There’s a little advertisement for a bail bond company that shows up on late night broadcasts of Jerry Springer and Cheaters which is so cheesy, both morally and aesthetically, that I feel rather happy whenever it comes on. It follows a doltish looking white guy who lip-synchs a cheap rap ditty as he’s being busted, booked, and then bailed out of jail, and ends with him arriving back at home where his mother is waiting for him, only “Mom” is a mustachioed black man done up in drag. (Whether this is meant as some jokey allusion to the actual penitentiary experience, I don’t know.) I’ve never managed to notice the company’s name because the whole thing throws my mental gyroscope too far off its axis, but the ads for another company, Aladdin Bail Bonds, emphasize just how serene the whole Gettin’ Busted experience can be. Their most memorable effort begins with an attractive, wholesome looking blonde—why, it could be you, missy—being rousted from her slumber by a ringing telephone and then crying out, “Ar-REST-ed!?” (Ma’am, may I ask just who it was you thought you were married to this whole time?) Cut to the Aladdin offices, where some bail-bondsman cum New Age guru brings the distraught woman a glass of water (aww…) and touches her comfortingly about the shoulder before shooing her off to bail Clyde Barrow out of the pokey. All of these ads treat the criminal act with the same non-accusatory indifference with which insurance companies view cyclones and hurricanes; in fact, they’re so impartial and highminded that their creative director probably deserves Rehnquist’s chair. Aladdin’s slogan—“We get you out. We get you through it.”—is the perfect enabler’s motto, glossing over as it does the traumas that grease its wheels. In their view it’s a given that your husband or son will be arrested someday, whether it’s for jaywalking or attempted murder who’s to say, and there’s no point in wondering how things came to such a pass. Bailing the hubby out of jail in the dead of night is just one of life’s grubby little chores, like cleaning up after the dog, that’s handled quite easily if you just bend your mind the right way.
Archive for September, 2005
So in the space of two weeks Mother Nature has accomplished what the war in Iraq couldn’t do in two and a half years: first, forced George W. Bush to admit that he’s less than perfect, and then forced one of his staffers to pay the price for his mistakes. FEMA chief and personification of cronyism Mike Brown walked the plank yesterday, and whether or not he was forced to do it at sword-point, he delivered one last maudlin gust of the misdirected reasoning that’s made his name an international byword for incompetence. Insisting one last time that he’s been scapegoated by the media (but not by the president), he said, “The press was too focused on what did we do, what didn’t we do, the whole blame game. I wanted to take that factor out of the equation, so that the people at FEMA, who are some of the most hard-working, dedicated civil servants I have ever met, could just go do their job.” (See, he’s not just some historical footnote—he’s a martyr.) But it doesn’t take a Plato to suss this one out—the press was only doing its job when it “focused” on Brown’s appalling shortcomings, and it was clearly Bush who cut Brown’s legs off and then left him swinging in the winds of history. (Brown was unharnessed from his hurricane duties four days ago to decrease his visibility, after which that jerk Scott McClellan refused to give him a vote of confidence even when the reporters howled for one).
If not for the damage he’s caused Brown would be remembered as a two-bit resumé padder, and even with it I suspect it’ll take some googling a year from now to recall who the hell he was. But Hurricane Katrina has accomplished things even more remarkable than making Bush flinch. For one thing, a poll last week showed that 44% of the country was “ashamed” of the government’s response to the disaster. That’s right—ashamed. This, in a country where the biggest insult one person can lay on another is, “You don’t have any self-esteem,” where France and Germany are regularly hooted at for their effete and timid morality, and where the mantle of self-entitlement weighs so heavy on us that we continue gobbling up fossil fuels and our grandchildren’s capital without a second thought. Bush’s ratings have taken a further beating, with only 39% of the voters giving him a thumb’s up, as the man himself has looked hard-pressed to explain his own response to the storm. The largest issues of our day—the federal government’s responsibility for its citizens, the roles that race and class play in American society—are getting a more serious hearing in the media than they’ve had in years, and twice now on major network news shows I’ve heard the word “property” pronounced with a nearly Marxist disdain. We suddenly have our heads cocked quizzically to the side and one ear raised like dogs watching their masters do something funny. We’re almost cute in that position, for sure a lot cuter than the supine position we usually adopt in the face of the White House’s antics, and all it took was the trashing of one of America’s great romantic jewels. It’s happened here, in our backyard, and the people we see struggling in the muck look unmistakably like ourselves. The Department of Homeland Security has been exposed as a hive of grifters and incompetents, Bush’s take-charge reputation is in shreds, and for once Karl Rove can’t control the camera angles or redirect the anger. Whatever Katrina did to New Orleans, it’s done even more to America, something that Richard Clarke, Cindy Sheehan, and 1,800 ghosts working full-time couldn’t do. Even if the furor dies down before the World Series begins, it’s a breath of fresh air in the meantime.
