Six days ago, a surprisingly mild Hurricane Katrina left behind little more than sighs of relief from those of us in South Florida who lived through last year’s quartet of destruction. But three days ago, that same hurricane, much strengthened in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, wreaked destruction on New Orleans and the coast of Mississippi, and the disaster grows minute by minute as the basin that is the Crescent City fills with water through breached levees from Lake Pontchartrain.
I am in an uneasy state of mind, because I haven’t heard from my family. The eyewall of the hurricane passed my brother’s house in Slidell, just across Pontchartrain from New Orleans – and then it went on to pass directly over my mother’s house, near Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Their phone lines are dead, and they haven’t called. I think they’re probably all right, and if flood waters ruined their carpets and furniture and electronics, it’s a small matter compared to the plight of the hundreds of thousands of the dislocated and dispossessed in New Orleans on and the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
This editorial is clearly labeled as opinion, and I’m not going to pretend it has much to do with croquet, beyond simply observing that the leisure to devote oneself to a game can be counted as evidence that one has mastered the art of living well, outside and beyond the imperatives of survival – and by extension, that one is living in a land where the governance has assured peace, tranquility, defense against alien powers, and the right to freely pursue one’s happiness in any way that does not impede the liberty and freedoms and well-being of another.
But before we thank whatever gods may be for our personal safety and security, we should acknowledge that this feeling of safety and security is no more than an illusion that can be shattered at any moment. This disaster of Hurricane Katrina– or an equivalent – could happen to any of us, at any moment. Here as I type, it could strike as a sudden blast that flattens the walls of my room and prevents my even putting the point of the period at the end of this sentence…. The question is: Are we able in any way to prevent it?
Just how helpless are we, truthfully?
The answer, for most of us, most of the time, would be “No.” We would say that we are helpless in the face of our current circumstances. Some would say that our government and our president, though meaning well, have been unlucky. A growing number of Americans would say that we are living out the effect of terribly mistaken decisions and wrong-headed national policies. But in either case, we would say, there is nothing we can do but “ride out the storm.”
I’d like to propose to you, however, that there is something we can do – individually and collectively - and that is to take a stand against the conditions that created this terrible disaster.
“What?” I hear you saying. “This hurricane was an act of god!”
Well, Yes and No. If the hurricane was really an act of God – and I am willing to suppose that it was - what is it that god is saying? (Assuming, of course, that this god does not indulge herself in random acts of violence for the fun of it.) I imagine the snake oil salesmen occupying pulpits all over the mid-section of our country who are so quick to tell us the meaning of current events are having some trouble figuring out what god’s message might be. In an earlier age, it would have been pretty simple to declare that this is a judgment of god against Sin City and all the evils of the New Orleans French Quarter and its drunkenness and gambling and prostitution, and god-only-knows what else.
But it’s not as simple as that, because, you see, Louisiana is a RED STATE, one of the strongholds of the Christian fundamentalists that supported the Bush regime at the polls in overwhelming numbers. And that goes double for my home state of Mississippi, surely the world capital of Bible-beating, godless-Communist-hating born-again Bush worshippers.
Has anybody been watching the Reverend Pat Robertson on television the last couple of days? This TV evangelist recently hit the news recommending to the CIA the assassination of the president of Venezuela and praying to god on the air for “another vacancy in the Supreme Court.” I’m not making this up. To give him credit, he did stop short of asking god to kill any particular “liberal” supreme court justice. Surely Reverend Robertson knows what god was saying in delivering to us this particular “act of God.” (If you know, just for fun, send me this information by email and I will include it in the editorial.)
[Editor's note, 9/21/05: True to form, the Reverend Pat Robertson revealed on his television program a few days ago that the New Orleans flood happened after the Emmy Awards producers selected Ellen DeGeneres, the popular lesbian entertainer, to host the show for the second time. New Orleans is the birthplace of Ellen DeGeneres. Robertson did not explain why New Orleans was punished instead of Los Angeles, the West Coast "Babylon" that is home to the awards show. He also did not say whether or how god would similarly punish the entire populations of the home towns of other prominent American lesbians.]
But for people more focused on the facts than the TV preachers and snake oil salemen, there is an interpretation of these disasters that is actually useful, because it leads to the possibility of actually DOING something about the conditions that created them.
“What? Change the path of a hurricane?”
No, not change the path of the hurricane, but prepare for its coming in order to protect the people from its worse consequences – I’m speaking of “we, the people”, who are still very much in search of a more perfect union.
Is anyone interested in the facts?
