Monday, September 05, 2005

A Hit to the Myth

What happened ? Can last week's events in New Orleans be said to symbolize the End of a Myth ?

Not only is this question being asked by many Americans overseas - and, far more appositely and stridently, many Americans in America - it is being asked by French men and women, at work and at home, in public and in private. By those who love America, and by those who detest it. For La Nouvelle Orleans has a special place in the French heart. What happens in that city - and more generally in La Louisiane, which once belonged to France, remember - is echoed throughout France, far more than news from, say, Spokane, Springfield, or Sedona.

This past week, seeing the increasingly shocking images on French and satellite TV, reminiscent of the Third World and not the First, French citizens could not help but compare them to those of the Southeast Asian tsunami of recent memory. French people – not least the media - exclaimed in astonishment when shown the heart-wrenching pictures and videos of civil breakdown, rampant looting (même les flics !), the refugees in the Superdome and Convention Center, and the flooded and razed landscapes. French people could not help but express puzzlement when it was reported prominently that a US disaster official stated that some help wasn't sent simply because it "wasn't requested". Finally, the French people stared in perplexity as the apparent disorganization of emergency services prolonged the suffering of those inhabitants of New Orleans that remained after a haphazard, bungled evacuation: the poor and the infirm … overwhelmingly black.

What a contrast ! The French collective memory recalls D-Day and its aftermath: a tough, efficient, smiling, friendly military force first liberating France and subsequently distributing the cornucopia of American bounty (the Marshall Plan) to war-ravaged France and other countries in Europe. French society, while generally quick to scorn America for what it perceives as its skewed priorities, its dog-eat-dog culture, and its cultural arrogance, is equally quick to credit the United States for traits relating to its organization, inventiveness, and sheer economic and industrial power.

However, since the advent of the George W. Bush administration, the Myth of America has taken hit after hit in the French mind. The example of America as a democracy was severely - but not irremediably - damaged when the 2000 Presidential election was decided by a court, not by the voters. The image of America as a worldwide force for good and harmonious progress was severely - but not irremediably - damaged by its refusal to cooperate with other countries through treaties: non ratification of the Kyoto protocol, for example, and opposition to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The United States did garner a certain sympathy among the French after 9/11 – and then promptly squandered it by the withdrawal from the ABM Treaty two months later. The invasion and occupation of Afghanistan was understood here as a logical riposte to the 9/11 attack. Nevertheless, the image of America as a responsible, restrained superpower was severely – and perhaps irremediably, in this lifetime – damaged by the subsequent war on Iraq, preceded by what were perceived as saber-rattling, lies, exaggerations, and obfuscations. With no weapons of mass destruction found, many French people have simply decided that the conflict is imperialist: une guerre pour le pétrole.

As France, the United States says that it "leads by example". As France, the United States asserts that – in summary - its system is "the best" and that other countries should "model" themselves in the same way.

The images from La Nouvelle Orleans and the actions of the US government to save its own citizens both before and after Katrina's arrival raise serious questions about the US societal "model", specifically about solidarity (la solidarité) and not leaving people by the wayside (ne pas laisser les personnes au bord de la route). No matter how much the media and the politicians spin and hype and attempt to paint the situation in a different light, the Myth of America has taken yet another hit in France. It remains to be seen how deep and lasting the damage is.


L'Amerloque


Text © Copyright 2005 by L'Amerloque

11 Comments:

Blogger Pat said...

WOW - what a great post! Thanks!!!

7:10 AM  
Blogger jean said...

You got it right. We "amerloques" are being tested, and it remains to be seen whether we can change course from this low point. The world is watching . . .

3:37 PM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hi Pat !

Glad to see you're here !


L'Amerloque

9:53 AM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hi Jean !

We "amerloques" are being tested, and it remains to be seen whether we can change course from this low point. The world is watching . . .

Oh yes, no doubt of that. Of course some people are observing with a huge dollop of schadenfreude, unfortunately, while others are watching in genuine concern.

Here we are, 10 days or so after the event, and some things apparently are still being organized. The blame game is in full swing. Stories of solidarity fill the airwaves and press.

Interestingly enough, I haven't seen any comments (or references) here in France concerning two issues.

