September 20, 2005
France passes judgment on KatrinaBy Nidra Poller
Do you know why France is never hit by hurricanes, even though she once owned Louisiana? It's because France signed the Kyoto Protocol. Do you know why la petite Camargue in the south of France, with its famous bulls and free--range horses, was flooded twice this summer? It's because George Bush did not sign the Kyoto Protocol.
Do you know why President Chirac did not get impeached after 15,000 people died in the 2003 French heat wave? Impeached? He didn't even get pinched! It wasn't his fault. How could it be his fault? He was on vacation. If some people were too dumb to retreat to a mountain chalet during this terrible vague de chaleur so what? So they shriveled up and died. The fact is, most of them were old; they would have died anyway. You're not going to deprive a great statesman of his position at the helm of a great State just because 15,000 people didn't have the sense to buy fans back in December!
French media coverage of Katrina and her aftermath will go down in history as Force 5 skullduggery. Let me go out on a limb here, and guess that the Iranians were more humane on this issue than the French. I'm just guessing. I'm just supposing that they said Allah was punishing us for killing Muslims, desecrating mosques, raping Muslim women, and defending the Zionist entity. Whereas the French, and first and foremost the incorrigible state--owned television channel France 2,* attacked us in our very foundations, set fire to our essence with inflammatory accusations, flailed us with acid--based criticism, smeared us with the muck of hearsay, propaganda, and outright lies, and even that was not enough to satisfy their lust for revenge. France 2's new newswoman oozed contempt from every strand of her short cropped bleached blond locks. The station's main man in the field gleefully gloated through every pore of his shiny outer space bald noggin. No alcohol--soaked floozy wandering bleary eyed through the ruins of la Nouvelle Orl�ans was too zonked to get a pass at a France 2 mike and belt out curses against the guv'mint.
The so--called independent TF 1 was hardly less vicious. A nuance here and there, nothing worth mentioning. Both stations buy their images from the same pool. The bloated body floating across France 2's screen at 8:05 PM popped up on TF1 at 8:10. I don't know if these images of bloated bodies were particularly expensive, but they got worn to death from being re--used every day for 2 weeks. Sometimes the image was accompanied by a commentary about how the US government had asked the media not to show dead bodies. And there it was, looming up on your French TV screen, the dead body that George Bush didn't want you to see, bobbing against a worm eaten two--by--four, snagged in a tangle of branches.
Then the camera would pan to a sweep of floodwaters, and you got the Jenin effect. Remember the supposed Jenin massacre? Thousands of bodies under the rubble? Horror stories by the carload. Everybody knew somebody who knew somebody who was buried under the rubble. The Israeli army wouldn't let UN inspectors come in and dig out the truth. Still today, when the Jenin jihad--terrorists themselves have admitted that they were armed fighters, that they booby--trapped buildings, that they fought like lions and lost about 50 heroic combatants, the thousands of fictional phantoms buried in the rubble of Jenin still haunt us. Well, they can now join hands with the victims of the Katrina massacre. Ten thousand. A great bloated figure floating on the floodwaters. Ten thousand----someone estimated it, France bought it, and the ten thousand was repeated so often it sounded like a hundred thousand...and rising.
Bush will never admit the truth. Tu comprends? No more than he will admit to the 100,000 Iraqi civilians killed in the course of his wrong--headed military operation in Iraq. No more than Israel will admit to the genocide of the Palestinians, whose genocided population has gone from roughly 800,000 to roughly 4 million but closer to 5 million in 60 years. What did he say, our old buddy T. S.Eliot? 'I did not know that death had undone so many.'
I am well aware that Katrina wreaked havoc in the American press and political arena. The controversy is scintillating. And the event, in and of itself, inspires the writer to philosophical and lyrical heights. Having personally experienced one very tremendously destructive hurricane in Miami Beach, having seen, on more than one occasion, the Hades turbulence of a tornado--bearing sky, I can just imagine Katrina!
