Thursday, September 14, 2006

Perdido Street and Agincourt

We are too much a rabble, leaderless and increasingly disiprited. I heard nothing in the mayor's 100-day remarks Wednesday to remedy that. We lack the charismatic leadership we need to see us through this dark hour, our Henry V to rally the tired few to the great battle that will remake the world. Instead, we get Mayor Hamlet, Prince of Denmark or somewhere, anywhere else but New Orleans, wandering the ramparts of Perdido Street and wondering how to proceed.

I see more and more on-line commentators, and some in the newspaper, remark that they are starting to have thoughts of moving on, of leaving the city, of giving up. No one I know personally is ready to leave, and people I thought lost to Texas continue to trickle in despite all the challenges. Still, the conventional wisdom of the street points to the sprouting forests of For Sale signs as indication that many who haven't yet returned, and more than a few who are back, are making other plans.

I wasn't surprised to hear this sort of chatter in August. The first serious month of hurricane season was filled with an endless tide of contrary news, the threat of a storm in the Gulf, and the looming anniversary. Even for the most heavily medicated population in the developed world, it was a depressing prospect. Can we make it, people asked each other with the breathlessness of exhasted swimmers struggling to make their way to the shore.

The mayor and his circle give us no confidence. Leadership is the rescue we need now every bit as much as the people on the roofs of last year, watching the helicopters circle then leave; the 100-day promise was another lifeline tantalizing dangled before our eyes and then withdrawn. Perhaps we should drape our houses in bedsheets roughtly lettered: Mayor Nagin, Please Help Us.

I remain convinced the city will survive. We the 200,000 who have come home can be enough if we do not surrender, if we insist that our leaders step up to the difficult challenges we face as a city, as a collective. We only ask they they work as hard and as ingenously as those who labor all day to save their businesses, and still go home at night to work on ruined homes, that the mayor and his cohorts navigate the paths of Entergy and RTA and recovery finances in the same way the majority of us hack our way through the jungle of insurance, SBA and LRA.

The rousing speech Shakespeare puts into the mouth of his Henry V is something I have carried with me through the years, the product of most of a degree in English Literature from the University of New Orleans, and a number of years spent working alongside a Shakespeare enthusiast. Henry's position was bleak. He was at the end of a long land campaign, surrounded by the French who had cut off his line of supply and retreat, facing a choice between victory and defeat, with no place for retreat. It is a marvel of motivational speech, a statement that rings true to the American ear across the centuries with its martial setting and its celebration of exceptionalism.

It is the speech I would hear from Perdido Street, but have no reason to expect; the sort of speech we must demand of our own leaders, if they wish to be counted among the 200,000 who saved the city. It is the speech we must all give to ourselves, should post on our shaving mirrors or on the doors of our new refrigetarors, to remind ourselves we are here because we have chosen this place to fight.

Its opening words are the best response I could offer to Mayor Hamlet's vacuous remarks, and the truest antidote to them. If you read this blog, you are among the 200,000, the happy few. I do not mean to indict those who have not returned, by choice or happenstance. It is mostly beyond their control. Instead, I mean to remind the 200,000 that they are living through a special place and time in history, one that will be long remembered. When people look back on this time, they will read of the president and the governor and the mayor and laugh, or perhaps cry in catharsis at the tragedy of hubris strutting to its doom. There's nothing we can do now to remedy the leaders who hobble us, except to prove them wrong, to write for ourselves the scene that ends not in tragedy but in triumph.

...proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call'd the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam'd,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian.'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
and say 'These wounds I had on Crispian's day.'
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb'red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

Thanks for a great piece. Though I've tried, too, to seek solace and answers from non-fiction, it is in fiction where all of the truth lies, don't it? The safer vessel through which to pour the truth--the one that has the most impact and the least repercussions for the author.
A beautiful choice, Henry V.
That's always been one of my favorites and it has gotten me through a couple of days in the last year. Thanks for sharing it and making me remember it THIS day.

Re-reading all the emails sent from here last year to get them ready to post on the new site has been an emotional trial.

