Saturday, September 03, 2005


“This not the America I’ve grown up in.”

So said the CNN reporter, standing in the darkness and the wind, staring into the faceless camera, trying to make sense of something so patently senseless. New Orleans, sinking; a city, decaying; and all of this, the looters and the snipers and the thousands of black faces crying for food and water, in America. Not the Sudan, or Niger, but America.

The subtext of his words: This isn’t supposed to happen here. It’s supposed to happen there, yes, but not here. (The ultimate irony, of course, being that our ‘there’ is somebody else’s ‘here’, and vice versa.) As if there were some kind of geographical and moral symmetry at work. As if some nations are destined from disaster and destruction because of their locales and varying levels of decrepitude, while others were exempt due to their superior structures of government, their better organization, their stronger sense of urgency and action when it comes crisis time.

Not that I’m mocking what the reporter said, because fragments of the same thoughts surely floated through the flotsam of my own brain. In some sense, I don’t think he was talking about the United States at all; he was talking about humanity, about the individual, about how we would like to believe that death and destruction are not coming for us, no, at least not today. To imagine oneself at the centre of an unspeakable tragedy is to imagine oneself vulnerable. To imagine oneself vulnerable is to invite that which would destroy us.

So we go on, trusting our governments, trusting each other, to bail us out should the heavens happen to fall. In New Orleans, and Alabama, and Mississippi, the heavens fell, and the government was not there, at least not right away, and there is only so much we can do for one another. Only so much we can do when water and food are absent from our daily existence.

The story of New Orleans is a story that will reverberate, on the national and human level, for decades to come. It tells us that the people we think our looking out for us are, perhaps, no better, no more resourceful, than ourselves in our weakest moments. It tells us that there is a serious gap between the underclass in America, and their needs, as opposed to the boys in the back room, and their needs. (If New Orleans had been predominantly white, and wealthy, and full of senators’ and governors’ sons and daughters, would the response time for aid been much, much, quicker? You tell me, but I say yes.) It tells us that no nation can do battle with nature and win. All you can do is hang on.

It’s like that lady in the tree. You remember her? The one in Africa a year or two back, the one who gave birth in the branches while floods ravaged the land beneath her feet. When reduced to a human level, that’s what New Orleans was, the lady in the tree, giving birth while the tempest of life did its best to drop her from her perch. That’s who we all are, I guess – people in the trees, hanging on, hoping that our children will not be borne away by the current.

The good thing, the tangible thing, is that lady survived. The one in the tree. And so did her child. I’m not sure what that means, for her or for us or for the people of the Southern Delta down in the States, but it sure as hell must mean something, is what I’m thinking.

1 comment:

Muktuk said...

Isn't that the irony of life? We can survive the worst, most degrading, disastrous, and unnecessary conditions because we have a will to survive as humans.

The operative, underlying idea is that while that woman is up in the tree giving birth, there are other women and men a short distance away lounging in their homes and in their lives. Isn't that the unacceptable part?