Thursday, September 01, 2005

The Elephant in the Room . . . [UPDATED]

. . . that all the news anchors delicately tiptoe around -- that the camera announces so loudly into their silence -- is that almost all the looters shown in news footage loading Wal-Mart shopping carts with videogames and Nike shoes are black. And they look giddy and celebratory, like people who've won a shopping spree on a game show, as they indulge in this macabre parody of American consumerism. (One helicopter-borne observer marveled that this was a case of "you can't take it with you," since when the city is evacuated most of the loot will perforce remain behind. It almost looks as if the fantasy being fulfilled was shopping, not owning.)

I wonder what the blogs are saying about this; anchorpeople may mince words, but blogs are not known for euphemism; they're usually refreshingly blunt and opinionated. But I don't know where to look, except Booker Rising -- the wide-ranging black moderate-to-conservative site -- which has two posts, one about the, yes, racist difference between coverage of whites described as "finding" and blacks "looting" food from grocery stores, the other about the racial composition of New Orleans (two-thirds black, many of them middle class and outta there before Katrina hit). Though this post is titled "Race, Class, and Hurricane Katrina," it mostly deals with issues other than looting, until the end, where Shay admonishes "Ain't helpin' the cause. Come on, my people, we are better."

First of all, I would like to state that the word "looting" does not properly apply to anyone, of whatever melanin concentration, taking food and drink from a deserted grocery store in the middle of a catastrophe. On September 11, everyone in New York rode the city buses for free. In the same way, in a disaster-stricken city, food and drink belong to whomever needs them.

Gleefully filling shopping carts at Wal-Mart is something else. One of Booker Rising's commenters expresses ambivalent leftist schadenfreude at Wal-Mart's (and Nike's) comeuppance:

I'm not too broken up about people stealing from Wal-Mart, another highly questionable capitalist organization that will have no difficulty recouping their losses through insurance. Also, I take some small satisfaction in seeing people steal Nikes, a corporation that has built its empire on the backs of the poor in sweatshops worldwide. When a pair of $150 basketball shoes only cost you $12 to manufacture and $8 to market, there's a kind of equitable symmetry in seeing poor people steal these shoes, though in practicality I realize that the retailer is the one who's really taking the hit.

What are we seeing in the flooded streets of New Orleans (and Biloxi, too)?

Well, for one thing, a kind of frustrated, pent-up consumerism bursting out in people who are constantly being teased by ads for things they can't afford. (Of course, that's also the rapist's excuse for assaulting a provocatively dressed woman.) More seriously, you're seeing people who are very alienated from any notion of the common good. Blame slavery, or blame liberalism for blaming slavery, but you're seeing people who feel that the social compact does not include them; that society at large has given them nothing, and therefore they owe it nothing.

The proximate cause of looting is the combustible mix of opportunity plus poverty. Poor people loot -- but then again, most poor people don't, and not all looters are poor. Would some poor whites do the same? Sure. (We have to assume the cameramen are not selectively filming black looters but are simply filming what's there; the majority of New Orleans' poor, as of its population, are black.) But do more poor whites identify more with authority and mainstream culture, making them law-abiding citizens who support the corporate establishment against their own economic self-interest, as progressives like Thomas Frank complain?

My guess is that the answer is ultimately more cultural than economic, although the two are hard to separate. Remember the phrase "the culture of poverty"? You might as well talk about "the poverty of culture," a disease that, it could be argued, also afflicts some high-living, double-bookkeeping CEOs, even if they do contribute lavishly to the symphony. People, white or black (or other), who are influenced by a strong religious or cultural value system will not loot, however poor (or rich and powerful) they may be, while people whose only religion or value system is greed and grievance will -- often, however well-off they may be. I'm thinking, too, of the late '60s-'70s fad for shoplifting among middle-class kids. Abbie Hoffman's Steal this Book. It was called "liberating" stuff back then.

Maybe, in the flooded Wal-Marts of New Orleans, it still is.

UPDATE: This morning the "looting" is so violently out of control -- a Chinook helicopter preparing to carry refugees to the Astrodome had to call off its operation when it was shot at -- that it's clear all we're talking about now is the culture of criminality. Gangbangers and thieves are terrorizing everybody else. That fraction of every population that is only kept in check at all by law enforcement is reveling in its absence and completing the hellish destruction Katrina began. Anyone who romanticizes lawlessness should take a good, long look.

