As we observe the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, citizens in the United States and globally are still struggling to draw the correct conclusions and learn the right lessons from that horrific catastrophe. Initially, we were led to believe that Katrina was the result of a fateful combination of a natural disaster and government incompetence, a perfect storm of bad luck that provided one more example of the general inability of the Bush administration to actually govern, let alone protect its citizenry.
Yet, with some distance and sober reflection, this assessment seems a bit shortsighted, a little too localized. In truth, Katrina offers a number of relevant lessons not only for U.S. citizens but also for Canadians and people all over the world who must grapple with the global advance of what I call a politics of disposability.
First, Katrina is symptomatic of a form of negative globalization that is as evident in Ottawa, Paris and London as it is in Washington, D.C., or New Orleans, or any other city throughout the world. As capital, goods, trade, and information flow all over the globe, material and symbolic resources are increasingly being invested in the "free market" while the social state pays a terrible price. As safety nets and social services are being hollowed out and communities crumble and give way to individualized, one-man archipelagos, it is increasingly difficult to struggle as a collectivity, to act in concert against a state that fails to meet the basic needs of citizens or to maintain the social investments that provide life-sustaining services. As nations fall under the sway of the principal philosophy of the times, which insists on the end of "big government" in favor of unencumbered individualism and the all-encompassing logic of the market, it is difficult to resurrect a language of social investment, protection, and accountability.
Second, as Katrina made perfectly clear, the challenges of a global world, especially its growing ecological challenges, are collective and not simply private. This suggests that citizens in New Orleans as well as in Vancouver, Halifax and Toronto -- coastal and inland -- must protect those principles of the social contract that offer collective solutions to foster and maintain both ecological sustainability and human survival. Canadians have done much to ensure environmental protections, especially in comparison with their neighbors to the south, but there is more that has to be done to curtail the threat of global warming and numerous ecological disasters.
Third, as Hurricane Katrina vividly illustrated, the decline of the social state along with the rise of massive inequality increasingly bars whole populations from the rights and guarantees accorded to fully fledged citizens of the republic and increasingly renders them disposable, left to fend for themselves in the face of natural or man-made disasters.
This last challenge is difficult, for here we must connect the painful dots between the crisis on the Gulf Coast and that "other" gulf crisis in the Middle East; we must connect the dots between images of U.S. soldiers standing next to tortured Iraqis forced to assume the additional indignity of a dog leash and images of bloated bodies floating in toxic waters overwhelming New Orleans streets after five long days of government indifference.
In earlier eras, imagery of racist brutality and war atrocities moved nations to act and to change domestic and foreign policy in the interests of global justice. These contemporary images moved all of us, but only, it seems, for a time. Why is that? The answer lies in the politics of disposability, its latest manifestation being the aftermath of Katrina, but which had deep roots in the segregated U.S. South.
Emmett Till's body arrived home in Chicago in September 1955. White racists in Mississippi had tortured, mutilated, and killed the 14-year-old African-American boy for whistling at a white woman. Determined to make visible the horribly mangled face and twisted body of the child as an expression of racial hatred and killing, Mamie Till, the boy's mother, insisted that the coffin, at the A.A. Ranier Funeral Parlor on the South Side of Chicago, be left open for four long days.
While mainstream news organizations ignored the horrifying image, Jet magazine published an unedited photo of Till's face taken while he lay in his coffin. Shaila Dewan in The New York Times of Aug. 28, 2005 points out that, "[m]utilated is the word most often used to describe the face of Emmett Till after his body was hauled out of the Tallahatchie River in Mississippi. Inhuman is more like it: melted, bloated, missing an eye, swollen so large that its patch of wiry hair looks like that of a balding old man, not a handsome, brazen 14-year-old boy."
Till had been castrated and shot in the head; his tongue had been cut out; and a blow from an ax had practically severed his nose from his face -- all of this done to a teenage boy who came to bear the burden of the inheritance of slavery and the inhuman pathology that drives its racist unconscious. The photos not only made visible the violent effects of the racial state; they also fuelled massive public anger, especially among blacks, and helped to launch the Civil Rights Movement.
