Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Linda Novak, Katrina Survivor

Linda Novak, Ninth Ward of New Orleans, 2005

This is Linda, she's my friend. I made this photograph of her standing in the doorway of her flooded Ninth Ward home, on the first day we met, about a month after the levees broke. It was also the first day she had been able to get into her neighborhood to see what had happened to her life. I had been introduced to her by a mutual friend who was forced into exile by Katrina. I was stranded in the French Quarter, and Linda was staying a few blocks away, her only surviving belonging an old blue junker Ford that died at every stop sign, and the clothes on her back.

She, my girl and I snuck past the checkpoints in Linda's rumbling old car, and cruised through the dusty war zone streets of the Ninth Ward, to her house. You can see the water line on the curtains in the front door next to where she's standing. Her neighbor's car had floated to rest against her front security gate, and we had to break the transmission to push it out of the way for entrance. I helped her kick her door in, as much of her living room had floated up against it on the inside. She was shocked and elated to find out that her goldfish had survived the whole ordeal in his bowl in the corner, and was there to greet her when she came in.

I call her friend now because we bonded in the destruction. She let me in to her turmoil, her loss, her quiet dignity and strength. I saw her face what was left of her life with calm and determination, and we helped her move out what little she could salvage. And after a few hours we loaded up her junker, and I sat in the front seat cradling my camera, my girl in the backseat cradling the tough little goldfish, and we slowly rattled through the Ninth Ward, silent in the face of all the destruction, stopping when her car died, making photographs of the lonely landscape. We found our way to McKain Street that day, and it seemed so appropriate, that junker, a shiny rental car would have been from a different world. And Linda was there when I broke down, making this photograph of my grandma's shack, while my girl wrapped her arm around me and the whole world was silent.

And Linda was silent, too. She understood. Words were useless.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Katrina Survivor, and Carpetbagging

Louise Jackson, 51, Pearlington, Mississippi

Washington Post: In Miss., Time Now Stands Still (link thanks to Kenny!)
Recovery Is Stagnant In Post-Katrina Towns
"Katrina left behind a great swell of land speculation. Signs reading "Cash for Homes" and "We Pay Top $ for Waterfront Property" are ubiquitous, as are developers hanging around city planning offices. It's urban renewal by hurricane, clearing land for a new Mississippi of upscale condominium towers and parks and many casinos. The many working-class residents who live within view of the coast could be outward bound."
I've already received three letters from these fucking carpetbaggers, asking if I'd consider selling my mom's land. They got my name and address from assessor's records. I'd maybe trade the land for their souls, if they still had some.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Rebuilding Hope and Habitat

I've donated my photographs to Habitat For Humanity to use in money-raising efforts to aid Hancock County, Mississippi, where my mom's little town of Pearlington is. There was no established Habitat chapter in Hancock before Katrina, so the efforts are actually being led by the chapter in Walton County, Florida. They hope to build 100 homes for displaced people in Pearlington, and are trying to get them up as fast as possible as we get deeper into winter.

This is good, important work, vital work. It's being done right now, in America, by Americans. You can help them, you can help us. Fuck the news stories about how much money Wal-Mart made on Black Friday. This is the news story, and it's not on CNN anymore. Please share this with friends, families, blogs, Myspace, anything. Let people know there's something they can still do. They need money, they need volunteers, they need attention, media coverage, all of the above. Please don't let this fade away...

Habitat for Humanity of Walton County needs your help to build homes in Hancock County for families affected by Hurricane Katrina.

Hancock County is the most western county in Mississippi along the Gulf of Mexico. Hurricane Katrina brought widespread devastation to the county with 40 confirmed deaths and millions of dollars of property damage. Nearly 70% of the county’s homes were left uninhabitable. The coastal communities were among the hardest hit areas. Pearlington, a small community of 2,200 people, was particularly devastated, as nearly every home was either completely destroyed or severely damaged. There is no Habitat for Humanity affiliate along this area of the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Hundreds of residents are living in tents in the aftermath of Katrina. Many have only what they were able to salvage, and in many cases they have nothing at all. Basic necessities are still hard to come by, most of all shelter.

