Friday, April 14, 2006

Us and Them

Those who have returned versus those who have not: is that the newest divide to add to those of race and class and neighborhood that plague New Orleans? The dispute over whether to hold the election exposed this new twist to our crazy caste system in the city, but a post by the author of the blogs Every Poet Needs a Patio and kd5qel reminded me of the arguments that flew between the returned, pro-Mardi Gras faction and the displace, no-to-Carnival crowd a few months back.

The emerging hierarchy and tension between those who came home early versus those who came later against those not yet returned, and possibly not returning, occasionally boils to the surface in blog posts and comments, in online forums and letters to the Picayune, with the early returnees claiming the first right to speak for the city, and chastising those who criticize who have not returned and often don't plan to.

I struggled with this new twist to our complex identity culture and class system myself all Fall.

When I started this blog, I called upon the training and practice of a decade of journalism and treated New Orleans and the Flood as distant events. I spoke of the city and the survivors (and the victims) in a third-person remove, even as I ranted and raved against the water and the storm, the government and god. This came easily, as I lived in Fargo, N.D. on 8-29, and have lived away from the city for almost two decades.

This detachment was a mask I had carefully crafted when I worked in newspapering, the one costume I cherished above all others, and wore 364 days of the year. It was a mask made by someone who cheerfully took a first job paying in the high four figures (pause for internal arithmetic), and faithfully discharged the vow of distance and objectivity that mask implied, an oath faithfully undertaken so long ago.

I took up that old familiar mask for the protection it afforded me. A grandchild of the Cote des Allemandes, German reserve kept me from weeping for my dead father for years. I first wept after Katrina on September 1, as I wrote the post The Tragedy of St. Bernard.

As as the year ground on and events developed and I wrote endlessly on them, I could never bring myself to use we or us, always speaking of the people of New Orleans as if they resided in a distant land. That enforced remoteness helped me to bottle up the genuine pain and anger, and channel it into this forum. It was also done out of respect.

I was not a survivor, not among those who remained or who snuck past the checkpoints to return home in September or November. Their place in these events is special, and they will be marked by it for life as much as the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were: traumatized by what they say, wracked by survivor guilt, suffering more than any others the stigma the rest of the nation stamped on NOLA.

As my wife and I considered a return to New Orleans, I maintained my journalistic distance, and even as I wrote about my own reaction to events, never dared to speak of we or us, to put myself in the same group as those who had lost all, who came home early to the devastation. Then, fully committed to move home, in this post I took the plunge

I still find myself hesitating as I write about the recent flood elevations. I didn't lose my house. I can't fairly say We in this space when it I'm not one of those who lost everything. Still, because I care deeply about the city I have to speak out on these issues.Certainly my condemnation of the preliminary flood maps goes contrary to the grain, and perhaps everyone who did lose there home is happy to know what to do next, even if they don't know how to go about doing it or how to pay for it. And some day, I'm sure, someone one or some group or survivors will tell me to shut up, that I don't have any right to speak for them, that I am not one of them.

It's their priviledge to tell me what is best for them, to tell me when I'm wrong, even to remind me that I'm not one of them. It's never a claim I've made. To correct me is a right they've earned, have paid for in pain.

However, I would hate to see us add another divide to our already convoluted caste system, another measure by which to judge our neighbors. As the storm vividly and violently exposed, and as event every since have amplified, that which makes New Orleans the city it is, the city we love, are the things that divide us: the haves of Carnival and Commanders, the have-nots at the Second Line or the corner po-boy place.

We don't need another divide. Everyone who loves New Orleans wants, at some level, the best for the city and its people. They want this whether they suffered at the Superdome, lost their lives savings in Lakeview, or even if they watched from afar as I did. I'm coming home, but several people who write about the city as I have are not. They left, as I did, for their own good reasons and with a partially broken heart, as if parting from a lover. They have gotten on with their lives elsewhere, and mean to live out those lives in that elsewhere. Most, with a few bitter (mostly partisan) taint, say otherwise. I don't care about them.

I care about the community of New Orleans, which is bigger than the geographical boundaries of Orleans Parish or the Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area. If the city is going to survive, we are going to have to figure out how to cooperate, how to work together--black and white, uptown or downtown, survivor and expat--to convince the nation to help us, or to figure out how to do it on our own.

We don't need another way to measure Us and Them. That's what's killing us, more than the storm or FEMA or the Corps of Engineers. Dividing ourselves into Us and Them.

(cue end of Us and Them blending into Great Gig in the Sky....

The Us and Them issue comes up in varying degrees. Sometimes I think I have no right to speak since I only had roof & siding damage, lost my job and my dog. I didn't lose a family member or my house or spend one night in a shelter. If we start comparing who lost more or who came back & who didn't it will only serve to divide us. We need to pull together. I have 28 years of my life invested here. You were born and raised and lived much of your life here, now you're returning, your family contributed alot to this have every right to speak. Anyone who might tell you otherwise is full of it. Don't second guess yourself. The mission is too important.
I am not a New Orleanian. My connection to the city is minimal. I visited five times between March 04 and August 05 for Loyola's Accepted Students weekend (a/k/a President's Open House), Orientation (in June), Freshman Move-in (in August), a quick October trip to deliver goodies (and a refrigerator) and Family Weekend his freshman year (March 05). I've been reading your blog for a while and watched the progression of your pronouns. I also have another friend, IRL, who has done what you are doing, moving back after decades away and then another friend, a native, who cannot bring himself to even go look. I am very grateful to those of you in this blogging community who have so graciously listened to my outsider's point of view.

Markus, you bring up a very important point in this post. With an already segmented and then dispersed society, these new divisions are particularly damaging.
The resentment has been there for months, actually - or at least I sensed it not long after Christmas.

As you say, Markus - I think everybody (for the most part) is pulling toward the same goal: what's best for New Orleans. The visions aren't necessarily identical, but certainly the shared hopes for rebuilding, recovery, rebirth... we're all in it together, regardless of geography. NOLA's a state of mind.

I can only remember one person who ever took issue with me writing about New Orleans... and he actually apologized as he explained why a comment or two had been a bit "snarky".

The elections, though, have pulled my hands away from the keyboard - other than some commentary about social issues (or today's post about the billboards in Houston). This is definitely a line I am not comfortable crossing from my far-away-but-still-caring perch.
"God only knows, we're only ordinary men..."

Great song, great post.
Markus, well said. I hadn't read this prior to my rant about the same thing. I'm delighted to find myself accompanied out here in as I'm not sure whether I'm an us or a them most days.

re:your pronoun use, I applaud the use of the first person plural. I wish the entire country would see it that way, as in "WE can't lose New Orleans and must do everything we can to make sure it survives." I'll have to content myself for the moment with our smaller circle.

Yup, I live here. Yup, I came back early. Yup. But I wasn't born and raised here. I moved here two years ago after a ten year love affair with the city. I'll never leave, but I understand those who do. It's not about who was here when, or whether you're a native, or whether you're rebuilding in your same neighborhood or another. It's about who is willing to pitch in, get involved and care about the future of this city.

WE are delighted that you'll be joining us.
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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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