Friday, September 16, 2005

St. George, Coeur de Lion

What was that strut on the grass in front of St. Louis Cathedral all about, on his way to the podium? Why this attempt to make the lawn look like an annex of the USS Abraham Lincoln, and the floodlit façade of the cathedral look like a banner from God, an implicit "Mission Accomplished" that has, of course, nothing to do with the rebuilding of New Orleans and everything to do with reconstructing the self-inflicted wreck of the administration? What guile, what vulgarity, what presumption, what fakery: the rolled up sleeves, the unbuttoned shirt, the false modesty so callously contradicted by the obscene backdrop, that splurge of white (of white, ladies and bigots, of white!) and spotless cleanliness when any corner of the city, begrimed and honestly dark, should have sufficed. But the city is off limits to observation. It’s been turned into a playpen of the 82nd Airborne, a zero-tolerance zone for reporters and half the amendments of the Bill of Rights. Maybe the contradiction between the president boasting of Americans who’ve "never left our destiny to the whims of nature" and Americans increasingly thrown to the whims of "boots on the ground" would have been too unsubtle to miss. Then again we’re an unsubtle people, duped, suckered and screwed at the drop of a well-timed strut on the manicured lawn of a crusader-in-chief, and we were again Thursday night, when the allusions to New Orleans as a battleground ("we will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes") should not so easily have been lost, especially in that context, in the earthshine of that cathedral: Remember that September 16, 2001 mini-speech in which Bush spoke of "this crusade, this war on terrorism"? Official history has it that he didn’t mean to use the word crusade, that he knew not what he was doing. Bull, of course, shit. No word goes unscripted in this by-the-Scriptures administration. "Perhaps," as Jonathan Raban puts it "Bush himself was not entirely aware of what he was saying, but some White House scribe surely intended to put us at least loosely in mind of Richard Coeur de Lion:

Richard, that robbed the lion of his heart
And fought the holy wars in Palestine."

So it was Thursday night. The Cathedral is named after Louis IX, admittedly one of France’s better kings so far as the poor and the blighted were concerned, but he was also the only French king ever canonized—by Pope Boniface VIII, a neocon of his day—a detail a president so keen on his own divine right couldn’t possibly have missed. "Saint" Louis also led two crusades, a detail too delicious, too pretzel-crunchy, even for Bush to miss, let alone his scribes (though dysentery-sapped St. Louis failed miserably in both crusades, a precedent St. George must’ve sent to his re-write department). No, this was no mere play to present America with a clean wholesome and of course utterly godly white image of New Orleans’ future. It was Act IX in the president’s ongoing crusade on America. New Orleans is the latest, opportune parish. A beachhead for all those boots. We will stay as long as it takes. It, the sequel. Too bad Stephen King hung it up.

The Nigger of New Orleans' Narcissus

The President At Zephyr Field in New Orleans, April 2001 (White House photo), surrounded by an unusually white crowd for the second-blackest city in America. He was bathed in white again Thursday night, minus the people.

Waiting for the president to speak from New Orleans. But waiting for what? He’ll go on, speak in his halting cadences, rattle off ands like they’re his rhetoric’s ropes, use those power words (resolve, won’t fail, success, rise, prevail), he’ll attempt to recreate the aura he created after September 11 or reach for something like the Apollo program, associate himself with the inevitable victory ahead, wed his name, his party, his presidency to the fortunes of “the Crescent City” and wouldn’t you know it, its reconstruction as a nice white new suburb of a city cleansed of its riffraff, its “welfare mentality,” as my inelegant correspondent of yesterday put it. And there it will be: a foundering presidency reborn. What luck. Every time he crashes, a vivifying tragedy to ride back to approval. I’d like to think that it won’t work this time. The destruction is too close to home. It is home. The death toll is tool near, distant—black—though it is from most. If this was Iowa or Nebraska, a thousand white Lutherans abandoned and bloating up to the sun, the guy would have had to resign by now. But no. They’re merely black, merely poor, merely scatterable, eventually forgettable, niggers of a 21st century narcissus a modern Conrad should one day immortalize, though the story is in reverse here: James Wait is the only white man on a ship bound not from Bombay to London, but from 38 percent back to, Wait prays, the middlin 50s, satisfactory enough for this homage to mediocrity. The opportunity here is not to rebuild a city in its own image, but to remake New Orleans in Republicans’ image, a new urban suburbia with its French Quarter (renamed Freedom Quarter while you’re at it) and festivals to be sure, but the way Epcot might recreate a taste of Thailand or a cookie-cutter developer might recreate “that old Florida feel” with six palm trees, balustrades made in Taiwan and a marketing brochure straight out of the laptop of a first-year intern on Madison Avenue.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