Habitat for Humanity of Walton County Florida in partnership with The Hurricane Relief Coalition, New Hope Construction, Walton County community volunteer organizations, local churches and individuals are working together to raise money to quickly build temporary housing for the families of Pearlington, Waveland and other rural coastal communities of Hancock County.

We are seeking donations of $2 million to be used for immediate construction of more than a hundred homes in Hancock County. The needs are enormous, and while this effort barely begins to scratch the surface, it will at least be a start, making a real difference to individual families that have lost so much. Your contribution could help a family have a home by this winter.

Habitat for Humanity of Walton County will administer the program, managing funds, coordinating volunteers, qualifying tenants/buyers. Habitat for Humanity has a proven system in place to provide housing to the most affected people with a minimum of red tape. They ensure contributed funds will not be used in the place of any existing government relief effort, and that these funds will be used immediately for our efforts in Hancock County.

New Hope Construction has partnered with Habitat to design and construct efficient, comfortable and affordable transitional housing. New Hope Construction is a non-profit, 501c3 corporation that designs and manufactures complete, high quality, pre-framed house packages that are ready for on-site assembly.

Since 1996, New Hope has partnered with churches, Habitat for Humanity affiliates, and other non-profit organizations to provide housing for low-income families. Its commitment to partner with Habitat for Humanity of Walton County and the Walton County Hurricane Relief Coalition confirms their strong vision and mission, and makes possible our efforts to provide housing relief in Hancock County.

During the Mississippi Renewal Forum held in Biloxi six weeks after Hurricane Katrina, leading architects and town planners addressed the problems and possibilities of rebuilding the Gulf Coast. Innovative schemes for temporary, modular and prefabricated housings by architects were proposed and discussed. During the six-day forum, architects involved with the towns of Seaside, WaterColor, and Alys Beach created designs for a variety of housing options. Several of these designs are currently in production by New Hope Construction for this project.

Two homes with different floor plans and elevations have been selected as part of this rebuilding program – the Coastal Cottage and the Beach Bungalow. Comprised of approximately 300 – 400 square feet, these efficient houses are fully furnished to accommodate a family. The interiors include a living and kitchen area, bedroom, bathroom, and designated sleeping space for children. The houses are portable and are adaptable to almost any location. Although designed to be temporary shelter for up to 18 months, these structures can be expanded and converted to permanent housing. With engaging details and inviting front porches, these cottages promise to be a major improvement over other temporary housing units. These designs are livable and likable – a lot more like a real home.

We are seeking sponsors to fund one of more of these homes. Sponsors can choose between two possible designs, the Coastal Cottage or the Beach Bungalow. A plaque will be placed in each home commemorating the individuals who made this dream a reality.

New Hope Construction will assemble the materials, pre-framed walls and trusses, and ship the units directly to Hancock County. Volunteers from Walton County will assemble the structures and add finishing touches to the homes on site. Working with established Habitat for Humanity policies, housing will be made available to qualifying families for a period of 6 months with two automatic renewals if necessary. Assistance will not exceed 18 months from the date of initial tenant agreement unless extraordinary circumstances through no fault of the applicant dictate a 6 month extension. All renewals are subject to review and approval. Homes will be provided under a tenant/lease agreement at no or reduced cost to qualifying applicants. Financial ability of the household will be considered as part of the needs assessment. As a family reaches sustainability, receives insurance settlements and moves to a permanent home, the unit will be passed on to another family. These cottages can be reused as long as necessary, even for future disasters. They may be sold to qualified applicants or residents who choose to make the home permanent. Using Habitat for Humanity’s Family Selection criteria, qualifying families may choose to convert and expand the temporary unit to permanent housing and pay a no-profit, no-interest mortgage for a term of 20 years.
“A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” — Margaret Mead
For information about Habitat for Humanity of Walton County, as well as updates and photographs of Hancock County and the first houses, visit, New Hope Construction at, or Mississippi Renewal Forum at

To volunteer to work on a home in Hancock County, please contact Shannon Erwin at or call (850) 835-0067.

