I spent most of the past week in New York City, attending to family matters. (The basic purpose of the trip was so that my parents could spend some time with their grandchildren).
Whenever we were in our hotel room, and the kids were awake, we had the TV on, turned to CNN or MSNBC, watching images of the current catastrophe. I was struck, even more forcefully than usual, by the cognitive dissonance between what was seen, and what was said. Images of horror, covered by the most anodyne commentary conceivable. I remember, during the 1999 Seattle anti-WTO protests, when visuals of cops running amok were accompanied by one local anchorperson whining that her Christmas shopping had been disrupted by all the fuss and hubbub downtown. But this week’s coverage was far worse. Even as the reporters and commentators mentioned, for once, the usually taboo subjects of race and class, their overall tone and demeanor was working to muffle and diminish the impact of what we were seeing, to suggest that human benevolence was going to triumph over merely temporary difficulties. Soledad O’Brien, ‘on the scene’ yet standing firmly on dry land, didn’t break into a sweat, nor lose an ounce of her perkiness, as she reported that help was on the way. Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper reported the flooding, the starvation, the lack of medical care, in the same tone that they would use to describe chatting pleasantly with Donald Rumsfeld at a cocktail party. It wasn’t so much what they said, as how they said it.
Leftist philosophers, theorists, and cultural critics have usually been worried about the seductive power of images: the way that they disarm criticism by making What Is seem self-evident, by reifying particular moments and isolating them from their contexts, by preventing any analysis that would seek to go beneath surface appearances. And indeed, it’s true that images shorn of context have often been used for the most hideous propagandistic purposes. But here, in televisual feed coming from New Orleans this past week, we seem to have the reverse situation: images that ‘speak’ starkly of the ugly facts of race and class in America today, that show how the Powers That Be of government and business have relegated large numbers of human beings to the status of non-persons, that demonstrate eloquently that, however ‘natural’ the disaster, the differential experience of the victims is entirely man-made; while a flood (if I can use that metaphor) of speech and discourse strives to decontextualize and normalize these people’s suffering, and to ‘explain’ how, even in the face of sadness and tragedy, life goes on and the USA continues to be the greatest nation on earth.