According to a well-known anecdote, anthropologists studying “primitives” who supposedly held certain superstitious beliefs (that they descend from a fish or from a bird, for example) asked them directly whether they “really” believed such things. They answered: “Of course not–we ‘re not stupid! But I was told that some of our ancestors actually did believe that.” In short, they transferred their belief onto another.
We do the same thing with our children by going through the ritual of Santa Claus. Since our children (are supposed to) believe in him and we do not want to disappoint them, they pretend to believe so as not to disappoint us by puncturing our belief in their naivety (and to get the presents, of course). Isn’t this also the usual excuse of the mythical crooked politician who turns honest? “I cannot disappoint the ordinary people who believe in me.” Furthermore, this need to find another who “really believes” is also what propels us to stigmatize the Other as a (religious or ethnic) “fundamentalist.” In an uncanny way, some beliefs always seem to function “at a distance.” In order for the belief to function, there has to be some ultimate guarantor of it, and yet this guarantor is always deferred, displaced, never present in persona. The point, of course, is that this other subject who directly believes does not need to actually exist for the belief to be operative: It is enough precisely to presuppose his existence, i.e. to believe in it, either in the guise of the primitive Other or in the guise of the impersonal “one” (“one believes…”).
The events in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina struck the city provide a new addition to this series of “subjects supposed to…”–the subject supposed to loot and rape. We all remember the reports on the disintegration of public order, the explosion of black violence, rape and looting. However, later inquiries demonstrated that, in the large majority of cases, these alleged orgies of violence did not occur: Non-verified rumors were simply reported as facts by the media. For example, on September 3, the Superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department told the New York Times about conditions at the Convention Center: “The tourists are walking around there, and as soon as these individuals see them, they ‘re being preyed upon. They are beating, they are raping them in the streets.” In an interview just weeks later, he conceded that some of his most shocking statements turned out to be untrue: “We have no official reports to document any murder. Not one official report of rape or sexual assault.”
The reality of poor blacks, abandoned and left without means to survive, was thus transformed into the specter of blacks exploding violently, of tourists robbed and killed on streets that had slid into anarchy, of the Superdome ruled by gangs that were raping women and children. These reports were not merely words, they were words that had precise material effects: They generated fears that caused some police officers to quit and led the authorities to change troop deployments, delay medical evacuations and ground helicopters. Acadian Ambulance Company, for example, locked down its cars after word came that armed robbers had looted all of the water from a firehouse in Covington–a report that proved totally untrue.
[Extract. Appeared in In These Times, on October 20th, 2005. (full text).]