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From Apocalypse to Disaster, America Is Obsessed with the Prospect of Bad News

Author of the new book <i>The Culture of Calamity</i>, Kevin Rozario explains why we are so fond of a good crisis.
 
 
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Given the windfall profits reaped by corporations like Halliburton in the wake of Katrina and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the concept that disasters can benefit some will surprise few close observers.

However, when Kevin Rozario set about researching the dark days of the American experience, he stumbled across something unexpected. Americans, at large, viewed catastrophic earthquakes, fires and hurricanes with surprising optimism. Whether seeing it as a religious opportunity to get back on the straight and narrow, or an economic opportunity to rebuild bigger and better, Americans are uniquely steeped in the potential of crisis.

Rozario's recent book The Culture of Calamity explores the role that massive catastrophe has played in American culture. Why did the stock market radically jump despite the prediction of thousands of jobs lost in Hurricane Katrina? Who benefits from disasters? How did it come to be that, in the wake of 9/11, an average of $2.1 million in tax-free payments were made to the families of those killed in the attacks? Why are mainstream media outlets inundated with images of destruction?

Rozario, having spent years exploring primary documents from fires during the time of the Puritans, overcivilized San Franciscans living through the great earthquake, to the fallout of 9/11, has a unique perspective on America's crisis-oriented imagination. He joined AlterNet in a recent interview to explain how the American economy and self-perception has become dependent upon catastrophe.

Onnesha Roychoudhuri: You write that the United States is particularly crisis-oriented. Why is that?

Kevin Rozario: Going back to the 17th century, religious ideas were important to the formation of thinking about disaster. The Puritans in New England were especially weighted with this Calvinist sense that trial through suffering is the thing that leads you to God. A culture like that is going to be absorbed in catastrophic events because they're always looking for those testing times.

From the very beginning of European settlement in the 17th century, there was intense fascination with hurricanes, fires and earthquakes. The religious dimension imposed a narrative on these moments of destruction, and the narrative is that settlers are sinners, god speaks to them primarily through disasters, and when a disaster happens, that's god telling them how to correct your evil ways and get back on the track of salvation and virtue. These ways of thinking spread more broadly into the population. And it's this way of thinking that led to a perception of calamities as instruments of progress.

OR: What opportunities do disasters provide Americans?

KR: Generally speaking, it tends to be more affluent and powerful Americans who view disasters as opportunities, as blessings, because they're the ones who are able to capitalize on them in order to bring about the kinds of political and economic outcomes that they want.

Take Increase Mather, a Puritan divine in the late 17th century, a very influential figure. For him, a disaster was specifically useful for bringing people back to the path of God. Everyone stopped to listen to him at a time of crisis. It allowed him to pursue his own moral and political agendas. He had a thing about people with long hair and drinking and breaking the Sabbath. He basically said that when a disaster happens, that's God telling us not to do these things. The politics of disaster is one in which people in positions of influence very early on come to realize that disasters can be very useful for capturing hold of the people's attention.

OR: But isn't catastrophe an economic obstacle for those in power?

KR: As early as the 17th century, you see disasters turning out to have economic benefits. For example, in 1676, there's the Boston Fire. It burned down a lot of obsolete and inefficient buildings and enabled the city to step in and rebuild more efficiently laid out roads. The people whose homes and businesses burned down tend not to be quite so excited by a disaster unless they have good insurance, but what does often seem to be the case is that a lot of the disasters, especially in the 19th century, were urban conflagrations, and they tended to hit downtown areas and business districts. They often wiped out decaying and crumbling infrastructure and basically cleared space so that you could build on top of them.

In the New York City fire of 1835 the value of land goes up eight times in the two months between the fire and the aftermath of the fire. The land was worth more cleared of the property than with property. That tells us something very interesting about the way that American capitalism works and the importance of destruction in order to create space for new developments and expansion.

OR: The connection between disaster and economic boon can be seen even today. You write that, despite the Congressional Budget Office's prediction that Hurricane Katrina would result in some 4,000 jobs lost, the Dow Jones average went up 300 points. Can you explain this phenomenon?

KR: In a way that story goes back to 1906. After the San Francisco earthquake, there was a lot of concern about what kind of economic hit the country was going to take as a result of the disaster. What turned out was that there was a relatively buoyant economy, stock prices went up after the disaster.

