On the broadest level, one thing seems clear: if we are not able to rescue the people who are waiting to be rescued in New Orleans, and to quell the violence that has broken out, the human cost of our failure will be exceeded by the psychological damage to all Americans. If we are unable, for much longer, to protect American citizens, in an American city, from American assailants, the damage to our political and social fabric will be incalculable, to say nothing of the impact abroad.
Over the last few days, Americans have heard the word "refugees" used to describe their fellow citizens. You can tally gas price spikes, and the resulting effect on travel costs and home heating expenses. It's far less precise to calculate the impact on the American psyche of a Somalia on the Gulf Coast. High gas prices are one thing; people dying on sidewalks like wild animals is another. Katrina arrives like the last nail in the American coffin of post-Cold War optimism, ushering in a new age that seems peculiarly old -- fanatical political murderers, tribal conflicts, acts of God. It's amazing what a few cults and some water can do to one's smug notions of a value-free New World Order run by knowledge workers.
The United States has spent a lot of the last century and most of this new one saving people from far away. Now it's time to forget all that, and save some Americans. We will, won't we, even though they're mostly black? We do care more about them than we did about the people in Aceh, right?
One man at the New Orleans Convention Center wasn't so sure:
"You can do everything for other countries but you can't do nothing for your own people. You can go overseas with the military but you can't get them down here."
Who can forget, among those who saw it, Bill O'Reilly's interview with a 77-year-old New Orleans woman trapped in her house as the water kept rising? O'Reilly asked her why she had not left when she could. The woman responded that "I didn't think that my mother could make the trip." You could almost hear O'Reilly's jaw sag as he asked how old the woman's mother was. "Ninety-eight," came the reply.
Something tells me that if another Asian tsunami had happened, Congress would have come back into session already, and President Bush from Texas before Wednesday. If conditions don't improve soon, we will inevitably get racial interpretations for the slow response. The faces on our television are mostly black, and while I very much doubt that racial considerations have gone into the federal response, who can blame these people for thinking so? They are poor people for the most part, and as the saying goes, the poor always suffer the most. And they inhabit a blues landscape steeped in the history and mythology of suffering, white indifference, and the wrath of natural forces.
In the early 20th century, Delta blues musician Charley Patton helped create a new music out of the customs and experiences of agrarian Southern culture. One of his signature songs, "High Water," was adapted in 2001 by Bob Dylan, on an album that was released on September 11th, 2001. Dylan took the Patton melody and adapted the lyrics, creating a vivid scene of natural apocalypse that seemed at once to be ancient and as current as yesterday's news:
High water risin', six inches 'bove my head
Coffins droppin' in the street
Like balloons made out of lead
Water pourin' into Vicksburg, don't know what I'm going to do
"Don't reach out for me," she said
"Can't you see I'm drownin' too?"
It's rough out there
High water everywhere
We're in for some hard times in America. How about some oil donations from our great pals the Saudis, or the Kuwaitis? Don't wait by the phone. America makes out-calls only, as usual.
It's up to the president now to make sure that the high water comes down, and that order returns to the Gulf Coast. Nothing, not even the saving of all of these lives, can be more important than the restoration of the order that American citizens, rich or poor, have come to expect as our birthright. Without it, we're left with flowing waters and outstretched hands, imagery from a Third World we have always kept at bay. For all of the very real pathos we are seeing unfold before us, it is that specter, I think, that is haunting Americans the most.
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