The first is the international assistance pouring into the affected areas. According to the news, while Kuwait is donating something like $500 million in cash and petroleum products, Sri Lanka is anteing up $25,000 and Australia $8 million, Japan, one of the richest nations on the planet, is has given only $500,000. I thought I had read the figure incorrectly, but it looks like that is the entire donation. I find such a low amount quite strange. I wonder if Japan is trying to send a message of some sort ? Perhaps the USA didn't come through as it should have during the Kobe Earthquake relief ? What are we missing, here ?

The other issue is, of course, any reference to the thousands (14 thousand or so, apparently) of French senior citizens who died during the heat wave a couple of years ago. Silence radio, as the French say. If one refers to the population (say that France has about 21% of the American population or so: 60 million F to 280 million USA), with 14,000 dead here during the heatwave, an extrapolation taking the population into account would make about 70,000 dead. Hence, if it turns out that are fewer than 70,000 dead because of Katrina, the death toll in France due to the heatwave will have been higher than the death toll in the USA due to the hurricane and subsequent flooding.


L'Amerloque

9:56 AM  
Blogger Frania W. said...

The tragic events in New Orleans were due to a natural catastrophe & the Super Dome was to shelter & save thousands of evacuees and did. Yet, because the setting was a stadium, the story brings to (my) mind another tragedy that happened in France a long time ago, the infamous "Rafle du Vel d'Hiv" that took place on 16 & 17 July 1942 when 13,152 Jews, inlcuding 4,115 children, were brought to the winter stadium of Paris before being shipped to Auschwitz. Here is an excerpt from a text published by "La Ligue des Droits de l'Homme" describing the conditions in that stadium:

"... les familles étaient dans un premier temps emmenées au vélodrome d'hiver. Elles y resteront plusieurs jours dans des conditions épouvantables, car rien n'avait été prévu pour elles, ni sanitaires, ni eau, ni nourriture, ni matelas. Les gens, qui n'avaient eu le droit d'emporter que deux bagages dont un de vivres, s'entassaient sur les gradins parmi les pleurs des enfants et les odeurs d'excréments..."

Frania W.

12:31 AM  
Blogger Frania W. said...

From what I understand, the Japanese government has given the equivalent of $500,000 both in cash & emergency supplies to the American Red Cross. However, private citizens are bringing or sending contributions to the US Embassy in Tokyo, a wealthy Japanese has given $1 million.

Frania W.

12:36 AM  
Blogger jan-yves said...

Bonjour,

The 15.OOO dead during the heatwave 2 years ago have been a permanent reference on the franco/american blogs dealing with the NO flooding and not least from the French.
Though, whatever reasonning may be called upon this summer tragedy, it now appears that it will be forever an other "argument" for french bashers in America as automatic as the so called craze of the French for Jerry Lewis (and so many more...).
I understand you're a francophile Amerloque (as you know, a Frenchman would'nt call you that way, Amerloque being way too insulting) and you don't need to be reminded that the heat wave of 2003 wasn't limited to France but was a european disaster. As a matter of fact 20.000 Italians died, 12.000 Spaniards, 5.000 Britons etc. but all these countries were much more discreet about the impact the heatwave had on their elderly and their respective handling of the situation. Only the French treated what happened as a national disgrace and, belatedly, acted accordingly. It took 2 years for exemple for the Italians to unveil the figures of their dead wheras it was immediately a affaire d'Etat in France where we were shocked by what happened.
Never mind! I have never seen in ANY american media any reference whatsoever to the consequences of the heatwave in any other country but France. Blame the French first and only the French. Of course, as a consequence I guess 99% of Americans (to say the least) do the math and are dead sure that only the French could be so inhumane and technically backwarded as to let their elderly die during tough times.
Confronted with the media's bias it feels like Sisiphus indeed...
As for the comparison with the flooding in New Orleans and the heatwave in Europe, I'm not that sure that such a comparison can be reasonnably drawn. There have always been several hurricanes and tornadoes a year in that region of Louisiana, gulf of Mexico etc. so the last thing that can be said is that it was unforeseeable. As for the heatwave, nothing with this intensity AND DURATION (3 weeks!) was ever recorded even if such temperatures are not uncommon every now and then. But not on this scale of duration.
The point is not to minimize such or such event but just to remind carefulness not to compare anything with everything (earth quakes and Tsunamis, flooding and canicule, volcanoes and storms, wind water fire etc.).