The facts have been thoroughly documented for a long time: More than four years ago, in mid 2001, before the Nine-Eleven disaster, the Federal Emergency Management Administration specifically outlined to the Bush administration the most likely disasters on the horizon that FEMA would be called upon to confront. One was a catastrophic California earthquake. The second was a terrorist attack on the city of New York. The third was a hurricane that would breach the levee walls of New Orleans and flood the city.
Hindsight is all too clear, you say: but wait, there’s more: The Corps of Army Engineers was prepared to address this danger – the one likely “disaster” of the three that could actually be prevented by human action – and they requested the money to do it. The Bush administration gave them only ONE-FIFTH the money needed to do the job. The New Orleans Times-Picayune, the city’s daily, in numerous stories containing expert testimony and editorials decrying the lack of preventive action, made it widely known that the administration was not doing the job of protecting the city from a disaster that was known to be inevitable, sooner or later. George Bush, however, was committed to his tax cut, and he needed the money, he said, for the war in Iraq and for Homeland Security.
Now you understand. This unprecedented disaster – requiring the evacuation of the entire population of a city of a half million people, and calling on a greater mobilization of resources than any other disaster, natural or man-made, in our history – was not at all an “act of God.” It was an act of man, it was one of countless failures of our government to take care of our own people.
A victory for Osama bin Laden
The disaster of New Orleans was more than that: It was a great victory for Osama bin Laden - greater than the Nine-Eleven strike, because he had to do nothing in particular to achieve it, beyond witnessing the continuing seemingly willful self-destructive actions of a governmental response run amuck on a grand, global scale.
But it is not only the flooding and evacuation of New Orleans that was inevitable, according to the experts. Also inevitable, they say, is a nuclear strike somewhere in this country that will be of incalculably greater consequence than the New Orleans disaster.
In the post-communist Age of Jihad, our politicians have fanned the flames of what could be a 100-year-long conflict between Islam and Christendom. It does not matter that many of our leaders declare that religion has nothing to do with it, because these same leaders – self-avowed born-again Christians - trumpet their intention to bring “liberty” to the Middle East, when the United States already exerts its influence in the most holy places of Islam, including Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. It isn’t surprising that these words are interpreted to mean, at worst, challenging Islam directly with Christianity in their own lands, or almost as threatening, corrupting Islam with America’s brand of secularism. Whether or not that is the intention, it is not surprising that this is the way the actions of America are interpreted in the Muslim world.
Our invisible enemies have no other response to what they see as America’s continuous assault on Islam than through the organized actions of people we label as “terrorists.” They do the same thing that Reagan’s CIA-financed “freedom fighters” did in Central America. These terrorists, however, have more staying power. Jihad has been a part of their cultural traditions since the 10th Century armies of Christendom attacked “the holy land” at the urging of the Roman pope. The Muslim jihadists are accustomed to thinking in terms of decades and centuries. They believe that they cannot be defeated, and that they will eventually prevail. They have patience, and we don’t. If the lessons of Vietnam have been lost on America’s political leadership, those lessons have not gone unnoticed by Osama and his legions. And they have immeasurably more power, throughout the globe, than the Vietnamese had. They have a worldwide constituency, backed by many factions in one of the world’s major religions – and they have THE BOMB.
Playing the game of MAD in the 21st Century
You remember MAD, don’t you? It was “Mutually Assured Destruction," the avowed policy of both the United States and the Soviet Union at the height of the “cold war” between the world’s two super-powers. What version of MAD, do you suppose, is possible in the 21st Century, when nuclear materials are in the hands of private parties motivated by religious zealotry? Politicians always have to respond, they have to prove themselves resolute, they have to take some action to show they have mastered the situation. After New York or some other city and population is incinerated, will our president seek the counsel and support of the United Nations? Will he care a whit about observing international law in whatever unilateral response he takes? Or will he throw a dart at a map of the Middle East and nuke some country’s population to balance the score and demonstrate the same kind of “resolute response” that he is enacting upon the people of Iraq after Nine-Eleven?
Comparisons with Vietnam are frequent and inevitable, but the value of the comparison is limited. The stakes are so much higher in the current international “War Against Terrorism” waged by the US against invisible enemies. If Ho Chi Mihn had been able to carry the war to the United States by floating a nuclear device into the harbor of Honolulu or Long Beach, he surely would have done it to rescue his country from the colonial exploitation it had suffered from time out of memory. Ho Chi Mihn did not have the nuclear option; Osama does.
In the face of this inevitability, isn’t it amazing that not even the Democratic minority is nay-saying this president? Obviously, a sweeping change of policy must come from the grass roots – grass roots that are much deeper and widespread than the meticulously tended tifdwarf Bermuda on your croquet court. The change has to come from people who don’t have to worry about being thrown out of office for being “unpatriotic” or risk losing their jobs for being “disloyal.” (Remember the 50’s and the rampant insanity of McCarthyism? We got through it; let’s not take as long, this time, to clean our own house.)
