Mercy and Grace

We had this chance, you see.

That’s what keeps driving me nuts about New Orleans, about the video Scout’s been sending back. I keep looking at this raw footage of, as somebody said on that wanker Bill Maher’s show this weekend, refrigerators in trees, and listening to almost meta-debates about whether everybody was too hard on poor old Michael Brown (remember the e-mails? Anybody remember those?), as if suddenly bashing Bush makes you a good guy. (Useful, maybe, but in the way that the guy you use to break people’s legs is useful. Not someone you admire.) I keep watching the footage, and hearing the stories, and thinking, we could have taken this and … done something, goddammit, made our lives and the life of this godforsaken pre-fascist police state about something other than blind fear and ignorance and directionless rage.

The refrigerator’s still in the tree. And they sweep the streets for Congress. And some nice guy named Terry picks waterlogged wedding pictures out of the ruins of his life.

I was not angry, since Scout went down to Louisiana. Katrina was six months ago, and I think those of us who can, in our snow-covered isolation, ignore the devastation, I think we all kind of forgot that if you’re there, it’s not six months ago, not when nothing’s changed since yesterday. It’s catcher’s mitts on the counter of your mud-covered kitchen. There is no distance. There is no comfort. There are no fucking bulldozers clearing the trees from your front yard and there are no tow trucks towing the cars away and people point fingers, as if a lack of a target for blame is the problem. If only that was the problem. We have targets aplenty. If we only needed to choose one I think we could do that.

The problem, one of which I am more aware than ever, is the starvation in this country for leadership, of the cancer of cynicism infecting the Democratic party, the media which ignore any substantial effort to communicate a message, and the small-mindedness of my fellow citizens. We had this chance to make the wake of this disaster about making people want and work for something more than their own comfortable existence, about giving us for the first time since the end of the Cold War a common dream, something of which everyone could feel a part. This is what I wrote then:

The reconstruction of New Orleans and the South will be our New Deal. Its rebuilding, repaving, re-designing and securing will be our WPA. Cleaning up the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina from Florida to Mississippi to Alabama to Louisiana will be this nation’s recovery from the Great Depression of the last five war-filled, lie-filled, cynical years of despair and destruction.

Rebuilding the city will be a national effort, accompanied by a call for sacrifice of funds and time and materials from every citizen, from every state. We bear responsibility for taking care of our citizens, and it’s time that we did so. The government has to undertake the project with the same scale and scope as it did in clawing this country out of the Great Depression. Katrina wiped out jobs and homes and lives and futures; Bush let thousands die while he fiddled. We must be the ones to say, you WILL build on this, you WILL fix it, and that will be our mission. That wll be OUR cause, because that is who we are.

They destroy. We create.

All weekend at these congressional strategy talks and other, less formal conversations, people kept talking about leadership, about how the presidents who were truly beloved gave the country a mission to believe in, a shared goal to work toward, and then personally invested themselves in that goal, that mission. They talked about how the Democrats must win back Congress by having a vision, by having a dream people wanted to be a part of. Where’s our Contract With America? Where’s our Great Society?

I think this is it.

I think we run by saying we are going to physically, with our hands and with hammers and nails, put right what went so wrong. I think we start right now, today, by calling for a comprehensive reconstruction program, with deadlines, goals, benchmarks to be met, with a built in Truman Commission to prevent no-bid contracting to companies like Halliburton. I think we start calling for that, as one, with one voice. I think in the face of terror and tragedy we become the people who say, you can overcome this, we will help you, have courage, have hope. Have hope.

And when we win, and we throw the rotten bums who allowed this disaster to unfold out onto the street, I think we drag them down to New Orleans and put them to work rebuilding as well. George, Dick, Condi, Donald, we need a few extra pairs of hands.

Pick up that shovel. You’re good at digging deep.

Think of the jobs it would create for people now displaced from their workplaces, which may never reopen. Think of the sense of community that would come from such a huge and magnificent common goal. Think of what it would mean when it was finished: New Orleans as a monument to the American spirit, that we do not give up, we do not back down, we do not take no for an answer. We build up, we break out, we find a way to carve our living with our teeth if we have to, and we do it together.

That’s more than a platform for a set of elections. That’s a dream to live for, a story that tells itself. That’s an idea not in the least as wild and crazy as a bunch of guys sitting in a room, hashing out, amongst themselves, how to create a country. Walking down Market Street this morning with Paida, we looked up at Independence Hall just as the bells in the tower began to ring. And I thought of Martin Luther King’s words, the tremble and rise in his voice as he shouted, “Let freedom ring from every mountaintop, let freedom ring.”

What is freedom, if not the gift we give one another? What is a party without a dream to give its members? What is a country if not a place that, like all homes, when you go there, takes you in?

I remember watching Fox News, during those upside-down days, and hearing Sean Hannity asking a dead-eyed and numbed Shep Smith where the rescuers were, where the authorities were, who was in charge, who could help, how people should respond, what can we do? And I remember the flat despair in Smith’s voice as he kept saying, “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.”

Six months later, through a video camera, houses with the roofs caved in. People picking through the wreckage. We still don’t know. How is it, that we still don’t know?

A.