Thursday, April 05, 2007

Tough Questions

I don't know much about "Le Monde Diplomatique." I know that the opening paragraph grabs my attention because it's true. At least to me. At least right now. Rebecca Solnit, a resident of San Francisco, has written some good things about New Orleans. Unfortunately, she gives some bad information, as well. (She still talks of the conspiracy of silence that surrounds the dark days after Katrina when rumors were flying of vigilantism and murder - I am still not convinced that this didn't happen, but I find it highly unlikely now.)

I like the approach that this article takes - American is becoming American't and New Orleans is the example. If the government fails us in New Orleans, it fails the entire country.

Some highlights:

‘If the city doesn’t recover, we aren’t likely to recover either’
Bring back New Orleans

Hurricane Katrina first revealed the reality of the Bush administration to most Americans: its incompetence, cronyism and callousness. And the lasting devastation of the city of New Orleans demonstrated that the US had been changed from a can-do to a can’t-do society.


These stories [of people being killed, left without care, and unable to cross the Crescent City Connection] are important, if only to understand what New Orleans is recovering from: not just physical devastation, but social fissures and racial wounds in a situation that started as a relatively natural disaster and became a socially constructed catastrophe. Nothing quite like it has happened in American history. It’s important to note as well that many racial divides were crossed that week and after by people who found common cause inside the city; by, for instance, the “Cajun Navy” of white boat-owners who got into flooded areas and rescued scores of people.


The poverty of New Orleans was, and is, constantly referenced in the national media; and the city did, and does, have a lot of people without a lot of money, resources, health care, education, and opportunity. But its people are peculiarly rich in networks, roots, traditions, music, festive ritual, public life, and love of place, an anomaly in an America where, generations ago, most of us lost what the depleted population of New Orleans is trying to reclaim and rebuild.


If New Orleans is coming back, it’s because a lot of its citizens love it passionately, from the affluent uptowners who formed Women of the Storm to massage funding channels to the radical groups, such as the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund, dealing with the most devastated zones. Nationally, there have been many stories about people giving up and leaving again because the reopened schools are still lousy and crime is soaring; the way people are trickling back in has been far less covered.


That doesn’t mean people aren’t trying all over New Orleans. It’s easier to get out the power tools than to untangle the red tape surrounding all the programmes that are supposed to fund rebuilding or get governmental agencies at any level to act like they care or are capable of accomplishing a thing.

“Are you trying to rebuild?” I asked the woman who had come into Nena, the Lower Ninth Ward neighbourhood empowerment network association, in the part of New Orleans most soaked by the floods that Katrina caused. Politely but firmly she corrected me: “I am going to rebuild.”

It’s been said before that New Orleans represents what the Republicans long promised us when they spoke of shrinking down government.
The disaster that was Katrina is often regarded as a storm, or a storm and a flood, but in New Orleans it was a storm, a flood, and an urban crisis that has stalled the lives of many to this day. Katrina is not even half over.

The Ninth Ward symbolises the government’s abandonment of African-Americans in a time of dire need; bringing the ward back is a way of redressing that national shame and the racial divide that went with it. But if it does come back, it will be residents and outside volunteers who bring it back. The government is still mostly missing in action, except for the heavily armed soldiers on patrol and the labyrinthine bureaucracies few can navigate.

Will its economy continue to fade away? Will the individuals who are bravely rebuilding in the most devastated areas have enough neighbours join them to make viable neighbourhoods again? Will the city government improve itself enough to make a better place or will incompetence continue to waltz with corruption through the years? Will the nation revise its sense of what we owe our most significant cities (before my own city, San Francisco, undergoes the big one in earthquakes) or recognise what they give us? Will the solidarity of many anti-racist whites across the US outweigh the racism that surfaced in Katrina and still lurks not far from the surface?

Despite its decline, New Orleans remains a port city and a major tourist destination. But it also matters because it’s beautiful, with its houses, from shacks to mansions, adorned with feminine, lacy-black ironwork or white, gingerbread wood trim; with its colossal, spreading oaks and the most poetic street names imaginable; because the city and the surrounding delta are the great font from which so much of our popular music flows; because people there still have a deep sense of connection and memory largely wiped away in so many other places; because it is a capital city for black culture, including traditions that flowed straight from Africa; because, in some strange way, it holds the memory of what life was like before capitalism and may yet be able to teach the rest of us something about what life could be like after capitalism.


We all owe New Orleans and those who suffered most in Katrina a huge debt. Their visible suffering and the visibly stupid, soulless, and selfish response of the federal government brought an end to the unquestionable dominance of the Bush administration in the nearly four years that passed between New York’s great disaster and this catastrophe. In China, great earthquakes were once thought to be signs that the mandate of heaven has been withdrawn from the ruling dynasty. Similarly, the deluges of Katrina washed away the mandate of the Bush administration and made it possible, even necessary, for those who had been blind or fearful before to criticise and oppose afterwards.

Go read it for yourself. I love when people think and write about New Orleans. There are a lot of questions, but no one can question the love New Orleanians have for New Orleans.

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