Media interested in information, please contact Kim Turner at or Lynn Nesmith at or call (850) 231-3770.

If you would like to discuss a contribution, please contact Ronnie McBrayer at or call (850) 825-0067.

Habitat for Humanity believes this is very cost-effective program for providing housing so desperately needed in Hancock County. We are seeking donations to further fund this program, with a goal of raising $2 million that will be used for immediate construction of houses.

Your contribution could help a Hancock County family displaced by Hurricane Katrina have a home by winter.

All donations are tax deductible. The federal government has made an allowance for additional 2005 tax deduction incentives for donations made to Hurricane Katrina relief efforts before December 31, 2005. Please consult your tax professional for details.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

A Thanksgiving Day Prayer For The Exiles

Pardon me for a moment, my mind's split in several directions, and not feeling well. It's not new, this split, it started on the day Katrina washed ashore blowing past present and future into a heap of shit. That's when my mind split in two, one half maintaining my useless body here in New York, the other half trying to pull it to the Gulf to find and help my family. It then split into thirds, when my mom and little brother evacuated, and I was left with New York, the Gulf, and the new North Carolina.
Thanks for the wild turkey and the Passenger Pigeons, destined to be shit out through wholesome American guts, thanks for a Continent to despoil and poison...
And I should be in the Gulf right now, with my mom and little brother, using the Thanksgiving break to dig through the months-dried mud, sifitng for scraps to salvage and be thankful for. My mom's really hoping she'll be able to save her old vinyl collection, now that it's not so swampy in her trailer, and maybe the mold's not quite so aggressive. And she thinks she could get a FEMA travel trailer now, and the government will bulldoze her Eden and haul it away, for free even. But then she feels sad, she knows she's better off staying settled for now in North Carolina with the wonderful people who've helped so much there. And even more she knows that my little brother is better off up there, and feels doubly guilty again. Guilty for one that she's not surviving, barnacle steadfast, Cajun stubborn, alongside the others in the muck and speculation and slow grinding dread in the Gulf. And then again she feels guilty for feeling that guilt, the guilt of the exile, that she should be thankful for the oasis she's found herself in, and she is thankful, so thankful, but also guilty for it.
Thanks for the American Dream to vulgarize and falsify until the bare lies shine through...
And I'm thankful for all that I've been able to accomplish with a few photographs and some words, but guilty that I'm so far away, on hold. So far away in New York, bidding for an advertising job so my photographs can lure teens into buying more jeans, so I can make a big paycheck, so I can pay off the debt I have on my mom's destroyed Eden, so we can get back to zero again. But my gut nags at me and tells me to get the fuck back down to where I started from, to make pictures, not money, because somehow that might help more. Or will it just help me to stop feeling guilty?
Thanks for all the memories... all right, let's see your arms... you always were a headache and you always were a bore. Thanks for the last and greatest betrayal of the last and greatest of human dreams.

-Excerpts from William S. Burroughs, Thanksgiving Day, November 28, 1986. Watch Gus Van Sant's short film here.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Dead Air

Dropped News Mic, Pirate's Alley, New Orleans

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Little Boy In FEMA Line

I was making portraits of people who had been waiting in a FEMA line for hours in the blazing sun in Waveland, Ms, when I felt this little tug on my shirt.

"Hey mister, will you take my picture?"

Monday, November 21, 2005

A Call To Arms

New Orleans: Proud To Swim Home

A Times-Picayune Editorial:
"The federal government wrapped levees around greater New Orleans so that the rest of the country could share in our bounty.

Americans wanted the oil and gas that flow freely off our shores. They longed for the oysters and shrimp and flaky Gulf fish that live in abundance in our waters. They wanted to ship corn and soybeans and beets down the Mississippi and through our ports. They wanted coffee and steel to flow north through the mouth of the river and into the heartland.

They wanted more than that, though. They wanted to share in our spirit. They wanted to sample the joyous beauty of our jazz and our food. And we were happy to oblige them...

