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October 26, 2005

Katrina Retrospective: God & Tragedy

It's interesting to hear an expatriot view of the American South. I mean there you have the full litany that comes with the turf. If you must speak of blacks you must speak of it in this way, right?

Where are the men? Well for a start, nearly a million of them are in jail. There are roughly as many African-American men in prison as there are in college. Numbers of federal prisoners have doubled in the past 10 years, most of it down to the "war on drugs" and three-strike automatic prison sentencing. In some notorious cases, prisoners have received life sentences for stealing food. The land of the free keeps more of its people in jail than any other. And, of course, the people jailed are disproportionately black. In fact, black men are locked up at seven times the rate of white men. In more than a dozen states, black men arrested on drugs charges are 57 times more likely to be sent to prison than white men on the same drug charges.

In short, many black men are sent to jail because they're black. During the early 1960s, my father was one of them. Of course, as with all racism, it's hard to prove conclusively that a white judge sentenced you because you were black. So my Dad fled the country and was exiled for 40 years. His crime? He joined nine white scholarship students at the LSE for a year, and asked the Georgia parole board (who considered draft-referral applications) to address him the same way they addressed his white peers - using the prefix "Mr". They jailed him instead.

It was a rule of Bible-belt bureaucracy that all blacks were addressed by their first name (like calling them "boy"), and all whites were addressed as "Mr". In asking for the same rights as whites, in a similar way to Rosa Parks on the buses, my Dad was challenging the whole edifice of white rule. So they punished him - hard. And yet after decades locked out of his home, the government told him he could never return unless he could prove the most obvious, yet least provable fact: that he was jailed because he was black.

I thought he would never go home, and that I would always be sent to Georgia, like I was as a child, to represent him at funerals and family gatherings. And then a miracle happened, a once-in-a-lifetime get-out-of-jail-free card. In fact, it was a letter from the 96-year-old white judge who sentenced him, addressed to President Clinton. It said, "I jailed him because he was black." And so my father got a presidential pardon, and Jim Crow's stranglehold on our family was finally broken at the beginning of the 21st century.

I don't see how I can talk about these politics without being political. Certainly I can't be there to tell the story the way I would, but what constantly annoys me is the totality with which such tales are wrought. Black is black and white is white without having changed an inch in generations.

Growing up in California and having family both from New Orleans and New England, it is difficult for me to associate the personal & family connection to the pain and suffering subtext of this tale of woe. I only have a vague sense of what it means to be inextricably tied to a deterministic past by the physical walls of a ghetto town chained to Jim Crow. For my family, the chains were broken and the place of imprisonment deserted.

Except for my New Orleans grandparents, the story is of flight to freedom, a narrative as old as slavery itself. And interestingly enough what brought my nana back was a crime. What I was told was that my mother's mother was a creature of habit and fierce discipline who took her life savings and her young daughters to California in the 40s. She was to start a business here but trusted the wrong man. What was thousands of dollars became nothing and she was forced to take any job to save enough to return to New Orleans. And there she stayed the rest of her life, never to travel again.

I know how a single injustice can defeat a life, but I wonder if it is fair that we capture the import of those lives in retrospect as the victims of injustice. It is not why they lived and loved and bore children - not to be subjects of a tragic morality play which launches us in political directions. The history of struggle is never so clear, unless we have determined to make it so for our own purposes.

Even in my own mind are soundbites of loss attending those setbacks encountered by friends and family this time. Who is supposed to be prepared for hurricanes? Are they no longer considered acts of God? It shows the change in the locus of our chains of recourse. Where we once looked upon other men as simply men answering to the divine within them, with stronger or weaker character based upon their ability to let goodness shine through them, we now look at them as conpiratorial arbiters of our fate, whose machinations bind us to better or worse destinies as determined by the color of our skin. And perhaps it is not skin but some other dimension on the axis of identity that we percieve to be the determining factor. But how is it that men become the reason and that men's behavior becomes the answer? It is a loss for the dialog between self and the divine - it is an absence of God.

Posted by mbowen at October 26, 2005 08:21 AM

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Five Stages of Grief written all over this one. Get a grip and remember that planning and budgets and fighting are as much a part of life as loss. There are accidents and then there are accidents...there are acts of God and then there are acts of gods. There's no bargaining away a discussion about the active role human folly played in this tragedy and many others. Let's not minimize the importance providing a bit of our daily bread to subsidize protective services that are supposed to be run by competent people.

Posted by: Temple3 [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 26, 2005 10:41 AM

I have a very hard time believing that we are hearing from knowlegeable critics. Suddenly people from halfway across the country who never set foot in Louisiana 'know' how to run an evacuation?

I'm saying that we're not supposed to have a bureau of everything such that there is always some administrator to blame when things go wrong. We are supposed to put our faith in God. And the louder are the cries for having somebody responsible, the closer we'll get to having the most responsible, ready and rugged people running things: The US Army.

Posted by: Cobb [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 26, 2005 10:16 PM

Leaving aside my belief that hurricanes are acts of nature, rather than acts of 'god', there is debate as to whether man's actions makes hurricanes a more regular occurance.
On the response to Katrina and accusations of racism on the part of 'leaders', as the guy you quoted wrote, it's difficult to prove racism is the cause, especially today.I mean Bush is hardly gonna admit he dislikes or doesn't care about blacks, is he? What seems clear, however, is that he cared less about protecting New Orleans against flooding than about his illegal war on Iraq, and he was in less of a hurry to react to victims of a 'natural' disaster than to those of 'terrorism'.
Personally, I think it has more to do with Bush's obsession with 'terror' than racism, but I would not like to make the claim that racism does not exist within the US system, only 40 years after the abolition of segregation.
Finally, I'd like to point out, that just because you don't like someone's opinion, doesn't make that opinion wrong. if you disagree with an opinion, you have to logically prove them wrong.

