Disaster and the Spectacle

It’s been several weeks since Hurricane Maria stuck Puerto Rico as a near Category Five hurricane that in a matter of hours transformed the US protectorate from the most developed island in the Caribbean Sea to a devastated community thrown back into the past several hundred years. Gone in the aftermath of the storm was access to electric power, clean drinking water, unobstructed roadways, and almost every sign of twenty-first century civilization. Once the shock of the initial impact wore off, the struggle to restore basic services to the island and its many isolated communities began. Only there was one problem—the process of restoration never happened. As the days after the arrival of Maria turned into weeks, the process of recovery stubbornly refused to transpire or took place with glacial lethargy.

Yet to observe some of the coverage in the media in the aftermath of the hurricane’s impact, this slowly unfolding disaster was not easily observable. Indeed, what emerged from the mainstream accounts of the recovery effort in Puerto Rico was a contested narrative of local leaders calling for assistance and warning of a humanitarian catastrophe without outside help and leaders in Washington—most especially President Trump through his Twitter feed—praising the rapid response to the crisis in Puerto Rico and celebrating the success.[1] Such contradictory statements are no doubt confusing for the casual observer, who most likely harbors genuine concern for the fate of Puerto Ricans but also took the state and government at its word when it said it was doing everything it could to help those in need. It turns out, however, that this confusion is actually a sign of the society of the spectacle succeeding in its mission to problematize and obscure what should be a straight-forward news story about a humanitarian crisis and the inability for the state to adequately address it. Indeed, if we look back to the last major humanitarian disaster involving a major hurricane, we can actually see how the spectacle has perfected its technique of sensationally obscuring a tragic event.

We know now—over ten years after the fact—that the US government lacked the requisite skills, competence, planning, training, and motivation to help the people of New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina approached. Yet this reality was not immediately apparent, in part because the one skill that most people in charge of relief efforts in Louisiana had was media and public relations. As thousands of people endured squalid conditions at the New Orleans Convention Center and Superdome—places city officials had told local residents to go to seek shelter—the dominant media narrative at the time was that local, state and federal disaster relief was going (forgive the pun) swimmingly. Indeed, it was in this context that George W. Bush famously told then head of FEMA, Michael Brown, that he was doing a “heck of a job.”[2] The reality, of course, was that hundreds had died and thousands more were in mortal danger. The damage done to the city by the floods would take years to repair and the city as it existed then would probably never return.

The key fact lost in all of this is that although Brown resigned in shame a few days after Bush paid him the infamous compliment, the general aim of disaster relief in the society of the spectacle had been accomplished. When it became apparent that the public’s expectation of proper disaster relief in New Orleans didn’t meet up with the reality, the reaction of the government was to put forth leading administrators to say that things were fine and there is nothing to worry about. Bush’s comment to Brown was only one of several dubious statements. In  its account of the aftermath of the storm, PBS’s Frontline documents the following comments by leading government officials:

At a press conference in Baton Rouge, 80 miles away, Gov. Blanco says, “Mr. President, thank you thank you, thank you. You have responded to my calls.” Michael Chertoff, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, says he is “extremely pleased with the response of every element of the federal government and federal partners … to this terrible tragedy.” And Michael Brown tells Louisiana officials, “What I’ve seen here today is a team that is very tight knit, working closely together, being very professional … and making the right calls.”[3]

This spectacle of self-congratulation and circle-backpatting drove then mayor of New Orleans Ray Nagin so mad he said:

“This is ridiculous. I don’t want to see anyone doing any more goddamn press conferences. Put a moratorium on press conferences. Don’t do another press conference until the resources are in this city and they come down to this city and stand with us when there are military trucks and troops which we can’t even count.”[4]

It is easy to see why Nagin was justified in his anger, but for those who see these emergencies unfold in the context  of the society of the spectacle, they shouldn’t be surprising. Debord discusses in Society of the Spectacle how society transforms itself from a world of being into having, representing the transformation of the economy from simple accumulation to industrial production, and then a second “general shift from having to appearing—all “having” must now derive its immediate prestige and its ultimate purpose into appearances.”[5] In this case, the “having” of emergency relief supplies has been transformed into the “appearing” of these relief supplies through the various press conferences of leading officials discussing the distribution of said relief supplies (though little to no evidence of the actual material supplies is provided). And as the fiasco of unpreparedness proceeds, the more press conferences that are held to once again try to provide the appearance of actual material relief taking place. Given enough time and attention, genuine relief does take place and the material that should have been on station before the storm is eventually brought on line. But by this time the spectacle has manufactured other distractions in other places to capture the public’s attention and the outrage everyone felt during the time of crisis subsides (or is redirected elsewhere). Those in charge of disaster relief on some level know this, and the trick is always to provide enough reassurance that all is well so that the combination of the spectacle and the public’s short attention spans result in lost interest. The inadequacies and incompetence can then proceed as normal.

