Ken MacLeod's comments.
The title comes from two quotes:
“Work as if you lived in the early days of a better nation.”—Alasdair Gray.
“If these are the early days of a better nation, there must be hope, and a hope of peace is as good as any, and far better than a hollow hoarding greed or the dry lies of an aweless god.”—Graydon Saunders
I'm speaking and reading at the Edinburgh University SF Soc's Freshers' Week event on Wednesday around about 8 p.m., in the Pentland Room at the Pleasance. On Thursday, 7.30 to 9.30, I'm doing a joint event with another local author, Jenni Calder, at the Priory Church, Hopetoun Road, South Queensferry (opposite the police station stop on the 43 bus rout, if anyone's coming in from Edinburgh). This is part of the Queensferry Arts Festival, which is running all week, mostly at the church.
Daniel Coysh has an interview/profile of me up at the Morning Star, Britain's only socialist daily (in fact, the only English-language socialist daily paper). It's on one of the free pages, so click right through.
Learning the World, published by Orbit last month and due to be published by Tor in November, has had a good response so far. Nova Scotia, the anthology of new Scottish speculative fiction edited by Neil Williamson and Andrew J. Wilson and published by Mercat Press, was launched in August from sites on the east and west coasts and has already sold more than half its print run. Part of a strong recent surge of Scottish SF and fantasy, this superbly-produced book contains manyfine stories and my own 'A Case of Consilience', which is without a doubt the best story of Scottish Presbyterian xeno-evangelism yet published in the present millennium.
Caligula made his horse a Senator, but he didn't put the stableboy in charge of the aqueducts. The local, state and federal lack of preparation, the gutting of FEMA (previously capable, even under Bush, of acting with rather more despatch) as it was integrated, if that's the word, into Homeland Security present a record for which Michael Brown's replacement on the scene (not even sacking!) is not even the first installment of retribution.
What's happened is a disaster all right, but to say that it's a failure presupposes that the plan was to use all available civil and military forces to deliver relief, and that this plan failed. Evidently there was no such plan. Nor, contrary to what some on the left have argued, was the situation left to the market and other forms of voluntary organization. Time and again, volunteer help from outside and self-help and mutual aid within have been blocked.
What the US authorities at every level appear to have settled on by accident or design is a method with wider application. The priority is to control the population. In the event of disaster, seal off the city until a sufficient military force is in place to take it. Exaggerate the degree of disorder within, relying on racism and rumour. Evacuate the city at gunpoint and don't let people back. Disperse the evacuees, humanely it may be, but firmly, with as much of the burden as possible taken by charity. Turn over the reconstruction to Haliburton and favoured real-estate developers. This is the future of Homeland Security. This is what to expect in the event of another natural disaster or mass-casualty attack.
There's no reason to expect anything substantially different in Britain. Civil disaster management and civil defence are very likely just as riddled with private consultancies, workshopping scenarios to their hearts' content, while the real preparation is for military and police occupation.
The time to prepare citizen self-organization from below is now. Some individual self-preparation wouldn't go amiss either.
The now famousaccount by Larry Bradshaw and Lorrie Beth Slonsky of their experiences in New Orleans makes two points very clear. One is that much of the 'looting', including armed 'looting', was entirely legitimate and necessary salvage of food, water, and other supplies. The other is that people were forcibly prevented from walking out of the city:
As we approached the bridge, armed Gretna sheriffs formed a line across the foot of the bridge. Before we were close enough to speak, they began firing their weapons over our heads.
We questioned why we couldn’t cross the bridge anyway, especially as there was little traffic on the six-lane highway. They responded that the West Bank was not going to become New Orleans and there would be no Superdomes in their city.
Other groups, time and again, got the same response.
Here's another account, again from a generally not-making-shit-up left-wing paper, of what went on in and around the Convention Center. It corroborates these two points, and seems interesting enough to quote at length. Lisa Moore is telling the story of her cousin Denise:
From what she told me, her mother, a licensed practical nurse, was called into work on Sunday night at Memorial Hospital (historically known as Baptist Hospital to those of us from NO). Denise decided to stay with her mother, her niece and grandniece; she figured they’d be safe at the hospital.
[...] Tuesday the levees broke, and water began rising. They moved patients upstairs, saw boats pass by on what used to be streets. They were told that they would be evacuated, that buses were coming. Then they were told they would have to walk to the nearest intersection, Napoleon and South Claiborne, to await the buses. They waded out in hip-deep water, only to stand at the intersection, on the neutral ground (what y’all call the median) for three and a half hours. The buses came and took them to the Ernest Morial Convention Center (yes, the one you’ve all seen on TV).
Denise said she thought she was in hell. They were there for two days, with no water, no food, no shelter - Denise, her mother (63 years old), her niece (21 years old), and two-year-old grandniece. When they arrived, there were already thousands of people there. They were told that buses were coming. Police drove by, windows rolled up, thumbs-up signs. National guard trucks rolled by, completely empty, soldiers with guns cocked and aimed at them. Nobody stopped to drop off water. A helicopter did, but all the bottles exploded on impact due to the height of the helicopter.
The first day (Wednesday) four people died next to her. The second day (Thursday) six people died next to her. Again, nobody stopped. The only buses that came were full; they dropped off more and more people, but nobody was being picked up and taken away. They found out that those being dropped off had been rescued from rooftops and attics; they got off the buses delirious from lack of water and food. Completely dehydrated. the crowd tried to keep them all in one area. Denise said the new arrivals had mostly lost their minds. They had gone crazy.
