Ira Chernus  




The black humor of The Onion is sometimes prophetic. Back in September, when the front pages of “serious” newspapers were still filled with tragic tales of hurricane Katrina and her victims, The Onion’s biting headline read: “Hurricane Victims’ 15 Minutes Just About Over.”

To be fair, the hurricane victims’ time in the limelight lasted longer than 15 minutes. It lasted for several weeks. And the public outpouring of support for hurricane victims was impressive. It was a welcome reminder that the American people will give generously of their private resources, and expect the government to give public resources just as generously, when the suffering gets bad enough -- that is, if the American people can see the suffering on their television screens. Once the cameras and the floodlights move on to other things, though, the public’s consciousness inevitably moves on, too.

Now the survivors of the disaster are largely left to fend for themselves. They are in for plenty of suffering, for years to come. And no one will see it on TV. That means they will experience what poor, marginalized, and oppressed Americans throughout the country have been experiencing for years. Invisible suffering never gets enough relief from the private sector. Politicians who really want the government to relieve it are not likely to get elected. You rarely see them on TV.  

Jesse Jackson didn’t get much time on the tube when he pointed out, just a few days after Katrina struck, that the Bush administration was awarding no-bid contracts to its favorite corporations to rebuild the Gulf Coast. Eventually, the government said that it would let most of those contracts out for competitive bid. But who knows what is really happening? Who is watching?

Even if the contracts go to the lowest bidders, they are likely to be huge corporations with high-level political connections. Their wealthy owners will get wealthier from the millions of our tax dollars they take in profits from relief work. Of course, there is nothing new here. Millions of Americans have been suffering for years from the privatization of just about everything. And nearly all of it happens off camera.

Will the TV cameras be rolling a year or two from now, when the uninsured working poor of New Orleans, or anywhere else, need medical care but can’t afford it because they have no private insurance? Imagine if the local TV news led off every night, not with the latest murder on the streets, but with the latest death of an uninsured worker who died from a preventable disease. Tragedies like that happen day in and day out. But there’s no public outcry because most of the public isn’t watching.

A few people are watching closely. They work in decades-old local organizations, often in poor areas. They build vibrant communities in their own neighborhoods, because they know how to do it. They know who is suffering, because it’s their friends and neighbors. Community-based organizations work hard to insure decent health care for all and to insure that all sorts of public services are well-funded and available to everyone. But they generally toil in obscurity, because they rarely get the kind of coverage they deserve on TV. 

New Orleans had more than its share of such active community groups. The elites down there (mostly, but not all, white) have made it clear that they want to use the reconstruction process to break the power of these local activists. Some even talk about bulldozing entire neighborhoods to make way for lucrative tourist accommodations—and, Republicans hope, to reduce the Democratic vote. Whatever happens, you can be pretty sure it will be pretty much invisible, because little of it will be covered on television.

The rule that “it only matters if it’s on TV” goes far beyond the hurricane disaster area. Consider the Supreme Court. Conservative justices can inflict suffering on many millions over many decades. If the Roberts court lets states deny women the right of choice, the suffering will be far greater and last far longer than anything the Gulf Coast experienced this year. Hardly any of it will ever be seen on TV. The major television networks offer far too little coverage of the Senate hearings that give the public its only chance to study the Court nominees in depth. You have to make a real effort to see those hearings as they happen. For most Americans, they too are invisible.

In Iraq, millions of our tax dollars are spent to bomb cities like Tel Afar and Ramadi—places most Americans have never seen or even heard of—where scores of Iraqis have been killed recently. Although the mainstream press says the victims were all “insurgents,” eyewitnesses report that many of them were innocent civilians. We can’t know the truth, because the television cameras don’t go there. For us, those deaths never really happened, because we didn’t see them on TV.

The anti-American forces in Iraq make sure their violence is seen on TV. They want the world to know that they are able to strike at will, that they are a power to be reckoned with. The U.S. military forces makes sure their violence is not seen. They want to hide the terrible effects of the continuing war and occupation. But both sides agree on one thing. They both know how this postmodern world works. Television creates reality. Suffering isn’t real until it appears on the tube.

I don’t mean to diminish the terrible tragedies caused by hurricane Katrina. Of course we should give the victims all the help they need. But one good way to help them, and all of us, is to open our hearts and our wallets to the suffering that the TV cameras never see.