Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Mere days into the latest natural catastrophe I began hearing about “Katrina fatigue”: a term meant to describe not the condition of hurricane victims, but that of their television audience, growing bored with the spectacle. The opening act was riveting, but the second has been overlong, stagy, and full of more bluster than the storm itself. Can you imagine staying for the third? Let’s sneak out during intermission, and go on a bender instead.

While the first act ended with a tortured chorus from the Superdome and heartbreaking arias from the rooftops of New Orleans, the second has culminated in a solemn recitative in a deserted Jackson Square. From the masses to The Man. From the struggle for life and limb, to the fight for political survival. But while the plot has taken a turn, the sets remain stunning. The lone, besieged protagonist in front of a hauntingly lit-up St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans was some of Karl Rove’s best work to date. Truly, he is Washington’s answer to Puccini. The atmospherics, tone and content of the set piece achieved, to the relief of us all, I’m sure, what Rove & Co. are known and loved for: a retreat from reality into formalist fantasy. Jackson Square was transformed into a stark, minimalist stage, emptied of any signs of the chaos leading up to and necessitating the president’s stirring soliloquy. Such expert stagecraft explains why the administration has put Rove in charge of the “recovery” effort. Whose recovery, exactly? You could be forgiven for asking.

If the setting was surreal, the speech itself approached the sublime. This president, ostensibly an advocate of “starving the beast” has truly created a monster: a bloated, pitiful giant incapable of assisting those in need at home or affecting positive change abroad. He has presided over the greatest expansion of government bureaucracy in the nation’s history, while simultaneously slashing the budget. We now have a government that serves at the pleasure of its corporate sponsors, as a go-between, funneling honest, hard-working Americans’ tax dollars to the wealthy. This is government’s raison d'être, after all, isn’t it? The Gulf Coast catastrophe left no question whom the government serves. With Katrina, as with the war in Iraq, you can bet Bush & Co. will find enterprising ways to make money from the misery of others.

Katrina: from tragedy to farce in three weeks flat. It’s true, as postmodern opera this latest disaster has been pretty much tapped out. It takes shockingly little time to suck the marrow out of human catastrophe these days. We are cataloguers by nature, and once we have put things in order, chosen a couple of iconic images, and decided on an interpretation that suits us, we’re ready to move on. Even though Mr. Rove’s “Masterpiece Theater Presents” was pure nonsense, we appreciate someone tidying things up for us. A few kind words from the president. Applause. Curtain. There will be another act, after intermission, but by then the theater will be nearly empty.

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