Today, the New York Times. Tomorrow, Strunk and White

Levees.org has petitioned the New York Times to adopt a style policy avoiding Katrina shorthand. John McQuaid is a columnist on the web (a.k.a. a so-called “blogger”) who is in solid agreement that Katrina shorthand is wrong and dangerous. However, he disagrees with levees.org’s petition to the NYT, regarding it as a low-level fix. Here’s the post:

http://trueslant.com/johnmcquaid/2010/05/18/the-oil-spill-and-hurricane-katrina-natural-disasters/

Speech has consequences

Names of things and events serve the agenda of the namer. For example, when we decided to refer to a certain automobile pathway as Martin Luther King Blvd. rather than Melpomene St., or to another as O.C. Haley Blvd rather than Dryades St. (both Haley and Dryades equally obscure, btw), that serves the agenda of those who did the renaming, which (I presume) was to raise awareness and support for civil rights. Saying “levee breaches” rather than “Hurricane Katrina” serves the agenda of keeping the spotlight on the Corps of Engineers with the intent of making sure they do it right this time. The following was my comment to his post:

Small things can matter a great deal.  The way we talk about something both reflects and affects the way we think of it.  You make the larger point yourself that Katrina shorthand covers a lot besides just the weather event; but (1) the NYT is so widely read that their style guidelines are not such a small matter, and (2) even if it’s not an overarching solution addressing deep institutional dysfunction and abrogation of societal responsibility, a “low-level bureaucratic fix” as simple as the way we refer to the catastrophe here has an impact.

No one is asking that the flooding in Mississippi be described as anything other than a natural disaster.  But, when it comes to discussing what happened in the city of New Orleans (along with the suburb of Chalmette), a distinction must be made.  Otherwise we come away having learned nothing from a pre-eminently teachable event.

The distinction is this: there was no effort to protect the Mississippi Gulf Coast from storm surge coming ashore; this is evident to anyone driving along U.S. Hwy 90.  In contrast, New Orleans was (supposed to be) protected from storm surge.  It’s worth noting that federal levees held in neighboring Jefferson parish.  The flooding there was due to Jefferson’s leaders’ failure to operate their drainage pumps.  Even so, because they only had to deal with rain, the flooding was minor in comparison to the catastrophe in New Orleans, which allowed the full storm surge into the city.

The editorial policy matters in as influential a venue as the New York Times.  Accurate writing would distinguish the avoidable flooding in New Orleans from the unavoidable flooding in Mississippi.  And how we refer to things makes a difference in our thinking.  Are Democrats “liberals” or “progressives”?  When a very wealthy person dies, do heirs pay “estate tax” or “death tax”?

By insisting on referring accurately and truthfully to the flooding of New Orleans as a catastrophic engineering failure, the New York Times could make an impact on attitudes that would keep the pressure on the Corps of Engineers to do it right this time.  Even after everything that happened, the Corps is pushing a second-rate plan it knows won’t provide the best flood protection for the city.  Keeping the heat on in every way possible, large and small, is appropriate and necessary.

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