Thursday, October 13, 2005

Many of the poorest evacuees believe that the flooding of New Orleans was part of a larger plan to drive them away

by David Remnick

The best-known writer to come from the Ninth Ward is Kalamu ya Salaam. A poet, playwright, and civil-rights activist, Salaam used to go by the name of Val Ferdinand. When I told Salaam what I was hearing in New Iberia and Houston, he laughed, but not dismissively. He said, "The real question is why not?" He recalled that in 1927, in the midst of the worst flooding of the Mississippi River in recorded history, the white city fathers of New Orleans—the men of the Louisiana Club, the Boston Club, and the Pickwick Club—won permission from the federal government to dynamite the Caernarvon levee, downriver from the city, to keep their interests dry. But destroying the levee also insured that the surrounding poorer St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes would flood. Thousands of the trappers who lived there lost their homes and their livelihoods. The promise of compensation was never fulfilled. That, plus the persistent rumors of what may or may not have happened during Hurricane Betsy, Salaam said, has had a lingering effect. "So when I heard on TV that there was a breach at the Seventeenth Street levee, I figured they’d done it again," he said. “Or, let's just say, I didn’t automatically assume that it was accidental."
Lolis Eric Elie, an African-American columnist for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, told me he didn't believe that the levees were blown deliberately— "and most black folks with some education or money don't, either"—but he could "easily" understand why so many were suspicious. "Blacks, in a state of essential slavery, built those very levees that were blown up in 1927. When the ships came to rescue people, whites made damn sure not to rescue blacks in Mississippi because of their fear that the blacks wouldn’t return to work the farms. If black life is not valued-and isn’t that what you were seeing for days in New Orleans? – then the specifics of the explanations are irrelevant. You begin to say to yourself, 'How do you aid tsunami victims instantly and only three or four days later get to New Orleans? What explanation other than race can there be?' I believe the real explanation is manifold, but I can understand how people start believing these things."
In Washington, whites dismiss The Plan as part of the "pathology" of poverty. Nevertheless, in D.C. and other cities, legends of conspiracy persisted as the counter-narrative to the conventional view of inexorable progress and the growing black middle class. Many in the population left: behind could believe almost anything: that AIDS had been concocted in government laboratories as part of an anti-black conspiracy, that the government distributed crack in black neighborhoods as a genocidal practice; that the Klan has ownership interests in Church's Chicken, Kool cigarettes, and Tropical Fantasy soft drinks and uses them all to damage the health, and even sterilize, African-Americans; that between 1979 and 1981 the F.B.1. took part in a string of murders of black children in Atlanta. Scholars such as Patricia Turner, at the University of California, the author of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," have written extensively on the role of rumor and conspiracy theory in the African-American community, especially among the poor (and also on the phenomenon of wild rumors about blacks among whites), and they make a convincing case that these counter-narratives emerge from decades of institutional racism and from particular episodes in American history, such as the use of hundreds of poor African-Americans, between 1932 and 1972, as lab rats in U.S. government trials, known as the Tuskegee experiments, on the effects of syphilis.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Mitt Romney on Globalization

"As a nation we are in a global economic race with huge populations in Asia," he continued, "where economies are growing at extraordinary rates with highly educated, highly motivated, and in many cases highly entrepreneurial individuals. Anytime government puts waste and excessive burdens of regulation and unnecessary taxation on its citizens, it's putting us behind in that race."

