News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: Katrina: The Insane Aunt in the Attic Gets Put Back

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Katrina: The Insane Aunt in the Attic Gets Put Back

What lessons do you learn when wind and water rip up your life or the lives of your friends and neighbors and spit them out in the front yard to rot and decay in front of everybody, naked in innocent shame? This is a question people have asked since hurricane Katrina blew over New Orleans and shattered the levees that protected it from the sea.

Hundreds of thousands of people still have not returned to their homes in the city. For people with money, this has been hardship enough, as they scramble to make ends meet day to day and wait for the city to become habitable again. Weeks become months as jobs disappear or become a search for employment.

For the poor, though, there's nothing to return to since most had little before they had to flee Katrina. Shipped out of New Orleans after a week of sitting in offal and stench, they simply scrape together a life from the hand-outs of the government, and neighbors, friends, and aid organizations and made to feel their shame in the open this time. Pity is a sweet anodyne to smoke, a bitter pill to swallow.

But what did "we" learn from the event that was Katrina? What secret letter did she drop in the mailbox of each and every one of us?

For many who weren't there, Katrina was just a daily horror show that brought out the worst preconceptions and biases that have been held in check by what people usually call "political correctness." For many of these people, Katrina finally ripped the lid off the boiler and showed how irretrievably immoral and evil our society is. Katrina finally gave them a chance to think and feel what they really do.

These people are the ones who pointed to the looting and said, "see, that's the real nature of black people." Or maybe they left race out for one reason or another (surely not out of politeness or from "Not thinking so," they're just too craven to say so) and use "Katrina" as minor thesis in a syllogism whose conclusion points to the chaos that sleeps in the heart of each and every one of us. Just one more reason why we need the police, the state, the eyes of God peering through our windows to make sure our hearts are pure.

On the other side, of course, there're the bleeding hearts--the ones who want to blame someone else besides themselves for feeling so sad and hurt. You wonder what they were thinking before "Katrina." Why this outrage and tears after Katrina when what made Katrina the storm of offense that it is was always there?

What sheltered lives do you lead that this actually offended you? I wonder whether these people were so much offended by the injustice of what happened as they were by the fact that they actually had to think about this for more than a few seconds as they sit and write a check?

And this is the ugly little secret that Katrina broke out of the family attic like some insane aunt in a Victorian novel. Katrina put the lie to the comfortable notions that we all try to forget and suffocate with platitudes and soap operas. "Katrina" revealed the lie that the poor are okay, the lie that the old and dying can't talk.

Katrina showed that what makes a party town possible is an underbelly that is soft, human, terrified and, yes, "vulnerable" to all that is evil and unfair and unjust about this society that prides itself on its freedom and equal opportunity.

Of course, the preachers in their thousand dollar suits storm and rant about injustice. The commander-in-chief emerges from the behind the curtain and speaks in front of a cathedral of light to salve the outrage with platitudes and promises of bravery, intelligence and heart. The money-lenders and insurance companies circle like sharks smelling green blood in the water. The feeding frenzy begins.

Katrina's ravings about the little lies we tell ourselves when we become too comfortable in our reality show lives fade into the background as she is strait-jacketed and hauled off to the attic. We stuff a gag in her throat wanting her to swallow the whole length and breath of the shafting.

Now we can go back to our daily grind. Normality returns, the public narcosis numbs the synapses, and reality beckons from the TV screens.

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