A New York Times correspondent started to investigate disasters to see what happened to stock prices afterward and he discovered a phenomenon that he called "catastrophe markets." Investors get quite excited by these moments. Either these are opportunities for massive rebuilding or capital investment with high rates of return. The Wall Street Journal did a study in 1999 and found it to still be broadly true. Wherever disaster happens, there were economic benefits that outweighed the economic costs if you look at the economy broadly, not considering who is benefiting and who is losing.

This sort of instability is what the economy feeds and depends upon. When we talk about the economy as an abstraction, that's one thing. But, we have to ask the question: Who is actually going to be reaping those benefits?

OR: You argue a broader point in the book that our economy may require this kind of obliteration in order to stay afloat.

KR: Capitalism itself is a system of destruction and creation. You have to keep destroying the old in order to clear space for then new. Otherwise, it achieves stasis, and if it achieves stasis, it dies. It depends on constant expansion just to keep going. But again, to be very clear about this, not all Americans think this is a blessing. This is a process that can be extremely lucrative for businesses, but it's a process that can be extremely destructive for laborers. The benefits of disaster are very unevenly portioned and they go to those with power and influence rather than ordinary Americans.

OR: Is this lack of trickle-down to the working poor seen throughout the history of catastrophes?

KR: One could say that there are some general trickle down effects for most people. At the same time, if you look at specific disasters, you tend to see that people at the margins get victimized. Disasters are such useful instruments for those in power to say, "This is a crisis, an emergency; we need to suspend civil liberties and submit to authority."

In 18th century Boston, when there was a large fire, what were called Negroes and mulattos at the time were conscripted for free work to rebuild the cities. That's great for the people who own the city. Not so great for the people whose work is being coerced.

OR: Historically, an American market for sensational disaster developed fairly early on -- when Americans were concerned with "overcivilization." Can you explain how this developed?

KR: One of the things that is most striking about the 1890s is that on the one hand you have the story of modernity, of American industrialization. There is increasing rationality, technical command, mechanization and order. But there was also this growing sense, especially among the elite, that American has overcivilized. If the frontier is gone, and America is becoming too bureaucratic and civilized, where is American greatness going to come from?

There's this real fear that America is going to lose something quite precious -- it's dynamism, it's courage, what I call its crisis-oriented imagination. It's stunning to read about the San Francisco earthquake. They're able to join in, to watch a whole city rocking or to see buildings swaying, to have a suspension of civilized routine, be cooking outside. Life becomes one great outdoor adventure.

OR: If anyone professed to enjoy such a catastrophe today, they would probably be shunned.

KR: Yes, it's very much of that moment. Again, the people who are expressing this enjoyment and excitement are the people who are allowed to say what they want to say. It tends to be well-known journalist philosophers like William James, Teddy Roosevelt and so forth.

Those are the people that are allowed to talk about the odd compensating delights of these great moments of adversity. You don't really find that happening anymore. Certainly after Katrina, you didn't find anyone really talking about the vacation that came with that disaster.

OR: What's the change?

KR: In the last couple of decades, we've shifted into a new cultural moment where disasters tend to fill people more with a doom and anxiety than with a sense of possibility. People living through Katrina, or even people watching it on television aren't having a sense that things will be rebuilt bigger and better. That loss of sustaining optimism has shaken the sense of disaster as adventure.

At the same time, if you look at something like Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke , there's still a certain amount of humor. The people who got through that disaster look back on it with, not a sense of it as an adventure, but the sense that this disaster brought out the best in some people who were there and that this was a world historical moment that they lived through.

There's the sense that many of them rose to the occasion in helping out their neighbors in situations of incredible adversity. But it's not going to be an adventure if your home might be wiped out forever and there's no guarantee that you're going to be allowed back into your old neighborhood.

OR: How has disaster been covered by the press? You trace the sensationalism back to the first mainstream newspaper, the New York Herald , which promised to "exhilarate the breakfast table."

KR: In a way it goes back even earlier. For all of the Puritans' talk about the importance of salvation and righteousness, they were very excited by disasters. Even in the 1600s, they tended to produce a lot of very sensationalistic sermons like "The Duty of Rejoicing Under Calamities and Afflictions."

This is an early form of media, sensationalizing disaster and making it exciting in some ways. The rise of mass newspapers in the 1830s was a moment of escalation. Suddenly, there are newspapers trying to entertain people and arouse their readership.

