Symbolic politics

Al Gore in Bali...Photo:Jewel Samad/Getty images

Al Gore in Bali...Photo:Jewel Samad/Getty images

They kept the star power to the end. Al Gore fired-up the weary Bali climate change conference delegates with a speech which named the inconvenient truth everyone was battling against: the Bush delegates were stonewalling again. But his message of hope was more instructive: America is changing. As Time noted:

Toward the end of his speech Gore, with his customary taste for the eccentric analogy, invoked the hockey player Bobby Hull, who Gore said was skilled because he sent the puck, not where his teammates were, but where they would be. “You have to look to where we’re going to be”

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0HeTA1S7TXM&w=425&h=344]

If Gore wasn’t enough. Leonardo Di Caprio also flew in for the final hours of talks or maybe for the after party. Who knows? He might not have much effect on the talks but according to the The Guardian’s David Adam his arrival cheered many weary women journalists.

Australian PM Kevin Rudd got a lot of great press to start with after announcing his signing of Kyoto but in the last few days his refusal to join Europe on the 25-40% emissions clause has dulled his star. Rudd said last week that these talks were “horse-trading” and as a former diplomat he knows the trade better than many others.

To explore a slightly different metaphor, one with some poignancy after more news about further arctic ice caps melts: everyone is trying to stay afloat. Some are dog paddling quietly while others are splashing around trying to get attention. Europe is making a big noise hoping to push the agenda forward while the US is playing the old game of talking to extend the talking rather than to conclude the deal. Australia is playing to two different audiences: Rudd can’t afford to give the home-front opposition forces an excuse early in his term to talk about economic irresponsibility of his climate stance so he is being cagey on exact targets – he says he is waiting for his commissioned economic impact statement. He needs this report as ammunition. On the international level he seems to be siding with the US Japan and Canada perhaps, one would hope, in order to later play a mediator role which will push this group forward. Adam is more forthright about this political game than most of the mainstream reports have been:

Few will say it officially, but most here seem to have settled for a Bali roadmap that commits all countries to a formal negotiation on a new treaty, but doesn’t include the numbers. Even Greenpeace said as much this morning, joining the US, the UK (and so Europe) and the UN officials running the whole circus. So why are we still here? And why the continuing threats from both sides? Seasoned observers say this end game is all about how to sell the agreement when the countries go their separate ways tomorrow and have to explain to their citizens what they have signed up to. Each needs a success to trumpet, some good old fashioned political spin. Ours will be that the US has been dragged to the negotiating table. Mr Bush will point out that he is taking the issue seriously, without actually committing to anything.

There is a lot of posturing going on here but symbolic politics is increasingly important. In Bali Gore again went with his “the earth has a fever” metaphor and it is the power of metaphors like this one mixed with the startling brutality of constantly emerging new scientific facts that has really pushed the debate forward. The theatre of dispute has also emerged as important in the last days of the talks with the Europeans and the Indonesians unafraid to make their anger clear.

The term “roadmap” which is constantly being used reminds of course about another series of endlessly disastrous negotiations: the fraught process toward peace in the middle east. Here key moments of symbolic politics seem to have had little effect on real outcomes. But at least the pressure of symbolic politics have kept all parties at the negotiating table. As Yvo de Boer, the UN’s point man in Bali told the BBC it is unlikely that the politicians will walk away from Bali with no agreement:

“It’s possible but it won’t happen,” he said.

“It won’t happen because such public pressure has been built to deliver a result here, I do not believe ministers will be able to leave this conference without a political answer to the scientific message they have received.

”Everybody is working hard towards a result, nobody wants to see it fail and nobody wants to be the country that makes it fail.“

Retraumatisation

A disturbing but beautifully crafted narrative from the Guardian about Katrina survivors:

Katrina’s winds died a year ago, but they left deep scars. You see them in wrecked streets. You see them in destroyed forests. You see them in tiny white mobile homes that now dot the Deep South. You see them most, perhaps, in people’s fearful expressions when a hard rain begins to fall from an angry summer sky.

Dr Becky Turner sees them in the play of children. Her big blue bus pulls up outside schools on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and pupils walk in to use toys and paints. It sounds like fun. But what Turner and her colleagues see each day, drawn in crayon, is far from harmless. Turner uses play to tease out the children’s storm stories, and help them talk about the horrors.

