Thursday, January 24, 2008

"I too have sailed the world, and seen it's wonders

for the cruelty of man is as wondrous as Peru/But there's no place like....!"--Sweeney Todd

Interesting. Scout Prime is right:

So now Mississippians are in the same boat as New Orleanians. Once upon a time they were applauded for pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and now they are lazy begging losers in a loser state. It really was inevitable. When reality can be twisted once it can be twisted again and again. And as I feared, being caught in the middle and used in a false narrative is a dangerous proposition and so very cruel in the end......
She is responding to comments on an article about the troubled recovery of Pearlington, Mississippi, comments like this one:

MY GOD! Get up off your butts and do the work yoursevles and quit begging and depending on everyone else in the country to keep taking care of you. For all the sake in the world, get jobs wherever you have to. Get out of that losing state if you have to. Get a life for real. It's been three, do you hear me, three years that the rest of the country has taken care of you and we are sick of it.
And this one:

So, according to these posts, Pearlington is a soup bowl filled with crime, drugs and lazy, stupid idiots who look for handouts, and play the blame game. Huh, sounds like New Orleans.
But in another post, she also links to this:

As informed citizens who study the past, historians have a unique opportunity, and thus a particular obligation, to make the present comprehensible in terms of what has gone before. Like any occurrence in the here and now, Hurricane Katrina derives its meaning partly from contemporary circumstances and partly from perceptions that are shaped by accumulated experience, or what is sometimes called historical memory. The relationship between Katrina and its historical context is, of course, dynamic and recipro cal. As historians have long recognized, current events—especially traumatic shocks that disrupt the status quo—alter our perceptions of the past. In the shadow of human catas trophes, scholars are pushed to formulate new questions and to revisit old orthodoxies as they probe for fresh meaning in what Robert Coles has described as “that flow of human affairs that gets called history.”[1]
But as the comments about Pearlington seem to establish, the conversation on Katrina in its historical context seems to be one only professional historians and a few other scholars can have.

We are a country which has always preferred false narratives. The West was "won" by independent pioneers free of governmental restraint. Except the land west of the Mississippi was settled by people given land grants and incentives by the Federal government to claim and settle the Louisiana Purchase made by Jefferson, and the railroads that eventually linked the continent were built on government land grants and at government urging. The capital expense would have been too great for private enterprise, the return on investment too slow and uncertain. Slavery itself was poverty enforced and insured by government backing, and it was the string of forts, established by the federal government, stretching from San Antonio, Texas, along El Camino Real, that made settlement and trade possible from Texas to California through the northern Sonoran desert. Without those forts, few would have ventured into that wilderness.

But the dime novel mythology of rugged independence dies hard. We all know American history, and we all know it chiefly involved John Wayne; just as we all know Texas looks like Southern California, or perhaps the Trans-Pecos region or the Davis Mountains. Most people don't even realize how big Texas is, much less how varied its climates and geography are. From the Gulf Coast to El Paso is nearly half-way to California, and you haven't left Texas yet, yet you've gone from sea level grasslands to high desert. Then there are the stories (recounted when Bill Richardson first announced he would run for President) about New Mexico, and how many Americans don't realize that's a state of the Union, not a designation for a foreign country. Ignorant as we are of simple geography, or even the states of the Union, how surprising is it that our history comes from Hollywood? And on and on it goes.

We are not very good at history, and empathy is even harder. Empathy is commonly considered a particularly Christian trait, but empathy has little to do with the commandments of Christ to his followers. Jesus never said "feel sorry for the poor and the destitute, so you will be moved to help them." He simply made it a commandment. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, take care of the unjust as well as the just, in the same way that God makes the rain fall on both of them (rain, of course, being a valuable commodity in a desert culture). Empathy, sympathy, having the "bowels of compassion" as the phrase would come to be, being emotionally motivated, in other words, had nothing to do with it:

But to you who listen I say, love your enemies, do favors for those who hate you, bless those ho curse you, pray for your abusers.

Give to everyone who begs from you, and when someone takes your things, don't ask for them back.

If you love those who love you, what merit is there in that? After all, even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what merit is there in that? After all, even sinners do as much. If you lend to those from whom you hope to gain, what merit is there in that? Even sinners lend to sinners, in order to get as much in return. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. You reward will be great, and you'll be children of the Most High. As you know, the Most High is generous to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be compassionate in the way your Father is compassionate."--Luke 6: 27, 30, 32-36 (SV).
And the model for that compassion that Luke presents, is the Wonderful Father; the man who is so irrational, even his eldest son doesn't know how to respond to him. And yet the father there doesn't command even his eldest son to have empathy for his returned brother. Empathy cannot be commanded, cannot even be expected. We cannot rely on empathy to make us do what is right. The question is: what will? And the answer is: not individual motivation; not human emotions alone.