I'll keep Henry on my desktop for when I'm ready to longer go "into the breach." Then I'll hike up my sagging bravado and go there anyway.

Thanks, Mark.
Goddammit!! Slate beat me to it!
Screw your courage to the sticking place comes to mind, Rebecca, although the parent to two youngish children, I tend to hear it in the voice of the character from Disney's Beauty and the Beast.
Excellent use of one of the greatest speeches in literary/theatrical history. The only way C Ray would say something similar was if you gave him a bong and let him say man repeatedly, man.
The city will be rebuilt as it was built in the first place. It will repopulate by zip code, from high ground to low, as we returned and as it was built in the first place. Could something bolder and more imaginative have been done? Yes but there was no consensus for it.
By revealing his vacuity
Nagin has probably done us a favor. You are referencing the speech of an imagined king but we have no kings and no imagination in our political class.
History does show certain cities rebuilt with inspired autocratic leadership. Lisbon after its devastating earthquake is one. It required an aristocrat with taste and an autocrat with a vision to make decisions and enforce them. Lacking that and in a city divided by racial suspicions deeper than many of us knew, Nagin I've come to believe represents our collective urban psyche all too well and it is schizoid. When we have done the hard work, he will be gone and then we will see if there's consensus to build on. But I look for nothing any more from Perdido street. Nothing.
I don't see where leadership and autocracy require each other. Would you suggest that FDR was an autocrat? I just spent a hot August day wandering his memorial, and the letters of a single brick would trumph anything I head out of Washington or Perdido Street.

And there is no way that individual citizens can handle the S&WB or Entergy. Yes, we can band together (as some of us have already done) to do battle over funding for Entergy, rate increases and municipalization, but we can't replace government, only try to influence it. Issues this large are why we have a government, why the free militia of New York didn't have to hump off to Afghanistan on their own.
Leadership is dead. Increasingly it looks like the USA has jumped the shark - and it's all over but the shouting. All empires go in cycles. However, I don't accept it as fate.

I'm more partial to Admiral Lord Nelson:

"no captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of an enemy."

Nagin does not engage the enemy - monolithic central planning is useless, but to refuse to address issues directly and to disengage from approaching the difficult questions - he simultaneously takes the easy way out and the way less likely to produce a victory.

Who will expect that all of us will do our duty if none of us expect our leaders to do their duty?
I wasn't trying to be anonymous on that last comment...
Well FDR was autocratic actually and acquired a huge amount of hegemony in government. 4 terms in office and a solid Democrat majority assured that, plus war time powers, plus extraordinary powers, you know it was called the New Deal. Robert Moses of NYC is another example of an autocratic leader given great autonomy. Huysmanns redesigned Paris that way; and I mentioned the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, the city was substantially rebuilt by the wisdom and guidance of the Marquis de Pombal (
Excellent post Mark. I recall Nelson said, "The Admiral requires that every man recall hisduty," or words to that effect. I wish C.Ray would recall HIS duty. For shame!

Oh, and I'm sure there are plenty of evacuess, like me, who read this blog. We can't all be there in life, but we are in spirit.
Nelson's signal at Trafalgar was:

England expects that every man will do his duty.

An interesting aside: in my childhood, this quote was writ large on the wall leading to the second floor of the McDonald's in Portsmouth, England - home of HMS Victory.
It nice to read something actually inspiring for a change. I believe our “summer of discontent” may be starting to abate, and I really think there will be a resurgence of the kind of local activism that marked the early part of this year. And there will likely be leaders who rise to the challenge, though we may not even recognize them at first. I don’t expect much of anything out the Mayor, but remember what was thought of Henry V the night before St. Crispian day:

He may show what outward courage he will; but I believe, as cold a night as 'tis, he could wish himself in Thames up to the neck; and so I would he were, and I by him, at all adventures, so we were quit here.

By my troth, I will speak my conscience of the king: I think he would not wish himself any where but
where he is.

Then I would he were here alone; so should he be sure to be ransomed, and a many poor men's lives saved.

We don’t know what the next six months will hold, let alone the next few years.
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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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