So the federal government built levees and convinced us that we were safe.

We weren't.

The levees, we were told, could stand up to a Category 3 hurricane.

They couldn't.

By the time Katrina surged into New Orleans, it had weakened to Category 3. Yet our levee system wasn't as strong as the Army Corps of Engineers said it was. Barely anchored in mushy soil, the floodwalls gave way.

Our homes and businesses were swamped. Hundreds of our neighbors died.

Now, this metro area is drying off and digging out. Life is going forward. Our heart is beating.

But we need the federal government -- we need our Congress -- to fulfill the promises made to us in the past. We need to be safe. We need to be able to go about our business feeding and fueling the rest of the nation. We need better protection next hurricane season than we had this year. Going forward, we need protection from the fiercest storms, the Category 5 storms that are out there waiting to strike.

Some voices in Washington are arguing against us. We were foolish, they say. We settled in a place that is lower than the sea. We should have expected to drown.

As if choosing to live in one of the nation's great cities amounted to a death wish. As if living in San Francisco or Miami or Boston is any more logical.

Great cities are made by their place and their people, their beauty and their risk. Water flows around and through most of them. And one of the greatest bodies of water in the land flows through this one: the Mississippi.

The federal government decided long ago to try to tame the river and the swampy land spreading out from it. The country needed this waterlogged land of ours to prosper, so that the nation could prosper even more.

Some people in Washington don't seem to remember that. They act as if we are a burden. They act as if we wore our skirts too short and invited trouble.

We can't put up with that. We have to stand up for ourselves. Whether you are back at home or still in exile waiting to return, let Congress know that this metro area must be made safe from future storms. Call and write the leaders who are deciding our fate. Get your family and friends in other states to do the same. Start with members of the Environment and Public Works and Appropriations committees in the Senate, and Transportation and Appropriations in the House. Flood them with mail the way we were flooded by Katrina.

Remind them that this is a singular American city and that this nation still needs what we can give it."

Contact key congresscritters here.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Evil Genius Interview

Truck washed into the bayou behind the roadside park, off Old Highway 90, Slidell, La

I was interviewed a few days ago by Dave Slusher at Evil Genius Chronicles, about Operation Eden, how it began, how I've worked, and how hurricane Katrina has changed me. I haven't listened to it myself, for fear that I will cringe myself into a perfect ball, but if you'd be interested in listening to the whole thing, you can find it here.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

McKain Street

This is where it all starts. My grandmother's shotgun shack on McKain Street in New Orleans. The reason I had come back into the city, snuck past checkpoints and debris and flooded streets and orange X's marking dead or alive. The touchstone. The knot that ties my family history together. The dark age and the golden age. My roots. This little unmarked dead-end shell gravel street.

It's in a no-man's land in New Orleans, which is a testament to its desperation. Not quite the Ninth Ward. Not quite Gentilly, it's a forgotten industrial nook between two canals, served by no one, cared for by no one. And it's been that way for at least fifty years, since they decided to build I-10 right over it. My mom and my Aunt Susan were little girls then, playing at the back of the house, when the I-10 "high-rise" was going up, blocking the sun at the end of McKain Street forever. They heard the scream and thud, when a worker fell off the bridge to his death in a bloody puddle, just a few feet from where I stood to make this picture, right in front of Old Ma's house. My mom watched him breathe his last.

It's about twelve feet wide, and thirty feet long, Old Ma's shack. It's now just a frail shell of what I remember, and what I remember is from a time when it was just a shell of what my mom remembered. Nine people lived in four rooms in this tiny shack, their laughter and cries and lives and deaths never being heard by the thousands of cars literally driving over them every day. One by one my family trickled out of the shack, moved out, or died, or went to prison, until only Old Ma was left, an ancient little Cajun woman, who had never taught her children her language, except for the occasional "Embrasse mon tcheue!"