And the horrors do come. Many of the children of Hurricane Katrina lost relatives. Some saw them die. All of them are still living with the hurricane. And it is about to get worse. Turner’s mobile mental-health unit is preparing for a flood of new cases as the anniversary approaches. ‘It will be like a retraumatisation,’ Turner says in a weary voice. ‘The storm just goes on and on.’

So it does. Katrina hit on 29 August 2005 and, a year later, life on the coastline of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama is still a nightmare. Rebuilding scarcely seems to have begun. Gaunt ruins stretch for miles through a disaster area the size of Britain. All over America, from Houston to New York, hundreds of thousands of evacuees have been torn from their homes. Many expect never to return.

Bodies are still being found – this month a victim’s skeleton was unearthed in New Orleans – yet Katrina is now an ignored tragedy. The hurricane slammed one of the poorest areas of the country. It had no respect for colour, creed or wealth, but its victims tended to be black and poor. For a while it pointed a spotlight on issues of race and poverty, but America quickly returned to other matters. Katrina asked fundamental questions about American society. It prompted a nation and a White House to pledge itself to meet the challenge. But after a year, Katrina is a test that America is failing. The storm’s victims are still living in limbo as the rest of the country has moved on. They are the forgotten. This is their story.

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More on Bush and Katrina

With the one year anniversary of Katrina at hand we will be deluged by a Hurricane of commemoration and analysis over the next few weeks. What strikes me so far is the similarity of all the assessments I have read so far.

Sheryl Gay Stolberg in today’s NYT begins with a focus on that same image of Bush that I referred to in yesterday’s post. She makes an even more striking comparison:

When the nation records the legacy of George W. Bush, 43rd president and self-described compassionate conservative, two competing images will help tell the tale.

The first is of Mr. Bush after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, bullhorn in hand, feet planted firmly in the rubble of the twin towers. The second is of him aboard Air Force One, on his way from Crawford, Tex., to Washington, peering out the window at the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina thousands of feet below.

If the bungled federal response to Hurricane Katrina called into question the president’s competence, that Air Force One snapshot, coupled with wrenching scenes on the ground of victims who were largely poor and black, called into question something equally important to Mr. Bush: his compassion.

She goes on to quote James Thurber a presidential scholar who notes that this is a critical moment in the Bush presidency and that “it will be in every textbook”.

The gravitas of Bush’s recent radio address shows that he is well aware of the significance of the ongoing Katrina storm. He also knows full well that what is wiping him off the political map now as then are his perceived lack of compassion and competence. In a carefully structured talk Bush first praises the compassionate response of ordinary Americans and puts this firmly in the context of the extraordinary “spirit of America”:

During the storm and in the days that followed, Americans responded with heroism and compassion. Coast Guard and other personnel rescued people stranded in flooded neighborhoods and brought them to high ground. Doctors and nurses stayed behind to care for their patients, and some even went without food so their patients could eat. Many of the first-responders risking their lives to help others were victims themselves — wounded healers, with a sense of duty greater than their own suffering. And across our great land, the armies of compassion rallied to bring food and water and hope to fellow citizens who had lost everything. In these and countless other selfless acts, we saw the spirit of America at its best.

He then goes on to admit not his failing or the failing of his administration but the failings of “federal, state, and local governments”

Unfortunately, Katrina also revealed that federal, state, and local governments were unprepared to respond to such an extraordinary disaster. And the floodwaters exposed a deep-seated poverty that has cut people off from the opportunities of our country. So last year I made a simple pledge: The federal government would learn the lessons of Katrina, we would do what it takes, and we would stay as long as it takes, to help our brothers and sisters build a new Gulf Coast where every citizen feels part of the great promise of America.

His sudden jump to the first person pledge takes him into the rhetorical zone of the previous paragraph with his pledge’s “great promise of America” neatly matching the previous paragraph’s “spirit of America at its best”. He thus tries to rhetorically insulate himself from the institutional failings and link himself with the heroism and courage of ordinary Americans.

However as Michael Gawenda reports in the Sydney Morning Herald for those from the poorest and most devastated areas of New Orleans Bush’s promise counts for little.

In the Lower Ninth Ward, Bush is unlikely to find many people who feel part of this great promise. Indeed, he is unlikely to find too many people at all. Like much of the city’s poorer neighbourhoods, it remains a devastated wasteland in which there is still no electricity and where only a fraction of toxic debris – all that was left of the houses – has been removed.

