There’s a concept I’ve heard of that goes by various names, but I think “the economy of empathy” suffices. In summary: if a child is hurt or sick, we can see that and feel awful. If two children, same story. If there are 10 kids that suffer something, we can identify with what they’re going through and feel bad. As the number of people affected by a tragedy rises, however, we become less and less able to see all the individuals involved as people. If we could, could we sit still through a genocide in Rwanda or a famine in Ethiopia? Could we not send money to assist with flood victims in Pakistan?
The effect is alive and well domestically. One of my first blog posts was about how the Saints were silly to act like they’d given their community back any tangible benefit by winning the Superbowl. There are bigger issues in New Orleans. Katrina hit five years ago and the rebuilding process has been arduous, and the oil spill has made matters worse for what is one of the most productive and best fishing communities in the country.
When I’m working, I sometimes put on television in the background. Today I listened in on “If God is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise,” a documentary by Spike Lee on the post-Katrina rebuilding efforts and impact of the Gulf oil spill on area business and residents. I’ll be frank: I was horrified. I took from the documentary a couple of salient points, related to both post-Katrina rebuilding and oil spill:
- The New Orleans police department was massively corrupt prior to the hurricane five years ago and the inability of the police to put good officers on cases (and prosecutorial incompetence against both police and civilian criminals) has led to an almost near breakdown in the justice system’s ability to bring the guilty to justice;
- New Orleans has taken the title from Detroit and Washington, DC as a per-capita murder capital of the nation;
- “White flight” (and the flight of educated black citizens) has been full-blown over the last five years, and began more than a decade ago;
- The observation of civil rights is practically nil over the last five years;
- The full effects of the oil spill still haven’t been felt. Huge clouds of waterborne oil are still expanding into coastal regions of Florida, Lousiana, Mississippi and Texas;
- British Petroleum has sprayed huge amounts of “dispersant” on the oil slicks, which is intended to break down the oil. That oil doesn’t go away, it just breaks apart into component parts and sinks beneath the surface. The net effect of this is that it’s easier to deny that the massive volumes of oil spill continue to exist, but the toxins spreading are harder to clean and more persistent over time;
- BP has ostensibly been “working with” the FAA and the Coast Guard, but in fact has been calling all shots. This has extended to restricting air and water space. BP is controlling areas and activities over which MMS, FAA and EPA have full authority.
I’m a little dumfounded at the extent of the destruction and inability to clean things up. Of course this documentary had a point of view, like all of those that HBO broadcasts, but I felt like it was pretty well-balanced. More than anything, I’m left with a sense of the desolation that this city of ours/theirs has undergone over the past decade and the desperation of what’s still to be done. Journalist after documentarian after non-profitarian has striven to draw out attention … and the country still rolls on behaving as if the situation in the Gulf isn’t critical.
Sorry for the serious nature of today’s post. The plight of the Gulf Coast is that of us all and I think it’s critically important that we pay some attention to it. For your viewing amusement, however, and because I’m incapable of taking anything seriously for ten minutes of conversation or one entire blog post, I present an excerpt of the Popdialectic Cinema dealing with the BP thought process: