A second look at New Orleans and Kristen McQueary

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Kristen McQueary - SUN-TIMES MEDIA
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A friend who didn't like that Kristen McQueary op-ed any more than anyone else did (myself excluded) has just introduced me to the idea of "disaster capitalism," which is what we get when societies are shocked into disarray and submission and right-wing economic and political forces seize the moment. Here's a video of the author Naomi Klein explaining disaster capitalism, which it appears she coined. And here's AlterNet's Adam Johnson arguing that its "dark heart" was just exposed by Kristen McQueary in the Tribune. (The headline to Johnson's piece asks, about McQueary, "most evil op-ed ever?")

McQueary said in her op-ed that she wished a Hurricane Katrina would come along and tear Chicago apart—because the city's falling apart anyway and, shy of an immense natural disaster that makes indifference impossible, appears utterly incapable of halting its decline and putting itself back together. "The idea that Katrina was a sort of biblical flood that washed away liberal excess in New Orleans is taken as gospel by conservatives and corporate Democrats alike . . ." wrote Johnson. "They truly believe that largely black, union-friendly cities would be better off in the long run handing over the reins of their local governments to technocratic, largely white neoliberal systems. To them, the tragedy of Katrina wasn't the mass displacement and death of thousands, it was that it didn't happen soon enough."

McQueary called Katrina "chaos" and "tragedy" and "heartbreak," but this might have been a sly piece of disaster-capitalist mendacity. She didn't say it was "liberal excess" that was washed away, and she didn't say the chief culprit in the catastrophe, the New Orleans levee system, suffered from liberal engineering. She didn't use the word liberal at all—though, again, this might be mere subterfuge. In defending McQueary in a recent Bleader post that no one liked any more than they liked her op-ed, I wrote "the white New Orleans power structure, though tempted, did not respond to Katrina as a golden opportunity to do some racial cleansing." I said I'd been told this by none other than Gary Rivlin, a former Reader writer who just published Katrina: After the Flood, an account of New Orleans since August 2005. I wrote, "New Orleans is still New Orleans, said Rivlin, and in some important ways it's 'better than it's ever been.'"

As some commenters on my Bleader post pointed out, Rivlin took to Twitter to correct that picture. One tweet said, "some in New Orleans DID use #Katrina as golden oppty—to shutter Charity Hosp, scrape 'Big 4' housing project, fire every last teacher." (My sister, who lives in New Orleans, had even told me about Charity Hospital, the old public hospital.) New Orleans is still a majority-black city with a black police chief and a majority-black city council (though the new mayor is white and the old black mayor, Ray Nagin, is in prison convicted on corruption charges). But the city's smaller than it was and it's lost five black residents for every vanished resident who was white. For a nuanced account of how New Orleans might still be New Orleans but has nonetheless changed, Rivlin points me to "Why New Orleans's Black Residents Are Still Underwater After Katrina," an article he adapted from his book for this coming Sunday's New York Times Magazine

I apologize to Rivlin for being careless with nuances. But these nuances don't make the case Adam Johnson seems to take for granted, that powerful right-wing forces welcomed the deaths of "thousands" and were only sorry "it didn't happen soon enough." (Soon enough for what?) 

And they have nothing to do with what was on McQueary's mind: Chicago. What puzzles me most about her screed is why, as a disaster capitalist, she wrote it at all. Look what she accomplished: she raised a hue and cry! She let slip to the good people of Chicago what game she and her coconspirators are playing! What predator warns its prey?

As I told the friend who alerted me to disaster capitalism, if McQueary had gingerly asked, "Is it going to take a Katrina to get people in Chicago to grow up, face their troubles, and pull together?" no one would have raised an eyebrow. And if, instead, she'd said, "Boy, it's going to take a Katrina to get people in Chicago to grow up and deal with their troubles . . . etc" at worst, some readers might have blinked. Instead, she said, "What we need is a Katrina to get people in Chicago off their asses because nothing less is making any difference." And she got crucified. The difference, in my eyes, isn't of neoliberal philosophy but of rhetoric. McQueary said what she wanted to say too bluntly for her own good.

What about her premises? Are they unsound? Our budget crisis—our teachers strike that's as sure to come in November as Thanksgiving—is all that just neoliberals blowing smoke? Or if we are in dire straits, do our best and brightest have a handle on the problem? Or if they don't have a handle on it, is salvation as simple as listening to the crowd that can see exactly what to do? (Would that be the same crowd that's been writing in to comment?) Is McQueary simply a chirpy disaster-capitalist worry-wart?

One commenter reminded me of a couple of things I'd written in 1992. One commented on a Reader caricature of a black alderman, the other on a piece of anthropomorphic whimsy in the Sun-Times in which raccoons were called "gangbangers" who "sort of amble, kind of shuffle," grow up in single-parent homes and are fed by the same "misguided liberals" who back in the 1960s "gave money to street gangs." Please read both those ancient posts to measure my descent from serious thinking. 

I concluded one of those pieces by observing, "A writer cannot assert that his words were misunderstood. He must answer for every level of meaning. He can never plead innocent."

"What happened?" asked ThinkDeeper. "Why aren't writers accountable for all the obvious varied meanings of their words now? Why aren't offended black voices deserving of more listening now?"

These old sentiments make me uncomfortable because I can see the conflict. I will say simply that the offended black voices of New Orleans have every right to complain that McQueary treated them cavalierly. Perhaps she did; she certainly didn't dwell on their troubles—she brushed by them on her way to a point of her own about Chicago. My point is about that point. I think it's valid, and that she made it with as much clarity as I, at least, required. The level of meaning that concerns me is the one she thought she was writing at. She's accountable for what she says at that level too, and she deserves readers who meet her there. 


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