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Polysemic Diasasters

One thing pretty much everyone seems to agree on is that major disasters are very informative events. They're so big, and so undeniable, that they tear away comfortable illusions about how the world works. During a disaster, reality comes and gives us a big slap in the face, delivering clear and irrefutable evidence about how things work. Even Cultural Theory, which holds that our viewpoint is always biased, sees disasters as an instance when nature can force us to shift from one bias to another.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, this idea has been widely invoked. But I've yet to encounter a single person who claims to have been the person converted to a different viewpoint by the disaster. Instead, we have a variety of people each claiming that their own pre-existing ideology has been validated and that only an act of willful ignorance will keep the rest of the country from seeing the light. So to Democrats, Katrina proves how uncaring and incompetent the Bush administration is, while Republicans see it as clear evidence of state and local Democrats' failures. Libertarians find evidence of government's incompetence while their critics see it as proof that big government is necessary. To the religious right, Katrina makes clear God's judgment against sexual deviants. Socialists see evidence of the fundamental injustice of modern capitalism while for cultural leftists the racist underbelly of America has been exposed. And for environmentalists, Katrina is clear evidence of the folly of trying to tame a major river and a consequence of climate change.

Not every ideology claims to have been validated by Katrina. For example, I haven't seen a distinct "feminist" explanation, since it's difficult -- absent the kind of divine intervention invoked by the religious right -- to blame the disaster on sex and gender issues. So feminists have tended to fall in with the Democrats and socialists and cultural leftists.

None of this is to say that the explanations on offer are all equally wrong or undecidable. I'm pretty convinced that the socialist, cultural leftist, and to some extent environmentalist viewpoints are basically right. What I am saying, though, is that we can't expect the bare fact of Katrina to prove our case. Rather than being hard and easily interpreted evidence, disasters are richly polysemic, offering support for a variety of interpretations.


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