The United States has the largest and most technologically advanced military in the world, but the only successful effort to stop the commandeered planes from becoming bombs was staged by the unarmed passengers inside United Airlines Flight 93. …

The police and fire departments responded valiantly to the bombings of the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, but most of the people there who survived did so because they rescued themselves and one another. …

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 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. …

As in San Francisco in 1906, in the ruins of the city of architecture and property, another city came into being made of nothing more than the people and their senses of solidarity and possibility. Citizens began to demand justice, accountability, and respect. They fought to keep the sites of their rent-controlled homes from being redeveloped as more lucrative projects. They organized neighborhood groups. And eventually they elected a left-wing mayor-a key step in breaking the PRI’s monopoly on power in Mexico.

The poor of Mexico City seized the opportunity presented by the disaster, and seized it festively. One neighborhood not only organized itself politically but, according to one report, underwent a sevenfold increase in street parties.

Carnival, to paraphrase William James, is the moral equivalent of disaster. No one dies, but carnival begets the same sense of release from the conventions and categories that bind and isolate us. There is spectacle, noise, chaos. …

Mikhail Bakhtin’s famous definition of carnival fits disaster as well:

Carnival celebrated temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order; it marked the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions. Carnival was the true feast of time, the feast of becoming, change, and renewal. It was hostile to all that was immortalized and completed. … People were, so to speak, reborn for purely human relations. …

Carnival punctuates routine, relieves the ongoing low-grade crises of isolation, indifference, and obliviousness; it mixes things up and connects them back together. …

Carnival’s message that anything can happen is not so different from revolution’s exhortation that everything is possible. And the outbreak of revolution or insurrection begets a similar moment when the very air you breathe seems to pour out of a luminous future, when people all around you are brothers and sisters, when you feel extraordinary strength. …

Americans work more hours now than anyone else in the industrialized world. They also work far more than they themselves did as recently as a few decades ago. This shift is economic—call it Reaganomics or Chicago-style “liberalism” or “globalization”—but it is cultural too, part of an odd backlash against unions, social safety nets, the New Deal and the Great Society, against the idea that we should take care of one another, against the idea of community. The proponents of this shift celebrate the frontier ideals of “independence” and the Protestant work ethic and the Horatio Alger notion that it’s all up to you.

In this light, we can regard the notion of “privatization” as a social phenomenon far broader than a process by which government contracts are granted. It is the spiritual privatization of Protestantism — which did away with Catholicism’s festival-heavy calendar, its emphasis on community and communion — as well as the privatization of civic life in general. Moments of carnival, community, and political participation are, from the perspective of privatizers, not just wasted time but — pace the seventeeth-century Puritans punishing those who celebrated Christmas — violations of belief.

Our recent history is the history of privatization. Marketing and media shove imagination more and more toward private life and private satisfaction. Citizens are redefined as consumers. Public participation in electoral politics falters, and with it any sense of collective or individual political power. Public space itself—the site for the First Amendment’s “right of the people peaceably to assemble”—withers away. Free association is aptly termed, for there is no profit in it. And since there is no profit in it, we are instead encouraged by our great media and advertising id to fear one another and regard public life as a danger and a nuisance, to live in secured spaces, communicate by electronic means, and acquire our information from that self-same media rather than from one another. The barkers touting our disastrous “ownership society” refuse to acknowledge that it is what we own in common that makes us strong. But disaster makes it clear that our interdependence is not only an inescapable fact but a fact worth celebrating—that the production of civil society is a work of love, indeed the work that many of us desire most.

And this is Solnit’s postscript written after Hurricane Katrina, which is only available in the online version of the article:

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.”

New Orleans, of course, has long been a violent place. Its homicide rate is among the highest in the nation. The Associated Press reports that last year “university researchers conducted an experiment in which police fired 700 blank rounds in a New Orleans neighborhood in a single afternoon. No one called to report the gunfire.” That is a real disaster. As I write this, however, it is becoming clear that many of the stories of post-disaster Hobbesian carnage were little more than rumor. “I live in the N.O. area and got back into my house on Saturday,” one resident wrote to Harry Shearer’s website. “We know that the looting was blown out of proportion and that much of it was just people getting food and water, or batteries and other emergency supplies. That is not to say that some actual looting did not go on. There was, indeed, some of that. But it was pretty isolated. As was the shooting and other violence in the streets.”

