One year after Hurricane Katrina, the mediated remembrance of that American political (as much as natural) disaster remains sadly selective and, well, typical. On Katrina's first anniversary, American media cheerfully circulate a renewed barrage of stories about glorious private generosity in a time of need, and hackneyed political slogans about security, freedom, duty, compassion, and an ownership society. Those who deliberately use such words are obviously cynical since they imply that democracy does not require careful discussion of complex and emotionally powerful words/ideas such as freedom and security, so they use them with clear consciences to gain consent for their own agendas.
The material insecurity of thousands of American citizens in New Orleans (representative of millions of others in that country and the world) so terribly evident in the images of floating bodies, on the one hand, and an exodus of SUVs, on the other, was the bitterest of ironies since it came at a time when political speech and news media inundated the American public with platitudes about national security and freedom. Recent attempts to exploit the occasion of the uncovered London bombing plan have generated a similar mediated political climate on Katrina's anniversary. Yet such powerful but contested words, as Abraham Lincoln noted, must in the name of ethics be defined and their competing interpretations discussed:
Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name — liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatable names — liberty and tyranny.
The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty. (Address at a Sanitary Fair, 1864)
A year ago, it was obvious to many Americans (certainly to those waterlogged and praying on their rooftops for rescue of their bodies, since the material markers of their American dream were gone forever) that it was time for a re-thinking or rediscovery of security and government and citizen responsibility for the minimal wellbeing of all American citizens. This latter issue should not have to be argued here, but for those doubters, consider the caution of some of the world's greatest thinkers on the health of democratic republics. Katrina has everything to do with the health and future of American democracy as an example for the world.
I believe that God has planted in every human heart the desire to live in freedom. And even when that desire is crushed by tyranny for decades, it will rise again. As long as the Middle East remains a place of tyranny and despair and anger, it will continue to produce men and movements that threaten the safety of America and our friends. (State of the Union Address 2004)
One year later, the cutting irony that Katrina occurred in a media and political culture saturated with security and freedom talk has not abated. This is not wholly the fault of opportunistic politicians, Republicans as well as Democrats, who deliberately stultify such lofty terms as freedom, democracy, and security to suit their agendas. It is also the fault of the news media.
Political Communication scholars note the short life of new stories or cycles. Newsgathering business values privilege certain orientations over others in the coverage of events – what scholars call news "frames." A frame refers to "persistent patterns of selection, emphasis, and exclusion which furnish an interpretation of events." An episodic frame is one the most popular news frame in U.S. news culture. Episodic frames fit into action entertainment genres. Something erupts out of a state of equilibrium, which then passes, resolved by the triumph of good and the punishments it metes or the healing process of grief. These events give way to another major newsworthy event designed to sustain interest for a short while. Thematic frames, on the other hand, give publics a deeper historical and causal explanation for events, and they would, ideally, provide voice to many different sources in the production of such explanations.
Sadly, though Katrina received some more complex explanations and discussions, they were not terribly widespread, and this is partly due to the short time constraints of mainstream news presentations, which due to the structure of their productions, favor limited sources and soundbite explanations, if any at all (often viewers are left to infer what might be the cause of a huge event, such as the LA riots of 1992 or the Seattle Protests against the WTO). So it was with Katrina, and after quick rhetorical fixes and false promises to address the puzzling issue of unequal opportunities and conditions (even to exodus a disaster zone) with "bold action." Katrina, like the news frame that largely accompanied it, swept in like a hurricane. Then it rolled out almost as quickly, as if such threats to security of citizens and the health of democracy itself were just another episodic news story. Such media and political treatments of the most serious threats to American security have resulted in an ignorance of the magnitude and roots of the problem.
In this context, in memory of those who died and lost their homes and other possessions, it is worth thinking carefully about how our political leaders, media, and society have remembered the tragedy.
Security after New Orleans: What Time Tells Us
Poignant images of poor New Orleans residents retreating from the deluge touched a nation and a world, raising troublesome questions about security and the cyclical issue of poverty in the United States. For some older Americans, these images evoked an earlier security panic — the Great Depression. We heard talk about New Deals: both the rediscovery of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s and the promise of George W. Bush’s. Beneath the surface of apparent similarity, however, the two deals and the insecurity they promised to relieve were fundamentally different. Bush’s affinity for the New Deal does not run deep, and this is not the first time he and his predecessors have used its keywords to support policies that undermine its spirit of securing freedom for all Americans.
Roosevelt’s deal was new by comparison to the security and freedom doctrine that came before him. His predecessor Herbert Hoover responded to a condition of national insecurity with ineffective solutions of rugged individualism and minimalist government. Roosevelt argued for a more activist federal government, not to expand government-for-government’s-sake, but because the Depression had shown that individuals could no longer be held completely responsible for their own security. In a time when small shopkeepers, entrepreneurs, and farmers were fast disappearing, Roosevelt identified the primary threat to security as the market free of public interest. He promoted a vision of Abraham Lincoln’s government of, by, and for the people as a citizen’s vehicle for dealing with the inevitable and sometimes catastrophic whims of nature, markets, and businesses. He maintained this mature vision of security even in the throes of World War II, emphasizing the equal importance of military and social security. For Roosevelt, the social and economic aspects of security were so critical to American freedom that he went so far as to call for an Economic Bill of Rights to supplement the already existing political Bill of Rights.
At the heart of Roosevelt’s New Deal was his argument that freedom could not be viewed as a natural state individually embraced through work or willingly denied through sloth when 1/3 of the American nation was ill-fed, ill-clothed, and ill-housed. In fact, Roosevelt viewed such poverty as a threat to the nation’s political, social, and military security.
The poverty laid bare by Hurricane Katrina demonstrates that obtrusive conditions confronted during the Depression do in fact persist today, in terms of housing, education, healthcare, leisure, political access. Bush’s response to this has been far from “new.” Like Hoover, Reagan, and his own father before him, Bush continues to promote self-discipline and private cures, including voluntarism, as solutions to large-scale security problems. In this decades-old argument, the federal government should cut all but verbal support for those living in insecure economic conditions, leaving the relief work to good Samaritans who represent the best of the American spirit. But the private sphere of charities could not deal with the magnitude of the security fallout in New Orleans.
The media unwittingly promoted this voluntarist line, telling the New Orleans story almost exclusively through the melodramatic frames of individual heroism and natural disaster. Largely absent from this coverage was an analysis of how Bush and his predecessors’ attempts to repeal the (old) New Deal directly contributed to the un-natural disaster that was Katrina. Katrina was a necessary cause for New Orleans, but it was not sufficient. By relentlessly trimming the “fat” of FDR’s legacy from the federal budget — including income supports, transportation, and public works such as levee repair — the Bush administration has left behind a skeleton security state unable to withstand any significant threat.
In the wake of the hurricane, Bush promised support for minority-owned small businesses but failed to specify how education, public health, and other key resources would be permanently secured for vulnerable citizens. On the contrary, he and some Republicans argued that reconstruction could be financed by trimming more "fat" (part of the plan to promote freedom and prosperity for all). Additional cuts only aggravate the insecurity of poor Americans. Besides, why reconstruct if only to abandon citizens to insecurity again?
George W. Bush staked his reputation on security and has said repeatedly that his number one duty is to protect U.S. citizens. But security has many meanings and demands. The deep floodwaters of New Orleans revealed just how shallow Bush's understanding of security really was. A year later, the president and the media have made little effort to face the deep responsibilities of national security.