Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Heroism and Unity

At Gristmill, David Roberts makes an eloquent point about our disturbingly ambivalent national response to the destruction of New Orleans:

Unlike the response to 9/11, about which we are so eager to gush -- oh, the heroism! the unity! -- here we want viscerally to turn away because our own pathologies have been revealed, and those pathologies don't sit well with the American triumphalism currently in vogue.
This is well said, and it brings up a couple of thoughts.

First, it's important to realize that 9/11 never unified New York, let alone the country. I took the 9 train downtown a week after the attack, and I can tell you that the level of tension and mistrust was enormous, particularly when some poor Sikh happened to get on the train. The myth of a unified post-9/11 America is a remarkably ethnocentric and egocentric one, and it really ought to be discarded; among other things, it completely ignores the situation in which people with skin darker than George Bush's found themselves after the attacks. While waiting for some Indian take-out in Jersey City, I remember seeing Pakistani families whose cars were festooned with American flags, and whose children had flags on every piece of clothing except their shoes. This wasn't unity, so much as difference desperately trying to minimize itself for the sake of self-preservation.

And even among whites, things were immediately fragmented; there was already conflict between people who decided to bet the farm on the closest thing we had to a leader, and people - like me - who saw Bush's weakness, cowardice, and culpability on that day as unforgivable.

As for heroism, there was indeed a great deal of it on 9/11, but BushCo cheapened it by calling every victim a hero. To die suddenly, uncomprehendingly, at one's desk when an airplane crashes into one's office isn't heroic; it takes nothing more admirable than bad luck. Nonetheless, Bush was as eager to proclaim everyone who died in the WTC a hero as his minions currently are to convince us that anyone who didn't leave New Orleans is a fool or an animal, notwithstanding the fact that the loss of life in both disasters was exacerbated by the inability of ostensibly responsible parties to implement an evacuation plan.

In my opinion, it would take real heroism to live in the Superdome for five days, while looking after children or an elderly relative. But the people in the Superdome aren't heroes to anyone in media or government, so far as I can tell; even by those generous souls who don't blame them for their own misery, they're too often portrayed as hapless losers who pose yet another logistical problem, or illustrate yet another rhetorical point. It's almost as though these thousands of people had blundered unasked into the Superdome out of mere instinct, like fire ants, instead of following official instructions under the reasonable assumption that they'd be given adequate shelter and food and water.

If you really want to see unity in America, you need only look at the poor. I don't mean by this that they exemplify human fellowship, though God knows they generally do a far better job of it than the classes above them. I mean that they're a literal unity - a mass - that functions somewhat as did the Queen's magic mirror in the story of Snow White, by confirming the onlooker's good opinion of herself.

This is one of the worst dilemmas of the poor. In a culture where success is, of all things, a moral issue, the spectacle of poverty reassures the wealthy of their own excellence. But if wealth implies personal virtue, poverty logically implies personal vice; the looting, to the very limited extent that it focused on the rather sad acquisition of soggy luxury items, confirmed something many observers seem to have suspected all along, which is that "these people" want unearned status; they want the good things in life without having to prove themselves worthy. Thus, looting in New Orleans was a grave offence against the very moral order that had abandoned desperately poor people to lawlessness in a drowning city. Once again, the poor had to be counted, weighed, and found wanting, inasmuch as they so obviously lacked the resources to contend with the hardships heaped upon them as just punishment for their poverty.

There's more daily heroism in the ghettoes of America than has ever been displayed in any presidential cabinet or corporate boardroom. But this goes unnoticed, because the poor - the black poor, in particular - are conceptually unified to such an extent that a handful of rather pathetic criminals can easily be made to represent ten thousand desperate but law-abiding families. And since these poor are a unity, collective punishment seems perfectly reasonable. The excuses one might make for the sociopathy of, say, Ken Lay aren't applicable here; Lay - no matter how hardened a criminal he may be - remains an individual from whose actions one can allegedly draw no conclusions about his class. Poor blacks, by contrast, are a unity; the guilt of one of them - or even the rumor of it - makes all of them suspects, now and in perpetuity. Upperclass criminality is a tiny blemish that can be covered with make-up and ignored until it goes away, while the misbehavior of the poor betokens a contagious sickness that goes to the bone.

