11 September 2005

This part of the world

From "New Orleans and the Third World" by Mukoma Wa Ngugi:
What role is the “Third World” playing in how Americans are dealing with the disaster? Where does the “Third World” fit in the imagination of the American? What does it mean to say that this is not supposed to happen in the United States? To me, it is almost as if by displacing disasters and human suffering to the “Third World,” the New Orleans disaster is not really happening in the United States. New Orleans is “out there” and everyone else is ! safe and American – the crisis in New Orleans is happening in a “Third World” outpost and the United States remains rich, strong and invulnerable.

The American citizen has been stewing in nationalism, manifest destiny and the myth of the democratic society that errors but never oppresses or marginalizes for so long that even a natural disaster cannot be seen and understood outside this lens. And the fact that most of the victims are predominantly poor and African American is not being understood as a creation of very specific domestic policies and conservative ideologies; it has to be filtered through the “Third World”. As if a disaster from that “part of the world” somehow managed to sneak through the porous Mexican borders.

Bush’s Remarks

It is interesting therefore to look at President Bush’s remarks after touring New Orleans on September 2nd after four days of inaction. His first sentence was “ I've just completed a tour of some devastated country”. A detached statement but it gets worse – a little later he says “I know the people of this part of the world are suffering…” and he goes on to talk about how progress is being made. Then he says “ The people in this part of the world have got to understand…” Shortly after this, he says “You know, I'm going to fly out of here in a minute, but I want you to know that I'm not going to forget what I've seen” and again refers to his constituents as “good folks of this part of the world”. It is almost as if he is in a different country consoling its citizenry. He himself is so detached about what is happening in the very country he leads that he refers to it as “this part of the world”.
Of course, the disconnect is more pervasive than the thoughtless lines of a president. My immediate reaction to hearing of recent objections to the word "refugee" was disbelief. Apparently, I'm not alone:
the underlying theme of many in the "they're not refugees" crowd is: These are Americans. They're not the trash we usually call "refugees." I mean, does Jesse Jackson think that refugees in Rwanda, Angola, or the Sudan are "subhuman" and "criminals"? I hope not. I've always thought of them as incredibly unlucky people who, because of forces beyond their control, have had to leave their homes. Just like Katrina victims.
You would think the tragedy of four years ago would've gone some way to sensitize Americans to the unrelenting suffering in the rest of the world--that there would be some lasting form of identification with other nations. Sadly, some Americans persist in widening the gap between the States and Everyone Else.

(Via wood s lot and Maud Newton)

P.S. I'm still pissed off by that Rosario Tijeras review in PW. The atrocities committed in this country surpass human imagination. People have been systematically slaughtered by chainsaws...and for an American reviewer to dismiss such violence in a historical novel as of the "B-movie" variety...well. I have trouble articulating a response to such wanton callous ignorance.

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