Mae Langston, maiden name Dugas. The shack smelled of old linoleum and window fans stirring the humid air. McKain Street outside smelled of spilled motor oil from the junkyard across the street my family had owned in better times. We would dig in the white shell gravel out front and occasionally find ancient sparkplugs for our troubles. It smelled of chicory and baking white bread from nearby food factories. There was always the hum and clanking of cars overhead, the far off deep horns of tugboats on the canals, and the crackly radio playing old Motown and gospel.

Every wall had an old enamel or wood painting of Jesus or Mary, and palms over each door. When we would visit Old Ma would give us pecan candy she had made, and gifts of old doubloons or beads from the Mardi Gras passed before we were born. She smelled of fresh laundry and soap, had a Cajun accent made thicker by her lack of teeth, and one of the friendliest faces I've ever seen. I still miss her hugs. In her early nineties she grew too frail to live alone anymore, and my mom and her sisters moved her out of the city, to live with them across the lake in Slidell. Which is where she died, leaving McKain Street abandoned and deteriorating, taken back by nature and crackhead squatters. The last time my mom paid a visit, a few years ago, one of them walked up to her and gritted through his teeth, "Lady, I could kill you down here and nobody would ever know." And he was right.

I hadn't been back since I was a teenager. Half my life ago. But I felt the pull so strongly, the drive, the call, I risked life to get there, just to see it again. Why? I'm asking myself this. I don't know what's going to come of my hometown, my family's hometown, New Orleans. But I know that the ghettoes are going to be bulldozed. And I don't want to ever forget where I come from. It's how I know where I'm going. This little shack is what made my mom and her sisters who they are, and they're who made me who I am. I take pictures to remember, and to feel, and I needed to always remember Mckain Steet, and to feel it, no matter where I go.

I needed to capture what's left of its soul, because it went into making my soul what it is.

So I walked down this little unmarked dead end, everything smaller than I remember, even the high-rise overpass, now calmly silent in this abandoned, sunken city. And all the stories whispered back in my ear with each step I took closer to Old Ma's shack. The loves, and the beatings, and the laughter, and the drunkenness, and the passion, it all flooded back to me, in the crunch of the shells under my feet. And then the little shack emerged from the weeds and vines, twisted by Katrina, door swollen shut by black floodwater, and with sudden tears blurring my vision I made this photograph. McKain Street.

Update: I was told by mom after I posted this, that it happened to be my grandfather, Old Paw's, birthday. I had no idea that I was writing about his home, his life and family and wife, Old Ma, on the day of his birth. My mom wrote:
James Samuel Langston, Sr. was born on this day in the year 1909 - Happy birthday Old Paw - We miss you and love you and carry your blood thru all of our veins.

Supernatural powers that you would be inspired and so moved to document McKain Street on exactly his day of birth! God is so good! I needed that sooo much - that is a positive confirmation from our Lord that He is using you in a powerful way to impact other lives and your own as well. Regardless of what you and the scientists may think.

I know daddy and mamma and aunt Maude and all our blood are on the other side laughing and having fun seeing McKain Street on the internet! I bet there is a whole lot of Cajun being spoken there right now.

I Love You,

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Mack Truck, Lower Ninth Ward

A Mack truck rests on its side in someone's yard in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, on its back lays someone's sofa. Twenty days after this photograph was taken a reporter toured the area by bus, and wrote this:

"I'll admit it. I wasn't prepared for what I saw. And I can only begin to understand what it was like for the people who lived there.

On Thursday, I rode along with residents from the devastated Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans as they toured the area by bus.

For some, it was the first chance to see their homes, their neighbors and their belongings. But they weren't allowed to get off the bus. This angered some; others knew there was simply nothing to salvage.

Officials said this restriction was because the houses aren't structurally sound, and because bodies are still being recovered. We did see at least one K-9 cadaver team during the tour.

Home after home was destroyed by the flooding after the breach in the levee beside the Industrial Canal. Block after block is nearly unrecognizable as a place where people once went about their daily lives.

Even the residents on the bus described it as looking like a movie set." Read More...

