'The American Myth, Fostered by Popular Culture, Has Created a Complacency That Is Dangerous Not Only for the Rest of the World but for Americans Themselves': There Are Deeper Explanations for the New Orleans Catastrophe Than Anyone Has Dared Suggest, Writes Andrew Stephen. the Roots Lie in America's Deluded Self-Image

By Stephen, Andrew | New Statesman (1996), September 12, 2005 | Go to article overview

'The American Myth, Fostered by Popular Culture, Has Created a Complacency That Is Dangerous Not Only for the Rest of the World but for Americans Themselves': There Are Deeper Explanations for the New Orleans Catastrophe Than Anyone Has Dared Suggest, Writes Andrew Stephen. the Roots Lie in America's Deluded Self-Image


Stephen, Andrew, New Statesman (1996)


We know, now, that there was not even a Prescott in charge in Washington. President Bush was exorcising heaven-knows-what demons by furiously riding his mountain bike in Texas--nobody, not even the Secret Service or a visiting Lance Armstrong, is allowed to pass him--while Vice-President Cheney was fly-fishing in Wyoming. Condoleezza Rice, next in charge, was shopping for shoes at Ferragamo's and watching Spamalot on Broadway and catching the US Open in New York; while Andy Card, the White House chief of staff, who is supposed to keep it all together, was taking in the sea breeze with much of the rest of the Bush crowd in Maine.

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Rats gnawing at corpses floating down the streets three days after Katrina struck, bodies left to decompose in the stairwells of New Orleans's main hospital because its basement mortuary was flooded, tens of thousands still trapped, hungry and thirsty: only then did the inquests into what the Los Angeles Times called the "surreal foreignness" of it all start. But then the questioning was imbued with a peculiarly American self-righteousness and aggressive need to pin blame on the guilty: on the inattentiveness of the Bush administration, its lack of foresight, the racial and class divisions within the US, and so on.

In so far as they went, the inquests are justified. There is much guilt and blame to be shared around. It took the fury of Katrina to bring home to many the sheer hopelessness of Bush and his administration, both in their immediate response and in their prior lack of competent planning. The spectacle of countries such as Sri Lanka sending donations and Fidel Castro offering to send medical supplies with 1,100 doctors only underlined the desperate nationalistic need to find scapegoats to appease the shame.

But nobody, as far as I can see, has dared to suggest that there are deeper explanations for so disconcerting a shambles, explanations that transcend political parties or individuals. The self-image of America, now largely adopted in Britain, too, is that of a nation of uniquely hardy and resilient people predestined by God to be omnipotent in the world, be it against the forces of nature or of bogeyman dictators.

Because, in reality, the reverse is so often true--present-day Americans, after all, are the most pampered human beings in history--the myths, fostered by popular culture and especially Hollywood, have given rise to a complacency that is increasingly dangerous not only for the rest of the world but for Americans, too. Hardship is only momentary and can always be overcome, hard work will always be rewarded, and other such uniquely American traits, will result in a society that is matchlessly efficient and soars to ever greater triumphs: it ticks over so smoothly that even after the 11 September 2001 atrocities, Bush is still free to go off to bike, Cheney to fish, Rice to shop.

Yet Katrina showed the fragility of the US and this belief that there is little need for strong collective leadership or institutions of the kind that European civilisations have come to value. The feelings date back to victory over the British in the American revolution: a distrust of government and a belief in the righteousness and inevitable prosperity of the little guy, equipped only with his gun, his initiative and his own humble patch of land. This culture of so-called private entrepreneurship blended with a disavowal of collective responsibilities actually gained under Ronald Reagan, George Bush Sr and then Bill Clinton--leading to growths in gated communities, armed sentries and further class/racial divisions.

It is also why, early in his presidency, George W Bush down-graded the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema), the body designated to cope with national emergencies. Such departments, the reasoning went, are for feeble folk looking for government handouts (and that often meant blacks). …

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