Tuesday, October 04, 2005

New York, New Orleans, Our Country, and Everything Else

I grew up in the suburban sprawl of Long Island, New York. As soon as I deemed myself old and bold enough, I spent as much time as I could in The City, the term used by New Yorkers to relate to the island of Manhattan. Particularly downtown Manhattan: the lights and fused funky swirling tapestry of cultures and foods and music and people people people addicted me early. My best friend's family lived in a spacious artist's loft off West Broadway in SoHo in those days, and it was a perfect jumping off point to a land rife with magical adventure: women, music, nightlife, and the manic jumping beat to the electric pulse that was '90s New York. And all of it, this playground of ours, existed underneath the wonderful beacon of those two towers, which stood like protective parents benevolently watching over their rambunctious but more-or-less well intentioned young.

You always knew where south was in those days. You always knew how to find your way home.

Like every American, I'll never forget the horrific morning of September 11, 2001. Just after five a.m. local time, I sat bleary eyed and grouchy in the control room of a television studio in San Francisco. And then I was shaken awake, wrenched awake, ripped awake like everyone else in the country and the world, and nothing was ever the same again.

Life moved on though. Along with the rest of the country, I watched President George W. Bush stand in the rubble, bullhorn in hand, and announce that the terrorists would "soon hear from all of us."

It was a stirring moment, a moment in which party affiliation and politics and ideology melted away because there was an enemy out there, a new and sinister threat to our way of life, and the teeming overwhelming majority of the American people was ready to rally behind our leader to make sure that such an attack would never take place again.

Now, four groaning years later, everything has changed again. A logical, necessary, and imperative invasion of Afghanistan to unseat the Taliban and root out al Qaeda's base of operations was followed by a hastily executed Iraq Adventure constructed on shaky assumptions, with many fewer troops than some recommended and little tangible support from allies. While Saddam Hussein was captured, 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden remains at large as remnants of the Taliban regroup in the vast mountainous expanses of Afghanistan.

As billions of dollars poured into multiple theaters of war and over 1,900 lives lost, there was very little call for shared sacrifice on the home front. In fact, the Bush Administration's call for tax cuts to cure all ills remained a constant from the halcyon days of early 2001 through two wars and immense and rising federal deficits. A Republican-controlled Congress handed out pork barrel riches to local friends and cronies at an unprecedented rate (everyone hear about Alaska's "bridge to nowhere" by now?) as other important elements of the national infrastructure and homeland defense were neglected.

August 29, 2005 marked the day when the remaining fragments of good will that President Bush accumulated among the rubble vanished, likely forever. An administration that had absolutely hinged itself on protecting its citizens through the brutal and bitter presidential campaign of 2004 bungled, mismanaged, or ignored the plight of thousands of its most vulnerable and needy in the crucial early days of Hurricane Katrina's wrath.

I doubt that Mr. Bush "doesn't care about black people," as hip hop artist Kanye West notoriously alleged. However, I agree with columnist Mark Shields, who wrote, "He is, however, isolated -- and he may be almost criminally uncurious. Proud of the fact that he neither reads daily newspapers nor watches television news, the president has never publicly questioned why in 2004 -- the third full year of the national economic recovery -- the number of Americans living in poverty had increased from 32.9 million to 37 million, or why 45.8 million of his fellow citizens -- 6 million more than in 2000 -- were uninsured."

There are consequences to the decisions and priorities of our leaders, or the lack thereof. It's important to search the past for answers, but even more imperative to look to the future to seek out solutions to our most pressing concerns. If Katrina does nothing else, it may allow America to address some of its most sticky and longstanding inequities.

From dependency on foreign oil to long term foreign military commitments to a lack of health care for millions of Americans to low wage service jobs for many and massive and unprecedented accumulation of wealth for the few, the legacy of the Bush Era is still being paved.

I believe that most people are tired of government that doesn't believe in the power of government, that doesn't own up to its own standards of protecting its citizens, that hires Arabian horse masters and college roommates to head the Federal Emergency Management Agency (and who knows what else?).

I believe that most people are tired of taking wild leaps of faith: from massive tax cuts for the wealthiest 1% to elective wars to assurances about the most basic functions of government.

I believe that most people are eager to move beyond ideology and partisan hackery and desire a government that is effective, efficient, and responds to the real needs of the broadest possible spectrum of its citizens.

Will the people get what they want and deserve? Only time will tell, and only time will tell if the magnificent PR machines, time tested and honed and well-oiled by Mr. Rove himself, will pump out new and glorious reasons to keep the current regime – and status quo – in place during the upcoming political campaigns of 2006 and 2008.

I crisscrossed the South with my best friend in the late '90s in my old car, which we dubbed the Millennium Falcon of automobiles. Two young guys from New York blasting down the American highway, we joked about our proximity to the characters in My Cousin Vinnie and Easy Rider as we entered the darkly exotic bayous of Louisiana and finally the old lady herself, New Orleans. Like the President, we had our own excursions and encounters with excess in that fine city, but I was left with the strongest impression that there is no place on this planet like New Orleans and its blend of ancient and New World customs and cultures, its sultry mysticism, food, music, and easy spirit both enchanting and intoxicating.

In the aftermath and devastation of Katrina, I desperately wanted an explanation, a dotted line, a path to understanding what had happened and why something like this – the second event in the last four years that I never thought I would witness in my lifetime – would never happen again.

Leadership and decisions and policies have consequences.

I wonder if one day we'll be able to look south again and know that there's a guidepost to lead us back home.

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