Friday, December 29, 2006

How long, lord?

Leadership would be great. Lack of leadership is not great, but we can deal with it. But the illusion of leadership would be the most dangerous thing of all.
--Harry Shearer in Chris Rose' Sixty Second Interview
Actor, comedian and activist Harry Shearer is a voice more people in New Orleans and the entire nation need to hear. This is particularly true at a time when I hear the quiet despair in Jack Ware's comment on the post "We all in da same pirogue, cher" that "many people have told me they're waiting until after Carnival to move out of the city".
Rose: Without using references to food or music, tell me why New Orleans is special.

Shearer: I heard (photographer) Herman Leonard quoted on that very subject
today, so I will defer to the great one. He said: "There's no place on Earth where I feel more comfortable in my own skin."

Rose: But Leonard doesn't live here any more.

Shearer: I'm carrying the torch for him....

Leonard is not alone. Over half of the city's population remains scattered to the four winds a year-and-a-half after the calamitous failure of the Federal Flood, when the levees we were promised would protect us crumbled like the promises of all politicians under pressure. Worse is the uncertainly among may of the 200,000 who are here, the burning question is just how much they can do alone and unaided by the government, which has dispensed only a fraction of what was promised .

How long, lord?" The question the biblical psalmist asks is one tied in my mind with the tradition in the black churches' of identification with the people of ancient Israel, enslaved and downtrodden so long on their path to the promised land. In Psalm 13, it continues, "How long must I carry sorrow in my soul, grief in my heart day after day?...I trust in your faithfulness. Grant my heart joy in your help..."

It was that identification with the Israelites that gave at least a passing, Sunday joy to the life of a people who had known great suffering. It counseled patience and faith. I imagine it is a message one could hear today in the small storefronts of Central City or a mega-church advertised by the billboards that line my daily drive down Claiborne Avenue.

It was not something I heard much in my Catholic upbringin, and I wonder how much those of us who do not have those messages ingrained in our hearts suffer the more for it now. If Ware's supposition is right, that some or even many small businesses are just hanging on through Sugar Bowl and Carnival hoping to make up some of the immense debt they have racked up by reopening before they fold, or if the rumor that many individuals may decide to leave come Lent is true, it should surprise no one.

The rush of stories these past weeks about the Road Home program, that promised up to $150,000 in rebuilding assistance but is often delivering as little as $500 , should be enough to tell us that people are being stretched to the breaking point. Over and over we have read of people who tell the newspaper they have been waiting on those funds to begin rebuilding, or even to decide whether they can rebuild and come home. I can barely imagine what they must have felt when they opened the envelope, and found an insulting pittance, can barely imagine it because it is too painful to contemplate.

For how many will it be the last bitter insult in a long train since Federal levees failed us and our city was flooded? I have to wonder if here in the New South, people still take counsel from Psalms, or are we become just another part of a society that taps its foot impatiently to wait for a hamburger or a cup of coffee at the fast food restaurant. Are we ready for this marathon? I recall from my trip down from North Dakota that as close as Jackson, Mississippi the big and little box national retailers gleam clean in the morning sun along a ribbon of interstate highway, calling to people living in small trailers in ruined neighborhoods. How much longer will they resist that call from other cities?

How long, Lord, how long? ". . . Thou feedest them with the bread of tears; and givest them tears to drink in great measure. Thou makest us a strife unto our neighbours: and our enemies laugh among themselves . . ." the Psalmist laments in number 80. Unlike the children of Israel, release for the 200,000 is as close as the nearest tank of gas and entrance to the interstate. A conversation with a friend a few weeks back, a couple that came home early and rebuilt and who threw themselves into the endless parade of rebuilding meetings, turned to he takling whistfully of what life would be like in Memphis, and I wonder, how long?

Much comes down to what we can accomplish on our own. The question I have asked here again and again, is this: are we still the nation that weathered the great depression, or who turned back the seemingly invincible Japanese advance into the Pacific? Are we the country that, flush with those victories, erected a home for every soldier and the highways that tied them together, the nation that sent men to the moon.

Those who held the reins of power when Katrina wipped the Gulf Coast clean and the Federal levees failed measure greatness by prowess of arms. They were amply rewarded for their failure in Iraq with a serious thrubbing at the polls this past Fall. I think a greater test is whether this nation can rebuild New Orleans and the hurricane coast. As the blogger Ashley likes to remind us all, they rebuilt Hiroshima. For that matter, they also rebuilt post-war Europe, a fact I am reminded of when I think of the European foundation established to repay that largesse, which is helping to rebuild the gymnasium at my son's school.