Sunday, November 13, 2005

The Report Card

Misfit on the beach in North Carolina

My mom proudly announced in an email that my little brother has gotten his first report card from his new school In North Carolina, and its all A's and B's, plus he's reading at the high-school level. We had been so worried about all the time he had been out of school, and all the turmoil, stress, and survival. But he's landed in a good place, with new people that care about his progress, and it shows.

If he had remained in the Gulf, would he be attending school in one of these trailer classrooms FEMA cronies have set up? How much of a penalty would he face then? If his fate had stayed consistent with our family history, my mom and him would be living in a tent on Eden, perhaps just now getting a FEMA trailer. I wonder what his grades would be like then? I wonder what hope his future would hold then?

No-Bid Contract to Replace Schools After Katrina Is Faulted
To the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the modular classrooms lined up next to the soon-to-be demolished former school show, as the billboard out front boasts, "Katrina Recovery in Progress."

But to critics, the 450 portable classrooms being installed across Mississippi are prime examples in their case against FEMA and its federal partner, the Army Corps of Engineers, for wasteful spending and favoritism in the $62 billion hurricane relief effort.

Provided by a politically connected Alaskan-owned business under a $40 million no-bid contract, the classrooms cost FEMA nearly $90,000 each, including transportation, according to contracting documents. That is double the wholesale price and nearly 60 percent higher than the price offered by two small Mississippi businesses dropped from the deal.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Po-Boy Shop

New Orleans Style Po-Boys, Wrecked

Thursday, November 10, 2005

A Call From FEMA

FEMA Claim Number On Wrecked Home, Pearlington, MS.

"This is an automated message from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, please stay on the line to listen to this important announcement. This call is to confirm that FEMA has reviewed your application, and determined that your damaged property resides within one of the hardest hit areas. As a result, an inspection of your property will not be necessary. You should expect to receive a letter in the mail which will provide your application status within the next few weeks. If your phone number or mailing address changes please be sure to immediately update your information online at or by calling us at 800-621-FEMA. Thank you for listening, this has been an automated courtesy response from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Goodbye."

The rumor is that FEMA is so overwhelmed with the number of claims that they have given up on inspections altogether, and are now resorting to satellite photos to determine aid distribution. The eyes in the sky. Manna from heaven.

On the plus side for FEMA, they don't have to actually meet any of the homeless survivors that now view them as fondly as moonshiners view revenuers.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Death Needs Time

Photographed as it rested in the dry mud next to Fats Domino's abandoned house, the one he was rescued from, in the devastated Ninth Ward of New Orleans: a clock.

And I stood there, the toxic dirt blowing in my face, all alone in this vast dead zone, staring through my camera at this clock, and I thought of this:

"Wait, wait. Time, a landing field. Death needs time like a junkie needs junk."

"And what does Death need time for?"

"The answer is so simple. Death needs time for what it kills to grow in..."
-William S. Burroughs

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The Day Before Katrina

We had gotten to Seaside Heights the night before, to chill out and fuck off. My mom called me that morning, at dawn, to tell me she was evacuating. When her voice broke I knew it was bad. But what could we do that day? I took pictures of my friends relaxing, having fun, but my mind was already in the Gulf. These pictures are strange to me. Like somebody else took them. Sleepwalking. Like the memory of the fun didn't have enough time to set before Katrina blew it away.

Or maybe it's the guilt? That I was lounging at the beach, a million miles away, while my family and past was being decimated. I played while my roots were torn up. But, what could I have done? We were lucky that I had moved away. I was the remote backup for my family. I only hope I'm strong enough to help them restore.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Katrina Survivor

John Marshall, 56, Pearlington, Mississippi. Husband of Orealia, he rode out the storm where he worked, at NASA's Stennis Space Center, which Pearlington is nestled next to. Many people fear that NASA may now buy out Pearlington to increase it's buffer zone around Stennis.