Or I could have, if I didn't have to get my information from the French media. These people don't know from hurricanes. They had a windstorm once; you'd think it was the end of the earth. A little bit of heavy rain and they are flooded up to their eye teeth because it only happens once or twice or eight times a year and Nature knows best. The downright arrogance of a French newswoman --some of them are sweet and soft as velvet, one of them belts out the news as if words were whips -- scolding the whole United States of America for not having foreseen the logistical problems that would follow in the wake of Katrina, is enough to explode the temper of the most well--balanced observer on the other side of the screen. How dare they be so hateful? And so ignorant! They don't know what they're talking about. Non, ce n'est pas possible.
If I were to pinpoint the most egregious errors of reporting, evaluation, and appreciation, it would take longer than it will take to pump the floodwaters from the lowlands of New Orleans. If I were to describe just a handful of the worst moments, it would take hours. How about the camera focus on a bunch of gays who stuck it out in the French Quarter during the whole danged thaing? One grizzly geek waxes philosophical as he runs an old record player hooked up to his car engine, and a fluttery fellow with yellow hair sits on a stoop and complains about the helicopters zuzzing overhead. 'What a bother,' he says, with a flash of his shimmying wrist.
Now that's authentic! As for George Bush, who should have been there while the wind was tearing the place apart, and should have shipped in the troops if he hadn't already sent them to make trouble in Iraq, and shouldn't have come to Biloxi when the real mess was in New Orleans, and has a nerve coming to New Orleans, not once but three times, just to get his picture taken. With Blacks! As if everyone didn't know that the reason the hurricane hit New Orleans is because America is a racist, capitalist, warrior state.
French viewers (and radio listeners, and newspaper and magazine readers) were invited to tisk tisk and cluck cluck over this stuck--up country that thinks it's rich and high tech, and can't even eradicate poverty or protect itself from a 'cyclone.' Why do French media want to call our hurricanes 'cyclones'? It's just one more item in a long list of distortions designed to misappropriate our reality. By depriving the hurricane of its specificity, you deprive the experience of its high--end intensity, you bring it down to size, to French size, to the size of things that any person in his right mind should know how to handle.
A terrible airplane crash killed 152 Martinique--French citizens recently. Overall coverage of the accident, the aftermath, the grieving relatives, the touching ceremonies came close to the time subsequently devoted to Katrina. The difference is stunning. The French crash victims went down in Venezuela on their way back from a holiday in Panama. The (duly authorized Martinican French) travel agency had booked the flight with a Colombian airline. It took almost a week, and revelations in the print media, before TV broadcasts revealed that the Colombian company -- based in Medellin -- was two inches from bankruptcy. All the planes in its small fleet were grounded because of technical problems, except for the fatal crasher which, by the way, had already flown 12 flights that day.
Nevertheless, press coverage focused on sorrow. Beautiful dignified sorrow: a priest crying as he read out the names of the victims, children crying for their parents, brothers crying for their sisters, the entire island of Martinique crying for its loved ones, and tears welling up in the eyes of a lovely French newscaster snug in the studio, reporting on the events. No indignation against the travel agency that booked seats on the rotten airline. No outrage at government agencies that are supposed to regulate air safety. No rebukes against French society that is failing citizens on more than one count. And of course no one asking President Chirac to resign because he couldn't bring a planeload of Martiniquais back from Panama.
He did go to the memorial service.But that's another story.
The gratuitous contempt for the victims of Katrina has no better comparison than the obsessive, hypocritical, vomiting contempt for Jews...in France...in the 1930s. The words slime and sleaze are appropriate to this particular kind of hatred that covers everything, sticks to the smallest detail, can't be removed. Not one word, not one image of Katrina was fair and honest. Whatever the subject -- the damage, the overwhelming logistical problems, the inadequate responses, the time elapsed, the number of victims -- it had to be nasty, virulently anti--American, pointedly anti--Bush. But not in the way of political rivals, even low down cheating rivals. No, in the way of Jew--haters. A hatred that comes from deep dark sources.
