The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
By Mike Alewitz
Our fabulous New Orleans, one of the world’s great cultural treasures, lies in ruins. The destruction of this city’s artistic life, just as with the loss of life and property, is a tragedy of immense proportions
New Orleans was a product of many influences but it’s character was indelibly stamped by slaves and their descendants. Slavery was a holocaust of such magnitude that it resulted in the deaths of millions of Africans and enormous human suffering. It was a holocaust, as we see today, that never really ended.
African-Americans responded to their cruel treatment by creating art and music that ultimately became America’s great gift to the world. While the former slave masters built a powerful empire based on military conquest and exploitation, the former slaves fostered a unique culture based on their African roots. New Orleans was a magical world where music was vibrant, Tabasco flowed freely and human sexuality was celebrated in fantastic spectacles.
Even after many years, I can still remember the people and music that surrounded Southern Railroads Oliver Yard, where I worked and frequently walked the tracks. Day or night, we could leave work and be swept up in festivities. More than in any other city, the neighborhoods of the Big Easy responded to official consumer culture with a lively, organic art that expressed the aspirations and optimism of working people. Our loss is immeasurable.
Why the fuss
The unwillingness and inability of the U.S. government to prevent or alleviate this crisis is not an oversight, miscalculation or mistake. We all knew it would happen, and so did they.
Two days ago, I watched in astonishment as a jocular George Bush held a press conference in Mississippi to begin his tour of the Gulf coast. There is great suffering in the land, he said. Why, my friend, Senator Trent Lott (who stood at his side,) is one of the suffering masses—his oceanfront home was destroyed. The President pledged to rebuild the house.
This was his starting point.
I don’t think that Bush and Company is any more inept or insensitive than other politicians. The same Congress that was able to rush to Washington in one day to keep the deceased Terri Schiavo plugged to a machine likewise turned a blind eye to the desperate plight of living thousands. And the liberal politicians who only now are so indignant were previously nowhere to be found.
They live in a different world. The circumstances of the great unwashed are not their concern, any more than you or I might worry about the sport of polo. They are worried about their summer homes and investment portfolios. The fate of the working poor is not a priority.
If not for the massive public outcry, people might have been left on their rooftops until Mardi Gras came around. Had they been expensive horses instead of poor people, they might have been evacuated more quickly. After all, Bush’s appointee to direct FEMA honed his emergency skills as the head of the International Arabian Horse Association.
Even now, with normally docile news reporters actually moved to ask some real questions, the blank expressions of administration spokespeople reveal that they just don’t get what all the fuss is about.
The chickens come home to roost
The death and destruction is a man-made, criminal act—the logical outcome of corporate and governmental policies that thrived under Democratic and Republican administrations alike. The authorities have known of the storm dangers for decades. Don’t blame Mother Nature—she was just being herself (with some help from global warming.)
As a traveling muralist, I have seen firsthand the dreadful consequences of U.S. foreign policy in places like Nicaragua and Iraq. Washington’s callousness to suffering is no revelation to most of the world. It’s old news to the Iraqi people—the U.S. embargo and occupation has killed over a million of them. The indifference to life is certainly no eye-opener for the abandoned of Darfur.
Now, in New Orleans, the ugly face of American capitalism stands revealed.
This nation, though born with the horror of slavery and slaughter of indigenous people, at one time was vigorous and forward-looking. But we are witnessing the empire in decline. Starving people in New Orleans? Let them eat beignets. City under water? Bush waves from the window of his jet while he heads home from his five-week vacation. He plays golf the next day.
Oil companies, already bloated with record profits immediately took advantage of the crisis by jacking up gas prices. You can bet that the food companies and every other industry will soon follow suit. Cheney and his Halliburton pals are licking their lips in anticipation of lucrative reconstruction contracts. They take everything and produce nothing.
We were told we were different. We were told that this could not happen to “Americans.” But you’re only an American when it’s time to go to war or speed up production. The rest of the time you’re just a worker—like workers in Nigeria or Haiti. If you are not making a profit for your employer, your usefulness is over. You will be left to drown in your attic or die of thirst or starve to death.
