Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Katrina, poverty and America's Big Lie

What's the difference between the United States and a lot of banana republics where the rich get richer and the meek inherit not the land, but troubles and sorrows instead?

Pretension and self-delusion. Most banana republics, I would wager, have no real illusions about who -- and what -- they are.

America, on the other hand, has a grand national myth to uphold. Liberty and justice for all . . . Horatio Alger . . . rags to riches . . . the glory of the free market, and all the rest of that convenient rot allowing our hearts and our consciences to remain relatively unmolested.

AND TO THOSE Americans who hold fast to our national delusions -- to those who believe the Big Lie for the sake of an untroubled life of relative ease and conspicuous consumption -- I say let them come to New Orleans.

Or, at a minimum,
read this story in the New Orleans Times-Picayune:
Mickey Palmer, who traveled the world for 20 years as a merchant seaman shipping out of the Port of New Orleans, welcomed international visitors on Monday morning to his home, an abandoned building scattered with Katrina-era debris.

As a cool wind blew through a large open window, Palmer, 57, puffed on a cigarette and tried to stay positive.

"This is a good place to squat, as we call it, " he told international housing expert Leilani Farha, who led a small entourage to New Orleans this week to interview people who have lost affordable housing and others who may lose their homes.

Farha, who leads a low-income-housing advocacy group in Ontario, Canada, is part of an advisory group that reports to UN-HABITAT, the United Nations agency charged with monitoring poverty and housing. The group spent Monday morning with outreach workers from UNITY of Greater New Orleans who tromp through blighted buildings searching for disabled people who need help. The group will publish a report online after their visit.

Representatives of the United Nations have shown special interest in New Orleans since Katrina, with some U.N. officials using the storm as an opportunity to critique the U.S. government's policies toward poor and minority groups.

The group's forays haven't been without controversy. Last year, two U.N. specialists attracted international attention when they said the federal government's response violated an international treaty on racism. But the authors of the resolution also acknowledged they hadn't visited New Orleans since the storm.

On Monday, UNITY officials told the latest U.N. visitors that they believe 6,000 squatters may live in the city's more than 65,000 abandoned structures.


In a nearby decrepit house, two other homeless women cited similar medical woes. Peaches Jackson, 42, suffers seizures because she lost 20 percent of her brain in an accident 10 years ago, she said. Charlene Stewart, 35, is scheduled for abdominal surgery next week for a bacterial infection.

Bailey walked back to the room she sleeps in. She keeps the window there closed at night or else mosquitoes devour her, she said. When it rains, the roof leaks generously onto the rotting floorboards.

She didn't always live like this, she said quietly, talking about her work in the service industry and the low rent she'd paid nearly all her adult life.
TO THE EXTENT the average citizen can look at this and spout platitudes about free markets, bootstraps and "U.N. socialists out to get the United States," God will -- and should -- damn America. That human beings live like this in the richest country on earth -- live much as the biblical Lazarus did right under the nose of the rich man, begging for crumbs off a table of plenty -- should be as much a scandal to us as it was to Jesus Christ two millennia ago.
"There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day.
And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores,
who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man's table. Dogs even used to come and lick his sores.
When the poor man died, he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried,
and from the netherworld, where he was in torment, he raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side.
And he cried out, 'Father Abraham, have pity on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am suffering torment in these flames.'
Abraham replied, 'My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented.
Moreover, between us and you a great chasm is established to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go from our side to yours or from your side to ours.'
He said, 'Then I beg you, father, send him to my father's house,
for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they too come to this place of torment.'
But Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.'
He said, 'Oh no, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.'
Then Abraham said, 'If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.'"
IN THE WORST economic times since the Great Depression, there has been much talk about "stimulus packages."

The bottom line is that people need work. People need decent places to live. People need dignity and a sense of their basic worth. That's the "stimulus" we need.

President Obama, I have a "stimulus" package for you. The trial for this new stimulus program can be conducted in New Orleans, where many American citizens are living in Third World conditions in the wake of Katrina. (In fact, many were living in Third World conditions before Katrina.)

HERE'S THE STIMULUS: Put New Orleanians to work providing decent housing to people like the ones being surveyed by the United Nations. That such a survey is necessary is a national scandal -- but that's not important now.

What's important is eliminating the scandalous conditions.

And I don't see how it should take that much effort to make this project "shovel ready" -- or "saw and hammer ready," to be precise.

Take stimulus funds, hire unemployed and underemployed tradesmen and women -- hell, train "unskilled" workers for the job -- and salvage the abandoned housing stock in New Orleans. Turn it into livable residences for low-income people.

IT HAS BEEN four years since Katrina (and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) laid waste to New Orleans. If properties have not been razed or rehabilitated by now, it probably is safe to assume they won't be. At least not by the owner. Those property owners should be given 30 days to reclaim -- and remediate -- their property or forfeit it to the city.

If there are "legal impediments" to that, change the law. Property rights are important, but they are neither inviolable nor limitless.

Houses that can be saved should be. Those that can't should be torn down and replaced with "Katrina cottages" or new "green" construction. Most of the housing should be owned and administered by the Housing Authority of New Orleans as "scattered site" housing.

Some, say a quarter or a third, should be turned over to Habitat for Humanity and made available for purchase by eligible families.

DAMN IT, this is America. We don't "do" the Sudan -- or Haiti . . . or Somalia -- here. That's the party line.

It would be nice if that weren't just another damned lie in a world clogged with too many damned lies.

We say we are a great nation. But our collective inaction is that of small men and women.

1 comment:

Jack Tradesmen said...

Its a sad state of affairs and i cant see the answer. Lets build a better future.