Former Newsweek correspondent Ted Stanger, an avowed Francophile, a bit shocked by the French reaction and media coverage of Katrina, asked to make an appearance on France 2. His critique was so low key, harmless, and ultimately Francophile that you might imagine he was invited deliberately to fend off the kind of screech I've written here. Stanger thought the French had been a tad unfair with the United States. It's not because a country is rich and high--tech that it doesn't need some TLC sympathy when it's down. The blond TV headmistress was not taking it! Hmph, she said, we sent our highly skilled Red Cross teams and they were given lowly tasks. Stanger leaned over backward. The French, he opined, had missed an opportunity: since they gave America a dressing down for acting unilaterally in Iraq, they could have taken advantage of the opportunity to go multilateral when disaster struck.
Even that was too much. The sharp--tongued headmistress gave poor Ted a crocodile smile, and chomped off his head! 'So? You're saying we were wrong all down the line?' Translation? Well, it can't really be translated. What did she mean? She meant 'we didn't do anything wrong, certainly nothing deserving of criticism, and no matter how many valid points you make, we'll never admit we did anything wrong.'
To sum it up, Katrina, seen from over here, was not a natural disaster. It was a pre--programmed event and, as it happens, a test case of American ineptitude. As a result, any American claim to world leadership is automatically rejected. Further, if one had any doubts about the wisdom of Bush's intervention in Iraq, it is now clear that it was a disaster. He should have intervened in the weather instead of fooling around in distant countries and creating terrorism out of whole cloth. Any one in his right mind would have known that this cyclone would destroy the levees, that the levees should have been reinforced, that the population should have been evacuated under the personal direction of the US president, that people who wanted to stay should have been provided with all the necessities, that Biloxi was right next to New Orleans, that no one should be poor in fair weather and all the more so in foul and doubly so if they are poor and black. When white rescue workers come to the aid of poor black victims it proves that the United States is racist all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.
The ultimate in intellectual journalism. Jean--Marie Colombani, editorial director of the newspaper of record Le Monde, in the company of his distinguished colleague Alain Frachon, informed in real time by their man in New Orleans, broadcasting on the elegantissimo radio station appropriately named France Culture. The program is called 'Rumeurs du Monde.' (Got it? Le Monde the newspaper, le monde the world!) It's the cat's pajamas. And the subject of a recent episode was, you guessed it, Katrina or, more exactly, the failure of the United States Government to predict, react, succor, and repair the damage caused to the hapless victims of Katrina. Listen in as themes that had been crudely developed in the mass media are now suavely treated in the stratosphere of France Culture:
They are so knowing! Seen from here, my dear friend, it is all too obvious. We would have known what was coming, and what to do about it. But Bush, my goodness, what a failure. No wonder his ratings crashed. Hmm, yes, crashed, truly crashed. Hmm yes, no wonder.
Suddenly, someone, I guess it was Colombani, has a fantastic insight: crashed, yes, but only down to 38%. It should be much lower, shouldn't it? Given his dreadful performance?
Frachon has the answer: the American public is so disconnected from the media, that even when the media tell them that they have lost confidence in their president, ahum, (here comes the explanation) whole sectors of the population persist in trusting George Bush.
Can you get the picture? In that benighted country we call America, television audiences are so stubborn that they don't even believe the media that tells them that they, this very public, have disavowed their president. He should have had 0% of confidence! If people only knew what was good for them.
Well, I, an audience of one, observing the rustle of the world as it goes about its business, would like to make a new rule for those with 20--20 hindsight:
Before they go into their riff about how we should have known what would happen in New Orleans (Baghdad, the WTC, etc.) let them inform me clearly and precisely about what is going to happen next. What is it that we should have known was going to happen? What single event looms on the horizon, ready to spring on us before the end of October 2005? And don't give me any global warming or exhausted fossil fuel long--term predictions, I'm talking about the day after tomorrow. I want to see how they sort out, among the rustle of the world, that one single Word of absolutely reliable forewarning.
And I want it in writing.
Nidra Poller is an American writer living in Paris.