Friday, 25 August 2006

When The Levees Broke, A Libertarian Cracked; or, I Absolve the Medium So I watched the first and second acts of Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke on Tuesday. As noted earlier, my initial response—sent to a non-academic listserv full of sharp, predominantly libertarian computer programmers—included the following paragraph: Am I the only one who didn't know that THE ROYAL CANADIAN MOUNTED POLICE made it [to New Orleans] before FEMA or the National Guard? Jesus Christ, the MOUNTIES! THE MOUNTIES! I didn't mean to disparage the Mounties, only point out that if they could saddle up and thunder to New Orleans in two days, surely someone in FEMA had access to transportation capable of outpacing moose. A damning condemnation, indeed. In that same message—keeping in mind the audience I addressed—I noted how despite being a propagandist ... [Lee] did an amazing job showing who, exactly, was affected by Katrina. Not just black people, but poor people. Infirm people. Elderly people. All abandoned. I'll return to why I called him a "propagandist" momentarily; for now, I want to share the first response to my message. Written by a stranger, someone new to the listserv, it said: I love your opening. I know he's a full of crap but this time I believe him because I don't like the President either. Note that I did not say Lee "was full of crap," only that he was a "propagandist." I couched Lee's aesthetic in such strong terms because, on a listserv populated by libertarians who clawed their way from desperate poverty to upper-middle prosperity, you find people convinced of the universal explanatory power of their personal Horatio Alger narratives. If I can make it, anyone can, they think. These narratives, however, are no more representative than Alger's were; but they lead those who possess them to assume that if someone fails to "make it," that person didn't work hard enough, or with enough dedication, or secretly wanted to fail. Whatever the reasoning, the outcome is the same: They didn't make it because they didn't deserve to. After all, if I can make it, anyone can. Those who believe this would, thus, consider Spike Lee a propagandist, somewho attempted to elevate the social status of the undeserving. Racism exists, certainly, but can be overcome by exceptional individuals willing to invest the time and effort required to do so. To forestall this response, I noted the even-handedness of Lee's portrayal: not only did it depict the plight of the African-Americans stranded in New Orleans, but also that of everyone who couldn't afford, for medical or monetary reasons, to leave. Consider the rhetorical power of the statement I made: despite Lee being a known propagandist disinclined to think anyone with white skin a victim, the skeptical viewer can tease from his narrative of Katrina's aftermath a complete picture of the devestation that affected all its residents. Clever, ain't it? Unfortunately, one member of the audience turned out not to be that clever. First, as quoted above, he accused me of finding the documentary compelling because, like Lee, I...

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