This alienated, fanatic view of things is a comfort that Americans need to start living without, and to make the intellectual and moral effort necessary to overcome it would be to display real heroism. As Robert M. Jeffers notes, Aaron Broussard understands the real issues perfectly:
Bureaucracy has murdered people in the greater New Orleans area and bureaucracy needs to stand trial before Congress today....Take whatever idiot they have at the top, give me a better idiot. Give me a caring idiot. Give me a sensitive idiot. Just don't give me the same idiot.
These are wise words, and they apply equally well to our idiot media, our idiot economists, and our idiot legalists and sociologists. They apply to the whole shabby, self-justifying apparatus that devotes itself to uncovering moral deficiencies at the bottom of society rather than the top.

The lesson of Katrina is not that blacks are animals, or that a heightened susceptibility to disaster implies that the poor are "life unworthy of life"; the lesson is that the people who consider themselves experts in planning, ordering, and running this society are both incompetent and vicious. As Marilynne Robinson suggested, "Maybe the great drag on us all is not the welfare mother, but the incompetent engineer."


Samurai Sam said...

Damn but that was a brilliant post! Had to read that one twice.

Isabella di Pesto said...


Again, eloquent and incisive editorial.

I identified Bush long ago as a moral coward.

This is a man who supported the Vietnam war, but who marked "no" on his TANG application where it asked if he would be willing to serve overseas.

This is a man who mocked a woman on death row pleading for her life.

His self-serving claim that Jesus is his "favorite philosopher" is a hollow, hypocritical pronouncement.

All one has to do is understand that the poor and helpless have suffered more under the policies of his administration, and that his base is the "haves and the have-mores."

It is Bush who proclaims that we must always "err on the side of life" and it is Bush whose policies further demean and debase the lives of the already miserable and helpless.

robin andrea said...

Phila-- Truly an excellent post. Thanks for writing down what needs to be said-- over and over. We linked to you on our blog. We have a post up, a letter from fellow commenter janeboatler. She writes about her experience in Louisiana these past few days. We added the link to that post.
Well done, Phila. Brutal and right on.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful post, Phila. You have once again eloquently gone to the heart of the issue. I have never understood the mindset that sees wealth as a sign of some God-given grace and virtue. It is amazing to me that when the criminals such as Ken Lay get caught, it's simply business. When the poor in desperate and dire straits take what they need it's called looting and a shoot-to-kill policy is suddenly needed. It's all about property, and to hell with the humanity. This administration truly has no soul.

Unknown said...

What a great post. Thanks.

@whut said...

Incompetent engineer

I resemble that remark. Go back to Roman times and have the engineer who designed the bridge, stand underneath it, as the first brigade of soldiers crossed above.

isabelita said...

So... rampant consumerism is at work to destroy the world. What we need is not another form of communism, but a true form of conservatism: Make do with less stuff. We don't need to use up all the world's resources to make piles and piles of useless shit. However, as huge countries like China and India are just now joining the insane comsumption race, having lusted after it due to our very bad example, we are all pretty much doomed.
The neo barbarians currently in charge of the USA lead the looting and pillaging.

Jacob said...

Great post. You make an excellent point about double standards, one which I also try to touch on here.

One point where I differ from you, though, concerns the reaction in NYC following 9/11. In my experience, there actually was an unprecedented and rather amazing moment of fellow feeling in the city following the attack. Taxis were stopping to let pedestrians cross, strangers of all ethnicities and classes were talking to each other in bodegas--inquiring after each other's families, and for a short while it almost felt like something good--something truly communifying and awakening--might come out of that tragedy.

That lasted about 3-4 days before being utterly destroyed by the psycho occupying the White House. Then came the familiar flag waving on Atlantic Ave., etc.

But there was a moment when, truly, things could have taken a different direction.

Anonymous said...

Phila, what a beautiful post! When I got my electricity back on and watched the TV news, I was stunned to get the impression - not anyone actually saying it directly, of course - by implication that most black folks in New Orleans are drug-crazed thugs.

New Orleans is my home town; my daughter lives in Jefferson Parish just outside New Orlenas. The fact is that the majority of blacks in New Orleans are working people. Yes, too many of them are the working poor, barely scraping by. To see a group being demeaned in this manner was disgusting.

How did we, as a country, come to equate poverty with a lack of virtue and riches with proof of virtue in the face of the reality which exists in the US?