In the America of 2007 only the most irrepressible optimist would imagine a world in which the opinions of historians were actively sought by those in the high councils of government. But for citizens on the storm-wracked Gulf Coast, optimism has become a Darwinian survival trait, and if Lawrence Powell is correct in his assessment of Katrina as a “detonating event,” the winds of change may have been concealed within Katrina’s ferocious eye wall.
The question is: where will that change come from? This event, and the response to it, are embedded in "that flow of human affairs that gets called history." The response so far is, frankly, muddled. In a country so concerned with economics (the state of the economy, we are told now crowds out concerns about death and destruction and our part in all of that, in Iraq), but, as Lawrence Powell notes:

Resilient cities that rebound from disaster almost always benefit from vibrant economies. But ours is in shambles. According to one outside economist, “This is the first time in U.S. history where a city has sat dormant for almost a year.”
And still there is no national cry of: "My God, what have we done?" If empathy will not move us, what will?

In America, optimism has always been a "Darwinian survival trait." That's one reason we cling to it so fiercely. But we need it, because while the right hand giveth, the left hand taketh away. And that, too, is as American as violence and cherry pie.

Mr. Powell's article is probably the most accessible to the non-historian, largely because it deals with New Orleans as it is today, and has been only since Katrina struck. But he also has a real gift for getting to the heart of the matter:

People with resources—homeowners and proprietors of small businesses—are not faring well, either. The city has made a hash of posthurricane planning, and the invisible hand of the market is raising its middle finger. The view from Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trailers or the top floors of mold-remediated homes is clouded with uncertainty. Markets are all about coordinating expectations, but that is tough to do when the future is so opaque. Residents’ simple questions lack clear-cut answers: Will the neighbors down the street ever return and at least cut the grass? Should I take out a small business loan in the hope that my dry cleaning customers will move back next month—or next year? Today entire neighborhoods are struggling to prove their right to exist by showing they can rebuild. The odds are steep, and the struggle is, to quote organizers from the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), “grossly unfair.”

And probably unworkable. As Thomas C. Schelling, the Nobel Prize–winning expert on complex bargaining, observed in December 2005: “There is no market solution to New Orleans.” Yet that is exactly what is being attempted in my adopted city, with the consequence that everything feels stuck-in-limbo. The iconic Lower Ninth Ward remains desolate; north of St. Claude Avenue, where a break in the Industrial Canal levee unleashed a minitsunami, one-quarter of all homes have been razed, and fewer than 3 percent of the former residents have applied for electrical permits. In the wealthier Lakeview neighborhood, the affluent are at least getting by. But in New Orleans East, where much of the aspirant and upwardly mobile black middle class once lived, the news is mixed. Electrical permits are up, but only 17.4 percent of the former population has applied for them. Those dismal statistics bear out a recent survey that found one-third of the city’s current population (a population half its pre-Katrina size) is contemplating leaving for good.
And, in making his argument that Katrina was a "detonating event," Mr. Powell notes this:

But for every radical novitiate evangelized by dedicated anarchists and global justice activists, there have been ten apolitical volunteers who have been drawn to New Orleans by faith-based organizations, professional gatherings, or the simple call of conscience. There have been Barefoot Doctors, Mondo Bizzaro Productions, a multidisciplinary arts group, and the Rainbow Family of Living Light. Faith-based volunteers stand out. They come as Bible study groups, sleeping in rvs and tents, chainsaw-toting pilgrims on missions of earthly salvation. Katrina recovery is “the biggest domestic relief effort we’ve ever faced,” said a spokesman for the United Methodist Committee on Relief. The newly elected president of the 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention, shaken by a tour of Lakeview and the Lower Ninth (“It looks like something after a nuclear bomb”), pledged to get the word out to the autonomous churches constituting his confederation. “I have access to the Baptist press, and I’m going to use that,” he told the Times-Picayune six weeks before Katrina’s first anniversary. “I have a weekly address, and I’ll use that. I’ll be speaking all over the nation for the next six months, and I do pledge and promise to make New Orleans’s neighborhoods a point of great emphasis for our ministry.”

