Thursday, September 01, 2005

NEW ORLEANS/OPINION: The boot, the wall and the mirror -- Katrina, oil, poverty and the Mayans

EDITOR'S NOTE: Elisabeth Gleckler is on the board of the Action Coalition for Media Education with Bill Densmore, moderator of GreylockNews.COM, the blog where this account is posted. Until Monday, she was a homeowner in
New Orleans and a professor at the University of New Orleans. She formerly served in the Louisiana state public-health service. Now she is "relocated" to central Louisiana. A native of California, here are her observations of the meaning of Katrina.

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Thu, 01 Sep 2005 09:49:50 -0500
From: Elisabeth Gleckler
Subject: RE: The Big Boot, the wall and the mirror

By Elisabeth Gleckler, DrPH, CHES

One of the lessons of my life, and I am 52 years old, is that you can learn great things from any corner of life. I
believe that great wisdom can come “out of the mouth of babes,” from a powerful song or poem as well as from a lecture by a great intellectual. Odd juxtapositions of images can offer a lesson.

I have had an amazing education in my fifteen years living and working in New Orleans. Fifteen years does not make me a native of the city, you can claim “nativeness” only if you went to high school here. So, there are layers of complexity that I cannot address in this short missive. But I do have something to say about the lessons of Katrina in New Orleans to the world.

The country should heed the experience of New Orleans and think about the sustainability of our present lifestyle.
There are several issues that are apparent at this moment – and things may change so emphasis or factors may evolve. For the time being, I have three main Katrina lessons: the big boot, the wall and the mirror.

First of all the lesson of the Big Boot

I take this lesson directly from anti-racism training by The People’s Institute and adapted it to Katrina. We live in
an economic system of oppression in the modern world. I will not use the term the United States because with the way that economies and governments are constructed; this goes beyond the geographic borders of nations. There is enormous wealth and power concentrated in the hands of few. They gain more money and power by exploiting the powerlessness and poverty of the many. It used to be that we believed the American dream that anyone could succeed. And occasionally there is a freak of nature and one or two people rise to a level of control. By in large, if you are born in poverty you will stay there. There are plenty of messages that you are poor because you deserve to be poor, circumstances of your poverty be damned. I do believe in personal responsibility, but I also believe in the power of the environment.

With lots of poor people, there is cheap labor. It has become irrelevant if those cheap workers are in the US or in
Indonesia. Exploiting their destitution offers profound economic benefits to the powerful. The Big Boot is the
economic structure hovering over the masses of us who do not have power.

The lesson we need to learn from watching Katrina is that we need to wake up to the system and deliberately examine it without the fantasy of the American Dream or without thinking that this county is a functioning democracy. Labor unions are a good thing. Local politics closely observed by citizens is a good thing. Investigations into the motivations of public officials are a good thing. Investigations into the financial dealings of corporations are a very good thing. Not buying from corporations that oppress people is a good thing.

Second is the lesson of your distance from the wall

I once asked my brother about advance math theories, specifically about chaos theory. He said it was like standing
next to a wall. When you look at the view in front of it, all you see is disordered marks. When you step back a little
you see that part of what you were looking at was lines of something bigger, A few more feet back further and you see
that it is not disordered scratches on the wall but a picture. You finally see that there is a repeating pattern of a
picture when you get back far enough. In the case of Katrina I ask you step to the rear so you can see that there is a
wall with a pattern and actually a door out.

New Orleans and the gulf coast is been your canary in the coal mine. It is us now and will be you a little later. The
water off the coast was 91 degrees. Put a storm system over that heat and you are just pouring fuel into the tank of
the hurricane. The wetlands that could have helped protect from storm surge are decimated because no one wanted to flood the wetlands with silt rich water from the Mississippi River. Real estate developers had laid down miles of
housing tracts in the land that needed to periodically flooded and filled with more nutrients and soil suspended in
water. Canals and pipelines had been dug into the marshes which changed the flow of water and brought new salinity into areas that were based on a different make up of brackish water. Chemical companies release effluents and warm water. For decades oil companies have reaped enormous profits from sucking oil from below the plate that is the Mississippi delta as the land began to sink. The present White House is lead by two ex-oil industry executives have turned over consumer and environmental controls to industry friendly decisions. This makes you part of the Big Boot even if you don't know it. This is about looting citizen control of government and letting business interests dominate over health and welfare of the public.