Newspapers before the 1830s were really about selling a political vision. By the 1830s, they're about making money. The rise of commercial media is very closely connected to the rise of sensationalistic representation of disaster as an event that people want to read about on their table in the morning, to be thrilled by, appalled by, excited by. By the time you get to the late 19th century, newspapers are increasingly illustrated, and those begin to take over the pages. Again, the image itself tends to sensationalize disasters.

The rise of the movies in the 1890s and onward also uses destruction as a topic of interest. This ties into the overcivilization phenomenon. People who are bored by their daily lives tend to look to disaster to be exciting. Also, there's a lot of censorship about what can shown in newspapers, newsreels and movies. You can't have much in the way of explicit sexual representation. You often can't have representation of wars because that is deemed dangerous to national security interests.

Disaster doesn't violate obscenity laws or threaten national security. By default, it seems, that the sensationalistic media is magnetized by disaster. By the time you get into the CNN world of 24-hour coverage, it becomes increasingly difficult to know how to hold people's attention hour after hour and disasters are perfect.

OR: The book explores the correlation between the amount of time that media spends covering a catastrophe and how much money is contributed. How close is that connection?

KR: Everybody agrees that we live in a culture of spectacle. It's hard to disagree. The question is, what kind of effect does this have on culture as a whole? What struck me about my research into this was that contrary to the common line that living in a culture of spectacle pacifies or anesthetizes us, these spectacles are actually extremely energizing events. People who watched and read coverage of 9/11 actually got out there and raised money and volunteered. The same thing with Katrina.

At the same time, in the case of 9/11, there was also a response of pretty rampant xenophobia rather than a real commitment to figuring out the political, economic and social histories that produce these events. That's a problem of the culture of spectacle. We tend to get aroused for that moment, we want our cathartic response, but it doesn't necessarily lead to people really trying to figure out the processes that govern our world.

The 9/11 Fund gave an average of 2.1 million in tax-free payments to each family of those killed in the attacks. It's extraordinary the amount of money that the government was willing to commit, but also people through the Red Cross. I was as horrified as anybody else by 9/11 and moved to tears by the plight of the victims.

But, in a world of limited resources, who does one help out? There are plenty of other people who are suffering in the country who don't get that kind of hand-out. And with the 9/11 victims, some of them actually came from pretty affluent families who didn't require that sort of charitable help.

OR: Is the leadership response to 9/11 characteristic of a post-disaster situation?

KR: There are certain patterns of response to disasters that seem to be replicated after 9/11. One is that disaster introduces emergency or crisis conditions. You also find municipal governments seizing enormous powers to protect citizens, rescue them, and to rebuild parts of the city. You also see people in positions of power using disasters to augment their own authority. Decisive leadership can lead to some wonderful effects.

There are many times in history where people have just decided to suspend the Constitution and do what needs to be done to save the people. The exemplary case study was the Coast Guard in Hurricane Katrina ripping up its rulebook and saying we're going to do whatever it takes to save these people.

On the other hand, when there are people in positions of authority who, given that kind of license, use that to shore up their own authority to serve their own agenda. And I think that happened at 9/11. There was a lot pressure to limit civil liberties, to the point where a permanent disaster was declared. That means that the government can permanently suspend due democratic processes.

There are historical similarities, but there is something qualitatively about 9/11. The sheer size of the security apparatus dwarfs anything before. It's one thing to talk about municipal governments taking advantage of the 1727 earthquake to push through some kind of some new law, it's another thing when you talk about the Homeland Security apparatus, which is an extraordinarily powerful bureaucracy. There's a real escalation in scale here about the decisiveness with which government has stepped in to suspend civil liberties and promote its agendas. And as we know some of those agendas are obviously political.

After previous disasters, people began to demand their civil liberties much more quickly than happened after 9/11. It's extraordinary to see how long it took before civil liberties and democratic process began to get a fair hearing after 9/11. That suggests a certain complicity on the part of the public as well as effectiveness on the part of the government at protecting its powers against due process.

OR: How has the concept of national security evolved in relation to catastrophe?
KR: At the beginning of the 20th century, social security became one of the buzzwords of government and public policy. Social security basically meant the security of people against homelessness, unfair suffering and the kinds of misfortunes that they could not be held responsible for.

There were pensions for widows or various benefits for homeless soldiers passed in the early 20th century. By the time you get to the 1930s with the New Deal, this whole notion of social security really becomes paramount and feeds into disaster response. There was a sense that living in America should mean being safe from undeserved misfortune.

