Although Bloomington was a college town, Indiana remained a typically American bastion of complacent parochialism, of brutal commercialism, indeed of anti-intellectualism and jingoism...I hasten to add that on the whole my high school years in Indiana were not unpleasant, thanks to the native friendliness of most Midwesterners...It's just that many, many things lay beyond the pale in Indiana. The bigotry and the hypocrisy were far less unnerving to me than the proud and cheerful ignorance - an all-American trait which continues to appall me to this day. Our government's military adventurism and capricious acts of repression around the world, our own disproportionate responsibility as American consumers for the degradation of the global environment, the murderous corruption of our "war on drugs", the ongoing domestic war against freedom of speech, and all the other rather unremarkable failings of a given nation at a given time - well, not many Americans waste much thought on them. I did not have all the experience to comprehend all this twenty years ago. But I knew that I was missing something. There had to be more than this.*Let me begin by saying this:
Go now and purchase Ethan Brown's Shake The Devil Off.
If you have a hard time with the subject matter - and if you've been living in this city for any length of time in the past four years, you most likely will - skim through it if you can, read it in small doses if you feel you can take that, and send it to anyone who asks you how New Orleans is.
What is needed now does not only consist of the visual record of what was done to this city as a result of the levee breaches, it must also consist of constantly letting the rest of our country know that the decisions that were and are still being made at the highest levels of our government are affecting all of us who are Americans. Willful, blissful ignorance of those problems will not cut it anymore.
Yes, there is the exploration within the book of a horrible crime: the murder and dismemberment of Addie Hall and the subsequent suicide of her boyfriend and killer, Zackery Bowen. But the context of it all is important, the context being that the ongoing failure of our government and our military institutions to fully own up to and treat the many cases of post-traumatic stress disorder that are coming up in our latest crop of war veterans and the chaos of life in post-8-29-05 New Orleans shortly after residents began returning to the ruined city culminated in a perfect, internal storm for Bowen, a veteran of tours in Kosovo and Iraq. His anguish and his feelings of having nowhere else left to turn (evidenced by, among many other things, the message of "Please Help Me Stop The Pain" emblazoned on a wall of the apartment where the murder occurred) led to Hall's and his deaths.
What makes this book required reading for everybody out there, however, is this:
At every level, we're a "you're on your own" society. It is one of the perversities of the "you're on your own" style of governance that it applies largely to those who most need and most deserve the government to work for them: people such as Iraq vets and Katrina survivors. That the apocalyptic fall of Gustav and Ike climaxed with a financial collapse in which the Treasury Department initially proposed a $700 billion bailout to purchase troubled, mortgage-related "toxic assets" demonstrated just how topsy-turvy the country's priorities have become (economist Nouriel Roubini rightly described the bailout as socialism for the rich and well connected). I became fascinated with Zack's story - and New Orleans itself - in part because I believe that Katrina was about much more than the end to any national pretense of an engaged or effective Bush presidency (the president's approval ratings never recovered after the levees broke in 2005) or even the fall of a great American city. I believe that the "wrecking crew" (to borrow Thomas Frank's great phrase) of incompetents running critical government agencies like FEMA; the passage of unpopular legislation in the wake of national shocks (such as the Patriot Act after 9-11, or President Bush's post-Katrina suspension of the Davis-Bacon act, which sets a minimum pay scale for workers on federal contracts by requiring contractors to pay the prevailing or average pay in the region); and the "you're on your own" style of governance represented by Katrina's aftermath was not exclusive to New Orleans - it could be seen across the nation.**The fourth anniversary of 8-29-05 is coming up.
Mr. Obama and everyone in the federal government now has a required reading assignment from me, as do the Louisiana state governments and this city's officials.
Otherwise, we must wash our hands of them all and send the message to them that they are all on their own.
Update, 9-1: The Gambit's Blog of New Orleans has just posted parts 1 and 2 of an in-depth interview with Ethan Brown, whose book was excerpted in this week's Gambit. Go read.
*William T. Vollmann, "Afterword to Danilo Kis's A Tomb For Boris Davidovich", from Expelled From Eden
**Ethan Brown, Shake The Devil Off