Best known as a comic actor, and especially for his performance as a maladroit heavy metal musician in the mockumentary “This is Spinal Tap”, Harry Shearer is also one of the entertainment industry’s most trenchant social critics. Sometimes he combines comedy and social criticism in the same package. His radio show “Le Show” (is this where Stephen Colbert got the inspiration for the French pronunciation of his last name?) is archived at
and will introduce you to his sharply honed satire.
As a part-time resident of New Orleans, Shearer was understandably traumatized by the Hurricane Katrina flooding and began blogging about it on Huffington Post a while back. On August 29, 2010 he filed an item titled President Obama Speaks to New Orleans From Planet Zarg that pretty much sums up the subject of his powerful documentary “The Big Uneasy” that opens tomorrow at Cinema Village in New York (screening information for other cities is at
Sorry, can’t be sure that’s the planet he’s living on, but this intelligent, well-informed man surely can’t be living on this orb. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have been able to start off his speech at Xavier University Sunday afternoon with this reprise of his town-hall remarks here last October:
“It was a natural disaster but also a manmade catastrophe; a shameful breakdown in government that left countless men, women, and children abandoned and alone.”
Note that the “manmade catastrophe” and “breakdown” are linked only to the response to the flooding of New Orleans, not the cause, as if this intelligent, well-informed man is unaware that two separate, independent forensic engineering investigations of the disaster, conducted over a period of a year or more, agreed on this conclusion (in the words of UC Berkeley’s ILIT report): the flooding of New Orleans was “the greatest man-made engineering catastrophe since Chernobyl”.
My guess is that Shearer was trying to avoid losing his gig at the HuffingtonPost (unpaid?) by referring to Obama as “intelligent” and “well-informed” because the level of anger he has reached over the New Orleans flooding would have produced a much less charitable characterization otherwise. Indeed, his documentary eschews comedy and goes straight for the jugular. There is no attempt to interject himself as a whimsical Michael Moore type. Instead, he narrates a straightforward investigative journalism type work that is heavily reliant on interviews with the scientists and civil engineers whose decision to become whistle-blowers put them on a collision path with some of America’s most powerful and most self-serving institutions.
The three heroes of “The Big Uneasy” are Ivor van Heerden, who was director of a hurricane research center at LSU, Robert Bea, a civil engineer at U. Cal Berkeley, and Maria Garzino, an engineer who worked for the Army Corps of Engineers. They all risked their reputations and their careers by speaking out against the pattern of neglect—especially at the hands of Garzino’s employer—that led to the flooding. As the report that Bea supervised points out, this was “the greatest man-made engineering catastrophe since Chernobyl”.
Watching the film is almost like being on a jury. As the evidence mounts, especially through the use of aerial footage of New Orleans, you can only vote to convict. The guilty parties are a dysfunctional Army Corps of Engineers that is only too anxious to do the bidding of powerful politicians and the politicians themselves who put the short-term commercial gains of their major contributors over the needs of the average citizen.
Van Heerden was the first to figure out that the flooding was not the result of the levees being too short or vulnerable to a storm of the kind that only comes along in a 150 years or so (not that this would be any excuse.) The flooding occurred because the foundations of the levees were in soil that was far too sandy and hence too weak. If they had been rooted in the denser soil some feet below, they would have withstood the flooding. Instead they gave way in a number of spots like doors that had been ripped from their hinges by a battering ram.
You might think that LSU, Van Heerden’s employer, would have been proud to have someone like that on the faculty. Given the university’s connection to powerful forces in New Orleans society, LSU decided to silence the whistle-blower by firing him. An op-ed piece at The New Orleans Times-Picayune, which has been doing some excellent investigative reporting on the Katrina disaster in its own right, depicted Van Heerden as a victim of injustice:
In the days immediately after Katrina, the world thought New Orleans had been ravaged by a huge storm simply too large for the high-tech flood protection system built at great cost by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. And according to some members of Congress and many media commentators, that’s just what we deserved for living here, below sea level.
In fact, that was the official story being put out by the corps.
But about a week after the storm, as van Heerden and engineers on his staff began inspecting the deadly breaches in that system, the story began to change. They were expecting to see evidence of over-topping, signs Katrina was just too big for the system, the very scenario the center had predicted the day before the storm came ashore.
What they found was something else: Signs of catastrophic engineering failures.
In other words, the floodwalls and levees failed not because they were too small, but because they had been either poorly designed, poorly built — or both.
The world’s media immediately gravitated to van Heerden not just because this was shocking news, but also because it came from a hurricane expert with a staff of geotechnical engineers qualified in the science of flood protection.
And he was the only person from this area even talking about the issue.
Incredibly, the state of Louisiana and the city of New Orleans — the two political entities most grievously damaged by the disaster — showed no inclination to launch their own investigations. They were content to leave the examination of the tragedy to the same outfit that built the system in the first place: the Corps of Engineers.
Thankfully, van Heerden wouldn’t let this happen. He put together a group of engineers and scientists from LSU and the private sector and convinced the state attorney general and the Department of Transportation and Development to give “Team Louisiana” official status.
You’d think the university would take pride in one of its own leading such important work. Just the opposite happened.
From the start, van Heerden was pressured by LSU administrators to go easy. At one point he was issued a gag order. It seemed the more problems Team Louisiana uncovered, the more intense the sniping from Baton Rouge.
Some of that was due to classic campus politics: jealousies, rivalries and professional disputes. Some of it was self-inflicted; even van Heerden’s admirers admitted he could be difficult to work with, due to an often uncompromising style and a penchant for going public with results before final drafts were approved.
But van Heerden’s real danger to LSU was his threat to funding.
The federal government is the largest source of research funding for universities, and LSU was lining up tens of millions of dollars for coastal and wetlands work — much of which might be partnered with the corps. Having one of its professors lobbing bombs at the feds made some at the university fear for the LSU pocketbook.
That’s why members of Team Louisiana, as well as researchers from other universities, were warned to shut up or risk their careers. Fortunately for all of us they decided their ethics — as professors, engineers and citizens — compelled them to continue to work for the public good.
“The Big Uneasy” describes a criminal pattern of behavior consistent with the BP spill and the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. In each case, you get failures of oversight that are directly related to the incestuous relationship between the government and the captains of industry who use their influence to bend the rules in their favor. The overwhelming majority of society, the tax-paying and hard-working citizens, ends up getting screwed each time either from flooded homes, the destruction of marine life and the livelihoods associated with it, or nuclear radiation.
If Shearer’s film is meant to honor whistle-blowers, one cannot feel too hopeful about the political climate that is being fostered by the current occupant of the White House. In an article titled “The Secret Sharer” by Jane Mayer that appears in the latest New Yorker, we learn that Barack Obama and the LSU top brass probably see things eye-to-eye:
When President Barack Obama took office, in 2009, he championed the cause of government transparency, and spoke admiringly of whistle-blowers, whom he described as “often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government.” But the Obama Administration has pursued leak prosecutions with a surprising relentlessness. Including the Drake case, it has been using the Espionage Act to press criminal charges in five alleged instances of national-security leaks—more such prosecutions than have occurred in all previous Administrations combined. The Drake case is one of two that Obama’s Justice Department has carried over from the Bush years.
Gabriel Schoenfeld, a conservative political scientist at the Hudson Institute, who, in his book “Necessary Secrets” (2010), argues for more stringent protection of classified information, says, “Ironically, Obama has presided over the most draconian crackdown on leaks in our history—even more so than Nixon.”
One imagines that the only way we will be able to protect ourselves from corporate malfeasance in the long run is not to vote “the lesser evil” into power but by destroying the profit system that makes such malfeasance possible.