1000 Days of Theory
On August 30, 2005, George W. Bush was sent to the wrong place, at the wrong time, to deliver, in his pseudo-folksy ham-handed way, the wrong script: Bush’s political choreographers crafted a speech that was delivered at a 60th anniversary commemoration of the end of World War II, held at a California Naval Air station. As a salvo in the propaganda war over Iraq, Bush histrionically claimed the moral authority of World War II for the current U.S. occupation of Iraq. Besides the highly dubious claim of moral equivalence, the timing of the speech turned out to be inept. Unfolding events caught Bush and his handlers off-guard.
Fifteen-hundred miles away, a concurrent event, the Category Five Hurricane Katrina, laid waste to a significant American city, New Orleans, and to a contiguous two-hundred mile swath of the Gulf Coast east of New Orleans. Mississippi’s Governor, the former head of the Republican National Committee, Haley Barbour, unreflexively invoked another descriptive icon of World War II, as well. “It looks like Hiroshima is what it looks like,” muttered a shocked Barbour, describing parts of a devastated county on the coast. Meanwhile, the Louisiana levees broke in at least three spots, unleashing the fury of the swollen waters of Lake Pontchartrain on New Orleans. Potable drinking water, electricity, and the other taken-for-granted basics of mundane life disappeared into a twenty foot high stew of sewage, toxic chemicals, Mississippi Delta mud, and Lake Pontchartrain spillage. Basic infrastructure was destroyed. Tens of thousands of houses were severely damaged or simply obliterated. Bloated bodies floated in the water, as much of the coastal population became a large and instant group of internal U.S. refugees. Meanwhile, police looked on passively as looters raided both the upscale downtown shops such as the Bon Marche, and less status-conscious looters stripped the shelves of several outlying stores of the behemoth proletarian vendor, Wal-Mart. On the night of August 30th, the CNN website described it this way: “New Orleans resembled a war zone more than a modern American metropolis on Tuesday.” As Army Reservists and a remainder of National Guard troops rolled into New Orleans, they resembled nothing as much as their comrades-in-arms concurrently stationed in Iraq. Ironically, the shock and awe produced by Katrina’s Gulf Coast invasion mirrored the effects of the Iraqi war, in novel and all-too-tragic ways. On Tuesday night, August 30, 2005, New Orleans became the de facto American Baghdad, as the contiguous Gulf Coast east of New Orleans became an analogue for the Iraqi countryside. It was no surprise, then, to see the juxtaposition of the following morning’s (Wednesday, August 31st) split-screen front page headlines on MSNBC.com. A story on the “Nightmare” of Katrina refugees was paired with the “Baghdad Stampede” that killed 800 or more Iraqis. Panic, disaster, public disorder, the mass movement of refugees, tightening military occupation, combined with the key linkages between the disruption of oil production and refineries and long-term economic dislocation and debt accumulation; these are just the initial components of Katrina-Baghdad as a “strange attractor.” This emergent strange attractor we now call Katrina-Baghdad will spin off and/or accelerate a series of complex economic, political and social iterations over the near and longer term.
Today, there’s a post-apocalyptic sensibility in the air. Mayor Nagin’s mandatory evacuation order of New Orleans will be carried out, in part, by dispatching 475 buses contracted by FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) to move tens of thousand of Katrina refugees from the damaged New Orleans Superdome to the recently shuttered Houston Astrodome. According to the New York Times, Texas state government officials expect to house the refugee residents of this new “Dome City” for months, if not longer. Meanwhile, as Howard Fineman notes, the bulk of the personnel, equipment and financial resources necessary for a “war-like” response to such devastation are sunk into another delta, a half-a-world away, at the mouth of the Tigris and the Euphrates. Already consuming eighty percent of the world’s lending capital in prolifigate fiscal and consumer consumption, sharp and immediate rises in oil and natural gas prices, combined with tens of billions in infrastructural reconstruction costs, may well set off an accelerating chain of events (such as rising interest rates and the collapse of the housing market bubble). The result could lead, in very short order, to a steep decline in personal and national fortunes.
Finally, we should take note of a particular incident of destruction. Across Lake Pontchartrain, two seven mile bridge spans of Interstate 10, connecting New Orleans to the eastern U.S. mainland, were catastrophically shredded into dozens of disconnected concrete chunks. As both a metaphor and event precursor, this particular piece of devastation is profoundly symbolic. The shattering of this part of I-10 connotes the liabilities of a fragile and deep interconnectedness, in a global economic and ecological system. A product of the mid-and-late 20th Century height of the American Empire, the Interstate Highway System was a triumph of economic nationalism and Fordist progressive capitalism. Katrina’s demolishing of this portion of I-10 can be understood as signifying the shattering of the remaining structural supports for the effective maintenance of such an economic nationalism, while revealing, immediately and decisively, the hubris and frailty of the Imperium.