The nonresponse response
Bless Kanye West's heart.
I mean it. And not in that "what an idiot" way Southerners will tell you is the true translation of that remark.
For those who don't know, the rapper broke ranks with the rest of the assembled entertainers in NBC's live benefit concert for Hurricane Katrina victims last Friday night, creating an uneasy moment that those working in live TV hate. Unedited reality.
West had gone off book saying how "a lot of the people that could help are at war right now," followed by barbs at the media for portraying blacks, shown hauling away soda and other foodstuffs in TV footage, as looters, but whites, doing the same thing, as desperate survivors. When West spit "George Bush doesn't care about black people," enough was enough. Cameras quickly cut away to a bewildered Chris Tucker.
"Speak your mind, even if your voice shakes," Gray Panthers founder Maggie Kuhn once said. I don't know if West knows who Maggie Kuhn is. What I do know is that West attempted to speak, with a quaking voice, about the heavy cloak of racism and classism he and the rest of the world saw in the painful images coming from coastal Louisiana all week. If his remarks came off as inappropriate and inelegant, there's a reason for that. Talking about race and class in this country is not something we do very well. It's not part of the public discussion.
By now, West's outburst has been downgraded to a "dumb things celebrities do" moment. But the fact of the matter is, regardless of whether West had spoken, the invisible elephant many of us bump into every day has had a coat of garish paint spilled over it to reveal its form. Thanks to Mother Nature, loaded on global warming, and the resulting hell known as Hurricane Katrina, the reality of classism in this country is now visible to those who've either been willfully clueless to its existence or content to enjoy the supposition of U.S. egalitarianism.
I've been watching the TV coverage of Hurricane Katrina to the point of nausea. However, I've been vaguely delighted to see several newscasters from the cable news networks become exasperated as they realize the image of that elephant coming into focus before them. Even Shepard Smith from the Fox News Network was beside himself, as he fired back at spin-master Bill O'Reilly that "the haves of this city, the movers and shakers of this city, evacuated the city either immediately before or immediately after the storm." In other words, if you didn't have an SUV to load up the kids, the dog, and a major credit card, not only were you sunk (no pun intended), you didn't matter. You didn't exist.
Bush and his spokespeople have been quick to downplay the absence of the feds in the early days of the catastrophe, preferring to point fingers at the local politicians. Talk about kicking someone when they're down. Yes, Hurricane Katrina is the worst natural disaster in U.S. history, but hell, CNN's Anderson Cooper, Shepard Smith, and other members of the press corps got to the disaster site. Harry Connick Jr. got there. "How could this be happening in the United States?" has been asked over and over again by the press corps, hurricane survivors, and the rest of the world.
"We have been abandoned by our own country," said Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish, La., on Meet the Press last Sunday. Unlike West, Broussard was articulate in his response to the nonresponse of the feds. Like West, Broussard abandoned protocol when he allowed the weight of what he'd been living through overwhelm him. In a tear-choked voice, he lashed out into the camera, "Nobody's coming to get us. The secretary has promised. Everybody's promised. They've had press conferences. I'm sick of the press conferences. For God sakes, shut up and send us somebody."
Apparently, Broussard missed President Bush's quote of the day in the Sunday New York Times online, which ran the same day Broussard appeared on Meet the Press.
"I know that those of you who have been hit hard by Katrina are suffering. ... The tasks before us are enormous, but so is the heart of America."
Well, bless his heart.