First the flood, then the condescension

Five years after Hurricane Katrina struck, New Orleans now finds itself drowning under a deluge of liberal pity.

Ethan Epstein

Topics Politics

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Five years ago, on 29 August 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the southern US city of New Orleans. The force of the massive storm destroyed a series of levees that protected the city from the waters of nearby Lake Pontchartrain, and the ensuing damage was catastrophic. Over 1,400 people perished. Eighty per cent of the city was flooded, destroying entire neighbourhoods. Property damage amounted to billions of dollars.

The effects of the storm are felt acutely to this day. Thousands of displaced residents of ‘The Crescent City’ have not yet returned home, and the population size is still well below pre-Katrina levels. Much of the Ninth Ward, an impoverished section of the city, still languishes in disrepair. And the name ‘Katrina’ has joined the ranks of ‘Adolf’ and ‘Osama’ as something that Americans simply do not name their children. (In 2004, Katrina was the 281st most popular female infant name in the country – by 2009, its popularity had fallen below 700th place.)

After the flood, however, came the deluge. A deluge of sympathy, for the most part: in the immediate aftermath of the storm, $3.4billion in private money was raised for relief efforts. But what began as a well-meaning and admirable attempt to help New Orleans get back on its feet has since morphed into something far different. Indeed, a noxious paternalistic attitude towards the city and its residents has replaced the initial flurry of well-placed altruism. In the popular imagination, New Orleans has become caricatured as a city of impoverished black victims (New Orleans is over 65 per cent black) – victims who need to be ‘saved’ by affluent coastal liberals. Katrina’s most long-lasting legacy may be that of turning New Orleans into a White Liberal’s Burden for the twenty-first century.

How did this happen? As with many trends in American life, movie stars and pop singers had a hand in leading the way. The immediate aftermath of the storm prompted the inevitable celebrity telethon; a televised vaudeville fundraising programme that featured appearances by everyone from Sheryl Crow and the Dixie Chicks to Chris Rock and Jack Nicholson. While the telethon was undoubtedly helpful in raising much-needed money for the then-traumatised city, it also helped forge the idea that New Orleans was a city in need of ‘saving’ – particularly by well-heeled liberals.

This is an idea that myriad American celebrities would continue to promulgate over the subsequent years: John Travolta famously used his private plane to fly supplies to New Orleans; U2 guitarist The Edge and movie star Brad Pitt each founded charities devoted to the city; and musicians from Green Day to Michael Jackson to Jimmy Buffet recorded charity singles. In 2006, Spike Lee’s four-hour documentary, When The Levees Broke, first aired on HBO. Lee described the film as showing a city that was ‘fighting for its life’. The movie proved popular, and further inculcated the by-then familiar images of New Orleans as a place teeming with needy, dark-skinned victims. (Photographs of dishevelled-looking black residents waiting for government aid had been widely distributed since the storm.) The level of attention paid to New Orleans has remained remarkably consistent since the storm. As CNN reported last year, ‘celebrities keep spotlight on New Orleans four years after Katrina’.

As a result of all of this, New Orleans has become a favoured city among the do-gooding liberal elite. Scores of automobiles in the tonier neighbourhoods of Seattle, San Francisco and Boston feature bumper stickers boasting ‘I Love New Orleans’, or, bafflingly, ‘Proud To Call New Orleans Home’. (I’m still waiting for one to say, ‘Honk If You Love New Orleans’.) Some are more explicit in their view of New Orleans as a city of deprived victims: a popular t-shirt in the country’s liberal enclaves is one that reads simply, ‘Save New Orleans’. Traveling to New Orleans to help rebuild houses has become a kind of secular Hajj for American liberals: college campuses, Unitarian Churches, and the like, often send groups there to aid the rebuilding process. Habitat For Humanity, an organisation which builds houses for poor people, estimates that over 100,000 volunteers have travelled to New Orleans to help rebuild in Katrina’s wake. It was of little surprise that former Senator John Edwards, then a darling of the American liberals, announced his 2008 presidential candidacy in the aforementioned Ninth Ward. Professing one’s concern for New Orleans has come to signify that one is on the right side of politics (especially racial politics), and doing so fills volunteers with a sense of self-righteousness and moral worth.

To be sure, even prior to Katrina, New Orleans held a unique place in the American imagination. What with its unique mélange of cultures, handsome architecture, famed music scene and sultry weather, New Orleans has long represented a place a little more seedy, a little more rootsy, a little more exotic, than the rest of America. This somewhat orientalist approach to the city perseveres in some quarters: David Simon, the creator of The Wire, has recently debuted a television show about New Orleans which celebrates the music and alleged ‘earthiness’ of the city. But the newfound and now widespread fixation on New Orleans as a site of victimhood represents a degraded form of fascination with the city.

Granted, there is much to admire in the concern of so many Americans for their fellow citizens in New Orleans. Yet this earnest concern has grown into something tawdry, and warped a great city into one – at least in the imagination of many – of perpetual victimhood and indigence. Five years ago, New Orleans nearly drowned under the angry waters of Lake Pontchartrain. These days it’s in danger of drowning in something else: elite condescension.

Ethan Epstein is a writer based in Portland, Oregon.

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Topics Politics


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