Harvey coverage borderline 'rescue porn,' with little to no mention of cause or prevention

Image: U.S. Department of Defense​

It's probably been hard living through the floods of the past week and not thinking about Noah and his ark, if you're in Texas, anyway. We tend to overlook how different the core cultures in the U.S. are from our own since we look and talk so similarly. But evangelical Christianity, for instance, makes it another cosmos.

Texas is the heart of the Bible Belt (Abilene is its "buckle"). It's where rednecks come from, though in Texas they're called crackers. Same difference.

Did it strike you oddly that so often in the coverage, politicians and journalists say, "We're praying for you," or "Send us your prayers"? The staid, secular New York Times reported that a three-year-old, clutching her mom's lifeless body in the floodwaters, said: "Mama was saying her prayers." Yes, of course she was.

Almost everything elides into or out of that religious model, and Noah's the guy who was warned a mighty flood was on the way so he'd better build an ark. In this case it wasn't only Noah who got the warning, though not from God but from an endless series of scientific panels and predictions, it was everyone; this was a nation of Noahs, well-informed in advance, yet nobody built an ark!

I've never really understood the appetite for disaster journalism. It's so unlike the news, it's more like the eternals. It doesn't develop surprisingly; it unfolds, or is revealed, inevitably: weather, nature. "Happening now: new parts of Texas are submerged. We have pictures..." They can't get enough, and the supply is endless.

So the emphasis isn't on the event and its cause; it's on the aftermath and the interminable rescues, slipping often toward rescue porn. It seems heroic but is essentially passive and reactive. It harks back to Noah, the orginal flood rescuer, with no emphasis on making rescues unnecessary in the future. At least God promised Noah, via the rainbow sign, that He wouldn't do it again, by flood anyway. He never mentioned global warming.

There's been a Dunkirk quality to some rescues, tending occasionally to comedy: the "Cajun boys" who came down from Louisiana looking desperately for someone to rescue, but all the victims declined. Dejected, they wound up donating blood. It had the quality of Mark Twain's Private History of a Campaign that Failed, on how he joined the Civil War. But the British, not the U.S., press reported it.

You're allowed to behave altruistically as long as it's too late to do anything preventative and you don't arrive too early. There's something passive and pious about it: don't interfere with the divine plan, but feel good if you can. Ballplayer Matt Carpenter said he'd give $10,000 for every home run he hit till the end of the season. If you're in need but he strikes out, maybe that's in the plan too.

The drama is all in riding out to the rescue of victims who've been staggered by the villain's blow, some of whom are saved, though many aren't. There's no effort to ride against the foe him/itself, who's free to strike again and again. If Noah had been a truly righteous man, as the Bible says, he'd have done what Abraham did when God proclaimed the sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah would be destroyed: stand his ground and argue against the sentence till God backs down. That makes Texans (or Americans) the equivalent of Noah, the mediocre hero, versus Abraham, the (as Kierkegaard said) knight of faith: active, not acquiescent.

By pure chance (a term normally anathema to both science and religion), Randy Newman just released his first album in years: Dark Matter, with a set piece called "The Great Debate," between science and religion on puzzlers like dark matter and evolution. It culminates in: "Alright, two-nothing [for religion]/Next question, global warming/Is it? And if so, what?"

Newman is also, by chance, the great outsider who's chronicled the southern mentality ("We're rednecks, rednecks, we don't know our ass from a hole in the ground") along with the Louisiana flood of 1927, which he got so right that it became a virtual state anthem after hurricane Katrina. He uniquely both distances himself from those people and manages to empathize; most of us just watch and gawk. He embodies a paradoxical combination of contempt and compassion, hard as hell to achieve. It isn't easy being human (or Newman).

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Image: U.S. Department of Defense​

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