Inside the convention centre, the place was one huge bathroom. In order to shit, you had to stand in other people’s shit. the floors were black and slick with shit. most people stayed outside because the smell was so bad. But outside wasn’t much better: between the heat, the humidity, the lack of water, the old and very young dying from dehydration... and there was no place to lay down, not even room on the sidewalk. they slept outside Wednesday night, under an overpass.
Denise said, yes, there were young men with guns there. But they organised the crowd. They went to Canal Street and ‘looted’, and brought back food and water for the old people and the babies, because nobody had eaten in days. When the police rolled down windows and yelled out, 'The buses are coming', the young men with guns organised the crowd in order: old people in front, women and children next, men in the back. Just so that when the buses came, there would be priorities of who got out first.
Denise said the fights she saw between the young men with guns were fist fights. She saw them put their guns down and fight rather than shoot up the crowd. But she said that there were a handful of people shot in the convention centre: their bodies were left inside, along with other dead babies and old people.
Denise said the people thought they were being sent there to die. Lots of people being dropped off, nobody being picked up. Cops passing by, speeding off. National guard rolling by with guns aimed at them. And, yes, a few men shot at the police, because at a certain point all the people thought the cops were coming to hurt them, to kill them all. She saw a young man who had stolen a car speed past, cops in pursuit; he crashed the car, got out and ran, and the cops shot him in the back, in front of the whole crowd. She saw many groups of people decide that they were going to walk across the bridge to the west bank, and those same groups would return, saying that they were met at the top of the bridge by armed police ordering them to turn around, that they weren’t allowed to leave.
This added to the belief they were sent there to die. Denise’s niece found a pay phone, and kept trying to call her mother’s boyfriend in Baton Rouge, and finally got through and told him where they were. The boyfriend, and Denise’s brother, drove down from Baton Rouge and came and got them. They had to bribe a few cops, and talk a few into letting them into the city ('Come on, man, my two-year-old niece is at the convention centre'), then they took back roads to get to them.
After arriving at my other cousin’s apartment in Baton Rouge, they saw the images on TV, and couldn’t believe how the media were portraying the people of New Orleans. She kept repeating to me on the phone last night: make sure you tell everybody that they left us there to die. Nobody came. Those young men with guns were protecting us. If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t have had the little water and food they had found.
I'm belatedly posting some comments on my previous post. I apologise for the belatedness, because these correspondents were ahead of the curve.
Erudite American Marxist Jim Farmelant wrote, back on Wednesday 31 August:
I think we are seeing in the Gulf states, especially Louisiana, the results of some massive incompetence, starting from the Federal level (read Bush Administration) down to the state and local levels. The Bush Administration had taken away Federal funds that had been slated to pay for New Orleans disaster funds and used them pay for the Iraq war and for tax cuts. As a result, New Orleans was not able to get its levees in shape to withstand a major storm of the sort just experienced. Louisiana has found itself shorthanded in terms of manpower in its National Guard, since so much of the Louisiana National Guard is, you guessed it, over in Iraq. Indeed, even much of the equipment that the National Guard uses in flood relief is over in Iraq, just in case that country should suffer a flood.
And things are not too much better at the state and local levels. While almost all major American cities suffer greatly from corruption, New Orleans is especially notorious on that score. No doubt when the billions of Federal dollars being to flow in to rebuild the city, a lot of well connected people are going to become fabulously wealthy. Whether any of that will trickle down to the rest of the people in New Orleans is anyone's guess. Meanwhile, watching television one got to see the consequences of lax building codes, as one got to see buildings that probably would have had trouble standing up to a 75 mph wind, get whacked with 175 mph winds. Naturally, a lot of these buildings simply collapsed. Since, New Orleans is a city that normally gets hit with a hurricane or major tropical storm every few years, one might have thought that the city's building codes would have taken that into account. Yes, one might have thought that.
Yes, this is going to be a major national disaster.
British SF fan Alison wrote, the same day:
Lots of things about the US become easier to understand if you consider it as a very rich third world country... Not just now, but generally. Like enormously high and rising inequity (including reducing real-terms median income over the last 30 years!), lack of adequate healthcare, housing, education for the poor, and a belief that richer states have no responsibility to improve the living conditions of poorer ones, diversion of national wealth into warfare rather than welfare. That sort of thing.
Lots of examples at the moment; eg general notion that Texas helping out refugees from Louisiana is a 'stunningly generous offer' rather than you know, standard operating practice, or the proportion of US military strength being used to sort out Katrina cleanup (and you know, they could have been shipping in troops to safe nearby areas over the weekend), or just a general 'oh well, of course it's individuals' responsibility to look after themselves and their property', or the Red Cross explaining that it's their largest aid effort ever (because, you know, American Red Cross is the world).
Not to mention police and other rescue personnel actively looting (apparently this happened after 9/11 as well), something which I think we can safely say Would Not Happen Here.
Today, David Moles wrote:
This part of America didn't just fall off and drop into the Third World; it was left there, a long time ago. (One of our great national shames, though there's plenty of competition.) There's a good summary here[.]
Of course, this sort of thing doesn't happen in at least one actual Third World country.
Star blogging coverage (practical as well as argumentative) can be found at Making Light. China Mieville has done some sterling online investigative journalism at Lenin's Tomb (as has the tomb's titular inhabitant).