Landscape organizes everything within sight.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Inappropriate Inattention

For a solid week, the disaster at New Orleans shook us to our boots and made normal individuals -- media announcers, mayors, people on the street -- doubt that the regime they lived in was really organized to protect the liberties and pursuit of happiness we so extol in our constitution.

But in America today, attention dwindles easily, even among liberals, and I believe that if we look carefully in the mirror at our attention-addled selves, the image we see there is saddening.

Did anyone else see last month's Harper's? Harper's is one of the best essay magazines in America, and one of the most liberal. Harper's featured a dozen pages of photos of New Orleans, long after the rest of the media had forgotten.
Strange to say, Harper's didn't show water lines, soiled photographs of loved ones, or houses in ruin. Harper's showed a dozen, lovingly-wrought, black-and-white images faces, worn with worry, alit with hope, angry, happy -- all the seasons of emotions.

What was so strange about these images was how out of context they were. The photographs followed exactly the pattern of Dorothea Lange images of Oklahoma agricultural migrants from the Great Depression. These are people too, they assured us; they worked hard, had dreams, lived lives; they are beautiful and earnest. How beautiful, how noble, how courageous they are.

Pause for a moment. How strange to draw attention to the sentimental humanity of the poor creatures whose entire city has been destroyed. How curious, that we notice their wrinkles, their merry smiles, as if they really were survivals of that nostalgic old-time era of hard-working American farmers. How bizarre that even American liberals cannot summon up compassion for those in misery by merely looking at row after row of homes reduced to a pile of boards, miles of crumbled interstate, invalids from hospital in their wheelchairs with nowhere to go, food lines without food, children wandering in search of water. How interesting that we cannot be moved even when it is one of our own cities, even when we must think, forcibly, from our earthquake- and tornado- and flood- and riot-prone cities of the coasts, "that could be us." I suppose the thought never occurs.

From Harpers' (they're not all bad):


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