And finally, for this essay, the mirror

I have watched the media coverage of Katrina. I only saw one talking head who put a moment of deep reality into their commentary -- it was Winton Marsalis on September first. He talked about the poverty and desperation of people in New Orleans and sort of said, "What do you expect?" when interviewer talked about the person who took a potshot at an evacuation helicopter. And the rage of the people who offer the aid? How dare the people who are taking our charity should ever have their own perception of our magnanimity! There are very clear hierarchies and behaviors that need to be acted out when charity is handed out and don’t you dare try to violate them. Marsalis’ comment, too bad he did not have more time, started to address the larger story of a deprived working population who at minimum wage, truly and metaphorically changimg the sheets of the people who come to New Orleans to over eat and drink until they throw up on Bourbon Street and go home and say that they know the city. They have plenty of reason to act out, not that I approve of shooting at anyone. You have to understand the reasons behind actions. But, you won't hear that story on TV because it is not a good visual shot..

The coverage of Katrina offers several good lessons. I offer them in random order. The opposite of the stepping back
from the wall is modern commercial television. By dint of the technology you have cameras that only catch a tiny
picture of the horizon and not smell, feeling, and only filtered sound. The view is interpreted by talking heads who
gain a direct benefit of inflating frightening and shocking images and stories. Add to this the cadre of people who
earn their money and power by being seen in front of a TV camera who talk about New Orleans without knowing the city or who comment about the situation without being there. It becomes a nasty gumbo of near reality and manipulation.

Many people have commented about the racism of the images and coverage. I believe that there is institutional racism and sometime overt racism in the coverage. The color of the skin is a proxy identifier for oppression, poverty, and powerlessness. There is nothing inherent about the nature of the color skin except that it has been western
civilizations visual cue think less of the person in that skin and thus oppress.

TV makes us think that we are there. We see the image and it triggers a belief that we have experienced something. It is a dangerous mix of a confidence builder that we understand something at the same time a profoundly small frame that is made smaller because of the people who stand between us and the images, telling us how to read them. The stories come at us so fast that we can’t process them and only some stories make the screen. It is not reality.

The people who are in the frame need to keep us watching so that we see TV ads for products. The whole system exists
to increase consumption of a lot of stuff that we don’t need. One example was that in the midst of Katrina coverage,
there was an ad for an SUV. We are standing so close to the wall that we don’t see and certainly, TV does not
encourage us to process, the sad irony of global warming and big, fat cars that waste precious oil. Here, in the
heartland of Louisiana, lots of SUVs have George Bush bumper stickers.

So, the wall holds the mirror and the boot is poised to kick it.

When we bring these little lessons together, we have a profound picture. The Mayans in Central America had a great
civilization. They imploded and disappeared as a predominant force before the Spanish came to the “New World.” Recent theories point to an ecological disaster that finished their cities and political systems. We are no better than the Mayans and their fate will be our fate.

We can't wait for the President of the United States to decide to accept a theory of global warming when it becomes
economically convenient for himself and his friends. If he is blinded, then we need to take off his blindfold. We
should be demanding stronger federal tax breaks for non-oil technologies. We need to invest in public transportation
and quit dicking around and use it. All that garbage you see on TV, turn of the tube and don’t buy it. You don’t need the newest junk to be a well-rounded and personally rich human being. Buying packaged goods from China? Well, don't be surprised if you end up getting laid off from your job. Buying from a mega-plex shopping box? If you end up having no viable local businesses, then you only have yourself to blame. Ever wonder what happened to local farms? Then work towards green markets. Hate the corruption in government? Then oversee it and get involved. Run for office, get on a committee. You should have more time to assure that it protects the interests of you and your children if you stop watching re-runs on TV.

I really loved and hated New Orleans. People are lying or they are tourists if they say that they loved it. Great art
and music came from the depths of its poverty. The corruption was colossal and evil. When you worked there you have to have a special touch to get things done because people thought about things differently than in other parts of the country. Put a second line parade down a neighborhood street and everything stopped while people danced. You had to stop and watch and suspend judgement to learn the lessons that the city had to offer. I really respected my college students; many were the first one in their family to go to college. Okay, I most likely lost my house, oh well. I can rent again. My heart aches for other reasons. The people and relationships I already miss. The thing that New Orleans had that I have never found anywhere else was a sense of community and a wry sense of human and insight in oppression, racism, irreverence and belief in what is truly valuable in life.


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