The Empire exposed

Published : Oct 07, 2005 00:00 IST

At Jefferson Parish in Louisiana, a resident returns to her flooded home on September 7. - ORLANDO SENTINEL, RED HUBER/AP

At Jefferson Parish in Louisiana, a resident returns to her flooded home on September 7. - ORLANDO SENTINEL, RED HUBER/AP

Katrina wakes up the American media. The words `race', `class' and `poverty' are breaking through for the first time in years. But how long will this last?

THE leader of the most powerful country on earth, with an unquestioned faith in his divine right to rule and the absolute power of the centralised state, was the namesake for Louisiana.

When he died in 1715, Louis XIV had built France into the dominant power in Europe, but he bankrupted the nation, forcing him to levy high taxes on the peasantry while the nobility paid none at all. Most people lived in poverty while the King built an empire.

During the empire's demise his great great grandson Louis XV ruled France and its possessions, which included the colonial city of New Orleans. He lived for indulgence and luxury as his people descended further into despair. It is said that near his end he uttered the words "Aprs moi, le deluge". After me, come the floods.

Centuries later, the people of New Orleans met those floods, as contemporary rulers - political and economic - abandoned them to their fate. The words "Aprs moi, le deluge" have come to epitomise the psychology of those who ruin people and the earth with no thought for tomorrow, and the destruction of New Orleans will stand as the naked exposure of a fading American dream.

"Guardians of freedom and the American way of life" say the recruitment ads for the National Guard. For the 38 per cent of New Orleans who lived in poverty and at least 37 million others across the nation who suffer in grim conditions, the fantasy of the `American way of life' vanished long ago. The reality is a growing gap between rich and poor, under both Republican and Democratic administrations.

And unfortunately for the people of New Orleans, too many of their National Guardsmen, instead of helping evacuate citizens at their time of need, had been sent away to bring "freedom and the American way of life" to Iraq.

Of course, that fantasy is also collapsing as the truth is starting to seep through to the American public of the thousands of civilian deaths, the collapse of infrastructure, the developing civil war, the strength of the insurgency, and the creation of conditions for the unleashing of Al Qaeda's fanatic reign of terror against the Iraqi people.

Other mythologies remain intact, like the success story of the liberation of Afghanistan, where life expectancy is just 44.5 years, one in five children die before they reach the age of five, and violence against women remains near Taliban times. The U.N. estimates that every year 400,000 Afghans are affected by natural disasters, with little done to prevent them or help the people afterwards. Here the citizens of New Orleans share a new kinship with Afghans. Perhaps the fact that most of the people who were abandoned to the floods were of African descent may give them a new sense of solidarity with the estimated 85 million Africans that the U.N. says will die of HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) and other diseases over the next two decades. Millions of people abandoned by the rich, industrialised world.

But not only African-Americans felt abandoned in New Orleans.

In one of those rare moments when television's barrier between viewer and real world breaks down, we saw one of the most gut-wrenching moments of Katrina coverage when Aaron Broussard, president, Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, broke down in tears on NBC's "Meet the Press".

"The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina will go down in history as one of the worst abandonments of Americans on American soil ever in U.S. history," he said. "It's not just Katrina that caused all these deaths in New Orleans here. Bureaucracy has committed murder here in the greater New Orleans area and bureaucracy has to stand trial before Congress now."

Broussard continued: "The guy who runs this building I'm in, emergency management, he's responsible for everything. His mother was trapped in St. Bernard nursing home and every day she called him and said, `Are you coming, son? Is somebody coming?' And he said, `Yeah, Mama, somebody's coming to get you. Somebody's coming to get you on Tuesday. Somebody's coming to get you on Wednesday. Somebody's coming to get you on Thursday. Somebody's coming to get you on Friday.' And she drowned Friday night.... Nobody's coming to get us.... The secretary has promised. Everybody's promised. They've had press conferences. I'm sick of the press conferences. For God's sake, shut up and send us somebody."

Broussard broke down sobbing, his face buried in his hands. The moment was raw, unfiltered, and powerful. The words "bureaucracy has committed murder here in greater New Orleans" ripping through the rhetoric and evasion by President Bush and Michael Chertoff, head of Homeland Security.

Why can't there be television with this honesty every night?

In fact, much of TV news coverage of Katrina in New Orleans has been remarkable, actually giving some representation of reality. Like CNN's Soledad O'Brian's reporting how often she heard people at the convention centre ask her "why are we being treated like animals?" Remarkable in its contrast with what passes for news most nights on national television, where rarely do the poor get to speak or are reported on. It took such a calamitous event to open the space to be heard at all. How long before it closes?

Until now, corporate TV coverage of the Bush administration has been little better than the fawning nobles in the court of Louis XIV. Newsrooms have been intimidated by the post 9/11 atmosphere. Dan Rather called it the fear of having a "flaming tire of lack of patriotism put around your neck". They have been limited by ownership that puts short-term profit position and corporate interests ahead of the principles of journalism and a duty to inform people in a way that enables them to exercise their rights of citizenship.

Ron Suskind, in a well-known article for the New York Times Magazine, wrote that the Bush administration is a "faith-based presidency". He quoted a senior White House official dismissing journalists and others of "the reality-based community" and saying "We are an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality."

It is dangerous indeed to have a President who believes, as Suskind reports, mostly in his instincts and a faith that he is being directed by God - witness the invasion of Iraq, which ignored the many experts who predicted the current turmoil. Katrina is another example of how disconnected from reality this White House is.

But only when a news media uncritically reports on these policies and actions - that caves to jingoistic pressure and reports on propaganda as if it is news - is it possible for such an administration to inspire faith in those it leads.

There are windows that open, when glimpses of reality pierce through the haze.

After the 2000 elections, the disenfranchisement of thousands of African Americans in Florida and the appointment of a President by a politicised Supreme Court laid bare the reality of race, class and power in America. For a few weeks such stories appeared on television newscasts. Then ranks closed, the leadership of the Democratic Party dropped the fight, and most TV journalists dropped the story. The fog of TV entertainment culture and spin seeped back to lull people to sleep.

Another moment occurred in the days following the exposure of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, when the brutal nature of the U.S. occupation of Iraq was revealed. But after a few days of demanding accountability, TV news returned to business as usual. Ordinary soldiers wound up as scapegoats, leaders went unpunished. Now a second batch of photos is being suppressed by the U.S. government, with little sign of protest from major TV news channels (a lawsuit has been filed under the Freedom of Information Act by the ACLU, the Centre for Constitutional Rights, Physicians for Human Rights, Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans for Peace).

Another porthole opened after Katrina. Journalists asked tough questions, demanding accountability for the administration's negligence in ignoring warnings that the levees would give in, cutting the budget for repairs, for not helping to evacuate people without means. Cameras showed us at least some of the suffering (more than we have seen in Iraq). The words "race", "class" and "poverty" are breaking through for the first time in years. It is as if there is a tear in the fabric of time, but how long until it closes?

One of the things we heard most on TV in these post-Katrina days is "How could this happen in America?"

One answer is the role TV news and entertainment plays in covering up such serious threats, not to a mythical "American way of life", but to our very existence as a civilised people.

It was incredible that all the major TV networks and non-news cable stations continued regular entertainment programming while thousands of Americans drowned, starved, and died. "Aprs moi, le deluge" is also the slogan of the corporate boardrooms that decide who runs television.

If there is to be a more civilised society, there must be journalism that lifts the veil on the realities of life every day, not just in those moments when the scale of destruction asserts itself.

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