What does it mean to be a patriot?
I am a patriot. I love the American ideals of civil liberty; freedom of thought and action; economic opportunity in a bounteous land. I don’t like to see those ideals flourishing more widely in Europe than in my native land.
My country, once “the leader of the free world,” has earned the contempt of the community of civilized nations by tolerating faith healers running for president, by erasing, bit by bit, the traditional separation of church and state; and by ignoring international law.
Bush told the Veterans of Foreign Wars last week that the United States will accept nothing less than "total victory over the terrorists and their hateful ideology."
What century is this man living in? In this century, “total war” is not a war that moves armies and supplies over vast distances and captures and holds territory. That’s what the stronger side always wants it to be – the side with the biggest and best equipped armies; but for the weaker side, “total war” means using any method available to defeat the enemy. This has been true for a long time; in the American revolutionary war, the Americans shot at the British, advancing in organized ranks to drumbeats like gentleman, from behind trees. The British said that was a dishonorable way to wage a war, the act of barbarians. They eventually found out that they were not making the rules in that war.
Bush in not making the rules in this “War against Terrorism.” Osama bin Laden and his invisible legions are setting the agenda in this “war”, and they are winning. Osama has said he will defeat the United States by bringing down the economy, bit by inexorable bit. He’s doing a good job of it.
We don’t have to call our withdrawal a defeat, we don’t even have to pretend that it is “peace with honor” as we did in the protracted surrender to Vietnam. We can call it, quite honestly, a strategic withdrawal to our own territorial and moral boundaries, in accord with the standards of the civilized nations of the world, whose good opinion we have lost. We can begin to take care of our people as well as the Europeans take care of their people, whether former slaves or recent immigrants, or the descendents of Brits who came over on the Mayflower. We can restore the standards of civil liberty and economic opportunity that have been so severely compromised in the current fraudulent pursuit of “security.” We can return to the great founding tradition of the separation of church and state. We can even be content to pay $4.00 a gallon for gasoline, and like the Europeans to live closer to our work and be happy taking buses, trains, or bikes to the office or working at home. Instead of trying to unnaturally extend “the American century” into this one, we can confront and respond to the world as it actually is in this century.
Our mallets afford us no protection
You and I love croquet, and we have the leisure and freedom to enjoy croquet and the croquet culture. But we are in no way protected from the political and religious and technological confluence of energies that can destroy us instantly, at any minute, wherever we are. I say that wherever we are, we can take a stand for humanity, for a moral response to the moral crisis that has infected our leaders and corrupted our national policy and wrecked our good reputation in the community of nations.
September 24 is the U.S.C.A.’s National Croquet Day in America, and I am already committed to directing the public part of the celebration at the National Croquet Center, promoted through newspaper ads and announcements, a spot on National Public Radio on the program “Only a Game” in the morning of Sept 24, and whatever other newspaper and TV coverage we’re able to generate.
And here is where my two worlds collide, because on this same day, September 24, the biggest “anti-war rally” of the year is scheduled to be mounted by a broad coalition of activist groups here and around the country. If it is successful, it will have to be widely covered in the media. In today’s world, that’s the way you make your stand count: by having it magnified through exposure in newspapers and television and radio.
In this case, I have to tell you that if I have a choice, I will hope and pray that the media is so consumed with coverage of these demonstrations that it has no time for croquet or anything else. After I finish with the games at four o’clock, I am going to join the nearest demonstration I can find, because even if that is a pathetically small stand, it is nevertheless a stand that I can take.
For your information, I have not made a habit of “protesting.” The last time I did it was in the Reagan era, when the Central Intelligence Agency was at its peak, doing everything it could to bring down “leftist” regimes in Central America and throughout the world, wherever those legally constituted governments were committed to land reform and other forms of redistribution of wealth in the post-colonial era. (Remember the Iran/Contra scandal?)
But the stakes are higher now. Today, it’s not hard to get a nuclear device into almost any port on any coastline of the United States in a fishing boat or sailing yacht. Its explosion would create a disaster dwarfing that of New Orleans or Nine-Eleven or anything ever seen in the world since and including Hiroshima. This is the event that is predicted as inevitable by countless expert observers of history, religions and political movements.
As an American who has stood for civil rights and human rights throughout my adult life, I have been very unhappy about the gradual erosion of civil liberties through our “Patriot Act”, and by the increasing merging of government and religion – through, for example, George Bush’s executive decrees that deliver huge sums of money to religious institutions who will give the poor a cup of soup with one hand and with the other a pamphlet that says, “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as you personal savior?”
