It goes to 11

Blaming the victim: A how-to guide

There’s been plenty of superb blogging about the Hurricane Katrina disaster, but my all-time favorite so far is a rather unexpected one: A post today by writer John Scalzi entitled “Being Poor”. It does not actually mention Katrina or New Orleans directly. It’s simply a list of symptoms of what it’s like being poor, including:

Being poor is knowing exactly how much everything costs.

Being poor is thinking $8 an hour is a really good deal.

Being poor is Goodwill underwear.

Being poor is making lunch for your kid when a cockroach skitters over the bread, and you looking over to see if your kid saw.

Being poor is relying on people who don’t give a damn about you.

Being poor is not taking the job because you can’t find someone you trust to watch your kids.

These are politically — and poetically — spot-on descriptions, and they go worlds to explaining why New Orleans has become such a total disaster. It’s not that the overwhelmingly poverty-stricken black population there didn’t know things were dangerous; they weren’t blithering idiots who chose to hang around while Katrina vaporized their houses. They simply couldn’t afford the cost of evacuating. One MSNBC reporter last night told of people who lived “check to check” and — being a few days shy of the next welfare check on Sept. 1, were entirely tapped out — wandered around begging for $20 to buy a tank of gas.

So this got me wondering about a political question. How will the American right wing — particularly congressional Republicans — respond to the screamingly obvious role of black poverty in this disaster?

For years, of course, Republicans have refused to admit that the cycle of poverty exists, or indeed that one’s economic conditions at birth could have any bearing on how you turn out later in life. But New Orleans has tossed a wrench into this idelogical perpetual-motion machine and stopped it dead. Pretty much every news organ — even Fox News — has been forced to point out the many ways the federal government left the poor of New Orleans out to dry. The Bush administration diverted money from levee maintenance and gutted FEMA; refused to accept aid that Chicago offered on Sunday; and, in a fascinatingly honest admission of their nearly psychopathic break with reality, explained on Thursday that they had only just learned of the rapes, assaults and bedlam in the New Orleans convention center — despite three days’ worth of incessant TV coverage thereof.

Given the awesome scale of deaths down in Louisiana, the defenders of the administration are in a tight corner. They need to appear to be deeply sympathetic to the tragedy, while also exculpating Bush and his people from any blame. What herculean political argument could accomplish these seemingly contradictory goals?

A hint came from Tucker Carlson last night. First, during an interview with Al Sharpton, he admitted candidly that the denizens of New Orleans were screwed because they were poor and couldn’t afford to evacuate. But then he hotly denied that this had anything to do with their being black. And then he made a heartfelt speech to the camera in which he said that history has always shown that the biggest victims of any natural disaster were — wait for it — poor children and the elderly. Those victims; those defenseless, uncomprehending and deeply vulnerable souls; those were the ones we ought properly to feel sorry for.

Well, fair enough. Children and the elderly are indeed the most physically weak, and they’ve died by the horrifying hundreds, probably thousands. But so has everyone else up and down the age demographic. Why single out children and the elderly?

Because this leaves some wiggle room to blame the adults — all the other black folks who implicitly are blundering idiots devoid of moral clarity and, if they’d just clean up their damn acts and get a job, could have saved themselves. Worse, by not boldly taking action, these moral failures put their children and elderly parents at danger!

I’m exaggerating for effect. Carlson, of course, did not openly connect those last few dots. But the strangely constrained dimensions of his sympathy reminded me of a superb article that appeared in the New Yorker about ten years ago. The article — I can’t remember or correctly Google the title or author, I’m afraid — surveyed the large number of early-90s documentaries devoted to black poverty in America, such as Hoop Dreams. The author noted that the documentaries were being hailed, quite rightly, as nuanced, incisive studies of poor America, and a breath of crisp realism after the loopy welfare-queen propaganda of the Reagan years.

Yet when the author scrutinized the documentaries more closely, he (she? Damn, I can’t remember) noticed that they all picked children and teenagers as their focus. Adults drifted in and out of the docs, but only peripherally; and when they were onscreen they were posed in unflattering lights, focusing on their “poor choices” in life and irresponsible behavior towards their kids.

This, the New Yorker author argued, is the weird blind spot that perenially prevents America from understanding the nature of poverty. We preserve enormous compassion for kids living in desperate straits — because we know they can’t be blamed for where they’re born. But once they turn 18 and become adults? You’re author of your own fate, and if you remain poor it’s because, dude, you suck. For poor children, we have bleeding hearts; for poor adults, we have three-strikes legislation and prim, pursed lips.

That’s why I was so fascinated by Carlson’s performance last night. Consciously or unconsciously, he perfectly intuited this slender path through the moral forest — and ran for it.

So here’s my prediction. Defenders of the administration need to accomplish three things: They must exonerate the administration from any blame for bungling the tragedy, shift the blame to the actual poverty-stricken residents, and yet somehow also appear sympathetic about the horrible suffering. The most elegant way to do this is to bemoan the plight of New Orleans’ children and elderly — and imply, or perhaps sneeringly state outright, that everyone else in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans is at fault for not protecting their vulnerable dependents, and themselves. It’s the only way for a pundit or politician to avoid looking like a sadistic cretin while remaining, in fact, a sadistic cretin. I’ll be watching the TV and newspapers for signs that this line of argument has slithered into the national debate.

Which brings me to my single-favorite line in Scalzi’s analysis of poverty:

Being poor is having to live with choices you didn’t know you made when you were 14 years old.

(Thanks to Boing Boing for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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