It is interesting to note that in the wake of the impact of Maria in Puerto Rico, infamous former FEMA head Michael Brown observed that it appeared the mismanagement evident on the island demonstrated that the government didn’t learn anything.[6] This isn’t true. The government learned quite a bit in so far as to push the logic of the spectacle further in an effort to distort what in objective terms is a significant humanitarian crisis. Indeed, as with so many other related issues, having a President who is a veteran of reality television and instinctually knows how to manipulate the spectacle is a valuable asset. Trump’s intentional lambasting and insulting of local leaders like the mayor of San Juan is just the kind of distraction material that allows genuine scrutiny of the government’s botched efforts at relief and recovery work to not take place. [7] Trump also made sure to pay a visit to the battered island and engage in some genuinely bizarre behavior (most likely not intentional, but the results had the desired effect) in order to ensure critical reviews of dubious US policies (some of which, like the Jones Act, harken back to the days of European colonial monopolies) remain minimized.[8] During Katrina, individuals like Michael Brown eventually did lose their job for their incompetence. As the death toll rises in Puerto Rico, no one has lost their job of been severely publicly censured, general interest in the recovery effort is waning, and events like the Las Vegas shooting have stolen the limelight. The system is working just as designed.

Yet there is an undertone of something bigger afoot that even an entity as powerful as the spectacle cannot completely keep concealed forever. Debord discusses this in a piece he wrote about the challenges pollution and environmental degradation pose to the legitimacy of consumer capitalism. In an essay entitled A Sick Planet, Debord writes

The masters of society are now obliged to speak of pollution, both in order to combat it…and in order to conceal it, for the plain fact that such harmful and dangerous trends exist constitutes an immense motive for revolt…[9]

Events like Katrina and Maria are some of the grisliest evidence of an incompetent government and a society of the spectacle that is more adept at appearing to function well than actually function well. If the state cannot deliver basic security to its people when unprecedented weather phenomenon strike, than what other basic securities is it also not adept at providing (but nevertheless charges high taxes and demands obedience in an authoritarian manner to provide)? How much of the current functioning of the government and society under its capitalist leadership is a product of good leadership or sheer inertia? Is the dysfunction on display through the fog of the spectacle in places like Puerto Rico a preview of things to come to the rest of the world and at times when there are no storms or civil unrest or other external factors? Finally, if this is a preview of the future, what obligation exists to sit back and allow such an eventuality to take place? As Debord remarks in Commentatries on the Society of the Spectacle, one of the key functions of the spectacle is to offer all possible alternatives to the status quo as terrifying and grotesque. But if delivering basic necessities in an emergency is beyond the resources of a heavily bureaucratized and militarized state, and if this incompetence is a harbinger of things to come in non-emergency settings, what incentive is there for the masses to continue to accept its legitimacy? To repeat the last part of Debord’s quote, when will the spectacle no longer be able to obscure “an immense motive for revolt.”

[1] For the former, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/wp/2017/10/01/san-juan-mayor-continues-calls-for-relief-after-attacks-from-trump/?utm_term=.3b40ca602450. For the later, see http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/trump-10-puerto-rico-hurricane-response-article-1.3574443

[2] http://politicaldictionary.com/words/heck-of-a-job/

[3] http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/storm/etc/cron.html

[4] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/4209174.stm

[5] Guy Debrod, Society of the Spectacle, (Berkeley, CA: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2014), 5.

[6] https://www.cnbc.com/2017/08/25/ex-fema-chief-michael-brown-we-havent-learned-anything-from-katrina.html

[7] http://www.cnn.com/2017/09/30/politics/trump-tweets-puerto-rico-mayor/index.html

[8] https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/white-house/trump-s-roll-puerto-rico-n807216

[9] Debord, A Sick Planet (New York: Seagull, 2008), 82.

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