I'd always been fascinated by New Orleans - the culture, the architecture, the food, the history, and had always wanted to take a trip there. I finally got around to taking that trip last summer and found that the culture, architecture, food, history, and everything else were everything I'd imagined they'd be and then some. The picture in the right corner of this page, my favorite picture of me ever taken, was taken in New Orleans. I began fantasizing about having a second home there, you know, someday when I could afford it, maybe even living there full-time. So, it's been especially difficult for me these last couple of weeks watching my favorite American city save New York completely decimated at a level far beyond even what New York experienced on 9/11/01 in terms of area of the city affected. New Orleans has made unique and important contributions to American popular culture through jazz, literature, and countless other forms. In fact, it's probably had the biggest impact on American culture of any city save New York, and at a fraction of the size. So anything that so damages New Orleans damages America in profound ways that frankly wouldn't obtain if we were talking about some other small city.
Part of the charm, the character of New Orleans was always the unique sensibility of the locals, a laidbackness that ultimately lead to a dysfunctionality, all rooted in the rhythms of living in a subtropical climate probably. Another factor in this laid back, devil-may-care culture was probably the fact that there was always the ready prospect of death by hurricane, leading to a constant "party like it's 1999" vibe. Consider the dark humor of calling the local drink the "hurricane". (This Michael Ledeen column about cities like Venice, Naples, and New Orleans whose culture is rooted in the constant possibility of destruction is excellent.) There have already been calls by various conservative grumps to either not rebuild New Orleans because it's too dangerous or to try to now reform it into some efficient, boring paragon of the New South like Houston or Atlanta. Both of these ideas miss the point. New Orleans must be rebuilt. There's too much cultural significance there not to. It also needs to remain New Orleans or what's the point?
The political response to Katrina's aftermath has been depressingly predictable. While Democrats all but blame Bush for the hurricane itself, the right blogosphere seeks to insulate anyone in the federal government from any possible criticism. The template here is Iraq - the idea being that things really weren't that bad it was just the "MSM' blowing things out of proportion again. Never mind that the "MSM" in this case was actually on the scene and there was no equivalent of Iraqi or soldier's blogs telling a different story, while most of the bloggers commenting were thousands of miles away with nothing to go on but their relentless hatred of the "MSM" , the same "MSM" that was basing their information on actual first-hand observation or on interviews with survivors from the Superdome or the Convention Center, our American concentration camps.
The most perceptive thing written about Katrina has already been linked to by David Brooks in his column, Ross Douthat's brilliant post on Katrina as the "Anti-9/11". I think it's more than that just that though. I think Katrina represents the end of the post 9/11 consensus.
Fourth Anniversary of 9/11
The post 9/11 consensus was really extremely brief but it did get us to Afghanistan. I still lived in Brooklyn at the time, surrounded by the most bohemian lefty people you can imagine, and I didn't know a single person who didn't want us to invade some country, it almost didn't matter which, the second after the second jet hit. The minute the debate over going into Iraq started though, this national consensus was really lost. Vestiges of it remained but now it's lost completely and utterly. It's somewhere in the toxic sludge of New Orleans.
We've now faced another cataclysm of equal power and damage to the psyche as 9/11. Though it pains some people to hear the comparison made, the feelings and images are eerily familiar. Where they are different they are worse in the case of New Orleans: eerie images of a city unlike you ever thought you'd see it, horrible unspeakable things happening that aren't supposed to happen in a major American city, missing posters and attempts to find loved ones, the entire country transfixed by the drama. Only in New Orleans you add the 80% of the city underwater, the lootings, the rapes, the lawlessness, the complete breakdown of local, state, and federal officials, the total lack of a Giuliani figure, the lack of any inspiring "I hear you, America hears you, and the men who knocked down these buildings will hear from all of us soon" moment from President Bush.
We come out of this cataclysm not a unified nation inspired by America's Mayor and America's President and by the heroism of the FDNY but a divided nation in which half of the country views the tragedy of the flawed response as a political opportunity and half of the country doesn't even acknowledge that the response was flawed to begin with. The political blogosphere has split once again exactly in two along these lines.
In the post-9/11 consensus era blogs provided welcome straight talk about terrorism and everything related to it. They provided a corrective to an "MSM" that really was too politically correct, too ignorant of world affairs and history, and too unwilling to acknowledge the existence of real evil. In this respect, a website like LGF, or I should say the far different incarnation of LGF that existed around this time, was invaluable. The simple act of linking to MEMRI's translations of the Arab press was incredibly informative and relevant, and something you'd never see done in the "MSM", even on PBS or the BBC. Blogs also provided a lot of fresh, idiosyncratic voices that couldn't be easily pigeonholed into the usual right/left Republican/Democrat categories that most pundits can.
Clearly, that was then and this is now. While in the post-9/11 era a host of blogs of all different stripes were unified around support for the War on Terror if nothing else. Now, you have pro-Bush blogs and anti-Bush blogs. I would call them conservative and liberal blogs or Republican and Democrat blogs, but really it's hard to detect an ideology beyond like or dislike (really love or hate) of the current president. Pro-Bush blogs stand by their man no matter what. And here's the strange part, they do so even on issues that have nothing whatsoever to do with the War on Terror, the grand post-9/11 blog consensus issue. They back Bush on his out-of-control spending, on Teresa Schiavo, on his abysmal response to Hurricane Katrina. And here's the even stranger part, the most gung-ho, vehement pro-Bush bloggers are nearly all post-9/11 Bush supporters, those very people who started their sites in the aftermath of 9/11 and came to support Bush solely because of his handling of the war on terror - so they said - even if they weren't easy to pigeonhole as liberals or conservatives. These same people have gone from supplying unpredictable, fresh voices to being robotic, knee-jerk pro-Bush partisans.
Maybe the blogosphere needs a single big topic to organize it or maybe 9/11 was a singular event and it could only be that. Maybe this shift in the blogosphere from unity and independent thought to rank partisanship is simply a reflection of the shift in the country or maybe it's its own development. At any rate, Katrina and blog response to it coming on the fourth anniversary of 9/11 signals the end of an era. On this fourth anniversary of 9/11 the country has now seen something roughly as terrible as that day, if not worse, and it's not something that will unify us but something that will tear us apart even further.