UPDATE II: Ann Althouse has a good post on this, quoting Peggy Noonan -- who also says that taking necessities of life should not be confused with "looting" -- and with many thoughtful comments, the gist of which is that thugs now were thugs long before the hurricane. This issue has nothing to do with race, except the human race -- every group has its thugs.

[Cross-posted on AmbivaBlog]


At 8:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do not think strong religious convictions stop people from surviving. It is funny that people will thank a god for all the help that is funneling in, just forgetting the people who have contributed and actually invested their time and money to help with the devistation in the gulf. Why not put they blame where it firmly rests; if your heart and mind resides in some sort of religous conviction blame it on your god, who is supposed to protect you. He would be the only one who could stop a natural disaster such as this.

Hopefully the religious communal thought processes will realize how ignorant it is to have a natural disaster destroy your house, separate you from your family, or kill your family, keep you out of your town for possibly months and then thank a god, they believe to be all powerful, then he could have stopped this, for sending help.

That is like my father watching me get ran over by a vehicle, that he could have moved me from harms way and then calling for help after I am half dead, and me responding with thank you dad for calling help, but not blaming him for not moving me out of the way.

Help me understand the insanity that goes along with the religious belief system.

At 10:06 AM, Blogger Alan Stewart Carl said...

First, to anonymous: I would be careful before condemning the religous as small-minded. You obviously have very little experience with true religious convinction which not only recognizes that bad things happen but tries to understand why. It is one thing to ask how those of us who are religious reconcile events like Katrina, it is quite another to accuse us of being insane.

Now, as for amba's post, I too had noticed the racial homogeny of the looters. But I do not know if this is due to New Orlean's overall racial make-up or something more complicated and more uncomfortable for us to speak about. I do know, however, that it was only the poorest who stayed behind. They lacked the money needed to evacuate. Then, most probably lost their belongings in the floods and have no insurance to cover those loses. I would imagine there is a lot of dispair in those communities--and I would imagine that dispair is a major contributing factor to the looting.

But I don't think that excuses their actions. Looting is wrong. Period. Which is why I'm actually more disgusted with the commentor you quoted who tried to make these blatant criminal acts seem like some kind of Marxist liberation. Middle and upper class liberals must stop using Marxist theology (and I'd say it's pretty much a theology nowadays) to excuse the poor when they commit repugnant acts. Is it so hard to condemn the condemnable?

At 11:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Again, hard to get a straight level headed answer from closed minded, "not small-minded", do not know where you got that from my post, but religious folks piece together lots of ideas and cloned beliefs to form their own, but you still have not answered the question of blame.

Lastly, if religious folks realize bad things and try to find out why they happen, then why don't you pray and ask your god why he let this happen, why did he not give divine guidance to the citizens of the gulf for the past 30 years and secure the area or at least provide a better response.

I think if my father continually allowed misfortune to fall upon me I would lose faith in him. I don't understand how religions differentiate the two and cloud the minds of so many.

Thanks and keep them coming.

At 12:02 PM, Blogger Alan Stewart Carl said...


You seem to think that to believe in God one must believe that only good will happen, or should happen. Faith is not a quid pro quo agreement between the believer and his/her God. I'll be faithful if you protect me. It doesn't work that way and I know of no religious person who believes it does.

Yes, we pray for protection but we understand that our ways are not God's ways. That we are not just of the flesh, but of the spirit as well. That tragedy has consequences far beyond what we can see in the moment.

Why did God bring (or allow) Katrina? I don't know. It's beyond me. But I do know that the fact Katrina hit doesn't mean God has abandoned us or is somehow sadistic.

It's not easy to see that kind of destruction and keep your faith rock solid. I know of few who can. And yet most do keep their faith because we know that even as God's ways can sometimes seem cruel, He is ultimately good and the proper way to respond is not through despair but through rallying around our beliefs and offering the compassion and help Jesus asked and asks of us. And that's neither insane nor close minded.

In fact, I think it's far more close minded to dismiss the faithful as mentally clouded.

Faith is complicated. The world is complicated. The religious understand this.

