Sunday, September 04, 2005

Katrina memes

The right half of the blogosphere is not alone in dissing the victims of Katrina over the past few days. The mainstream media have done their share of it too, feeding into frankly racist stereotypes about Blacks that never lie far below the surface in North America. Yet, reading vast amounts of media coverage, one can sometimes discern a different reality. Consider some of the memes that have infected thinking and interfered with observation recently, and some of the facts that have emerged in spite of them:

The Uppity Nigger. That would be Kanye West, rap artist, having the barefaced effrontery to mouth off on a telethon thus: "Bush doesn't care about Black people." He said that Blacks are described in the media as "looting" food while whites "find" it. He had a few other things to say as well, until NBC cut away and eventually censored the clip.The network fell all over itself apologizing: West's "opinions in no way represent the views of the networks." The Red Cross weighed in as well: "During the telecast, a controversial comment was made by one of the celebrities. We would like the American public to know that our support is unwavering, regardless of political circumstances."

"Kanye West Ruins Relief Show," shrieks one headline, the story continuing, "In a disgusting display, West strayed from his prepared script to offer an overflow of hatred from his mouth, taking the spotlight off of the matter at hand, turning the relief program into his own personal soapbox." Always ready to help out, Michelle Malkin is "tracking" the story of this "fiasco," of West's "meltdown." And West's swift-boating has just begun: he's apparently a "tin-foil hat conspiracist," and he was a "petulant sore loser" at the American Music Awards last year. Does he beat his dog? Did he steal chewing gum in seventh grade? Malkin and her buddies will get to the bottom of it, never fear.

But what did West actually say? Only what scores of others have already said, after all, and with some reason. Yet the emphasis has all been on West rather than his words.

Speaking truth to power? Haill, no. He "departed from the scripted comments that were prepared for him." Didn't this nigra know his place?

Anarchy. Confused mental images of New Orleans in crisis have been conjured up: a howling mob, criminals, the breakdown of law and order. "Nasty, brutish – society's net snaps," shrilled one headline, right by a picture in the print edition of frantic Black people trying to get at some scarce supplies.

But it wasn't entirely that way. Conditions in the New Orleans Convention Center were grim and getting grimmer, with false promises of evacuation: every time one of those promises came, the people inside lined up, put babies and old people at the head of the lines, and waited. And waited. That sounds, at least to me, that social cohesion and humane values remained in place throughout it all. Most of the people in the Superdome behaved with tragic dignity. "[A]uthorities were heaping praise on the very people they had come to rescue. Long before the soldiers restored order and the buses arrived for evacuation, hundreds of ordinary New Orleanians banded together to prevent sheer anarchy from breaking out." But most of the media preferred to track the criminals and crackheads, giving the impression that they and their behaviour were typical. Or, should I say, stereotypical.

Looting. It's by now well-known in the blogosphere (and obviously to Kanye West) that two photographs of food-bearing individuals were captioned differently: the Black man was "looting," the whites were "finding" their food. The Right has been doing back-flips trying to explain this all away. The pictures came from two different agencies who provided their own captions. Maybe different journalistic standards were applied. Maybe the Black really did loot his food, and the whites really did find theirs. But comments like this one from photographer Chris Graythen, who provided the "finding" caption, don't inspire confidence: "These people were not ducking into a store and busting down windows to get electronics. They picked up bread and cokes that were floating in the water. They would have floated away anyhow."

Hmm…floating cokes, eh? Must be the new light version.

But in any case, food-scrounging is certainly not in the same category as running off with a plasma TV. The people in the shelters were virtual prisoners, not permitted to leave. (A Canadian reporter, Alan Freeman, found this out the hard way: having completed his interviews inside the Superdome, National Guardsmen would not allow him to depart--finally, after pleading with them, they did let him out: through an exit where water was at chest-level.) Groups of young Black men, whom the media called "looters," slipped out to scavenge for food. "They're Robin Hoods, those boys," one inmate commented--I would say accurately.

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