Friday, September 16, 2005

Laissez les bon temps rouler?

This morning, NPR highlights the "mea culpa" of the Bush speech, and then gets down to the federal largesse that is meant to follow. But they also note that the evacuees were less than impressed, and other outlets note that there are deepening concerns about the recovery of New Orleans, concerns that include the colleges. Some colleges are wondering: will their students want to return? And how long will that take?

And in the end, this will be the question. It won't matter how eloquently he "rose to the occassion," or how many education vouchers are handed out to people no longer living in their homes in Louisiana or Mississippi. It won't matter how many construction contracts go to local firms, or what kind of designs for reconstruction in the "Big Easy" are submitted and approved. It won't even matter how quickly the clean up progresses and the stores and businesses re-open.

What will matter is how quickly life returns to normal, and whether people want to come back and pick up the pieces. Already we've seen that some people have a stake in New Orleans, and some who lived their all their lives never had a stake in it at all. What they had was a stake through their heart, and now Katrina has removed that. There were people in Dome City in Houston who actually saw Katrina as a gift from God, because it showed them a better, kinder world outside the neighborhood they had always known. Try to imagine that: a disaster that takes away everything you've ever known or had, exposes you to a better life in a stadium turned shelter. How bad could life in the ghettos of New Orleans have been? How truly desperate is life in the ghettos of any of our major cities?

And Bush mentioned the "second line," which at least one evacuee, Mr. Clifton Drummer, said was not the concept to bring up just now. There are pastoral issues here, issues about long term psychological, emotional, and spiritual trauma. "Rebuilding" will not just involve construction contracts and "enterprise zones" to encourage new business. New Orleans and southern Louisiana and Mississippi had business; what they need back now is their soul.

What government program can give that?

I think Mr. Drummer had it right: nobody has recovery on their minds just now; they're still thinking about what they lost. And even if they aren't thinking about it now, they're thinking about it. Mr. Bush is entirely too eager to shore up his political standing. Now he's decided the storm is important. Now he's decided he needs to do something besides just fly-over and look concerned through an airplane window. The people of New Orleans especially have reason to be skeptical of the promised massive response. This is not a time to be pecuniary; on that Harry Reid is right. But neither is it the time for a sigh of relief as we await the bold recovery that has finally been promised.

What keeps mankind alive may well be "bestial acts." But what makes life worth living, what brings out the "second line," is spirituality, joie de vivre, a conviction that life is worth living. The sad fact is, some people have discovered that conviction by being uprooted by this disaster. We cannot be in haste to put everything back into place, or to imagine the problem is only in New Orleans. Government can supply the means for existence; but we cannot confuse that with the value of existence, or the value of life. Government programs, and especially the crony capitalism that have been the hallmarks of this Administration, will not win either politically or substantively. When LBJ rushed to New Orleans in 1965, it was a political move; but it was also because he knew the devastation of flooding in Central Texas, and its impact on the poor. It was empathy as well as politics that drove his "Great Society."

Sympathy on that level you simply cannot fake; and without it, you cannot lead the reconstruction of a region, or a great city.

All you can do is get the hell out of the way.

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