But all that is merely offensive, merely disturbing. It’s nothing compared to the upset of having a nuclear device exploded in a nearby harbor, resulting in the immediate breakdown of the thin veneer of polite behavior that we can “civilization.”
Do you have a survival plan?
Oh yes, I have a plan. It’s what I think about now in the middle of the night, instead of esoteric croquet strategies. At the first word of the disaster- assuming it’s not so close as to assure my imminent death – I rush to the nearest gas station (three blocks away) and fill up three 10-gallon containers with the precious fluid upon which our society depends, like blood flowing through the veins of the body politic. Without delay, I pack my car with whatever items of necessity it will hold – including a Malletball set, if there is room - and make sure my pistol is loaded and ready to fire. And I take to the road, heading northwest towards my ancestral home in Mississippi, a journey of about 800 miles, ready to shoot to kill anyone who threatens to invade my space. This is difficult, I have to tell myself over and over that it is necessary, that when the time comes, I must not hesitate, I must shoot to kill. When I reach my Mississippi home town, where everyone knows everybody else, I will live in my mother’s house, use the trees on the property for fuel as needed, and – god help me – do my best to learn how to grow food on the property. I will do what I can to survive, without thinking too much about whether life is worth living.
That’s a practical, realistic plan for surviving a disaster that results in the breakdown of basic services and civil order. I hope I never have to do anything like that. So here’s the question that I share with you and request that you ask of yourself: “What can I do to avoid having to live like that?”
The answer is this: I can urge my country and my government to renounce the Jihad, to join on an equal basis the community of civilized nations in a union of mutual concern and support that solemnly vows to uphold international law, repent of past errors or intervention in the affairs of other countries, and declare the intention of living in peace with peoples of all nations and all faiths, no matter how repugnant to one’s own personal and moral values.
What I am urging is repentance, on a vast scale, on a national scale, a formal, official repentance that turns away from the national sins of the past and declares a new national future, with liberty and justice for all within our borders, and with respect for whatever any other country does within its borders within the province of international law.
How to say the unsayable
The word is “isolationist.” What is required to avoid the destruction that we will have brought upon ourselves is a declaration of principled isolationism, which carries with it the obligation to take care of our own neglected house, our own people. We are already notorious within the community of developed nations for not taking care of our own people – the people who fill our prisons (ten times as many as any other “advanced” nations, hundreds of thousands of them there for dealing marijuana or for not having enough money to hire an attorney); and the descendents of slaves who looted in the streets of New Orleans.
Before we again roam the world with any moral capital at all, meddling in the affairs of other nations, we need to first take care of our own people. As a patriotic American, I am ashamed of the growing gulf between the haves and the have-nots of our country, which is actively promulgated by a government who gives everything it can to its corporate clients and as little as possible to the neediest – in a cynical and cruel violation of the Christian gospel. I am embarrassed that our country, once the light of the world, is rated 38th in the world by the World Health Organization in the delivery of health services to our people (just above Costa Rica) and I am ashamed that my country is in continuous decline by so many of the standard measures of the well-being of a society – including longevity and an infant mortality rate that is now higher than any country in Europe.
We have much to do in this country before all our people will have the freedom and leisure to play croquet – if not at will, at least on the weekends.
Who can say what god wants?
Now lastly, and most importantly: What about god? What does god want? Who can say? I, and only I!
If we are still free people, we don’t have to ask some TV evangelist what god is asking us to do. We don’t even have to care what the Pope says. In accordance with the tradition of Martin Luther, that rebellious monk who re-established the primacy of one’s own personal intellect and conscience in the pursuit of spiritual perfection, all we have to do is look out into the world and to see what is appropriate to this reality. If you do that honestly, if you try to translate what you see into a divine commandment, it might be something like this:
“Now is the time to put aside the weapons and mend the plowshares and create peace on earth and good will towards all men and women; it is now essential for each nation to respect the independence and right of self-determination of other nations. This is your last chance. Live in brotherhood among all the nations of the world, or die. And while you’re at it, stop producing so many babies, stop destroying so many of my divinely and intelligently designed species, and take some reasonable measures to clean up your befowled nest.” Something like that.
At least, that’s what God has told me, and I don’t care how many people watch you on TV and witness your laying-on of healing hands, or how much money you get in the mail from your adoring fans, or how much snake oil you sell: all those “votes” you get don’t count a bit with me. Because in the part of America that still survives, you have no more right than I to interpret the divine will, and no right whatsoever to deny the truth of what god has told me directly - without the mediation of Pat Robertson or Billy Graham or the Pope, or some Ayatollah somewhere, or any other holy con man.
Now: Croquet, anyone?
A NOTE ON THE SHARING OF OPINIONS
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