At 12:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think you understand how I think or the world operates. I actually do understand bad things happen, however, it is the religious that jump on the god bandwagon when good happens, everyone thanks god and says they are thankful god blessed them, however, when something bad happens the rhetoric changes to, "well things happen, we don't understand gods ways."
Well to start with your believing in something not proven anyway.

Again, I understand faith, I used to be blinded by it also, but I started to see and understand the nuiances that people were living with to be faithful. Faith is something you have in someone, ie your spouse, friends, etc. and that is A OK. But when you have "blind faith" just because someone has told you to from an early age and you have little/no proof as to why you are believing then you are bordering on insanity.

Aren't most people bewildered when they hear of a person talking to ghosts or talking to themselves, most people say they are crazy or insane to be talking to someone that is obviously not there, at least, visually. But when someone talks to jesus or god it is not regarded as insane rather enlightened or blessed. Don't get me wrong I am not trying to be-little religious convictions or moral values that some associate with religion.

Morals and religion are not synonmous. An aethist/agnostic can be just as morally/ethically right or wrong as a Christian or other religious group.

The problem I have is this fatherly approach that my father can't do any wrong. Anything positive that happens is by the grace of god, however, when something negative enters someone's life it is the work of the devil or unexplainable why it happened.

That is all I ask; explain yourself, not just you but others, religion is a powerful mechanism by which to control people and their thoughts. It is not a divine message from a creator. The bible's contents were voted in not divinely etched in stone.

At 2:04 PM, Blogger Alan Stewart Carl said...

So you think that praising God when good happens means religious people should condemn God when bad happens? I would agree that many people are too quick to attribute certain successes to God that God probably had nothing to do with (athletes come to mind). But just because I give thanks for my blessings doesn't mean I have to codemn God for my failures. I don't believe He controls me and nor do most Christians.

I think it's important to know that the world does not end and begin with us alone. That there are things greater than ourselves and humbleness is a quality we should embrace. Being religious isn't about (or shouldn't be about) subjecting one's will, but about understanding that the world doesn't revolve aroound one's will.

It's a far deeper thing than morals. Clearly non-religious people can be moral. It's foolish to say otherwise. But religion can be a very strong moral moring for many people. And it can give meaning where those such as yourself see none. Now, if you think believing in a greater meaning, in a greater order is unwise, then that's your choice. But I have seen enough of the world to know that there is much that is greater than me...that is greater than humanity. No, I don't have "proof" in a scientific sense. But faith is a kind of proof that lies outside physical evidence.

Also, ther than in certain circumstances, how is religion controlling anyone? There are countless variations of the major religions and, at least here in America and elsewhere in the West, we are free to choose where and how we worship. Who is controlling all the faithful?

It is not the "opiate of the masses" that Marx claimed. Like just about everything he wrote, Marx was wrong. The world is not as simplistic as he believed. And, in fact, I'd say it is religion, in its ability to let us live both in the physical AND spiritual worlds, that offers the complexity of belief most true to our complex world. Not all religions, sure. But most.

Finally, do not confuse the loud and often msguided religion of a few in this nation and abroad with what religion means to many others of us. It is one thing to say "this specific religion or sect is misguided" and quite another to lunp all religious convictions together.

At 3:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I appreciate you candor and openness to dialogue with someone not of your beliefs.

As my purpose of this is not to destroy what gives a person substance and a purpose in life.

My earlier post you referenced did not mean to condemn god for evil in the world, or natural disasters such as the current one, but only to realize and give responsibility to the same god some give to their achievements. Forgive me if I make fun of this but it is just funny that grown adults would believe such.

We can classify in our teachings the religions of ancient Greece and natives as mythology, but the biblical stories and fundamental ideas, which I might add are built upon and cloned from such mythological/ancient ideas and beliefs are ingrained from birth as a truth to be disproven, totally against societies obligation to prove the unproven.

Well, I guess we all need a little laughter in our lives. I guess we are all just one book away from believing SantaClaus was a divine gift giver. Not much difference in the validity of the stories.

PS: I am running out of time, but do not let my ideas or beliefs carry over to a reflection of my thoughts on your site, I very much enjoy your articles and the comments to and fro, keep up the good work and even differing ideas can agree upon expression of free thought.

At 4:54 PM, Blogger Alan Stewart Carl said...

