Five years ago today I had just moved back into our current house after nine months of renovations that were way overdue. We had given our temporary apartment back to the landlord, and for part of August I had shuttled back and forth between our New York home and various forms of temporary housing in Shoreline. Our nephew had gone on vacation and I camped in his home down the street; I spent five days at a motel in Worcester, MA at a national sports event; and I spent one surreal night in a chain hotel outside Shoreline, which turned out to be almost entire rented out to the city as an overflow for homeless families waiting for Section 8 housing. As it turned out, these migrations were a preview of things to come: a year or so later, when it was discovered that thousands of displaced Gulf Coast residents were being made ill by the formaldehyde in their trailers, my accommodations seemed pretty luxurious.
But this was not immediately apparent, nor was it apparent that the reason my renovation was so far behind was that my contractor was being swallowed by red ink, a silent recession that preceded the economic crash we suffered two years later. His business, I suspect, was resembling a Ponzi scheme: he had spent my money on someone else’s house, and was frantically drumming up new business to finish mine.
On the night of August 30 2005, as Hurricane Katrina barreled down grimly on the City of New Orleans, I was almost completely oblivious of everything I know now — or of the disaster that was about to occur in the Gulf. A combination of starting school, having run out of alternative housing, and knowing that the only way to get the contractor to finish was to move back into the house so I could yell at him every day, saw me swabbing plaster dust out of the front room early that evening while I still had daylight to work in. I blew up an air mattress, and settled in for a short, grimy camping trip in a half-finished house with no utilities. The contractor had promised a bathroom would be working by that day: it wasn’t. He promised electricity: there wasn’t any. So as the levees broke, I was in the backyard living as many of the lucky people in the Gulf would soon be living: brushing my teeth with bottled water, peeing in the grass and feeling very sorry for myself. I called my partner on the cell phone to complain of my dire state, without fully comprehending that one of America’s great cultural treasures was being torn apart, its people fleeing, drowning, dying in the streets and being preyed upon.
As I reflect on that disaster, following so quickly on the 9/11 terrorist attacks, followed by an economic meltdown that occurred as SEC watchdogs were downloading porn to their computers, and followed in turn by an unprecedented oil spill that has once again devastated the economy and ecology of the Gulf, one thing that seems clear to me is that it is utterly impossible — if you ever did — to view the United States as a blessed place whose problems are caused by the infiltration of outsiders. That is, it is impossible if you are a person who actually believes that the natural world that gives human beings eyes to see, evidence to think about and minds with which to sort that evidence. Glenn Beck’s weird production over the weekend
points to one way people cope with their inability to think about our national problems without blaming someone (someone else
, over there
): they believe that what is wrong is that, as a country, we have deviated from the One True Way (the Bible, the Constitution, or both.) Government is too big, the Tea Party folk yell; and the role of religion in our lives too small. And yet these people, too, have signed on — whether by voting or refusing to vote — to politicians who have presided over a period of unprecedented corruption, greed and venality.
If they were seventeenth century Puritans, they would come to Massachusetts and massacre the Indians; if they were nineteenth century Mormons, they would head to Utah and — well, massacre the Indians — all the while believing that they were doing God’s work and that a society could succeed without being impeded by government. The Puritans believed this even as they were lining up, every three or four years, to be carted away in British naval vessels so that they would not be massacred, in turn, by the relatives of Indians they had massacred.
Looking back over the last five years, we need less God and more politics: by that I mean not less faith, and all the forms of ethical community that faith can provide, but we need to end the lie that you can substitute faith for
politics. What Barack Obama calls the “man made disaster”
of Katrina (and others regarded as the act of an angry God
) was a profoundly political
disaster, something that has not yet been fully acknowledged. It was the end point of a moment in time in which warnings about the levees had not been heeded because there was no political will to appropriate the money to build them; in which professional government had been derided, starved and privatized to the point that FEMA
was more or less a shell agency, less able to cope with a natural disaster than the mish
-mash of NGO’s
that rush into places like Pakistan. The United States didn’t even have the National Guard available, because they were mired down in two wars that were supposed to be over.