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Hardball by Steve Oney

When senior writer Steve Oney proposed to write an article about former Angels pitcher Bo Belinsky I hesitated. Nobody will know who he is, I said. He might have pitched the first major league no-hitter in California. For a year or two he might have been one of the most celebrated athletes in Los Angeles, but he was a flash in the pan who was all about style and not much else. That's exactly the point, Steve responded, and he was right. His piece, "Fallen Angel," about Belinsky's brief rise and long descent into alcoholism, violence, and drugs and then his shaky years of sobriety, is a quintessentially Hollywood story not because he rose as high as he did and fell as hard but because he gained stardom for doing so little. During five-and-a-half years in the major leagues, Belinsky won only 28 games, fewer than six wins a year. At the end of his career, he proclaimed he got more out of those 28 games than men who had won 300. It was a glib comment, but on one level Belinsky was correct. He had parlayed a no-hitter and good looks into instant celebrity He drove a candy apple red Cadillac; he had a bachelor's pad in the Hollywood Hills; he could walk into any club or restaurant and get a table; and in the perverse way that fame works, the more he could afford to pay, the more he got for free. On the other hand, he was dead wrong. Thirty-five years after he retired, Belinsky is remembered for squandering his talent, and no serious baseball fan mentions him in the same breath as 300-game winners like Warren Spahn, Nolan Ryan, or Roger Clemens.
So why write about him? Why not write about, say, Sandy Koufax, who like Belinsky was an early'60s LA icon, Jewish (a rarity in baseball), had an abbreviated career, but otherwise was opposite in almost everyway? He stayed with one team, hated celebrity, devoted himself to his craft, and for four years may have been the greatest pitcher in the history of baseball. Koufax was proud, always doing the right thing (he refused to pitch a play-off game Yom Kippur), and tragic (his arm gave out when he was 30). He is what we're supposed to be. Belinsky is what we fear we're going to be. Not blessed with Koufax's talent, he still had the chance to have a solid career, but he wanted more. He wanted fame and the illusion fame offers: that you can do anything, that there are no boundaries. Belinsky threw himself into the mythic LA life, and even though he was a tough street kid from New Jersey, the myth ate him alive. Los Angeles has always attracted the Bo Belinskys. They're part of the landscape — the actor or rock and roll star who scores a hit, experiences a couple of years when every bouncer and waiter knows him by his first name, and then the bottom falls out. In Belinsky's case, it took him more than 25 years to recover, and when he did, he was living alone in a Las Vegas rental, working on a car lot.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

IF by Rudyard Kipling

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream — and not make dreams your master;
If you can think — and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ‘em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings - nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run –
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

Friday, June 17, 2005

It's a particular kind of religiosity

It's the American version of the same fundamentalist impluse that we see in Saudi Arabia, in Kashmir, in religions around the world: Hindu, Jewish, Christian, Muslim. They all have certain features in common. In a world of disconcerting change, when large and complex forces threaten familiar and comfortable guideposts, the natural impluse is to grab hold of the tree trunk that seems to have the deepest roots and hold on for dear life and never question the possibility that it's not going to be the source of your salvation. And the deepest roots are in philosophical and religious traditions that go way back. You don't hear very much about the Sermon on the Mount, or about the teachings of Jesus on giving to the poor, or the beatitudes. Today all I hear about is vengeance, the brimstone.

What's missing? I asked.

Families, the environment, communities, the beauty of life, the arts. Abraham Maslow, best known for his hierarchy of needs, had a dictum that if the only tool you use is a hammer, then every problem begins to look like a nail. Translating that into this discussion: If the only tool you use for measuring value is a price tag or monetization, then those values that are not easily monetized begin to look like they have no value. And so there's an easy contempt, which can be summoned on a moment's notice for tree-huggers or people concerned about global warming.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Gee, if I had been given the right book

I'd be richer than Bill Gates. Or if I had known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself. If wishes were free beggers would ride. Like dancing on the Titantic. Speak of angeles and they flap their wings. Speak of the devil and he appears at your door. I'm a fuckin' confused person like you, struggling to get through the goddamn day. I had houses, women, children - a lot of things. Everything went out in the divorce. It was a typical divorce, very punitive, which destroys the ability of the income earner to really recoup a life. I got divorced at the peak of my earnings and I'll never again match that peck. It's very hard to make money, harder still to hold on to it. I've let a lot of money slip through my fingers. All of men's problems stem from their mothers.