A different example
In Cuba, so vilified by the U.S. government, the population is informed and educated about the hurricanes that frequently slam into the island. The scant resources of the entire country are used to evacuate hundreds of thousands of people. Electricity is turned off to prevent death by electrocution. Water is turned off to protect against contamination. Medical facilities are prepared—and health care is always free in Cuba. At times, over a million people have been evacuated with no loss of life.
In fact, Castro has offered to send 1100 doctors, completely at Cuban expense, to aid in gulf coast relief efforts. He has refused to criticize Washington in this hour of crisis.
Venezuela has offered to provide inexpensive gas to poor Americans. The demonized Chavez has offered to send two mobile hospitals, 120 specialists in rescue operations, 10 water purifying plants, 18 large electricity generators, 20 tons of bottled water, and 50 tons of canned food.
Ever faithful to her corporate masters, these offers have been rejected by Condoleezza Rice. Better the poor should die than be exposed to socialist ideas. (Rice made sure to have a photo-op unloading some relief supplies from the back of a truck.)
The victims become the criminals
As always, the poor will be blamed for their own misery. The war-makers who cut federal funding earmarked to strengthen the levees and gave it instead to a fake rebuilding of Iraq; the politicians who lined their pockets and ignored public safety; the real estate moguls who made millions of dollars with rampant, unplanned development; the graft-ridden cops who ran away in fear of a city of needy black people; the CEOs of profit-hungry oil companies; all will now hypocritically point their fingers at the victims—desperate workers taking food or medicine for their families—and brand them as looters.
The authorities and the press are promoting racist hysteria. Black people are portrayed as marauding animals and rapists—all without a shred of evidence. Troops are sent to protect Gucci bags in upscale malls. Yet there is little to indicate any civil problem that compares to a single night of drunken revelry by middle-class tourists at Mardi Gras.
Bush, the spoiled child of wealth and privilege, could not wait to start talking tough about “law and order.” The returning cops have already murdered more people than were murdered during the past week, when there was no “security.” Yes, there are individuals who have struck out in anger and desperation. But the tens of thousands of poor people who were left to suffer and die displayed more self-control, caring and dignity than any of their so-called leaders. We should all be proud of them.
March on Washington
This catastrophe is only beginning. Yet to come is the spread of disease, skyrocketing prices, increasing unemployment, food shortages, environmental destruction and the curtailment of democratic rights. The cost of the storm and the looting by corporations will be born by working people. Tuitions will increase, education will deteriorate, our bridges and roads will fall into further disrepair, healthcare will become more inaccessible; life will become more difficult for all of us.
Bush has blithely promised to rebuild a new and better New Orleans. Along with developing the hydrogen car, I suppose.
I can imagine his new city: Mardi Gras Mall to replace Fauberg Marigny and the French Quarter. Starbucks instead of the Café du Monde. Britney Spears performing the songs of Professor Longhair and Alan Toussaint. McGumbo.
No—the people of the gulf coast will pick themselves up from the toxic silt. Working people from all over the world will come to their aid. They will respond to ruling class indifference with solidarity and caring. The eyes of many have been opened—Americans will never look at the suffering of others in the same way.
September 24 will be [was—the editors] the massive march on Washington, San Francisco and Los Angeles to demand that the troops be brought home from Iraq. We will demand that the enormous resources of the occupation be used instead for a massive public works program to rebuild the Gulf coast. We will demand money for jobs and education. We will repudiate the actions of Bush and his creepy-crawly administration. They do not speak for the American people.
We will eventually force the war-makers to withdraw from Iraq, just as we forced them out of Vietnam. Working people—the true source of all wealth and the great incubator of ideas—will absorb this experience and spit it back in the form of new art and music. The great culture of New Orleans is part of our collective consciousness, and will live on in a thousand new ways. Corporate greed will never destroy our humanity or silence our music.
Mike Alewitz is Artistic Director of LaBOR aRT & MuRAL PRoJECT, Art Department Central CT State University. To subscribe to Agitprop News, write: email@example.com
— Agitprop News, September, 2005