I enjoy engaging those of differing beliefs. I think it's the only way we all can understand each other.

Let me then conclude by saying I think it's only one section of Christianity that believes the Bible to be 100% factual. I personally think something can be true but not factual. Meaning, I don't believe the events of the Bible happened exactly as told--so much as I believe the lessons they teach are fundamental truths as revealed by God.

You know, Jesus often spoke in parables and in Mark: 4 he explains why:

Unto you [his disciples] it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables: [in order] that... they...not perceive...and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them

Jesus admits that he reveals truths through parables so that only those who wish to understand may understand. He doesn't reveal truths directly because he does not want those who are unwilling to believe to gain the truth.

I tend to see much of the Old Testement as parable...God's way of revealing truth to those who believe. The facts may not be accurate, but the Truth is.

At 10:16 PM, Blogger catalexis said...

Found your site from a Google search which had only passing relevance but found your post interesting. As a very unhappy lefty in the US these days let me assure one and all that those of us who offer some excuse to people grabbing food and such in the middle of a disaster do not, in any way, extend that excuse to people firing on rescuers, I don't care how poor or disadvantaged they are.

Over at Eschaton (Atrios's blog, not mine)we've had trolls come in and claim we were blaming Bush for not stopping the hurricane. I saw the argument about God and so forth and I'll just pass on that and stick to questions of government and responsibility. In a disturbing echo of Secretary Rice's claim that "No one could forsee attacks with planes." when security planners had worked up exactly that scenario, we now have the President claiming that "No one could have forseen the levee breaks" when that was precisely the biggest alarm of the disaster planners concerning a catagory 4 or 5 storm hitting New Orleans. My question is this, if no one is ever going to pay any attention to what scientists and engineers have already worked to inform you of, exactly from where does anyone think this information is supposed to arrive? The fact is, they were warned that exactly this was going to happen and they did nothing of any practical nature to prepare for it. They authorized things to be done (with the declaration of disaster) a couple of days before Katrina hit and then moved not one plane, not one bus, not one canteen, not one sandwich, to help those who were not going to be able to respond to the call of "Flee for your lives!" There were no efforts made to evacuate, just a call for those able to do it themselves to do so.

So now we sit around and cluck our tounges at how badly the dregs of our society behave.

At 9:55 AM, Blogger Alan Stewart Carl said...


I think we can hold the looters and criminals responsible for their actions while also holding government agencies and leaders responsible for their inaction. It's not an either-or.

At 3:39 PM, Blogger Kate said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 6:08 PM, Blogger Rob Jackson said...


To disagree with you a bit, I think that there are plenty of religious people out there who believe that the bible is 100% factual regardless of whether it is mainstream for their Church to do so.

Look -- It's obvious that God wanted to punish all those sinners. Let's get real.

No, really...I'm not sure why people are obsessed with the Finger of God concept that God makes everything happen in the world: God is "with" the Patriots when the win the Superbowl or gets women pregnant ("God has blessed us with 9 kids").
My concept of God is much bigger than a persona that sits on a throne/cloud/flying carpet moving puppets and weather and Pat Robertson around.

After the tsunami, I asked a junior-high kid about what God's place is in disasters. The kid flatly said, "God didn't make the tsunami happen, Mother Nature did!"

Personally, I'm not sure where in the celestial hierarchy Mother Nature sits in reference to God, but I'd love to see that org. chart.

At 6:37 PM, Blogger Alan Stewart Carl said...


I don't think we disagree. Clearly a lot of people think the Bible is a factual history text. My point was simply that one shouldn't judge all religious people based on the beliefs of some religious people.

And if Mother Nature is to blame, she's in a nasty mood.

But, seriously, I absolutely agree with you that God is not some ruler on a thrown commanding the weather and guiding Tom Brady's arm. And altough I see no problem in thanking God for your children and good fortune, I think it's usually inaccurate to believe that God has singled you out for special blessings that He's intentionally denying others.

I do believe in miracles though. So, I dunno. God is fickle and Mother Nature's just mean. How about that?

At 9:25 AM, Blogger cakreiz said...

Hey, wait a minute, Alan. How did this thread get get hijacked? :) Thought your post was excellent. I'll sidestep religion, thank you, and pat you on the back for your honest and candor.


Post a Comment

<< Home