…and…nothing, I guess. I stopped writing on that last post, feeling too dispirited to go on, and it turns out it was just as well. Virtually everyone I know who’s blogged about Katrina, and a lot of people who don’t blog at all, saw New Orleans the same way I did, as a giant brackish Petri dish where Social Darwinism, supply-side economics, and Compassionate Conservatism are finally free to breed with each other. Talk about your toxic soups. At least we know now why Republicans think that Big Government just messes things up—it’s because it does when it isn’t accompanied by a little thoughtfulness and compassion, which are not these people’s long suits. No one’s captured the nightmare of Bush’s America better than my friend Dana Knowles when she said, “Living under BushCo is like being trapped inside a Ponzi scheme run by the Manson Family.”
Now, if you’ve never seen this cocksucker Scott McClellan, today he bullshitted his way through another White House press briefing, parroting the operative Talking Point over and over again: “Now’s the time to help people, not play the Blame Game.” The Blame Game! See, it’s all just tiresome partisan politics, people trying to nitpick this president so he can’t get it on with his compassion! In different conditions I might agree, but not here, not with this crowd, because George W. Bush and his friends live in a Never-Neverland of eternally deferred accountability. They know if they stonewall long enough people will either stop caring, lose track of the details and chronology, or both. (The White House has already floated the idea that the feds couldn’t move without a state of emergency being declared. The amazingly few non-amnesiac members of the press quickly noted that Blanco—and Bush himself—had done exactly that the night before Katrina made landfall.) I’d love to hear what the reporters say to McClellan when they get a couple drinks in them, even if I suspect McClellan knows better than to drink too much around them. McClellan is a Frankenstein stitched together from pathetic qualities, but the most pathetic of them all might be his “affable” way of occasionally acknowledging his adversarial relationship with the press with statements like, “I like and respect you all, and I don’t take it personally.” Well, not even Scott McClellan is so goddam stupid that he can’t see that the tone and implications of the press corps’ questions, at least on the days it does its job, are a spit in the face to whatever shred of personal integrity he thinks is still clinging to him. You can practically see Karl Rove winding up the crank in McClellan’s side just before each briefing, and his status as a tool is so apparent that his greatest qualification for the job is that he doesn’t seem to mind that fact. If he had an ounce of self-respect he’d be challenging Bush and Rove to a duel with pistols at dawn.
As usual the administration is talking out of both sides of its mouth at the same time. Just as McClellan is busy decrying the Blame Game, nearly everyone else is busy pointing fingers: at the locals who didn’t evacuate, at the (Democratic) governor and the (Democratic) mayor, at the (probably Democratic) looters, at all that gosh-darned water that came in with the hurricane (who’d a thunk it?), and at those reliable old stand-bys “red-tape” and “bureaucracy.” An interesting sidebar to the whole mess is the Name Game: what to call the victims. Last week most news reports were calling them “refugees,” and around Saturday, having scoured every other website, I happened to look at Limbaugh’s to see what Fathead had to say about the mess. It was surprisingly little, but his home page did contain a headline reading “These People Aren’t Refugees” and a link that took you to a Merriam-Webster page defining “refugee” as “a person who flees to a foreign country or power to escape danger or persecution.” Okay, fine, I thought, if for whatever arcane reason Rush doesn’t want to call these people who’ve suddenly been made homeless and transported to aid shelters in other states “refugees,” then I’ll just avoid that word in his tender presence. It turns out, though, that many of the victims themselves are balking at the word, preferring instead “American citizen,” “survivor,” or even the white-paperish term “evacuee.” Any of these do lack a couple subtle insidious connotations that give them the edge, I guess, as they carry neither the depth of powerlessness nor the seeming permanence of “refugee.” On the one hand it’s just another indication of how much importance people place on language, even in times when you’d think such fine distinctions would be the farthest thing from their minds; on the other hand, we should probably be elated if this is Limbaugh’s greatest insight into the whole fiasco.