His promise and similar pledges by like-minded religious leaders have not been empty. Thousands of faith-based volunteers have been arriving in the Katrina zone every month to spend a week or two, but sometimes longer, pulling Sheetrock. One Iowa volunteer drawn to New Orleans by the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana gave up her job in the Des Moines statehouse in order to help manage volunteer operations on the ground. Samaritans have usually returned home transformed by the house-gutting experience. “Now that we are back in Michigan,” wrote an Ann Arbor volunteer with the Catholic Charities program Operation Helping Hand, “we are urging others to band together, travel to New Orleans and help as well.” It is hard to haul curbside the sodden contents of another family’s life—its broken dishes and waterlogged photo albums, their snapshots dissolved into tie-dyed artwork—without stretching the boundaries of one’s moral obligation.
One has to note that some of that effort is spurred by empathy, not just by the commandment to love one another. That is not a critique made in anger, but an observation made in sorrow. It is also a recognition of reality, because the other problem with relying on empathy is that all the efforts of all the motivated volunteers in the world, whatever their motivations, is never equal to the effort that can be, should be, expected of governments:

But is volunteering enough? Can the methods of a nineteenth-century barn raising drag a twenty-first-century disaster area from the mud and the muck? Even prior to Katrina, as the cutbacks in social spending sank in, mainstream volunteer organizations were starting to question whether “compassionate conservatism” could do everything being claimed in its name. Or as Sara Mosle has put it: “The problem with volunteering isn’t with volunteering, but with what we’re asking it to do.”[32] It is a realization that has started to dawn on many outside volunteers. You only have to spend a backbreaking week pulling drywall and mucking out houses to appreciate that altruism alone cannot restore electrical grids or fix broken pipes, let alone solve the myriad insurance and financial problems that currently stymie the post-Katrina recovery. You only have to strip one or two houses down to their studs before asking, shouldn’t government be playing more of a hands-on role in the recovery? Those conversations have already started across backyard fences. It is more than likely that an entire generation of young activists will look back on their volunteer service in the Katrina zone as a life-changing experience, as a time that shaped their political values for years to come. Every generation has defining memories. For mine it was the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the civil rights movement, and the Vietnam War. For this generation it may turn out to be 9/11 and Katrina—and maybe more so Katrina, whose aftereffects may become more iconic, at least of the failure of government, than the toppling of the twin towers.
My world was shaped by the same forces: the assassination of Kennedy; Vietnam; Martin Luther King. Yet now our country is run by people whose philosophy of governance was also shaped by Vietnam, and Watergate, and even the assassination of Kennedy (how else to explain Bush's paranoia?) We all take different lessons from the same events; we all have different levels of empathy, different classes of persons we will allow ourselves to empathize with. If empathy born of national experiences is the only hope of change we have, we have little hope of change at all. But then, with history, it's always something:

The problem with writing instant history is that there is always a new instance. I derived this article from a talk that tried to encapsulate a moment in the post-Katrina recovery that I was sure fell somewhere in the middle of the story. It is now clear that the narrative is stuck near the beginning, and that it will require at least another ten years for the saga to reach its conclusion. Even so, little has happened since the Mobile conference in March 2007 to change my mind about Katrina’s political aftereffects. It is safe to say that there was more national news coverage of the Minneapolis bridge collapse in August 2007 because of the heightened public concern about the state of national infrastructure engendered by the levee failures in New Orleans. Moreover, there is continued movement toward the enactment of a national catastrophe fund, an emerging debate over so-called catastrophe bonds as a market-focused way of spreading post-Katrina risk, and investigations by both Congress and the courts into allegations that insurers shifted their own damage claim liabilities onto the federal flood insurance program. The Gulf Coast, particularly New Orleans, continues to attract volunteers, except now they are coming to stay, not for a week, but for a year. Two new developments are worth noting. Since March, the troubled Road Home program has turned some kind of corner, closing on more than sixty-four thousand applications as of mid-October 2007, but now faces a possible $6 billion shortfall. The other development has surprised me: the reemergence of the poverty debate. There may be no better measure of Katrina’s power to unleash ethical energy than the return of that subject to the national agenda.

Katrina, in short, continues to cast a long shadow over national politics. Paul Krugman recognized as much in a New York Times column, “Katrina All the Time.” It is one of the most frequently e-mailed of all of his opinion pieces. He wrote, “Future historians will, without doubt, see Katrina as a turning point. The question is whether it will be seen as the moment when America remembered the importance of good government, or the moment when neglect and obliviousness to the needs of others became the new American way.”

I remain guardedly optimistic that Katrina marks a turn toward the former.
Optimism is a survival trait. We have to guard it well. But I'm not confident that "neglect and obliviousness to the needs of others" is a new American way. Because one point these articles are clearly trying to make, is the one Faulkner made: "The past isn't over. It isn't even past." What we do about that is up to us; and not just up to our hearts, either.

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