Well, New Orleans has officially weathered its first direct hit from a hurricane post-Katrina. As with all disasters, we seem to be hoping that all our heroes and villains come straight from central casting. Most peoples’ immediate ire seems focused on Entergy New Orleans for failing to flip on the lights quickly enough. Corporate villains are always the easiest to write.
Of course, the truth is more complicated, and not being an expert in electrical grids, I’m hardly the person to turn to for education in whether Entergy is to blame in its power restoration efforts. On the other hand, Entergy has done much to destroy any goodwill with New Orleanians with excessive fuel surcharges and the like.
Thankfully, this time we were spared conspiracy theories of rich plutocrats blowing up levees to flood poor neighborhoods, but that’s another stock subplot to any disaster – an upper-class conspiracy to not just to neglect the poor, but to kill them outright. If there were even the vaguest of rumors to suggest a plot to utilize Hurricane Issac to kill the working class, you can bet we’d be hearing about it endlessly.
Popular response to disasters always reminds me of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. Every film concerning the Titanic has the same stock stories. There’s always the mustache-twirling villain of J. Bruce Ismay, Chairman of the White Star Line that owned Titanic. In all fairness, he did kind of resemble Snidley Whiplash.
The story goes that Ismay demanded that Titanic speed up despite ice warnings to arrive early in New York, and then cowardly abandoned Titanic in the last lifeboat while women and children clamored to get on (sometimes he is depicted disguising himself in a woman’s shawl). In other words, the kind of fellow people in movie theaters yell “boo” at.
In reality, Ismay wasn’t running around giving orders to speed up the ship. He had announced his retirement as White Star’s chairman the previous January and was merely traveling to New York to observe the maiden voyage and to discuss the change in leadership upon his arrival. Likewise, there was no evidence that he took a seat in a lifeboat from anybody else. He got on one of the last collapsables to launch after assisting other passengers at a time when there were no women and children on deck, according both to Ismay and other witnesses.
Ismay was still a convenient villain, though. Although Captain Smith was far more to blame for the situation than Ismay, he went down with the ship. He also wasn’t a corporate executive. Also, Ismay was personally hated by William Randolf Hurst over some personal squabbles, and Hurst happened to own a lot of newspapers. Ismay’s reputation didn’t stand a chance.
The other big Titanic myth is that the steerage passengers were intentionally locked below decks to prevent them from reaching the lifeboats. In fact, the gates to steerage were already locked because U.S. emigration laws required them to stay locked to prevent the spread of diseases aboard ship. There were likely cases of confused crewmembers not knowing whether to unlock certain gates, but there was no organized conspiracy to drown steerage passengers below decks.
The Titanic legacy is one of dramatic interpretation trumping actual facts. Katrina, in many ways, has become like Titanic, its characters reduced to ridiculous, garish stereotypes and its true lessons lost in the waters.
Unlike those disasters, Issac will not go down in the history books. It’s a speed bump in New Orleans history. However, we’ve become too accustomed to viewing these types of occurrences, both the massive and the minor, in cartoonish terms. We like heaping blame. We like identifying villains. It’s easy, at least easier than becoming a policy expert.
The real conspiracies we face are disorganized groupings of policies that serve a common purpose. They aren’t melodramas and they normally won’t satisfy the attention span of your average American. Sometimes they do involve large corporations, but usually the stories involve corporations abetted by unconstrained government power to crush their competition.
Now, I’m not saying that there’s a free market cure for the Entergy monopoly that would get your lights flipped on faster, but I am saying that we need to ask that question – who benefits from what. That may not make James Cameron’s next opus, but it will make for a more informed public. And maybe the next time we start pointing fingers at villains, we’ll actually know what we’re talking about.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.