The Shame of Blaming the Victims


Talk about a flip-flop. Last year progressives were berated for embracing the "Anybody But Bush" philosophy; these days, after Bush's miserable failure of leadership leading up to and during the Katrina catastrophe, the right-wing opinion machine is a true aficionado of the ABB philosophy -- so long as it's Anybody But Bush accepting the blame for his failures.

Right-wing pundits and bloggers have sought to keep things neatly partisan and make the "blame game" a fight between local Democratic officials and federal Republicans. Now, however, many are giving in to the irresistible temptation to find even smaller, more powerless victims: the ordinary people of New Orleans who suffered the most.

In pursuit of this goal, characterizations of the citizens of New Orleans have been rapidly evolving as the punditry searches for just the right race-tinged label that will stick to them and take the blame off Bush. Here's a basic timeline of this evolution.

The early days when looting was the real problem

In the early days when it became clear that, like some bizarro King Midas, Bush was going to screw up yet again, the right-wing punditry ducked into spin mode. Blaming the victim is par for the course, but given the severity and immediacy of the situation, the right wing punditry resorted to the comfortable, if unsophisticated, racist stereotype of the hurricane victims as a bunch of criminals and gangsters, out trying to steal from the white man.

True to reputation, Michelle Malkin was first out of the racist rumor-mongering box, starting a long blog post on August 30 detailing every rumor or semi-news item that portrayed Katrina's victims as a crowd intent on stealing, rioting and killing. Having established to her own satisfaction that the chaos in New Orleans was due to criminality more than anything, she followed up with an August 31 post wondering if "law and order" could be restored -- clearly more worried about a few criminals getting away something than for the immediate safety of the victims themselves.

With the news media and right wing bloggers already excited about the looting, Peggy Noonan just couldn't contain herself, openly fantasizing about shooting looters on sight -- without specifying just who and what constitutes a "looter" of course. Uncharitable readers of Noonan's fantasy suggested that "looters" was code for anyone black and carrying something, though Noonan tried to make it clear that a looter should be defined only as someone carrying something expensive. Although the national disgrace was already apparent, Noonan chose to focus on looters rather than on the fact that thousands of people were stuck in a hellhole with no immediate relief or escape. But that sort of thing isn't important until we deal with the disgrace that is a few stolen TV sets.

The looting narrative reached its climax with Rich Lowry's article chastising the entire population of New Orleans for the crimes of the few, turning it into a moral lesson on how the government has no business helping until black people who take stuff that may or may not belong to white people cease to do so. Indeed, we can rest assured that the people suffering from dehydration and degradation in the Superdome and Convention Center while waiting for government help that seemed like it would never come would surely understand Lowry's point -- indeed, how could they be helped when there were TVs out there in grave danger of being stolen?

Phase II: Don't call us racist! We want to help the hustle the survivors out of town, after all

P.C. liberals are such whiners. Just because right wing pundits tried to distract from Bush's failures during Hurricane Katrina by drumming up wild fantasies about getting all vigilante on some poor black people, it doesn't make them racist. Not in the slightest. In fact, they're quite eager to demonstrate how they're going to help the largely black and impoverished population of New Orleans that had to be evacuated in total chaos, by helping relieve them of their land so that it can be developed for wealthier folks. That way they don't have to worry their heads about ever coming home again.

Of all the people who defensively claimed right wingers are not racist just because of a few lavish fantasies of vigilantism, my favorite has got to be Mary Katharine Ham. Take this gem:

I, Mary Katharine Ham, endorse the saving of all people left in New Orleans regardless of race.
Too bad Ham wasn't around for the civil rights movement of the 60s -- all that unpleasantness could have been avoided by her gracious announcement that she doesn't want all black people to drown to death. Indeed, generous hearts like hers are hard to come by. I have to admit, I like her especially for mentioning me in another post from September 6 where she went a step further in proving that the right is not racist. After all, not only does she not wish death on every black person in New Orleans, but she has actual photos of white and black people touching each other. Case closed.

Unfortunately, not everyone is as delightful as Ham. Latecomer Jonah Goldberg weighed in as late as September 9 on the issue of racism in the Katrina debacle. He smugly pointed out that as long as the right wing refused to talk about their opportunistic racist stereotyping or suspiciously lax response to Katrina, the left was having a monologue, not a dialogue. Of course, the fact that many right wing pundits and bloggers and even politicians like Condi Rice were addressing the subject of racism, if only to deny it openly, sort of disproved Goldberg's pet theory that only the left was talking about race. However, it remains true that by stubbornly refusing to deal with the issue the right is effectively blocking any productive change -- so Goldberg gets brownie points for that.

