I observed a Facebook argument this morning about the current weather crisis and what it means to politicize tragedy or disaster. I restrained myself from entering into it; it wasn't going very well in general. The offending party had compared Hurricane Sandy's likely aftermath to that of Hurricane Katrina and referenced the different socioeconomic statuses of the two cities and their people. The offended party declared this an unfair and untoward politicization of a tragedy. I think he was certainly open to criticism, particularly considering how lacking we are in facts at the present time. But going after him for politicizing an already political event is the wrong way to approach the question.
Hurricane Sandy, like everything else, is already political. It came into the world political. Knowing that is the easy part. Making the distinctions and arguments that correctly address that political nature is the hard part. If he was really saying that Manhattan residents are less deserving of compassion or help because of their general level of affluence, as she claimed, then yes, that's stupid and wrong. (I didn't think he was saying that, for what it's worth.) But it's stupid and wrong not because it politicizes a somehow politically neutral situation but rather because it's wrong factually and morally. Conversely, anyone who wants to claim that the relative political and economic strength of affluent Manhattanites compared to poor black residents of the Lower 9th Ward won't impact disaster relief and response is being obtuse. (It must be stressed that there are plenty of poor people in New York City, and talking in these broad strokes is, I think, rarely helpful.) We have to separate different kinds of arguments, we have to separate the moral status of victims of tragedy from their political and economic status, and we have to make sure we are arguing the point we want to be arguing. We have to be careful.
Natural disasters are both sensitive and political, in part, for the same reason: because they are arbitrary. That arbitrariness is why people believe that disaster response should be equitable across difference, as opposed to response to poverty or hunger, which they assume (wrongly) to be the fault of the people so suffering. And the fact that our response to natural disaster is inequitable despite this arbitrary nature is exactly why we can't hide from politics. To refrain from entertaining political questions of natural disasters out of aesthetic resistance is to risk perpetuating the disadvantage of those most likely to be hurt by them.
Perhaps the response to Katrina would have been more forceful and more timely if the Bush administration had not been convinced that as a natural disaster, the hurricane was beyond politics. Whatever the case, Katrina was political before it ever touched land, before it even was known to meteorologist; Katrina as a phenomenon that transcended a weather pattern was the result of systematic inequalities that were the result of very specific and very conscious political choices. And so, too, will Sandy be revealed to be not just a hurricane but a nexus of social, economic, political, and ideological choices-- human choices, things we control-- that will be laden with political content we cannot responsibly ignore. There's no excuse for failing to be sensitive and considerate to those who are currently enduring a dangerous crisis. There's also no excuse for failing to recognize that this crisis is political whether we talk about it in those terms or not. The negative consequences of engaging in such political consideration are emotional; the negative consequences of failing to do so are material and thus more dangerous.