A Friend from Knoxville Writes

"There's an overwhelming effort on the part of newspapers to blame the President for all failures concerning the devastation in New Orleans from Katrina. Thye Bias seems to be so overwhelmingly obsessive that objective reporting, and editorials meant to be influential, are no longer expected from the print media. Failures of Nagin and Blanco were not mentioned, and both appear to be bullet-proof, at least so far as being accountable for anything. Fortunately, Americans are not oblivious to the facts of accountability, particularly having been exposed to strong, decisive action by other local and state elected officials during previous times of great tragedies. Your reporting and editorializing simply undermines the credibility of your own paper. No visitor to New Orleans will miss the city more than me. Since I spent my honeymoon at the Royal Orleans in 1966, I have visited the city as many as 15 weeks a year. I have been to every major event in the city over this period, perhaps 15 Mardi Gras celebrations and not just the French Quarter, but including numerous Balls and parades. I became acquainted with hosts of more than a hundred restaurants, and have stayed at virtually every major hotel in the city. I have hosted receptions, banquets, and hospitality functions all over the city; but also, sadly, am very much aware of the welfare mentality among so many of the citizens. [...] I will implore our elected officials to investigate the disaster completely so that accountability can be assigned to those whom your newspaper refuses to name. Cordially," etc...

Dear Mr. Knox,

Since you have the distinction of being an eclectic patron of both such a place as Snack Jack's in Flagler Beach and Florida Southern College in Lakeland (I had many a leisurely walk in Wright's shadows at the latter, but have yet to have a bite at the former), you seem to me a more interesting gentleman than I was first led to believe by your September 9 letter to me. I should not let your letter go unanswered, nor your misconceptions.

There's a tendency among conservatives to band together no matter what. They call it loyalty. It's more akin to something faintly totalitarian: You're either with us or you're with the (fill in the blanks). When the president screws up, conservative editorialists, columnists and talking heads on television and the radio (those twin towers of moronic thought, where so much is decided) all circle the wagons in a reaction so Pavlovian, it's sometimes a bit disturbing to see. But it has served the conservative movement excellently. Look around. We're now a conservative nation, at least in institutions and appearances, if not quite in popular will. The herd mentality has its political benefits. I'm not so sure about the social and economic benefits, if one cares about more than bootstraps and bottom lines.

For good or bad, the less conservative sorts, to say nothing of the liberal sorts, have never managed to take advantage of the herd mentality. Even before Clinton screwed up as frequently as lavishly as he did, the New York Times was all over him for the slightest misstep, real or perceived, and most liberal writers (the two or three of them who are still around) didn't hesitate to call him out. Clinton was such a disappointment because he had such talent, yet squandered it so badly. But enough of the past. All this to say that when you suggest that we as a newspaper are pointing the finger exclusively at President Bush, or that I am doing so as a columnist, you're simply wrong. We are pointing the finger at Bush, to be sure, because (as Truman used to say, and Bush alas has never said) the buck stops with the president. We have and continue to also point the finger at the governor of Louisiana and the mayor of New Orleans, who are state and local disgraces of leadership. But they're small fry: They did what you expect local incompetents to do. FEMA and the president did what you did not expect them to do-not after four years of hearing the president stuff our ears with his claims to being an infallible commander-in-chief and all that claptrap about being our "war president." The man failed, Mr. Knox, simply and tragically. People have died unnecessarily in Louisiana, and here you are complaining not about the failure, being outraged not about the unnecessary deaths, but about what editorialist and what newspaper is singling out your beloved president for blame. You seem to me too intelligent and too cosmopolitan (if somewhat conventionally bigoted about "the welfare mentality among so many of the citizens" of New Orleans, those same citizens who enabled so much of your receptions, banquets and hospitality you enjoyed) to be falling prey to the herd mentality. You say that accountability should be "assigned to those whom your newspaper refuses to name." But we name them, Mr. Knox. You refuse to accept the names the moment they include those to whose campaign coffers you've contributed. It seems to me the dishonesty and lack of credibility isn't ours.

At any rate I appreciate the letter, and suspect there's more both of us could say to each other, more honestly and interestingly, than any single letter would allow. I take it you're still an occasional visitor to our areas (last November you were at the Shack right around my last birthday). Next time you're in town, be sure to let me know ahead of time. Maybe we can meet for a beer. Don't you have particular fondness for the National Beer Wholesalers Association's PAC coffers at election time? I'm a Carlsberg man myself, however.

Sincerely, ...