Tragedy by Slow Motion

Why didn’t I know more about Frank Rich until recently? I’d had this distant image of him as a gleeful, maybe slightly out-of-touch with anything other than Broadway, poison-penner of acidic theatre reviews. Not sure I could have been more ignorant. Turns out he’s a frankly brilliant Op-Ed, to the NYT as James Wolcott is to Vanity Fair. I’ve been reading him a lot recently, and this week he hit something that I’ve been thinking for days and have been surprised no-one else has used. I read someone use the John Carpenter film Escape from New York as a metaphor for the neglectful collapse of urban space in New Orleans and the sense of the whole place being ring-fenced by authority, but a more apt metaphor is the casual hubris that preceded the sinking of the Titanic, and the terrible stratification by class of the deaths which followed. SUVs for lifeboats, and the slow creep of tragedy by slow motion. It’s not merely a neat parallel that both involved the dispassionate threat of water en masse; it’s precisely because water sweeps away the lowest-lying, both houses and liner-cabins, the cheaply bought, both houses and liner-cabins, that it hits the poorest hardest, who haven’t the means to acquire height, distance, safety. Rich:

In that sense, the inequality of the suffering has not only exposed the sham of the relentless photo-ops with black schoolchildren whom the president trots out at campaign time to sell his “compassionate conservatism”; it has also positioned Katrina before a rapt late-summer audience as a replay of the sinking of the Titanic. New Orleans’s first-class passengers made it safely into lifeboats; for those in steerage, it was a horrifying spectacle of every man, woman and child for himself.

It feels as if the wave of shock has been slow to spread across the US, too. It took a long time for anyone to suggest that the death toll might be in the thousands, and I reckon it’ll end up an order of magnitude higher than that. I have a feeling that there’s a calculus we can’t help wheeling out at times like this. We imagine ourselves in the path of such disaster, and game ourselves to safety. It’s one of the reasons why 9/11 was so shocking: there was really no such game to play. If you were in the wrong place at the wrong time, you simply died, and that was that: a plane crash scenario that happened also to involve planes. The Titanic unfolding of tragedy by a sequence of ratcheting discrete steps over a period of hours or days, however, allows the gaming, and it would be nightmarish not to allow ourselves a path to safety. We’d have driven out of New Orleans, or hitched a ride, or caught one of the last planes. Or just walked. Anything to get away. That’s not just the game-piece labelled ‘hindsight’, though. It’s also a complete failure to empathise with the paucity of realistic choice available to the poor. If they hunkered down and hoped for the best, it might well have been the only, and therefore the best, choice available to them. Juxtaposed with the lack of preparedness of the local and national response, it might seem like sensible pragmatism.

In that classroom geography exercise that I’m sure is a perennial across the globe, we’re asked to decide in a conveniently diverse environment — river here, hill there, perhaps some woodland elsewhere, as if designed by Potentiality Brown — where to build a town. No kid would get many marks for placing New Orleans where it grew, but that’s not entirely relevant. If we value urban centres insofar as they’re safe from natural disaster, LA ought to be emptied tomorrow, Naples the day after. We’re used to living on the edge of oblivion, but we build buttresses as high as we can to give our odds a boost. That the literal buttresses in New Orleans weren’t nearly as high or as strong as they might have been will have to fight it out with the chains of miscommand and miscommunication after Katrina hit, worthy of the Californian that night in 1912, for the hubris crown that posterity will award.

Meanwhile, Bush comes about as close to fiddling while Rome burns as he can without actually learning to fiddle. Maybe he has someone learning for him. Delegation, you know. Sign of a great leader.

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