Landscape organizes everything within sight.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

I'm back

Hello everyone out there.

I'm back to Pembroke College, Cambridge, after a rather excruciating three weeks back home in California. I failed my quals. They told me that I was jetlagged and had overstudied. I passed my quals a week later, answering questions about the 10 books on the syllabus rather than the 500 books I had prepared to discuss. I passed my quals a week later, turned away for being jetlagged rather than dismissed from the department as often happens in these cases. I'm back, and starting a dissertation, in my new status as "ABD": "all but dissertation."

That's not what's eating me. Not by a long shot.

I saw news of Katrina the Monday before I boarded the plane. I smoked a pack of cigarettes and downed a bottle of whiskey, recorded a few strokes earlier on this blog. I got back and saw my profs. A colleague, the afternoon before my exam: "I didn't feel bad for those stupid folk in New Orleans. But then they started making our president look bad; I guess they're alright." My activist friends from the blogosphere: at Burning Man, spending $900 a head on furry costumes, expensive sleeping bags, bonfires, and drugs. So much for social transformation.

Two nights before the exam I failed, I went to a wake for New Orleans with James and his roommates, all from Louisiana. Blues music played in the background. Former residents of Baton Rouge and New Orleans stood around a bonfire in the cool air of ocean in Oakland, drinking beer and reminiscing. All of us, people keep asking us: is your family ok? Of course we're ok, I say; we're white; we had cars.

So this is what I need to say:

Those of you who aren't distressed, you have an inadequate interpretation of what a city means.

A city is cultural heritage and social heritage. A city means a group of people who remember together, work together, live and tolerate each other together. New Orleans is gone. A great American city has sunk beneath the ocean: more than that.

The only American city I know of where race wars were somewhat mitigated behind two hundred years of intermarriage, careful politics, interracial marriage -- that city is now vanquished, erased, its physical infrastructure and cultural memory vanished, its people dispersed to the corners of the earth, their right to work for themselves thrown into the cruel inhumanity of the market and the charity of large corporations for the next decade. And those centers of true racism: New York, Los Angeles, Oakland, Washington -- they go on reaping the profits of New Orleans' destruction. Infrastructure engineers and mass-trailer-park-housing-units reap a commercial benefit. Churches and schools stand idly by, sending a few dollars or volunteers when they should be sending hundreds.

Stand for a moment with those of us at the wake for New Orleans. Wonder with us how 9/11 could transfix the international media for three years, causing a war, and how 8/28 could slip under the radar screen, causing the least tremor of the eyebrow among liberal or conservative alike, as to what a war on poverty would look like, what an adequate response for the sick or elderly would look like, what progressive and humane care for the victims would look like, and how different each of those ideals would be from the reality. Reality spelt food-trucks turned away by FEMA, below subsistence malnutrition of victims on isolated trailer parks, the sniping of looters above the rescuing of the sick.

When New York lost two of its towers, people wept and strangers spoke to each other in the street. People wondered what it meant that their country was coming apart at the seams: was it government neglect? outside terror? the wrath of God? What could we do to help it? The Manhattan response was so energetic, so vital. People rushed to cell phones, volunteering at phone banks and clothes centers and charities for the years afterwards. The firefighters went down in memory as heroes. Their families received trust funds. We staged a war in their memory.

In New Orleans we see that vitalism, patriotism, nationalism, and community utterly undone. Three thousand blacks huddle in the Astrodome for a week and Burning Man rages in the desert, churches in Texas organize a couple of food banks. The Christian Left newswire registers a couple of references to Katrina daily, decrying Bush, and then launches back at its mainstays -- gay marriage, prophetic community, stem cells, porn. Stop it.

Stop the normal racket for a moment and look at this moment of history: a portion of American tolerance, history, and charity has been silenced forever. Tens of thousands of American lives have been lost, not just because of American disaster, but because in our selfishness and stillness we couldn't fabricate a plan to save them fast enough.

We went to war in Iraq over 9/11. What would going to war over 8/28 mean? What would happen if we went to war on poverty, on the lack of health care, on the absence of evacuation plans that care for the most poor in our cities?

Look at yourself before the world for a moment, America, and testify as to what your neglect means. You've said you were an advanced and civilized nation for so long: you claimed to be a Christian nation, an arbitrator of right and wrong in other regimes. I'm back in Britain now, and the Brits can't stop asking me about us. They say, we're like Bangladesh, only more corrupt; they say, even the Bangladeshi would bury their dead and evacuate their poor and feed and house them, not on government reservations but in cities where they could interact and thrive again.