When the Herald visited the Lower Ninth Ward a few months ago, a three-man emergency agency crew was just beginning the task of removing wrecked cars, at a rate of three or four a day. With up to 100,000 cars needing to be removed, the process could take years.

Like a number of other commentators Gawenda also notes the rise of conspiracy theories:

There are still widespread rumours of a secret plan cooked up by the Administration and the New Orleans City Council not to rebuild the poorer, lower-lying areas of New Orleans which for some people, is the explanation for the fact that so little has been done to rebuild these neighbourhoods.

The film director Spike Lee, in his four-hour film When the Levees Broke, makes the case, admittedly without much evidence, that the Administration is determined to use the Katrina disaster to rid New Orleans of poverty and of its black population. The film has just been shown on US television.

Lee even raises the possibility that the levees were smashed on purpose so the black neighbourhoods would be flooded, a conspiracy theory widely believed in many black communities.

It shows how deep is the distrust of Bush, how widespread the hostility and anger towards him and his Administration among blacks after Katrina.

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Back with Bush in New Orlean’s

I am back after taking six months leave of absence from this project currently focusing on getting together a stronger structure for my thesis.

In the news everything circles around the same issues. With the first anniversary of Katrina and the fifth anniversary of September 11 both approaching there are a growing body of comment pieces which from my perspective seek to make sense of the myth of President Geroge W Bush. In yesterday’s Chicago Tribune Mark Silva catalogues the series of powerful image moments that constructed the overall image of a removed president as Katrina made landfall:

At first he was remote from the disaster, leaving a long summer vacation in Texas for a scheduled speech to senior citizens in Arizona the day Katrina struck. His distance was magnified the next day in San Diego, where he commemorated the 60th anniversary of Victory in Japan Day and hoisted a singer’s guitar for photographers.

The next soon-to-become iconic image of detachment came with a photograph of Bush looking down at New Orleans from Air Force One as he flew east to Washington. It portrayed, not a concerned leader, but one who had not stopped to comfort suffering people.

When Bush finally did arrive on the Gulf Coast on Sept. 2, he uttered the words to the struggling director of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency, Michael Brown, that have haunted Bush since: “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”

As most of New Orleans lay under water and thousands piled into the convention center pleading for food and potable water, the nation’s most costly natural disaster had become a full-fledged political disaster.

This image of a detached president, inappropriately upbeat seems to have had a major impact on his standing as a leader. But it also clustered with a range of other misadventures and missteps. Silva continues:

The crisis arrived as growing numbers of Americans were starting to question the conduct of the war in Iraq as well as Bush’s handling of the economy. His approval rating in the Gallup Poll already had slumped to 40 percent days before Katrina, then a low point for Bush and a level of support he still is struggling to maintain.

“The greatest damage that Katrina did to President Bush was in his aura of competence,” said David Lanoue, chairman of the political science department at the University of Alabama. “It shook the confidence of a lot of people in the White House’s ability to respond to either natural or man-made disasters.”

The elephant in the hurricane was of course the issues of race and poverty. Something that overtime even Bush seemed to understand. Two weeks after Katrina he made a significant speech that linked race and poverty and made a commitment to developing minority owned businesses and increasing homeownership. But New Orleans is still waiting.

“He said he was going to talk about race and poverty,” said Brinkley, who teaches American civilization at Tulane. “When did that happen? It’s back to business as usual.”

The federal government has committed $17 billion for community development block grants, offering as much as $150,000 for each homeowner whose home stood outside designated flood zones.

But Mississippi only recently started paying out this money to homeowners, and Louisiana is just now starting.

Experts say little will end up in the hands of low-income homeowners–and none will go to renters, nearly half of the people displaced by Katrina.

“This is a unique opportunity in American life,” said Roland Anglin, director of the Initiative on Regional and Community Transformation at Rutgers University. “When the president came to the Gulf Coast and made those remarks, a lot of us thought that was an opportunity to readdress the issue of race and equity. Unfortunately, that has not progressed as much as many of us hoped it would.”