But in the 1950s, national security is defined in terms of protecting the state and the people from enemies who wish to destroy them. Those enemies could be enemies abroad or it could be enemies at home. It's a sense of national security as something that requires spy networks, CIA, FBI, a national security state. It's an intricate dance after disasters between the two notions of security. Is the role of the state to protect us against enemies, or is it to protect us against broader misfortunes?

It's very unclear to me what the cultural outcome of Katrina is going to be. On the one hand, there was a lot of talk especially in government, that the way to deal with an event like Katrina, was to build a bigger security state apparatus, a bigger homeland security system in order to keep Americans safe. At the same time, I think Katrina got people thinking much more in social terms, and concerned with issues of race, poverty, welfare, unemployment and environmental problems.

OR: After 9/11, we developed the most expansive disaster state ever. Yet the response to Katrina was embarrassing.

It's a matter of where the resources are being allocated. Most of the money that was going into FEMA was going to security state issues. A lot of the resources were being directed to the Iraq war and to surveillance. Those aspects of security were being overemphasized and the broader security of people, environmental, economic and so forth were being neglected. It was the outrage that Katrina provoked that was so interesting.

Historically, disasters have been absorbed into a narrative of progress. Disasters happen, Americans triumph over adversity. What happened after Katrina is that it exposed the weakness of America. The mainstream press, even pretty conservative press outlets made the story of Katrina that something is not well with the state of our country.

Not only that, but it puts the problems with poverty and racism at the center of that story. It opens up interesting possibilities for the way that we might respond to disasters in the future, but also the kinds of infrastructure that we want to build, and how we rebuild cities.

OR: What is the evangelical Christian relationship to catastrophe imagery?

KR: The evangelical Christian revival of the last few decades has been nursed on images of catastrophe, books, movies, all talking about the horrible catastrophes that are to come unless we change our ways. When I delved in deeper into that, the catastrophe mentioned by many of these evangelical commentators was exactly the kind of catastrophe that Hollywood had been putting up on its screens for the last few generations.

An event like 9/11 was mesmerizing to many evangelicals, not simply because of its message, that this was god's retribution or that it was a sign that we had to put our support in our conservative administration, but that they, like many other people, found it spectacularly exciting in certain ways.

When 9/11 happened, it fit a Hollywood engineered notion of what a big disaster was and therefore it fit everybody's expectation of what an apocalyptic moment should look like. That seemed to have led a lot of people, especially evangelicals, to believe that God was speaking through that particular disaster.

OR: You cite Slavoj Zizek's observation that "in a way, America got what it fantasized about and that was the biggest surprise." What do you take this to mean?

KR: When 9/11 happened, everybody was shocked and appalled. The buzz phrase at the time was, "This changes everything." It was as if something like this had never happened in American history, that it was unimaginable. The basic point that Zizek was making was that we imagine this all the time.

Not only do we imagine this, we're obsessed with this. Every time we go to a movie to watch a summer blockbuster to get entertained, we find the destruction of landmarks like the twin towers. That is what we go to for our excitement, for our thrills, to have a good time. These movies are thrilling precisely because they show American infrastructure being destroyed.

If you see this repeatedly in movies, television shows and video games for decades and then 9/11 happens, it's not unimaginable. It's an event that has been overimagined. It's become the stuff of our fantasies. That raises all sorts of questions about what kind of emotional, psychological, cultural response is elicited by the spectacle of the twin towers falling. What does it mean to us that this is real rather than fabricated by Hollywood. What does it mean to us that we enjoy this when it's fictional?

OR: I had a moment of questioning like that after seeing Hotel Rwanda . When I left the theater, there were two teenagers talking, arguing whether it was better than Titanic.

KR: A theater conditions us to have an entertainment response to certain types of images. Then we take ourselves out of the theater and watch it happening in the city. I think Zizek is onto something interesting when he suggests that this is a moment to look deep into our own souls and psyches and try to figure out what kind of people we've become.

I wouldn't be surprised if there's not some connection between the type of thrill response some of us might have got at some level from watching these images and the desire to purge ourselves by going out and doing something to help people, a thrill guilt sequence.

Onnesha Roychoudhuri is a San Francisco-based freelance writer. A former assistant editor for AlterNet.org, she has written for AlterNet, The American Prospect, MotherJones.com, In These Times, Huffington Post, Truthdig, PopMatters, and Women's eNews.

 
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