May 24, 2013
Hurricane Sandy in the Age of Disposability and Neoliberal Terror
Posted on Dec 5, 2012
By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout
This piece originally appeared at Truthout.
The winners in the disposable society circulate close to the top of the power pyramid…. Those who can’t afford to be on the move stand little chance…. Market freedom means few people have a hold on the present and that everyone is expendable. —Zygmunt Bauman
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, shocking images of dead bodies floating in the flood waters of New Orleans appeared on national TV against a sound track of desperate cries for help by thousands of poor, black, brown, elderly and sick people. These disturbing pictures revealed a vulnerable and destitute segment of the nation’s citizenry that conservatives not only refused to see as such, but had spent the better part of three decades demonizing. But the haunting images of the abandoned, desperate and vulnerable would not go away and for a moment imposed themselves on the collective conscience of Americans, demanding answers to questions that were never asked about the existence of those populations excluded from the American dream and abandoned to their own limited resources in the midst of a major natural disaster. But that moment soon passed as the United States faced another disaster: The country plunged into an economic turmoil ushered in by finance capital and the apostles of Wall Street in 2008. Consequently, an additional instance of widespread hardship and suffering soon bore down on lower-middle and working-class people who would lose their jobs, homes, health care and their dignity.
Hurricane Sandy not only failed to arouse a heightened sense of moral outrage and call for justice, it has quickly, if not seamlessly, been woven into a narrative that denied those larger economic and political forces, mechanisms and technologies by which certain populations when exposed to a natural catastrophe are rendered human waste. One reason for this case of historical amnesia and ethical indifference may lie in the emerging vicissitudes of an era eager to accommodate rather than challenge global warming, an era in which freakish weather events have become such commonplace occurrences that they encourage the denial of planetary destruction. These days Americans are quickly fatigued by natural catastrophe. Major natural disasters and their consequences are now relegated to the airborne vocabulary of either fate or the unyielding circumstance of personal tragedy, conveniently allowing an ethically cleansed American public to ignore the sordid violence and suffering they produce for those populations caught in the grip of poverty, deprivation and hardship. It gets worse. Catastrophes have not only been normalized, they have been reduced to the spectacle of titillating TV. Rather than analyzed within broader social categories such as power, politics, poverty, race and class, the violence produced by natural disasters is now highly individualized, limited to human interest stories about loss and individual suffering. Questions concerning how the violence of Hurricane Sandy impacted differently those groups marginalized by race, age, sickness and class, particularly among poor minorities, were either downplayed or ignored.
Lost in both the immediacy of the recovery efforts and the public discourse in most of the mainstream media were the abandoned fates and needless suffering of residents in public-housing apartments from Red Hook to the Lower East Side, to the poorest sections of the Rockaway Peninsula and other neglected areas along the east coast of New Jersey. These are populations ravaged by poverty, unemployment and debt. Even though inequality has become one of the most significant factors making certain groups vulnerable to storms and other types of disasters, matters of power and inequality in income, wealth and geography rarely informed the mainstream media’s analysis of the massive destruction and suffering caused by Sandy.  And yet, out of 150 countries, the United States has the fourth highest wealth disparity. As Joseph Stiglitz points out, “Nowadays, these numbers show that the American dream is a myth. There is less equality of opportunity in the United States today than there is in Europe - or, indeed, in any advanced industrial country for which there are data.” Inequality and social disparity are not simply about the concentration of wealth and income into fewer hands, they are also about the unequal use of power, the shaping of policies and the privileging of a conservative wealthy minority who have accumulated vast amounts of wealth. America is paying a high price for its shameful levels of inequality and this became particularly clear when certain populations in Manhattan received aid more quickly than others in the post-Hurricane Sandy reconstruction efforts. Not surprising, given that Manhattan, one of the epicenters of the storm’s savagery, has a level of inequality that not only stands out but rivals parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Within this geography of massive income and wealth inequality, 20 percent of Manhattan residents made $392,022 a year on average [and] the poorest made $9,681.
But more was revealed in this disaster than the painful registers of exclusion, mass suffering and the inability of government to provide timely help to those most vulnerable and in need of aid. Hurricane Sandy also revealed the gaping and dystopian fault lines of those disasters exacerbated by human actions in a society wracked by vast differences in power, income, wealth, resources and opportunities. In this instance a natural catastrophe merged with forms of sustained moral/social neglect and a discourse of symbolic violence to reveal a set of underlying determinants, a grammar of human suffering.
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