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Bush’s photo-ops

Bush is being criticised for not acting fast enough and for a lack luster, even humorous, speech when he first addressed the plight of New Orleans. The New York Times has become increasingly strident in its editorials over the last few days:

George W. Bush gave one of the worst speeches of his life yesterday, especially given the level of national distress and the need for words of consolation and wisdom. In what seems to be a ritual in this administration, the president appeared a day later than he was needed. He then read an address of a quality more appropriate for an Arbor Day celebration: a long laundry list of pounds of ice, generators and blankets delivered to the stricken Gulf Coast. He advised the public that anybody who wanted to help should send cash, grinned, and promised that everything would work out in the end.

Bush doesn’t seem to have either a natural sense of compassion or even a natural political instinct on these occasions when symbolic leadership is most needed. Either Clinton or Reagan would have acted immediately and made us feel that they were involved personally and politically with the crisis. This symbolic act of the leader is of such importance and has real impact on the course of actual events by creating a buoyant atmosphere for recovery. But there is a difference between a genuine act of symbolic leadership, which requires engagement, reflection and action and a staged media event. Increasingly it is difficult for both politicians and the public to distinguish between the two.

A story has just emerged about how deliberately the Bush team stage managed the tour of the crisis zone. Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu has just released a statement:

“But perhaps the greatest disappointment stands at the breached 17th Street levee. Touring this critical site yesterday with the President, I saw what I believed to be a real and significant effort to get a handle on a major cause of this catastrophe. Flying over this critical spot again this morning, less than 24 hours later, it became apparent that yesterday we witnessed a hastily prepared stage set for a Presidential photo opportunity; and the desperately needed resources we saw were this morning reduced to a single, lonely piece of equipment. The good and decent people of southeast Louisiana and the Gulf Coast – black and white, rich and poor, young and old – deserve far better from their national government.

This has been reported by the wires and some blogs but doesn’t appear to have been picked up by the mainstream press yet.

It is confirmed by at least one report from a viewer of a German news service who says the German account of Bush’s tour differed markedly from the CNN account:

There was a striking dicrepancy between the CNN International report on the Bush visit to the New Orleans disaster zone, yesterday, and reports of the same event by German TV.

ZDF News reported that the president’s visit was a completely staged event. Their crew witnessed how the open air food distribution point Bush visited in front of the cameras was torn down immediately after the president and the herd of ‘news people’ had left and that others which were allegedly being set up were abandoned at the same time.

The people in the area were once again left to fend for themselves, said ZDF.

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Climate Apocalypse

With the Kyoto Protocol coming into effect and the shock of the Tsunami, climate change has been big news over the last few months. It seems to be taking the place of the "nuclear threat" as the front line in contemporary apocalyptic thinking.

This weekend’s Independent published an interesting analysis of the recent meeting of climate scientists that makes this connection:

But it was last
week at the Met Office’s futuristic glass headquarters, incongruously
set in a dreary industrial estate on the outskirts of Exeter, that it
all came together. The conference had been called by the Prime Minister
to advise him on how to "avoid dangerous climate change". He needed
help in persuading the world to prioritize the issue this year during
Britain’s presidencies of the EU and the G8 group of economic powers….

About halfway
through I realized that I had been here before. In the summer of 1986
the world’s leading nuclear experts gathered in Vienna for an inquest
into the accident at Chernobyl. The head of the Russian delegation
showed a film shot from a helicopter, and we suddenly found ourselves
gazing down on the red-hot exposed reactor core.

It was all, of
course, much less dramatic at Exeter. But as paper followed learned
paper, once again a group of world authorities were staring at a crisis
they had devoted their lives to trying to avoid.

The consensus of scientists seems even clearer than ever in spite of all the neo-con crowing about a great liberal conspiracy typified by Michael Crichton’s novel State of Fear. What is interesting about the Independent article from a media analysis point of view is the dramatic list of possible catastrophies that ends the article. Each possibility is outlined in brief in a three part format:

  • What could
    happen?
  • How would this
    come about?
  • How likely is it?

While this provides great capsule information the creation of lists like this is likely to increase both the sense of crisis and passivity in the face of the seemingly inevitable. the independent’s cxatageories include:

  • WATER WARS
  • DISAPPEARING NATIONS
  • FLOODING
  • UNINHABITABLE EARTH
  • RAINFOREST FIRES
  • THE BIG FREEZE
  • STARVATION
  • ACID OCEANS
  • DISEASE
  • HURRICANES

These kinds of lists end up functioning as a kind of secular version of the biblical "signs of the times."