One-Hundred-Year Storm

photo of house with flag over fence
A house damaged by Hurricane Katrina in the Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans, 2005

With another hurricane approaching the Louisiana coast this weekend (Delta? does that mean they ran out names for this year? Yes, yes it does), the NYRB reviews a new book about New Orleans – Katrina: A History, 1915-2015:

“I ain’t proud to be American no more,” Dean Blanchard, a shrimp distributor, told a reporter in 2015.1 Ten years earlier, his business was nearly ruined when Katrina, one of the most ferocious hurricanes in American history, pummeled New Orleans, killing at least 1,440 people and causing $150–$200 billion in economic damage, including nearly $1.5 billion to the local seafood industry. Five years later, BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig exploded off the coast of Louisiana, spewing more than 134 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and its coastlands and decimating food populations. A lawsuit brought by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority to hold oil companies responsible for the environmental damage they had caused was opposed by the governor, then dismissed by a federal court. Blanchard became convinced that nothing—not government, not infrastructure, not the courts—was protecting him or his neighbors, that no one was fighting on their behalf.

Blanchard was not alone in this view. As Andy Horowitz, a historian at Tulane University, shows in his new book, Katrina: A History, 1915–2015, “The experience of Katrina, compounded with the oil spill, increasingly served Louisianans as a metonym for federal illegitimacy.” He argues that while President Obama described the oil spill as “the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced,” and the media presented it as “an efficient drama” unfolding over the course of eighty-seven days, “few people on the coast experienced that tight narrative arc.”

Disaster histories are usually written for entertainment, not diagnosis. They tend to begin in a calm, tranquil moment. Suddenly, there is a disruption: water from a tsunami breaches the nuclear power plant; Patient Zero leaves the market; the levee breaks. When political leaders arrive on the scene, they attribute the damage to an “Act of God,” “Mother Nature,” an unforeseeable error. Horowitz argues that Hurricane Katrina obliterated this narrative. “The more I have thought about Katrina,” he writes, “the more uncomfortable I have become with the idea of ‘disaster’ altogether.” Disaster, Horowitz believes, is a political category—“at best an interpretive fiction, or at worst, an ideological script”—one that’s usually invoked to defend or maintain the status quo. His book asks a necessary question: What happens to the story of this one moment in time if we stretch it forward and back, looking for causes and consequences that reach beyond the storm?

It’s all one story – the land development, the discovery of oil, the expansive canal digging, the sinking, the demolished wetlands, the unprotected infrastructure at risk from large storms exacerbated the very activity of said infrastructure – that bleeds out into a completely understandable loss of civic faith. A few get rich, many suffer, told and re-told over and over again, from slave markets to oil refineries. Katrina, a long time in the making, can but remind us of other slow-motion catastrophes coming due just now.

How to Ctrl-Shift the Labor Force

I take this is essay in Foreign Policy, via, on the imminent “death of macho,” as mostly another set-up to establish the ever-present victimization of the most persecuted sub-species in the history of the world as seen through the prism of the last 2000 months: the white male. If it can be established to a reasonable doubt that the era of patriarchal hegemony is over, then the ground work can begin to rehabilitate, if not re-establish, its dominance.

Most titans of finance, captains of industry, even ‘fishers of men’ have sought to identify with the working man. Our bizarre allergy to elitism itself originated in what is perceived, from above, as the upward insecurities of the blue collar man, even though this phenomena resembles more a refusal to demean one’s position and accept certain peers, than any contempt for learning or the finer things. Still, the shift from an industrial- to an information-economy, while I might cheer the re-kindled emphasis on the mining of words, does appear to be a leveler from both directions, as the unwanted skills one group disdained and the other couldn’t afford begin to pile toward the center of the plate as the new source of growth and progress.

For several years now it has been an established fact that, as behavioral finance economists Brad Barber and Terrance Odean memorably demonstrated in 2001, of all the factors that might correlate with overconfident investment in financial markets—age, marital status, and the like—the most obvious culprit was having a Y chromosome. And now it turns out that not only did the macho men of the heavily male-dominated global finance sector create the conditions for global economic collapse, but they were aided and abetted by their mostly male counterparts in government whose policies, whether consciously or not, acted to artificially prop up macho.

Fine. I’m not going to disturb children fighting dragons with paper swords. But these kinds of built-environments, where fields of straw men bleed seamlessly into subdivided new attacks on old resentments, are sprinkled with acknowledgements of collapse and economic re-alignment. And there, we should welcome the cover fire, even if it is just a sound effect-mimic from the mouths of babes.

How will we shift the labor force, from the chairman’s suite to the break-truck, from burning things to making things? What does that even mean? It’s not just green, of course,  but a whole slew of implications about all the things we’ve built society on that we’ve got to stop doing. And yet, people will still need jobs – more to the point, people will need education, healthcare and the raft of other social services that we have always needed but which been downgraded on the payscale and prestige-o-meter to the point where we ignored them and THAT became as much of an explanation for our deplorable state of waste and natural illiteracy as much as the machinations of a single gender.

So, godspeed the death of macho, if that’s going help facilitate the shift. But I would fear, from the straw sticking out of his sad, thread-bare Zegna, that reports of its death are indeed an exaggeration.