From the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement to the war in Vietnam, images of human suffering and violence provided the grounds for a charged political indignation and collective sense of moral outrage inflamed by the horrors of poverty, militarism, war, and racism -- eventually mobilizing widespread opposition to these anti-democratic forces.
Of course, the seeds of a vast conservative counter-revolution were already well underway, as images of a previous era -- "whites only" signs, segregated schools, segregated housing, and nonviolent resistance -- gave way to a troubling iconography of cities aflame, mass rioting, and armed black youth who came to embody the very precepts of lawlessness, disorder, and criminality. Building on the reactionary rhetoric of Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan took office in 1980 with both a trickle-down theory that would transform corporate America and a corresponding visual economy.
The twin images of the young black male "gangsta" and his counterpart, the "welfare queen," became the primary vehicles for selling the American public on the need to dismantle the welfare state, ushering in an era of unprecedented deregulation, downsizing, privatization, and regressive taxation. The propaganda campaign was so successful that George H. W. Bush could launch his 1988 presidential bid with the image of Willie Horton, an African-American male convicted of rape and granted early release, and succeed in trouncing his opponent with little public outcry over the overtly racist nature of the campaign. By the beginning of the 1990s, global media consolidation, coupled with the outbreak of a war in Iraq that encouraged hyper-patriotism and a rigid nationalism, resulted in a tightly controlled visual landscape -- managed both by the Pentagon and by corporate-owned networks -- that delivered a paucity of images representative of the war's widespread systemic violence. Selectively informed and cynically inclined, American civic life became more sanitized, controlled, and regulated.
Hurricane Katrina may have reversed the self-imposed silence of the media and public numbness in the face of terrible suffering. Fifty years after the body of Emmett Till was plucked out of the mud-filled waters of the Tallahatchie River, another set of troubling visual representations has appeared that has both shocked and shamed the United States.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, grotesque images of bloated corpses floating in the rotting waters that flooded the streets of New Orleans circulated throughout the mainstream media. What first appeared to be a natural catastrophe soon degenerated into a social debacle as further images revealed, days after Katrina had passed over the Gulf Coast, hundreds of thousands of poor people, mostly blacks, some Latinos, many elderly, and a few white people, packed into the New Orleans Superdome and the city's convention center, stranded on rooftops, or isolated on patches of dry highway without any food, water, or any place to wash, urinate, or find relief from the scorching sun.
Weeks passed as the floodwater gradually receded and the military and privatized rental-armies gained control of the city, and more images of dead bodies appeared on national and global media. TV cameras rolled as bodies reappeared on dry patches of land while people stood by indifferently eating their lunch or occasionally snapping a photograph. The world watched in disbelief as bloated, decomposing bodies left on the street, or in some cases on the porches of once flooded homes, were broadcast on CNN.
Most of the bodies found in the flood water, according to Dan Frosch in the Santa Fe Reporter on Sept. 28, 2005, "were 50 or older, people who tried to wait the hurricane out." A body that had been found on a dry stretch of Union St. in the downtown district of New Orleans remained on the street for four days, "locked in rigor mortis and flanked by traffic cones. [It quickly] became a downtown landmark -- as in, turn left at the corpse -- before someone" finally picked it up. Reporting this incident and responding to its display of human indignity, Dan Barry, a writer for The New York Times, observed in a Sept. 8 article, "That a corpse lies on Union Street may not shock.... What is remarkable is that on a downtown street in a major American city, a corpse can decompose for days, like a carrion, and that is acceptable."
Alcede Jackson's 72-year-old black body was left on the porch of his house for two weeks. Various media soon reported that over 154 bodies had been found in hospitals and nursing homes. The New York Times wrote on Sept. 19 that, "the collapse of one of society's most basic covenants -- to care for the helpless -- suggests that the elderly and critically ill plummeted to the bottom of priority lists as calamity engulfed New Orleans." Dead people, mostly poor African-Americans, left uncollected in the streets, on porches, hospitals, nursing homes, in electric wheelchairs, and in collapsed houses prompted many people, such as Rosa Brooks in the Sept. 7 Los Angeles Times, to claim that America had become like a "Third World country," while others argued that New Orleans resembled a "Third World Refugee Camp."