Meanwhile, we have millions of people who believe that “more [Christian] religion” — as opposed to a return to an ethic of mutual care that is coordinated and inspired by a government that discriminates against no community of faith — is going to be the ticket to get us out of this mess. What is a mystery to me is that many of the people who believe this have been terribly harmed, not by God’s wrath, and not by an intrusive government, but by an America suffused by individualism: we are drowning in corporate greed entirely unfettered by morality, the rule of law or the responsibility of the modern state to deliver the basic services that humanize all of us. Instead of committing to creating a government that will house its people, we sit with our eyes glued to reality TV, where people “solve their own problems” with the help of TV producers, renovation gurus, and weight-loss stars.
We have gone from being a strong state where Rosie the Riveter promised that “We Can Do It!” to a heavily bureaucratic weak state, where we are constantly assured that “We Can Do It – All Alone Except For Jesus!” As our political leaders in both parties have nattered on happily about God, Americans have become poorer and more insecure. People who weren’t swept out of their homes by water, fire or wind have lost them to predatory lenders and an economy gutted by corporations who care nothing for their workers — or their customers, for that matter. Henry Ford may have been a nasty anti-Semite, b
ut he also understood that if workers were healthy, well-fed and secure they did a better job; and that if those same workers weren’t paid enough to buy his cars, he wasn’t going to sell so many.
Meanwhile, those who have the most bizarre ideas about faith get the most airtime, and they have turned their audiences into idiots. Interviewed by the New York Times
at the Glenn Beck event, Floridian Becky Benson came to the rally because Jesus “would not have agreed with the economic stimulus package, bank bailouts and welfare. ‘You cannot sit and expect someone to hand out to you,’ she said. ‘You don’t spend your way out of debt.”’” Well people don’t, but countries do, Becky. And Jesus actually didn’t
believe that we all lived and died alone, nor did he think you just sat there and watched while people who needed your help went right down the tubes. Jesus didn’t mean take responsibility for yourself and $crew everyone else; Jesus intended us to take responsibility for each other.
One of the ways you do that is through creating honest and efficient government, something that the Tea Party folk believe is simply a detail, when in fact it is the whole project. Kentuckian Ron Sears assured the Times reporter that “The federal government is only to offer us protection from our enemies and help us when we need it.” Yes, and really the least of our problems are enemies who are armed, Ron: an efficient and honest federal government should be there to protect us from ignorance, greed, lies, and vanity — in addition to weather, disease, and the toxins Mr. Beck’s corporate buddies pour into our earth, skies and waterways. And you won’t mind if the federal highways buckle and crumble, will you Ron? Or the planes crash into each other in mid-flight? Or if you have to live in a tent for five years eating possum because God swept your city away and there isn’t anyone who will force your insurance company to rebuild your house?
So as we memorialize Katrina, let’s also keep in mind that it was a real disaster, but it was also a metaphor for what we have become as a nation. Most of all, Katrina was a political disaster, one that was presided over by the Bush administration but one that can hardly be laid entirely at its doorstep, since both political parties started down this road in the 1970s. Katrina was a historical moment that ripped the cover off of the false promises of thirty years of neoliberal policies that have put money first and people second; that have tricked people into believing that that everything you need to know can be learned growing up in a nuclear family, quoting selectively from the Constitution or reading the Bible; and worst of all, thirty years of false messiahs who enrich themselves while leading their followers into penury.
What would Jesus do? Throw Glenn Beck and every money changer like him out of the temple, that’s what, and get back to what government is supposed to do: help people take care of themselves, make politics a vehicle for loving one’s neighbor (not blaming him, or seeing if she needs to be deported) and protecting Americans from those who prey on the simple, the weak and the vulnerable. Until we do, the waters will keep on rising.
And now, let’s hear from a true man of God.