Post-Katrina rumors and fear of the poor

I hope no one will be surprised to learn that most of the more extreme horror stories about the breakdown of public order in New Orleans in the days following Hurricane Katrina were either exaggerations or flat-out fantasies.

As Anne Applebaum writes in The Washington Post:

Although investigations by the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the New Orleans police and the National Guard have turned up a few bad incidents, none of the more grotesque stories of the horrors at the convention center or the Superdome can be substantiated.

These facts hardly do credit to outsiders– including jorunalists– who were so eager (or at least willing) to believe and spread the ugliest rumors. But what about the city’s mayor himself? Ray Nagin didn’t have the excuse of distance when he claimed that crowds at the Convention Center and the Superdome had degenerated into an “almost animalistic state.”

As Applebaum writes:

Some think that anxiety had to do with race: As I am not the first to note, few would have believed that 25,000 white, middle-class suburbanites had reverted to an “almost animalistic state” within a few days. But then, I’m not sure that 25,000 black middle-class suburbanites would have inspired such stories either, and certainly black officials such as Nagin… wouldn’t have repeated them.

What I’m guessing the Katrina rumors revealed was not precisely racism but a much deeper fear of the poor, even of poverty itself. What I’m guessing they revealed is our imaginary picture of what life would be like without the civilizing elements and the social markings to which we’re accustomed: our houses, our cars, our clothes, our possessions, our reputations, our authority.

I think those are good guesses.