There were now, irrefutably, two Gulf crises. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) tried to do damage control by forbidding journalists to "accompany rescue boats as they went out to search for storm victims." A FEMA spokeswoman told Reuters News Agency, as reported by Terry M. Neal in the Washington Post of Sept. 8, that, "We have requested that no photographs of the deceased be made by the media." But questions about responsibility and answerability would not go away. Even the dominant media, including CNN's Anderson Cooper, for a short time rose to the occasion and posed tough questions about accountability to those in power, in light of such egregious acts of incompetence and indifference.
The images of dead bodies kept reappearing in New Orleans, refusing to go away. For many, the bodies of the poor, black, brown, elderly, and sick came to signify what the battered body of Emmett Till once unavoidably revealed, and America was forced to confront these disturbing images and the damning questions behind the images. The Hurricane Katrina disaster, like the Emmett Till affair, revealed a vulnerable and destitute segment of the nation's citizenry that conservatives not only refused to see but had spent the better part of two decades demonizing.
But like the incessant beating of Poe's telltale heart, cadavers have a way of insinuating themselves on consciousness, demanding answers to questions that aren't often asked. The body of Emmett Till symbolized an overt white supremacy and racialized state terror organized against the threat that black men (apparently of all sizes and ages) posed against white women. But the black bodies of the dead and walking wounded in New Orleans in 2005 revealed a different image of what David Theo Goldberg has called the "racial state": they revealed a modality of state terrorism marked less by an overt form of white racism than by a highly mediated displacement of race as a central concept for understanding both Katrina and its place in the broader history of U.S. racism.
That is, while Till's body insisted upon a public recognition of the violence of white supremacy, the decaying black bodies floating in the waters of the Gulf Coast represented a return of race as an issue in spite of media and public insistence that this disaster was more about class than race, more about the shameful and growing presence of poverty, or what Eric Foner in the Oct. 3, 2005 issue of The Nation called "the abject failure to provide aid to the most vulnerable." Till's body allowed the racism that destroyed it to be made visible, to speak to the systemic character of American racial injustice. The bodies of the Katrina victims could not speak with the same directness to the state of American racist violence, but they did reveal and shatter the conservative fiction of living in a color-blind society.
The bodies that repeatedly appeared all over New Orleans days and weeks after it was struck by Hurricane Katrina also revealed the emergence of a new kind of politics, one in which entire populations are now considered disposable, an unnecessary burden on state coffers, and consigned to fend for themselves. The deeply existential and material questions regarding who is going to die and who is going to live in this society are now centrally determined by race and class. Katrina lays bare what many people in the United States do not want to see: large numbers of poor black and brown people struggling to make ends meet, benefiting very little from a social system that makes it difficult to obtain health insurance, child care, social assistance, cars, savings, and minimum-wage jobs, if lucky, and instead offers to black and brown youth bad schools, poor public services, and no future, except a possible stint in the penitentiary. As Janet Pelz in the Sept. 19, 2005 Seattle Post-Intelligencer rightly insisted, "These are the people the Republicans have been teaching us to disdain, if not hate, since President Reagan decried the moral laxness of the welfare mom."
While Pelz's comments provide a crucial context for much of the death and devastation of Katrina, I think to more fully understand this calamity it is important to grasp how the confluence of race and poverty has become part of a new and more insidious set of forces. These forces are based on a revised set of biopolitical commitments that have largely given up on the sanctity of human life for those populations rendered "at risk" by global neoliberal economies and which have instead embraced an emergent security state founded on cultural homogeneity. This is a state that no longer provides Americans with dreams; instead, it has been reduced largely to protecting its citizens from a range of possible nightmares.
