Friday, February 17, 2006

Nation of Liars, City of Dreamers

That is who we are.

NOLA blogger Sophmom expressed her hope this week that America will wake up to the lies they are being fed about The Flood (formerly known as Katrina). I don't think they will. The report out of Congress will stir up the news for a few more days, but most people are willing to accept that we've been helped far beyond what we deserve, and are ready for everyone to move on..

The American people will not wake up to the lies because that is what we are: a nation of liars and braggarts; fabricators not just of railroads and interstates, of towns and cities but of our own selves. It is an integral part of our culture as the self-styled Nation of Immigrants.

Emigration requires a willingness to suspend disbelief, to listen to the huckster promising a land of milk-and-honey. It presumes a flight from the undesirable life left behind, and suggests a desire to re-invent ourselves, to shed the person we were and to become something different, denying our own history if necessary.

St. Peter should be the patron saint of America. He left his nets and the life he knew to take up with Jesus. He was willing to repudiate who he was to save his own skin. Later, he wept the crocodile tears of television repentance, and went on to found a great and powerful franchise. Oprah must be deeply moved every time she thinks of this tale.

St. Peter's story is America's. It is the storyline that leads us to a world filled with the likes of George Bush and Bill Gates, The Rev. Jesse Jackson and Donald Trump. We are all actors on a monumental sound stage constructed of movies and television and advertising, each a Truman, playing out the character we have chosen, or have at least accepted.

From the handbills of John Law to the dime novel Western over a century ago to the fantastic blurring of reality and fantasy that began with the proliferation of television, we have created our own world over and over.

We can do it again in New Orleans, just as it the city transformed itself from a French city to a Spanish one, then to an American one. The people who believe, who pick up themselves from what happened and where they've landed and come back, will make it so. You may think me naive, but I've watched my son snap half-inch pine boards with the soft flesh and breakable bones of his hand because he believes he can. I believe we can.

In many ways it will be a different place. Too much is gone to every be perfectly the New Orleans of a year or a decade ago, swept away by commerce or flood. Still, it will be NOLA in a clearly recognizable way, because that is the city we will demand, the city we once invented for ourselves out of the rubble of neglect and crime and poverty in the antediluvian era.

We will make it NOLA again because we believe the world would be a poorer place without it, our lives worth less lived anywhere else.

So, forget the liars in Washington. They will have to build some measure of hurricane protection and coastal restoration, for fear they will lose the oil and gas, or possibly the port. They will find more money (as Bush demonstrated this week) if it seems politically necessary, and in an uncertain election year, throwing money is always one option. And they will tell whatever lies they require to make it happen on their own terms.

We will continue to call them out, and try to win a few more to our side, because we feel we must to save the city, to squeeze out of them a few more feet of levee or to save a few more families from bankruptcy. But if we will win that battle at all, it will be at the margins, a few here and a few there.

The lies we need to concern ourselves with are the ones we tell ourselves, the ones we can no longer afford, and the ones we can't live without. We need to focus on the stories we tell each other of life before and of life after, the dreams and delusions we carry that will plat and plot the rebirth of New Orleans, that will make it a place we will all recognize as the heir to the city left behind, made over again in our own image.

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"And when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcome, but when we are silent we are still afraid. So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive." -- Audie Lorde

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