While Goldberg didn't want a dialogue on race and class, other right wing pundits and politicians were less reluctant. Denny Hastert jumped in feet first and all but came out and suggested that the best way to fix the persistent problem of poverty in New Orleans is to simply make it too hard for poor people to live there. Baton Rouge's Representative Baker suggested that the hurricane did the hard work of cleaning up low income housing for him. Jimmy Reiss of the New Orleans Business Council suggested that this was a good time to rebuild the city in various ways, including "demographically," a phrasing that wasn't up to snuff in the subtlety department. Plenty of writers picked up on the idea of making permanent the diaspora of the New Orleans poor, including Greg Perry, Eric Zorn, Jack Kemp, and David Brooks (hough he bungles it by not being so heartless as to suggest that people shouldn't return to the city they call home.).

Phase III: We give up -- Time to moralize and talk about welfare "dependency"

Liberals should have taken a moment to enjoy the sight of conservatives scrambling to show pictures of white people touching black people and trying to sell the idea that bulldozing people's homes to build gated communities is "compassionate" conservatism. As it became clear that the public was going to hold Bush responsible for a) not getting people out of New Orleans before the storm and b) letting people rot there for days without help, the right wing punditry realized that nice-sounding language that imitated compassion and hope for racial harmony had to be sacrificed to protect the President. Blaming the victim became the order of the day and thus one of the ugliest and most effective right wing bogeymen was whipped out to do the job -- the Welfare Queen!

The Welfare Queen is an oldie-but-goodie. Few stereotypes have this kind of versatility. Truly, she is like a jazz standard for conservatives -- each one can play his/her pet issue off this stereotype like an old pro. Better yet, being a mythological creature that needs only to be invoked and not proven, conservatives can rant and rave about her without actually addressing anything like what welfare really has to do with Bush's inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina.

Conservatives who pride themselves on being the surviving type, despite having never actually had to test this by going hungry for a day, much less trudging through sewage to sleep with thousands in an inadequate shelter, were all over blaming the victims of Katrina for their "dependency" on the government to save them. Glenn Reynolds (Instapundit) exemplifies this self-delusion in an article chastising victims for not having a huge sack with a week's worth of supplies on hand just in case. I have to admit, I'm dying to get into his house to double check whether he does in fact have such a case all packed and up-to-date.

As it became more clear that people remained in New Orleans because they were too poor to leave, the talking points shifted to blaming people for being poor. By September 10, Bill O'Reilly and the fine folks at Townhall felt comfortable lecturing the dead and the stranded that if they didn't want to be killed or ruined by a hurricane, they should have just quit being so poor.

But it was the news that the government decided to give money to the survivors directly, instead of filtering it through humiliating and money-wasting welfare programs, that really set them off -- the Welfare Queen is getting away with something! To the Batmobile! Dan Mitchell of Townhall suggested that the cards were "rewards" for losing everything you had in the hurricane. Damn those crafty Welfare Queens and their plots to get hurricanes to nearly kill them, just so they can get their hands on $2,000. The Daily Newsbreathlessly reported rumors of those Welfare Queens obtaining Louis Vuitton purses.

In a way, the devious Welfare Queen myths are just the flipside of the "looting" stories. This isn't about the President leaving the citizenry of a major American city to die in a hurricane! No, this is a story of black people obtaining expensive goods that the teller of the story deems them unworthy of owning.

Now that the Welfare Queen narrative has become the prominent way of blaming the victim instead of blaming the federal government for the disaster of Katrina, the word is out that it's open season on the victims. Everyone has to have a piece of them and hang their pet issue around the necks of the already victimized populace of New Orleans. Some right wingers are already testing the waters to see if it's okay to use sexual shame against the victims of Katrina by implying that they only have themselves to blame for being single mothers.

George Will is touting the line that the tragedy of Katrina could have been prevented by people marrying and having children the way he tells them to. How it is that married couples in the Superdome could have gotten water, food and evacuation vehicles there faster need not be explained. Laying the blame for Katrina on the shoulders of the mythological Welfare Queen and other Republican bogeymen looks like it's shaping up to be the primary distraction from laying the blame at the feet of those in the federal government who actually had power to help but didn't. The important thing is getting everyone in a tizzy over those awful hurricane victims who dare to believe that they deserve rescue just because they need it.

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