Time to stop playing ‘pin the blame on the donkey’

Everybody seems to want to use Katrina to settle old scores.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

The flood waters are slowly subsiding in New Orleans, but there is still little sign of a lull in the storm of bitter accusation and counter-accusation about who and what was to blame for the disaster, and for the disastrous relief operation that followed.

Let us try to make a basic distinction here. It is important to account for what went wrong and what didn’t, based on the real experience of the past fortnight. The impact of Hurricane Katrina does need to be understood in the proper context of the state of America today. No doubt that means that some of those who were meant to lead will be held to account for their actions.

But that process of analysis and holding to account is something quite different from the ‘blame game’ that is going on today across America and beyond. The problem is not just that people are looking for somebody to blame for the disaster. The big problem is that many are doing so in order to pursue their own pre-existing agendas, almost regardless of what actually happened. The disaster in New Orleans is being used as an all-purpose stick with which to beat whom ever you wanted to do down anyway. That explains why everybody seems to have their own idea about who is to blame for the fallout form Katrina.

Some on America’s religious right have suggested that Katrina was God’s vengeance against the hedonistic sinners of New Orleans. Islamic radicals have responded in similar vein, claiming ‘Private Katrina’ as a soldier of Allah in their jihad against decadent America. These sermons have been somewhat undermined by the fact that the famous French Quarter of New Orleans, the centre of all that hedonism, sinning and decadence, was among the least affected areas of the city.

Rather than God’s vengeance, environmentalists and other left-liberal commentators have preferred an updated version of the ‘Nature’s Revenge’ argument. Many of them were blaming man-made global warming for the hurricane – with particular reference to America’s role as the ‘world’s biggest polluter’ – even before Katrina struck. It almost seems as if these people believe that the Kyoto agreement is some sort of peace treaty with Mother Nature, so that those who sign up to it will be spared natural disasters. But why worry about the fact that the complex science of climatology doesn’t fit your simplistic theories, when you have such emotive pictures of devastation to ‘prove’ your case?

On the other side of the divide, meanwhile, influential voices in the American business press have sought to blame the system of ‘Big Government’ for the disaster in New Orleans, using the impact of Katrina to lend weight to their longstanding case for more and more de-regulation. Exactly how free market economics could have saved the impoverished people stranded in New Orleans remains unclear. Maybe all they needed was a few more hot dog stands at the Superdome….

The most popular target of the blame game has of course been President George W Bush. In many ways Bush asked for it, since his performance as the crisis unfolded was truly pathetic. Yet most of the criticism aimed at the White House again owes more to heartfelt antagonism than to hard facts about what happened. The argument that the disaster was really ‘all about Iraq’ is the most obvious example. Longstanding underinvestment in New Orleans’ levee defences has little to do with Bush’s expensive Iraqi adventure. Nor, contrary to what some critics suggest, is there likely to have been any Iraq-related absence of troops who could have been mobilised in the southern states of America, where many of the biggest army bases are.

Others with an old axe to grind against Bush sought to blame him for the disaster by simply inserting the name of whichever group they were claiming to speak for, as in ‘He doesn’t care about the victims because they are black/poor/Democrats’ (delete as applicable). The fact that the poor of New Orleans, most of whom are black, inevitably suffered worst in the floods might have opened some naive observers’ eyes to the inequalities of capitalist society. But such social problems cannot sensibly be reduced to a question of personal malice in the White House. The aim of these free-floating arguments seemed less about establishing the facts than pinning the blame on Bush in whatever way possible. Thus they quite easily tipped over into the sort of conspiracy theories about how the disaster was ‘deliberately’ staged that Brendan O’Neill writes about elsewhere on spiked (see Was New Orleans flooded to make way for a new Las Vegas…?, by Brendan O’Neill).

In response, Bush’s Republicans made some unconvincing efforts of their own to prove it was all the fault of their political opponents. They insisted that the Democrat-run local authorities had the primary responsibility for responding to such a disaster, and argued that the hands of the administration in Washington were tied by constitutional red tape. This sounded about as convincing as the allegation that Bush breached the levees deliberately. The US president can be accused of being many things, but ‘powerless to act’ is not generally one of them.

Beyond the exchanges of blame within the US elite, many looking on from without have sought to exploit Katrina to peddle their own pet hates. Some have wanted to name, blame and above all shame ‘America’ in general, implying that the obese and greedy superpower was getting what it had long deserved (see Why people hate fat Americans, by Daniel Ben-Ami). Others went further still, claiming that the chaotic aftermath in New Orleans had proved their own misanthropic view of humanity as a seething mob of bloodthirsty apes, just waiting to burst through the thin restraints of civilisation.

Disasters always lead to ructions, but there is something different about the blame game that quickly follows something like Katrina today. Professor Frank Furedi wrote on the BBC News website this week about the changing ways in which natural disasters are interpreted – a theme he has written about before on spiked. Once they were viewed as acts of God or of fate. With the rise of secularism, disasters were more likely to be understood as acts of nature. Now, by contrast, we live in a world where many find it hard to accept the idea of a natural disaster or even an accident. As a consequence, they immediately look for somebody to blame.

The result, Furedi points out, is that after something like Katrina ‘we are in danger of facing a double disaster: one that is about physical destruction and loss of life, the other which is the legacy of bitterness, confusion and suspicion’. This article was met with howls of protest from many who insisted on their need to blame somebody for what had happened – a response which some might think rather proved Furedi’s point (see The blame game, by Frank Furedi, BBC News).

There were undoubtedly major problems in the response to Katrina. The paralysis of the American state, as symbolised by the disappearance of much of the police force and the reported policy of making hundreds of firefighters give out leaflets rather than rescue people, demands some serious investigation and analysis. But that has nothing to do with the game of ‘pin the blame on the donkey’ now being indulged in by just about everybody with a pre-existing agenda to promote or an old score to settle.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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