The mainstream media is getting back to normal after the stress and trauma of doing its job last week. When some reporters asked George Senior a couple days ago about the criticism of Numbnuts, he said, “Well, if you repeat it to Barb you better wear a flak-jacket,” and the press corps hooted with laughter right on cue, as if she really is just Irene Ryan in pearls instead of some backwater Lady Macbeth. (Senior then went on to compare the criticism to the Monday morning fallout after a losing football game. The apple didn’t fall six inches off this tree.) From here it looks like the media loves Hurricane Katrina. With Bush’s negative poll numbers and the “great visuals” of human suffering in hand, they’re feeling a little reckless and can be seen striking skeptical, angry postures they never dreamed of taking post-9/11—you know, when it might’ve done some real good. They take time out from that yummy footage of ballooning corpses bobbing in the floodwater to recount the latest zingers flying back and forth between the state and feds, but it feels less like an exercise in democratic illumination than someone swinging a stick in a big circle and whacking two hornets’ nests at the same time. At least BBC is relishing the administration’s discomfort for truly political, not Nielsen-driven, reasons. Their raw footage and blunt narration is strikingly devoid of American news’ “balanced” dithering, or what Al Swearengen would call “this several hands fucking shit.” As the camera zooms in on a pile of debris, topped by one of the pathetic HELP signs, still littering the Convention Center, the British reporter flatly declares: “It’s a monument of shame.”
· Survivors living among corpses
· FEMA head: Working in “conditions of urban warfare”
· Armed gangs attempting rapes, police warn
· Bodies dragged into corners at convention center
· Sniper fire halts hospital evacuation
That’s the slate of subheadlines that could be found at CNN.com two nights ago. I include them here not because it still seems unreal that the location in question is New Orleans, Louisiana, but because seeing them grouped together like that—from before the first convoy of relief trucks rolled in, causing the resulting gasps of relief to be mistaken for “cheers”—does a good job of showing just how ugly this thing got. That’s important because in an about-face the Bush administration had chosen to answer the accusations of incompetence and insensitivity with a limited modified hangout, rather than the straight-ahead stonewalling it normally prefers. Bush has offered a couple of mea culpas in the last 24 hours, but they’ve been watered-down generalities (e.g., the relief effort was “not acceptable”) that identified neither specific shortcomings nor (most importantly) who was responsible for them. But that’s Bush’s way. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert had to issue a clarification for floating the idea of bulldozing instead of rebuilding the city. Not so FEMA head Michael Brown, though, who suggested that those haggard people clinging to life on chunks of shattered Interstate highway wouldn’t have anything to complain about if they’d just gotten their asses out of town when they were told to. Despite being fired from his previous job as the head of the International Arabian Horse Association (what’s the emoticon for throwing one’s hands up in the air?), and despite his supremely fucked-up job on Katrina, Bush gave “Brownie” a very public atta-boy yesterday.
America is a country famously uninterested in history. Oh, we like to watch grainy footage of German artillery corps blasting their way across the Russian steppes, and we like to make grand, meaningless comparisons when they serve our purpose (indeed, one of the duties distracting Bush from Katrina the day after she made landfall was a speech likening the Iraq war to World War II), but when it comes it to actually observing the results of some past occurrence, deriving a lesson from it, and then retaining that thought long enough to base some future decision upon it—well, forget it. More and more we live in a nebulous haze where things just happen. The President makes some bold statements. We invade a foreign country. The President’s statements turn out to be lies. We reelect him. Now a hurricane blows in. People suffer. The President mumbles some shit. Life goes on. The subtly anesthetizing quality of American life can make it hard to remember what it was that pissed us off a year ago (while writing something about the war a couple of days ago, I had to Google “nicholas + beheading” because I couldn’t remember Nicholas Berg’s name), and even within a week’s worth of 24-hour news-cycles, developments that were amazing on Tuesday can seem ho-hum by Friday.
But what’s going on in New Orleans is a genuinely big deal—or should be. That qualification is necessary, of course, since all the wrong things become big deals in America. The Rodney King riots, which should’ve touched off a moratorium on all human activity in the United States until we figured out some way for the people who just happened to be born black and white to coexist without freaking the fuck out over everything, were instead dropped like a hot potato; after all, it was an election year, and after Bush and Clinton each did a quickie goggle-eyed tour of South Central, they got the hell out of there and didn’t mention race again for the rest of the campaign. The Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings, instead of fostering much sincere or thoughtful analysis about gender issues, turned into political football, with both sides’ cheerleaders overlooking the weaknesses of their own arguments and witnesses in their eagerness to pummel the others’. (Far more objectionable than the pubic-hair joke—I mean, come on already—was Thomas’ ludicrously transparent lie that he’d never discussed Roe v. Wade in law school.)
New Orleans is also being talked about in terms of race and property, as well it fucking should be, but it offered something more: It offered a vision of the way of life we’ll have if we don’t stop thinking of Big Government as an obscenity. Ever since Reagan first claimed the Republican nomination in ’80, we’ve been backsliding in a way that’s eventually going to kill us, city by city, if we don’t put the brakes on. I must’ve heard a hundred commentators compare the scenes in New Orleans to a Third World country—the city’s French colonial architecture summons up mental pictures of Haiti, in particular—and