New Orleans: The City That Won't Be Ignored

by Naomi Klein

This column was first published in The Nation

The early results are in: Hurricane Gustav has helped
John McCain's bid for the White House. This is nothing
short of incredible.

In the combination of New Orleans and hurricanes, we
have the most powerful argument possible for the
necessity of "change." It's all there: gaping
inequality, deep racism, crumbling public
infrastructure, global warming, rampant corruption, the
Blackwater-ization of the public sector. And none of it
is in the past tense. In New Orleans whole
neighborhoods have gone to seed, Charity Hospital
remains shuttered, public housing has been deliberately
destroyed--and the levee system is still far from

Gustav should have been political rat poison for the
Republicans, no matter how well it was managed. Yet, as
Peter Baker noted in the New York Times, "rather than
run away from the hurricane and its political risks,
Mr. McCain ran toward it." If this strategy worked, it
was at least partly because Barack Obama has been
running away from New Orleans for his entire campaign.

Unlike John Edwards, who started and ended his
nomination bid surrounded by the decay of New Orleans's
Ninth Ward, Obama has shied away from the powerful
symbolism the city offers. He waited almost a year
after Hurricane Katrina to visit New Orleans and spent
just half a day there ahead of the Louisiana primary.
During the Democratic National Convention, Michelle
Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden made no mention of
New Orleans in their keynotes. Bill Clinton spared just
two words: "Katrina and cronyism."

In his Denver speech, Obama did invoke a government
"that sits on its hands while a major American city
drowns before our eyes." But that only scratches the
surface of what happened to New Orleans's poorest
residents, who were first forcibly relocated and then
forced to watch from afar as their homes, schools and
hospitals were stolen. As Obama spoke in Denver,
families in New Orleans were already packing their bags
in anticipation of Gustav, steeling themselves for yet
another evacuation. They heard not even a perfunctory
"our thoughts and prayers are with you" from the
Democratic candidate for President.

There are plenty of political reasons for this, of
course. Obama's campaign is pitching itself to the
middle class, not the class of discarded people New
Orleans represents. The problem is that by remaining
virtually silent about the most dramatic domestic
outrage in modern US history, Obama created a political
vacuum. When Gustav hit, all McCain needed to do to
fill it was show up. Sure, it was cynical for McCain to
claim the hurricane zone as a campaign backdrop. But it
was Obama who left that potent terrain as vacant as a
lot in the Lower Ninth Ward.

Until now, Obama's supporters have largely accepted the
campaign's assessment of the compromises necessary to
win, offering only gentle prodding. The fact that the
Republicans have managed to turn New Orleans to their
advantage should put a decisive end to this blind

Republicans have a better attitude toward their
candidate. When they don't like McCain's positions,
they simply change them. Take the hottest-button issue
of the campaign: offshore oil drilling. Just four
months ago, it was not even on the radar. During the
Republican primary, the issue barely came up, and when
it did, McCain did not support it. None of this
bothered former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his
newly minted American Solutions for Winning the Future.
Gingrich waited patiently for what his party loves
most: a crisis. It arrived in May, when oil approached
$130 a barrel. First came a petition to lower gas
prices by opening up domestic drilling (nonsense). Next
was a poll, packed with laughably leading questions:
"Some people have suggested that, to combat the rising
cost of energy and reduce dependence on foreign energy
sources, the United States should use more of its own
domestic energy reserves, including the oil and coal it
already has here in the United States. Do you support
or oppose this idea?" You can guess what people said.
Two weeks later, McCain flipped on offshore oil

There was always a risk attached to making offshore
drilling the centerpiece of the McCain campaign, since
it is not nearly as safe as its advocates claim.
Environmentalists have been trying to point this out,
but nothing makes the case quite as forcefully as a
Category 5 hurricane rocking oil platforms in the Gulf
of Mexico, forcing evacuations and raising the specter
of a serious spill.

Gustav was one of those rare moments when political
arguments are made by reality, not rhetoric. It was the
time to simply point and say: "This is why we oppose
more drilling." It was also the time to recall that
during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the official
Minerals Management Service report found more than 100
accidents leading to a total of 743,400 gallons of oil
spilled throughout the region. To put that figure in
perspective, 100,000 gallons is classified as a "major
spill." If one is feeling particularly bold, a Category
5 hurricane is also an opportune time to mention that
scientists see a link between heavier storms and
warming ocean temperatures--warmed in part by the
fossil fuels being extracted from those fallible

Obama was not able to make these kinds of arguments
when Gustav hit. That's because his campaign had made
another "strategic" decision: to compromise on offshore
oil drilling. Again a vacuum that had been opened up
was rapidly filled by the Republicans, who instantly
(and absurdly) linked the hurricane to the need for
"energy security." The morning after Gustav made
landfall, Bush called for more drilling. Earlier,
McCain had visited the hurricane zone with his new
running mate, Sarah Palin, whose sole prior claim to
national fame was telling cable shows that "we need to
drill, drill, drill."

In moments of crisis, it is possible to speak hard
truths with great force and clarity. But when the truth
has gone silent, lies, boldly told, work almost as
well. Copyright (c) 2008 The Nation

Naomi Klein is an award-winning journalist and
syndicated columnist and the author of the
international and New York Times bestseller The Shock
Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (September
2007); an earlier international best-seller, No Logo:
Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies; and the collection
Fences and Windows: Dispatches from the Front Lines of
the Globalization Debate (2002).

This column was first published in The Nation