A special thank to frania W. :D

2:23 PM  
Blogger Frania W. said...

As in other parts of the world, Dame Nature is not playing favorite & gave the United States the beating of a life time. Reactions outside the US are mixed, not always kind, and criticism heard outside the country is voiced within the country itself. In the wake of the tragedy, the Americans themselves are quick at finger pointing, trying to find the guilty or designate the scapegoat. The United States is going through a time of deep crisis & division. Not the first time. The country has shaped itself through crises. About fifteen years before D-Day & its show of incomparable military power, the country was going thru the most excruciating economic pains. Millions of people were leaving their homes & heading west. It was a time of dire poverty. Did WWII save these people economically? Probably. But some were left on the wayside. Mostly the blacks. The generation that fought for Civil Rights in the 1960s accomplished a lot, but the job was not finished. Blacks could sit at the front of the bus, but their bus was always behind. Now, thanks to the globalization of instant images, it has taken the destructive power of a hurricane to show the world “la face cachée de l’Amérique” that everyone knew existed. Katrina is forcing us to see what we refused to acknowledge before. I do not want to sound angelically naïve, but I believe, I hope that this country has it in itself to save its soul & stop leaving people on the wayside. There are some great people here & they come in all colors.

Frania

P.S. To Jan-Yves: Glad you figured it out!

11:56 PM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hi Frania !

because the setting was a stadium ...

The first tragedy that I thought of was another September 11th and its consequences: the coup d'etat against Allende in Chile in 1973. Thousands of citizens were parked in the stadia ...

Thanks for the info on Japanese donations ! I guess I missed it in the press ...

I believe, I hope that this country has it in itself to save its soul & stop leaving people on the wayside. There are some great people here & they come in all colors.

Absolutely.



L'Amerloque

2:46 AM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hello Jan-Yves !

Welcome aboard !

The 15.OOO dead during the heatwave 2 years ago have been a permanent reference on the franco/american blogs dealing with the NO flooding and not least from the French.

OK, thanks ! I must admit that I don't read the blogs about Paris as faithfully as I should. There seems to be too much "gosh, there's a lotta doggy poop on the sidewalk" and "gee, I went to the most fantastic little restau the other night and I only paid xx euros". Perhaps I'm being overly harsh, I admit. (smile)


I understand you're a francophile Amerloque (as you know, a Frenchman would'nt call you that way, Amerloque being way too insulting)

It's tongue-in-cheek, of course. I adopted "Amerloque" simply because I have been called that in anger and in insult, but far, far more frequently in friendship and in affection. I know other "Amerloques", as well as at least one "La Ricaine" (smile). "Francophile" is putting it mildly, by the way. (wider smile)


I have never seen in ANY american media any reference whatsoever to the consequences of the heatwave in any other country but France. Blame the French first and only the French. Of course, as a consequence I guess 99% of Americans (to say the least) do the math and are dead sure that only the French could be so inhumane and technically backwarded as to let their elderly die during tough times.

Confronted with the media's bias it feels like Sisiphus indeed...


Yes, the American media just love to hate the French. The hate varies in intensity. We are living through a particularly virulent time of it.


As for the comparison with the flooding in New Orleans and the heatwave in Europe, I'm not that sure that such a comparison can be reasonnably drawn.
.../...
The point is not to minimize such or such event but just to remind carefulness not to compare anything with everything (earth quakes and Tsunamis, flooding and canicule, volcanoes and storms, wind water fire etc.).


You're right. The numbers are important but not the whole story. In addition, I wanted to go on record on the blog, as a surrogate chalkboard (smile) in part to forestall any comments from readers who, justement, believe that everything in this world can be expressed through numbers. We who live in reality know that is not quite true. (smile)



L'Amerloque

2:51 AM  
Blogger jan-yves said...

What's the point arguing if we agree in the first place?

6:46 AM  

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