Posted by: Jez at October 27, 2005 03:31 AM


Posted by: Bill at October 28, 2005 08:05 AM

Put our faith in god? So what do those who don't believe in your god-or any god-do? I thought church and state were separate in the USA?
I'm not an American, and I don't live in America. Does that mean I can't have an opinion?

Posted by: Jez at October 28, 2005 08:50 AM

Thanks Bill, I was kind of worried about that word...

Jez, what if you're a tree hugger and worship the Earth? Wouldn't you say that the Earth was taking revenge and that recourse is not to impeach Bush but to rededicate oneself to the Earth? My point is that there's only so much that this or any president can be responsible for and if we struggle and struggle to put more and more of our fate into the hands of men, their godlike-ness becomes more and more a self-fulfilling prophesy.

If you don't have God, you have Ceasar.

Posted by: Cobb [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 28, 2005 11:07 AM

Uh, sorry, but you're not making sense.
One:calling me names won't make you more credible. You'd better come up with something better if you want to sound convincing.
Two:WE are men(humans).Humans can do something about the destruction of our planet.Especially humans who are in power. I don't believe in a god, therefore I obviously believe natural evolution and human behaviour are responsible for this destruction.
Three:No I don't have a Ceasar. Sorry to disapoint you.

Posted by: Jez at October 28, 2005 02:26 PM

PS:if there's a reason to impeach Bush, it's over his lies on Iraq, not on his response to Katrina. That would be a reason not to re-elect him.

Posted by: Jez at October 28, 2005 02:28 PM

BTW, Oona King isn't an expatriate. She's a british visitor to Louisiana. She recently lost her seat as an MP in London because she was out of touch with the muslim population and because she supported an illegal war. Nobody here care's if she's black and jewish. What people care about is that she represents an arrogant government. I do get the feeling, however, that race is a much bigger issue in the US. This would make sense, considering the history of the US and the way it treated it's indigenous and black populations.

Posted by: Jez at October 28, 2005 02:45 PM

You're not following me, and I'm not calling you names.

Let us imagine the following scenario. A crowd of 60 people are in a lifeboat. They elect a captain. Now. 1/3 of the people believe in God and trust the captain. 1/3 of the people don't believe in God and trust the captain. 1/3 of the people don't believe in God and don't trust the captain.

Everybody votes and it is determined that if anyone loses their life for any reason, the captain must have his hand chopped off. As you might imagine it passes with exactly a 2/3s majority, ie the people who trust the captain.

A storm comes up and one of the people is washed overboard. So the captain sacrificed his right hand, because the captain is responsible. Now he is the one handed capatain and becomes more authoritarian. Yet another wave washes someone overboard and despite his greater discipline, the survivors demand that he lose his arm. The one armed captain now becomes a tyrant.

Now the spokesman for the people who believe in God, says we should forgive the captain, because he's not really responsible for this storm, God is. One of the people who lost their daughter who doesn't believe in God says the next time somebody loses their life, the captain must be killed and a new captain selected.

If you understand my metaphor, you see that the more you trust in the captain, and the more responsible you make the captain for things that he can't control.

Can you hear me now? Good.

Posted by: Cobb [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 28, 2005 02:46 PM

Firstly, you called me a 'tree hugger'. While I don't partciularly feel insulted, it's what I call calling names.
Secondly,if I understand correctly, you are reaching false conclusions from what I have said. I do not make one person responsible. We are all responsible. The fact is, however, some people have more power to effect change than others. Presidents are among those with such power.
We are not told if the captain in your story was responsible for environmentally destructive policies which could be partly responsible for the storm(according to scientists-though I suppose you'd be more likely to trust a priest than a scientist).
Metaphors are all well and good, but you have to be a little more skillful with your logic.

Posted by: Jez at October 28, 2005 04:45 PM

I wasn't talking to *you*, as a tree hugger. My use of the term 'you' is misinterpreted. I see your point.

'We are all responsible' as citizens bound by the law which is our agreement to proxy our powers (consent of the governed) off to individuals. The more 'we' there is, the more power we reserve for those individual governors. Is that so difficult to understand. The conservative principle of limited government says that we should be very wary of the amount of power we proxy off to individual leaders. So it is only natural that this thoughtful distrust of the concentration of powers in fallable human beings be dispersed elsewhere. It doesn't matter whether the person entrusted is a scientist, a priest, a philospher-king or sociopathic retard, the greater recourse we assign to people the more dangerous and costly every decision becomes. It doesn't matter whether or not causality can be proven. The recourse remains the same because of the agreement upon which the powers were conferred.

It's about the amount invested in the social contract and how tightly it is adhered to. The uncontrollable will inevitably happen, and the tighter the contract, the more ruthless the recourse.

I can't make it any more clear than that.

Posted by: Cobb [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 28, 2005 05:35 PM

It's not only conservatives who believe in limited-or none at all-government. The fact is, government exists right now, whether we like it or not,and, while the real elites are not governments, governments wield a great deal of power. This may not be to your liking-it certainly doesn't please me. However, it shows that governments are those with the real power to do&undo. Governments are those who put in place laws which can protect the environment, for example, or on the other hand protect those who do most dammage to the environment. Government can give money to defense against natural disasters, or it can give money to illegal wars. Unless you have an unreal amount of money, I doubt you as an individual can do anything about such things.
The uncontrollable will obviously happen. Some things, however, are to some degree controllable.Which is what is being said about hurricanes. If it is true, I want to know, as a human being. I'd much rather limit the effects of 'natural' disasters than continue down the road of oil-dependency.

Posted by: Jez at October 29, 2005 12:49 AM