Wendell Pierce as Antoine Batiste

If any TV show deserves not just ratings but love, it’s Treme. The HBO show (which concluded its first season Sunday night; a second has been greenlit) has interesting characters, an epic overarching storyline, a fascinating setting and great music. And the themes it treats – the frayed yet unbroken civic bonds of New Orleans society, and America, in the face of disaster – are very important. Not just because south Louisiana now confronts another catastrophe, but because of our crumbling infrastructure, dirty energy economy, institutional rot, and climate change, there are going to be a lot more of them.

And yet, to me anyway, Treme has not lived up to expectations. (I will pause here to ask my New Orleans friends for forgiveness.) It’s had some great moments, but just as often it’s been erratic and self-indulgent. Compared to the awesome mastery of The Wire, Treme still feels like a minor work in the David Simon oeuvre, yet to find its focus. (more…)

There is a perverse new meme brewing on the right, a riff on the apparent impotence of the Obama administration to stop the oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico. It goes like this: some things are just too big and complex for the government to deal with. In fact, 21st century life itself has grown too complex and interconnected for government to deal with. So let’s scale back our expectations and our reliance on government to fix stuff. Just go with the flow, as it were.

At NRO, Yuval Levin dismissed the anger over the response to Hurricane Katrina as unjustified because “accidents happen.” David Brooks argued that technological systems had grown too complex to manage in a column last week. In a later NPR discussion with E.J. Dionne, he rejected the idea that more effective regulation might have made a difference in heading off the Deepwater Horizon disaster:

As for the regulation, if you go down the list of decisions that were made that led to this disaster, the interpreting of the tests, whether to recycle the cement, how to recycle the mud, how to set the cement, none of these things is clear to me would be solved by different regulations. There are certain decisions that have to be made on the spot on a case by case basis and they were made, in this case, by people under extreme duress and in extreme ignorance. I’m not sure a regulator 3,000 miles away could really have done a better job.

It’s interesting how Brooks can take a good point (the problems of growing techno-complexity) and, in a sentence, turn it into a dumb, knee-jerk point. (more…)

Steel sheet pile pulled from the 17th Street Canal floodwall breach, New Orleans

The Deepwater Horizon disaster has put a renewed media and political focus on the significant government failures of Hurricane Katrina, including the collapsed, flawed floodwalls and levees that put most of New Orleans underwater. There’s also an HBO drama now featuring John Goodman’s impassioned, expletive-laden speeches on that man-made disaster. The New York Times Public Editor recently devoted part of a column to discussing the subject.

But a selective amnesia still dominates for some reason. Take a look at this blogosphere exchange between NRO’s Yuval Levin and MoJo’s Kevin Drum:

Levin says, essentially, Katrina was an act of God for which no government could have been prepared, and, under the circumstances, things weren’t so bad: (more…)

What is a “natural disaster”? The question is important, not least because arbitrary, imponderable “nature” wreaking havoc on humans and our fragile civilizations is such an archetypal predicament.

Today, though, there’s a big problem: we can’t tell any longer where nature leaves off and civilization begins. And that’s confusing.

Start with global warming and work your way down. Mankind is now causing what used to be called “natural disasters.” The Gulf oil spill is not a natural disaster in the traditional sense: nature didn’t cause it. But it is a natural disaster in that it’s disastrous to nature.

Or take the oft-litigated (in the courts and the media) case of Hurricane Katrina and the New Orleans levee system. I’ll repeat this here, for clarity: most of the devastating flooding of New Orleans occurred because faulty floodwalls collapsed because of errors in their designs approved by the Army Corps of Engineers – i.e., the U.S. government. Natural disaster? Not really, though obviously nature had a hand in it. John Goodman’s character Creighton Bernette articulates this eloquently in the first episode of Treme.

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NASA photo of oil slick off Louisiana coast

Is there any more beautiful, yet over-exploited, abused and benighted place in America than the Louisiana Gulf coast? Okay, maybe Appalachia. But today we’ve got to give this tragic distinction to the delta, where a massive, growing, seemingly unstoppable oil slick is now impinging on its vast, fragile marshlands.

I’ll never forget my first visits there. Drive out through cypress swamps and pass strip malls you might see anywhere. Then you’ll enter small communities organized along bayous, former Mississippi River tributaries whose banks provide high ground and traditional living space. The people are mostly energy industry workers and fishermen. Hundreds of shrimp boats line the channels. Keep driving, and the homes and seafood shacks finally disappear and there’s nothing but marsh grass and water seemingly going on forever. In winter, especially, the light is pale and gorgeous. (more…)

Fox News Channel controversies

Image via Wikipedia

Responding to my “death of accountability” post, Shoq says I don’t lay enough blame on the conservative establishment of think tanks and media operations, which exploit traditional media customs of fairness and “objectivity” to advance ideological and/or Republican Party agendas:

I have been railing about the collapse of accountability for years. This article sniffs around the edges of the problem, and makes some important points, but it completely misses the role that right wing think tanks like Heritage, Media Research Center, and of course, Fox News and the broader corporate media have played in the deliberate deconstruction of accountability and social responsibility.

When the public is convinced that there are no empirical facts, and that one version of events is as valid as any other, they become desensitized to the reality of most crimes and their consequences, and are far more compliant and forgiving of those accused of abusing a trust, principle, law, company, office, nation, and population. (more…)

Barge in backyard, Lower Ninth Ward

An all-star lineup of GOP pols has gathered in New Orleans for the Southern Republican Leadership Conference. But do they have any idea where they are?

Here’s what J.C. Watts told the conference-goers:

“Some might think that George W. Bush had his shortcomings,” said Watts, “but let me tell you something — history’s going to be kind to George W. Bush.”

Just up the street from the GOP’s venue at the Hilton Riverside is the New Orleans Convention Center, where tens of thousands of people gathered in the days after Hurricane Katrina and waited in stifling heat without food or water for rescuers who didn’t know they were there. Even though they were on TV.

That was probably the low point in a catastrophic breakdown of government capacities at all levels – local, state, and federal. (more…)

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