I think more people hope for it than fear it.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Day of the Dead In Brooklyn

Beautiful children, marching around my neighborhood in Brooklyn, under a pale sky, beating drums, faces painted in black and white like skulls with baby fat, and a banner taking me home again. They followed carrying umbrellas, like the second line in a New Orleans jazz funeral, and I felt sadness, pride, and hope in this show of respect from another world.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Questions On God and Government

Grace Church With Broken Steeple, Slidell La

Evangelicals. People of Faith. Believers. They're everywhere down South, in Katrina's wake, the Christians. Baptists. Methodists. Presbyterians. Lutherans. Catholics. And more. Helping to clear yards, clean houses. Helping to feed people, shower them, clothe them, often with a beatific smile on their face while doing it. For every dark cloud there's a halo to be earned.

They come down in great convoys, and spill out of extended white Econovans, wearing matching bright t-shirts with hopeful slogans, and crisp tan Dockers, and new work boots. These new arrivals meet up with their local brothers and sisters, muddied and sweaty, already on the ground with a battle plan and a staging ground, and they all set forth like worker ants to fix the world one little bit at a time. It's very impressive, this show of giving, and solidarity, and it makes me feel a little safer that my people are in good hands....

I keep my eyes out for the governmental activity. The secular corollary. I see National Guard troops clearing roads with massive green machinery. I also see them efficiently handing out MREs, ice, water. These are very good things to see. But what I'm really looking, hoping for, is evidence of more personal effort. I want to see my government asking "How can I help you?" and "What do you need?" the way I saw the religious groups doing it.

But no. I mainly see the runaround. I see long lines and little help. I see their frustration with our frustration. I see a huge pile of our forced tax tithes being squandered. Not coldly, or calculatingly. Worse. Unthinkingly. Like a rich kid with a big allowance and no worries, clocking an easy part-time job just to look industrious.

Now, I'm an atheist. Free thinker. By our nature we tend to be individualists. We don't get together every week in a specially-built house and recite quotes from Darwin in unison. We don't sing songs together. We don't go in for matching uniforms. When we help people we don't ask them if they'd considered joining us in not believing in a higher power. In short, by our very nature, we don't have a strong collective voice, or muscle. We don't have the force and organization of the religious.

The closest we have to this is our government, and perhaps this is why it so pissed me off to see how ineffective it has become in recent years. Now, I don't want the religious to be less effective, less organized, I just want my government to be more effective, more organized. I want to know that when the shit hits the fan anywhere in the country, there are people working for us and with us, people who know what to do, who can coordinate relief. People who care, and have the tools to get the job done. But, no, we get incompetence and squabbling while the storm rages. Power struggles and finger pointing.

I see how effective the religious have been, and I see how useless the government's been. And this leaves me with a strange frustration, a feeling I'm torn in two, and nagging questions about the way this all mixes up, God and government. When I look at the bigger picture, I see that in the past few years it's been the religious that have largely taken control of the government, and I have to ask myself, is there some thread that helps connect these dots? Ascendant religion and diminished government. A turf battle. Do the religious feel that an effective secular government is a threat to them?

How can I reconcile my love for these people, my thanks at their massive personal efforts to help the survivors, with my nagging feeling that they are at least partially responsible for how badly hobbled government has become, and how that only served to exacerbate the disaster in the first place?

How can I resolve the idea that they are both helping greatly, and harming greatly? Is it possible for them to have a case of collective societal Munchausen's Syndrome?

No, I don't think it's that devious. I'm not saying they all intend to dismantle government, to neuter it, although a great number do, and not all of them religious. And I'm not saying any of them mean real harm in so doing. Far from it. I believe they are good, decent, loving people. But what I have to ask is, is it possible that, just as the atheists seem naturally incapable of collective private relief and action, is it possible that the religious have such a distaste for government, philosophically, that they can't help but render it ineffective when they control it? And that this ineffectiveness makes us all less safe in a thousand ways?

These are some of the questions I've been working on in the wake of Katrina. They're a tangled knot. A seemingly hopeless lot. But the answer feels important.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Small Big Moments

The first time I taught my little brother how to tie a tie was in the parking lot of a church shelter, reflected in the window of a parked car, with a tie he'd found in the piles of donated clothing littered about the lot.