The pronoun they in both cases refers ultimatley not to the Europeans or the Japanese, but to ourselves. It was our decision to spend the necessary billions to rebuild our war-torn enemies out of pure self interest. No one wanted to recreate the environment of widespread dislocation and fear that gave rise to the Third Reich in the first place. The chance for the nation to redeem itself by acting to save New Orleans has not passed, but the tipping point grows closer every day and the repercussions of failure are almost as dire. If we fail here as we are failing in Iraq, then it will be the milestone that marks the end of the American era of greatness and the beginning of a long and potentially painful slide down into the dustbin of history.

Either way, I'm staying. The end of empires is never a pretty sight, and I'll feel more comfortable living someplace that the powers that be have already decided is not worth their trouble, far from the angry mobs or the marching of soldiers. Perhaps it is all for the best. The invisible hand that now rules the world, the same that shuttered the stores of Canal Street and replaced K&B with Rite-Aid and D.H. Holmes with Dillards, then sent the corporate headquarters retreating to Atlanta and Dallas: that hand of Mammon has not been kind to us.

If we want a city that resembles the one of memory and desire, perhaps it is best if we are left to ourselves to build it. Give me enough people like Shearer, like the New Orleans bloggers listed at right and I believe we can do it: ourselves alone; Sinn Fein, as Ashley says. Going it alone, without fair compensation from the government for the damage they caused, will be painful. Some will try and not make it, risk everything to return and rebuild or reopen, only to loose everything. If we must go it alone, this will certainly be a smaller city, and some will leave ruined and broken by the effort. Whether we are recalled as heroes or fools only history will tell, but I think know the measure of those who have chosen to come home and try. There is no finer place to be an American today than in their company.

8.82:Corrected with to without fair compensation in the last paragraph...

I think you are right, Mark, that Hurricane Katrina will be looked back at as a watershed event in American history, one where the rottenness at the core of our society was exposed. Whether that exposure leads to some kind of rebirth or only hastens the downward spiral reminas to be seen, but as you say, the tipping point is close.
You know what I was thinking as I got ready to leave for work this morning?

You really want to know?

"Give me five thousand like Folse and we could do it." Really. There's no way I could make that up!

Whenever you read stuff like that, think of the guy in Hawai'i, who just got a promotion for Pete's sake, who has it in the back of his mind that he just might get sucked back in during the course of his upcoming visit (arriving Thursday afternoon!)...
I know that things like dark, that the road seems endless... that all of our collective words amount to "Vox Clamantis en Deserto", but it's not the end.

What we collectively do here in New Orleans for our rebuilding IS A DEFINING MOMENT in American History. We are what this country was meant to be.

We just have to hold on, grab each other and move the rebuilding forward. It's up to us to change the Future and save our world. (And in doing so, we change the World.)

Sinn Fein!
Mark, I'm of the opinion that America has already decided that we are stupid and disreputable, and that we will be lucky to see the 100-year levees completed as promised. Hoping for anything more from the federal government is folly.

I am also of the opinion that New Orleans and the nation need an honest education and discussion about risk. Sorry, but you just can't guarantee anyone's safety. You can't guarantee safety in cars, airplanes, or in hurricane protection. So we need to shift the mindset we are currently stuck in, that government must provide perfect hurricane protection. It's just not possible or logical to expect that. We SHOULD expect some reasonable level of protection, and we SHOULD demand that (our local and national) government give us sound protection. But if we're all in the same pirogue, then we've got to share paddling. What are we local citizens doing about this terrible, catastrophic flooding? Sadly, the vast majority are simply rebuidling in exactly the same place in exactly the same way. And due to lack of local leadership, and our stubborn inability to elect actual leaders, nobody is getting denied a building permit or told the truth about the risks in living here and what can logically, rationally be done to mitigate those risks.

Simply put, it's not that the nation doesn't want to help us, but they first want us to HELP OURSELVES. And so far, all the elected reps and the vast majority of citizens have done is stick their hands out and demand payment.

Not gonna happen.


*Sophmom stands and watches another Folse homerun sail over the fence*

You're the coolest group of folks I've ever met. I miss ya'll. Happy New Year, Mark. Beautiful post.
Excellent post, Mark. You do seem to be channeling Paul Carrack: "How loooong has this been going on?"
Damn. Great stuff. How do you keep your wits about you at times like this? I need some of whatever it is.
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