I’ve been thinking about this for a while, so bear with me while I ramble on. It’s something I tried to put my finger on in my last column, but I don’t think I got anywhere near it, about the moments that focus us as a nation, that show us our own face in the mirror, and what we say to the reflection

Because I thought Katrina could have focused us. I thought we had the national will and the national … I don’t know what else to call it but national attention span, necessary to make Rebuilding The South our new national mission. A year ago, I was certain of this.

I was wrong, and we didn’t manage it, we didn’t tell our national story that way at all. We didn’t treat Katrina as the turning point it really was, which is why we’re now in the middle of nowhere, staring around the field we’ve driven into, wondering when exactly we missed the signage leading us home.

Part of it’s our shitty press, the sort of national swarming that happens around one thing one week and another thing the next. Individual reporters have done amazing work in the last year, individual news organizations even, and let’s not forget the fine NOLA bloggers and our very own Scout. But the kind of critical mass that makes a story THE one and only thing anybody talks about, that mass has a half-life of a piece of gorgonzola in the midday August sun. Once the CNN and Fux camera crews have left, well, too bad, so sad, on to the next thing. Bloggers aren’t exempt from that disease, either.

Part of it is our shitty political leadership. If Bush had simply moved down to New Orleans and set up shop there for six months, the press and the people’s attention might have remained there longer. If every day from every federal agency there had been some new announcement of a new program or a new effort, if things had been working, if they hadn’t cocked it up so utterly from day one, so that the next weeks and months were duelling press conferences over who sucked worse and our charming Republican friends in Congress suddenly deciding to be fiscally responsible, and their scumbag court jesters like Jonah cracking wise and blaming the almost-drowned for the state their lives were in, if ifs and ans were pots and pans, there’d be no need of tinkers, is my point really, and I suppose to have expected more from this bunch is foolish optimism. Or the kind of desperate belief in your own safety that you have that lets you walk out the door each morning, because otherwise you’d be so scared of getting nailed by a potato chip truck while crossing the street that you’d never unlock your door. Our government simply can’t suck this much, but it did, and it does.

But I think part of it honestly is us. I think we haven’t had anything to aspire to, as a country, in a very long damn time. I think that part of our national anatomy has atrophied. I think we all lost our damn minds on 9/11, everybody went a little nuts, it was like the week of a funeral when nobody’s acting right and whatever’s in front of you is the new normal because who the fuck knows what’s going on, so it really seemed possible that we could become braver, better, stronger than we had been. Anything’s possible after the walls come down. Then, the government went down the foreign policy bunny hole, everybody else tried to get back to work, and it became 24/7 FearTV because all these assholes know how to do is win elections.

But that isn’t what this is. That’s never been what this is, and that’s the problem, we don’t understand anything but theater anymore. Before Katrina we’d sort of forgotten that our government from time to time actually does have to do stuff besides talk up the president’s manhood, and before Iraq we’d sort of forgotten that, yeah, people die in wars, especially when they’re badly planned. And you saw that all the way back to Clinton bombing Afghanistan, and the press and the ‘Pubs going straight to the “wag the dog” scenario, because nothing’s real anymore, it can’t be. It simply wasn’t within their comprehension. Bush uses war as theater. And all the easy stories Republicans have been telling themselves and us about government needing to be strangled in the bathtub, well, they chose to drown it in the streets of NOLA instead, and we saw on this blog all week long how well that worked out. This isn’t anything anybody in power right now can begin to address, because it’s not even in their alphabet, never mind their language.

The amount of work and will, the confluence of media interest and political leadership and simple care on the part of ordinary Americans that would have to take place in order to have made New Orleans our moon shot, our New Deal, is so staggering that now in hindsight I can’t believe I thought it was going to happen. I can’t believe I don’t think it’s too late, that I still think, if we take back Congress, we bring the troops home, we impeach the president who sent them to war, we rebuild the Gulf Coast, I still think there’s time to make repairs, I can’t believe it but I do. I’m white-knuckled in my grip on this, the last couple of threads of disbelief I’ve got, or, if you like to be pessimistic, the last couple of straws in the crack in the wall holding reality out.

And here’s why: We’ve simply got no fucking choice. Scout posted up a photo this past week of a woman holding up a sign in New Orleans. It said, our fate is your fate, and it scared me speechless because she’s right. Chicago lit on fire once, San Francisco gets earthquakes, the guy who put a hole in New York is still wandering around free, there are tornados in the plains and droughts in the southwest and sometimes it seems like the whole entire West might just burn the hell down. We absolutely have to prove that we can take care of each other. There is no alternative.

So that’s it, then. That’s the question I’m left with, same as Robert, really. What the hell are we doing here? What is our purpose? What should it be? I have vague ideas about taking care of our fellow citizens, standing for freedom and truth and the values of equality outlined in our nation’s founding documents, but that all adds up to a piss-poor understanding of what lights us up and makes us go. Y’all are smarter than me, you prove that every day in the comments. Tell me what it is.