This week the US gradually awoke to the full cataclysm of Monday's mammoth hurricane, which flooded New Orleans and ravaged the Mississippi coast. It was, as several officials noted, our tsunami.
Weather is daily theatre here, hawked by peppy broadcasters on local TV stations or dissected by grizzled meteorologists on a round-the-clock national cable TV channel. Our annual "hurricane season", as it is casually called, runs from June through November. We are quite used to suspense building over a week or two as a tropical storm registers over the Atlantic, then gathers to careen as a hurricane through the Caribbean or bounce up the Atlantic coast.
Dire predictions have often fizzled out, as hurricanes missed populated areas or weakened dramatically on hitting land. Despite a series of severely destructive hurricanes in the Florida panhandle, satirical jibes at overzealous weathercasters have multiplied in recent years. It was a prescription for disaster.
According to most reports, 80 per cent of New Orleans residents may indeed have obeyed the mayor's appeal to evacuate - which doubtless saved countless lives. But the national media took several days to adjust to the grim and now grotesque reality on the ground. At first, the smooth, exquisitely coiffed news anchors and their posturing on-site correspondents professed cheerful relief that Hurricane Katrina had passed by and spared picturesque New Orleans.
Yet any rational observer could have predicted the delayed effects of flooding - which in this case broke through two of the levees that have protected the fragile, always soggy city from the encroachment of Lake Pontchartrain. It was a disgraceful repeat of the American media's slow response to the tsunami in the Indian Ocean last December, when the star anchors were on Christmas vacation and had to straggle back, visibly peeved, to their studios. Matt Drudge, in contrast, alarmed by the reported size of the submarine earthquake, instantly forecast the enormity of the event and headlined it on his online site, the Drudge Report.
But to ask for powers of scientific or sociological analysis from the preening parrots currently infesting American media is a pointless exercise. The time is long gone when American broadcasting could draw on the talents of foreign correspondents who honed their skills during the Second World War. Edward R Murrow, Eric Sevareid, Howard K Smith, and Walter Cronkite had a gravitas and stoic deliberativeness that seem a million miles away from the flirty smirkiness of the airheaded moppets and gym-sculpted pretty boys who now harangue us from the TV screen.
Hurricane Katrina is simply the latest chapter in the epic of American nature. It is a subject that Europeans rarely show understanding of in their often dismissive comments on US culture. In my latest book, Break, Blow, Burn, I reprinted a little-known poem by Norman Russell, "The Tornado", which describes a family home being swallowed up by a roaring black twister: Russell deftly captures the terrifying grandeur of the American sublime. Despite the enduring and perceptibly increasing influence of Christian fundamentalism here, the political will is constantly being tested and refined against the pagan chaos of brute nature.
American history is crammed with tales of fortitude in the face of hostile geography and punishing weather, from the struggle of the Mayflower Puritans to survive their first New England winter to the desperate march of pioneers in the 1849 California gold rush through the baking desert of Death Valley. Books and TV features regularly document our list of worst disasters - such as the great blizzard of 1888 that sank 200 boats under five feet of snow or the hurricane-caused 1900 flood in Galveston, Texas that killed 6,000 people.
There is a can-do spirit here that believes it can overcome all odds. It can be detected, for example, in the fixed optimism of the Bush administration that Western-style constitutional democracy can be planted virtually overnight in the Mideast. What is highly surprising now is the disintegration of the administration's mask of competence and confidence, as New Orleans sinks day by day into squalor and savagery, a shocking panorama of unrelieved human suffering.
Is Brad man enough?
The Hollywood triangle of Brad Pitt, Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie has swamped magazine covers in the US for months. I've been rooting for the tempestuous Jolie just as, in high school, I applauded that brunette vixen, Elizabeth Taylor, for snatching Eddie Fisher away from the saccharine Debbie Reynolds. Of course, Fisher proved too bland a morsel, and Liz moved on to abort the theatre career of Richard Burton.
The quirky, dryly humorous Aniston, with her urban air of suppressed neurosis, is no match for a tigress like Jolie, who has the pneumatic figure and aggressive athleticism of the superheroine she was born to play, Lara Croft. What do Jolie's strange vitality and mysticism owe to her Iroquois ancestry?
As we wait to see how long the stubbornly boyish Pitt will hold Jolie's wandering attention, may I recommend Gia, a 1998 TV docudrama where Jolie chews up the scenery as the bisexual supermodel Gia Carangi, a heroin addict who died of Aids. It's a spectacular performance - rude, crude, full-blooded, and bewitching.
A bratty antidote to political correctness
Earlier this year, there was a spate of media stories about Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 "greatest rock & roll songs of all time". Number one position in the poll of musicians, songwriters, producers, and critics was won by Bob Dylan's 1965 hit, "Like a Rolling Stone".
Dylan is a genius who had a profound influence on my 1960s generation in the US, but his current stratospheric elevation smacks of the faddish. " Like a Rolling Stone" is an exhilaratingly propulsive song with a wicked rap of bratty put-downs. I have found it personally inspiring in my war on political correctness in academe. But artistically, the song suffers from its compulsive sneering - an adolescent tic.
A truly great song has expansiveness, vision, and emotional range. On those grounds, the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil" or " Gimme Shelter" would rank far beyond "Like a Rolling Stone". In my course, "Art of Song Lyrics", which I am teaching this semester at the University of the Arts, we will be studying a much greater song by Dylan, "Desolation Row", so long and complex that it always takes several class days to do justice to.
There are any number of major Led Zeppelin songs that have a lyric romanticism and orchestral majesty that overshadow "Like a Rolling Stone ". One of my all-time favourites, the blues-inflected "When the Levee Breaks", is specially applicable to this dark moment in New Orleans: "If it keeps on rainin', levee's going to break ... When the levee breaks, then you got to move."
Deborah Orr is awayReuse content