As the social state is hollowed out, entire groups of people become disposable, as the category "waste" includes no longer simply material goods but also human beings, particularly those rendered redundant in the new global economy; that is, those who are no longer capable of making a living, who are unable to consume goods, and who depend upon others for the most basic needs.
Defined primarily through the combined discourses of character, personal responsibility, and cultural homogeneity, entire populations expelled from the benefits of the marketplace are reified as products without any value and are disposed of -- as Zygmunt Bauman describes in his brilliant study, Wasted Lives -- like "leftovers in the most radical and effective way: we make them invisible by not looking and unthinkable by not thinking." Even when young black and brown youth try to escape the biopolitics of disposability by joining the military, the seduction of economic security is quickly negated by the horror of senseless violence compounded daily in the streets, roads, and battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan and made concrete in the form of body bags, mangled bodies, and amputated limbs -- rarely to be seen in the narrow ocular field of the dominant media.
With the social state in retreat, and thanks to the rapacious dynamics of a market fundamentalism unchecked by government regulations, the public and private policies of investing in the public good are dismissed as bad business, just as the notion of protecting people from the dire misfortunes of poverty, sickness, or the random blows of fate is viewed as an act of bad faith. Weakness is now a sin, punishable by social exclusion.
This is especially true for those racial groups and immigrant populations who have always been at risk economically and politically. Increasingly, such groups have become part of an ever-growing army of the impoverished and disenfranchised -- removed from the prospect of a decent job, productive education, adequate health care, acceptable child care services, and satisfactory shelter. As the state is transformed into the primary agent of terror and corporate concerns displace democratic values, Bauman observes that dominant "power is measured by the speed with which responsibilities can be escaped."
With its pathological disdain for social values and public life, and its celebration of an unbridled individualism and acquisitiveness, the Bush administration does more than undermine the nature of social obligation and civic responsibility; it also sends a message to unwanted populations: Society neither wants, cares about, or needs you. Katrina revealed with startling and disturbing clarity who these unwanted are: African-Americans who occupy the poorest sections of New Orleans, those ghettoized frontier zones created by racism coupled with economic inequality. Cut out of any long-term goals and a decent vision of the future, these are the populations, as Bauman points out, who have been rendered redundant and disposable in the age of neoliberal global capitalism.
Katrina reveals that we are living in dark times. One of its most obvious lessons -- that race and racism still matter in America -- is fully operational through a biopolitics not unlike the kind described by scholar Achille Mbembe as "necropolitics", in which "sovereignty resides in the power and capacity to dictate who may live and who may die." Those poor minorities of color and class, unable to contribute to the prevailing consumerist ethic, are vanishing into the sinkhole of poverty in desolate and abandoned enclaves of decaying cities and rural spaces, or in America's ever-expanding prison empire.
To confront the politics of disposability, we need to offer up a vision of hope that creates the conditions for multiple collective and global struggles that refuses to use politics as an act of war and markets as the measure of democracy. Making human beings superfluous is the essence of totalitarianism, and democracy is the antidote in urgent need of being reclaimed.
Katrina should keep
the hope of such a struggle alive for some time because, for many of us,
the images of those floating bodies serve as a desperate reminder of what
it means when justice becomes cold and indifferent in the face of death.
Henry Giroux is the Global TV Network Chair in English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University. This essay is based on his new book, Stormy Weather: Katrina and the Politics of Disposability (Paradigm, July 2006), and first appeared in the Toronto Star on August 27. His other recent books include: Take Back Higher Education (co-authored with Susan Giroux) (Palgrave-2005); The Terror of Neoliberalism (Paradigm-2004); Against the New Authoritarianism (Arbeiter Ring-2005); America on the Edge (Palgrave-2006); and Beyond the Spectacle of Terrorism (Paradigm-2006). His primary research areas are: cultural studies, youth studies, critical pedagogy, popular culture, media studies, social theory, and the politics of higher and public education. He can be reached at: email@example.com. Visit his website at: www.henryagiroux.com.
Other Articles by Henry A. Giroux
Authoritarianism in the United States
Interviews with Henry A. Giroux