The British say, surely this is the end of this regime, surely your people have had it with the current system of government, surely this means (at last) the end of Bush and the end of this useless War in Iraq to which we are wed by following Blair, the only viable leader of the Left our country possesses. I tell them that Bush's approval ratings have fallen from 50% to 40%. See here, readers, Brits, friends, family: the country is falling apart. Americans have lost all sense of what is reasonable, kind, worth voting or working for.

America, you are lost. American progressives, you lack guts. American conservatives, I begin to believe with the conspiracy theorists that the cold, hating blood of reptilian, green aliens have infiltrated your bodies and has transformed you into demonic haters of everything human.

I pray for the Savior. I pray for warmth, and community, and humanity, that they may descend from heaven and overwhelm us like the beating of a thousand angel wings. I return to news after weeks and read about the horror, and find my friends tepid and cold in response. Whatever humanity remains in America, let it raise its head. Come out now, all you progressives whose ideals are offended by this abandonment of the most helpless and innocent. Come out now, all you religious who believe in a God who cares for the least life. The apathy of nations is come home to America, and we fight its coolness here or lose the holy war for lives that are humane forever.


Blogger Abby said...


Sorry you got the spam comment.

Just so you know. I forwarded your e-mail about the via media conference to a couple of people I know who might be interested.

Glad you passed your quals. Hugs.

In Massachusetts we're working on a major initiative to expand healthcare through the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization.

I think that people are in shock at the enormity of the devastation and don't yet know how to process it. 9/11 was easier to be angry about, because there was an enemy we could lash out at. In this case, the enemy: it is us.

There are quiet conversations going on, but I think that it will take some time. I am trying to get Trinity Church, Copley Square to engage in some kind of theological reflection on this issue.

I was disgusted and outraged by the failure, but I wasn't exactly shocked or surprised. This is what the country voted for.

My Republican uncle's girlfriend voted for Bush, but she was queasy about torture. My uncle was intellectually honest. He didn't care, because nobody was about to torture him here, and he got his tax cut.

You're in my thoughts and prayers.

9:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jo, I am glad that you're back! I was afraid that you had stopped posting on this blog.

I think it should be noted that many Americans *are* responding to Katrina. Have a look at this article:

"Black churches nationwide have stepped up to provide aid to many of Hurricane Katrina’s victims, in response to the overwhelming number of black evacuees who are seeking their help, partly out of frustration with the bureaucracy of government agencies and other charities."

- Titus

12:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I second your criticism of the Burning Man crowd, the do-nothing superficially-idealistic types, the self-important but shallow-valued aesthetes who claim to be progressive but lack a heart for the less-fortunate. You can't make a blanket statement like that about the entire crowd of BM devotees, but it has to be acknowledged as a pervasive mindset.

I think the prevalent paradigm of America, what has it devouring itself, is hatred of the other. Not strictly an American phenomenon, of course, but it characterizes our zeitgeist in the Age of Terror. It's what provided the uniting force after 9/11 (in addition to, but I think above and beyond, humanitarian feeling), it's what makes black people looters and white people finders, what makes the too-poor-to-evacuate "stupid," and what makes supposed progressives more concerned with seizing the hurricane as a Get-Bush opportunity rather than a chance to demonstrate their humanity.

I once met a La. lefty political talk-show host at a restaurant, and he said "You know the difference between us and them? We don't hate."

I begged to differ. We do hate, and it binds us to reactionary behavior. I share the hate, I'll admit. It's made us a nation divided, oblivious to the suffering of fellow citizens, concerned only with opportunistic political sniping.

And now nature seems intent on hastening our collapse, our devolution into all but civil war, and who can blame her?

1:25 AM  
Blogger J said...

Thanks so much for the comments. I'm so touched that Stratego is still being read after my longer-than-expected sojourn. And I thank you for your comments. I'll do my best to do them justice in future writing.

Abby, best of luck in your activism. Please post about this on CrossLeft; you never know where fellow collaborators mights spring up! Surely health care is an issue for Christians.

Titus, thanks for the article; the black reaction to Katrina will indeed be important, as southern ex-migration from New Orleans intensifies the systematic racism of our economic, prison, education, and political system.

Anonymous, indeed. Civil war and environmental destruction, those are exactly the stakes, and how to approach the Right is the issue. I hesitate to take any political position that limits my expectation of speaking forcefully and from ethical logic in public, actively and effectively: but maybe the issue here is how effectively progressives are speaking, rather than how lovingly. Righteous anger can be a purgative and an invigorator: Christ used it, Luther used it, and Gandhi used it. But speaking out in a way that the enemy can't understand can hardly be called speaking at all.

I'm extremely impressed with one contrary example of recent glowing rhetoric in the service of the left, poetess Sharon Olds's open letter to Laura Bush.

1:01 PM  

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