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.

Disasters are almost by definition about the failure of authority, in part because the powers that be are supposed to protect us from them, in part also because the thousand dispersed needs of a disaster overwhelm even the best governments, and because the government version of governing often arrives at the point of a gun. But the authorities don’t usually fail so spectacularly. Failure at this level requires sustained effort. The deepening of the divide between the haves and have nots, the stripping away of social services, the defunding of the infrastructure, mean that this disaster—not of weather but of policy—has been more or less what was intended to happen, if not so starkly in plain sight.

The most hellish image in New Orleans was not the battering waves of Lake Pontchartrain or even the homeless children wandering on raised highways. It was the forgotten thousands crammed into the fetid depths of the Superdome. And what most news outlets failed to report was that those infernos were not designed by the people within, nor did they represent the spontaneous eruption of nature red in tooth and claw. They were created by the authorities. The people within were not allowed to leave. The Convention Center and the Superdome became open prisons. “They won’t let them walk out,” reported Fox News anchor Shepard Smith, in a radical departure from the script. “They got locked in there. And anyone who walks up out of that city now is turned around. You are not allowed to go to Gretna, Louisiana, from New Orleans, Louisiana. Over there, there’s hope. Over there, there’s electricity. Over there, there is food and water. But you cannot go from here to there. The government will not allow you to do it. It’s a fact.” Jesse Jackson compared the Superdome to the hull of a slave ship. People were turned back at the Gretna bridge by armed authorities, men who fired warning shots over the growing crowd. Men in control. Lorrie Beth Slonsky and Larry Bradshaw, paramedics in New Orleans for a conference, wrote in an email report (now posted at CounterPunch) that they saw hundreds of stranded tourists thus turned back. “All day long, we saw other families, individuals and groups make the same trip up the incline in an attempt to cross the bridge, only to be turned away. Some chased away with gunfire, others simply told no, others to be verbally berated and humiliated. Thousands of New Orleaners were prevented and prohibited from self-evacuating the city on foot.” That was not anarchy, nor was it civil society.

This is the disaster our society has been working to realize for a quarter century, ever since Ronald Reagan rode into town on promises of massive tax cuts. Many of the stories we hear about sudden natural disasters are about the brutally selfish human nature of the survivors, predicated on the notion that survival is, like the marketplace, a matter of competition, not cooperation. Cooperation flourishes anyway. (Slonsky and Bradshaw were part of a large group that had set up a civilized, independent camp.) And when we look back at Katrina, we may see that the greatest savagery was that of our public officials, who not only failed to provide the infrastructure, social services, and opportunities that would have significantly decreased the vulnerability of pre-hurricane New Orleans but who also, when disaster did occur, put their ideology before their people.

Rebecca Solnit
September 8, 2005

Finally, if you haven’t already, please do visit Mark over at Wet Bank Guide. He’s a splendid writer, and he just moved back to New Orleans after a long hiatus — just in time to celebrate Mardi Gras:

We are coming back to the city to stay, to march again and again, so that there is no longer a Last Mardi Gras, just the last Mardi Gras. I will march until my time is done, and then I will borrow a ritual from St. Anne’s, in this city of borrowed rituals. I will have my children scatter what remains of me into the river. For me, it will be the Last Mardi Gras. For them, it will simply be a moment from last Mardi Gras. They will say a few words, shed a tear, and then all of us will be swept away by the currents. They will turn away from the river, while nearby a drunken trumpeter will perhaps blow a few bars of Oh Didn’t He Ramble, and I will march in their hearts back into the Quarter once more.

May carnival continue, and may the revolution begin.


4 Responses to “Disaster, carnival, and revolution”

  1. Michael said

    Hey, thanks for posting this, Schroeder. Hadn’t seen it until you pointed it out.

    The last paragraph really sums it all up.

  2. Edie said

    Very interesting passages; I never doubted the people of New Orleans for a moment throughout those lurid reports. Good luck.

  3. Rob said

    Thank you for that. Did I mention that I miss my Harper’s?

  4. Schroeder said

    Yeah, I miss mine too — lost like half a year’s subscription.

    Edie, sorry I never followed up with that meme. It looked interesting, but I’m just too busy to engage in that kind of thing right now.

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