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.