28 September 2005

No Direction Home: At last

I reserved the Television and the Comfy Chair at my house for the two part screening of No Direction Home, the Martin Scorsese film documenting the early years of the life and career of Bob Dylan. The film ends in 1966, and Dylan had turned twenty five years old. In 1966, I turned nineteen.

I loved Scorsese’s treatment of Dylan. It was not an exercise in hero worship, but a situating of Dylan in the world and of Dylan’s work in his life. It gave some insight into Dylan’s psyche and his processes. I learned something last evening.

Most of all, I loved sitting in the comfy chair sharing the evenings with my two children who have always had Bob Dylan as part of their life’s sound track, and sharing my memories, my passions, and my allegiances with people all over North America who were also sitting and watching No Direction Home. It was for me truly a homecoming evening.

20 September 2005

Aristotle and Katrina: An Indictment

I am disturbed these days by reports from the newscasters and government officials as they talk in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s fury about the devastation experienced along the Gulf Coast, and especially about the destruction of the City of New Orleans,. Almost everyone to whom I have listened seems to say that the destruction of the City of New Orleans was the direct result of the Hurricane. But I most humbly beg to differ. It seems to me that as I recall the sequence of events, Hurricane Katrina was first, downgraded to a Category 4 hurricane—still a severe storm—and then veered off from a direct hit on New Orleans. I think I recall everyone breathing sighs of relief.

And then the levees broke and the water flooded in to the City.

It was the crash of the levees that led to the complete destruction of New
And that the levees did not hold may be attributed to the Bush Administration’s failure to reinforce them despite warnings that the levees would not withstand the fury of a serious natural force such as a hurricane. Not that the levees could not ever withstand such an assault, but that in their present condition they were seriously compromised and could not be relied upon to bear up under the force of a severe hurricane. The horror we viewed on the television resulted not from Hurricane Katrina, but from the Administration’s failure to secure the homeland in the event of a serious calamitous event. The horrors we viewed in the television resulted not from Hurricane Katrina but from the complete lack of preparedness of the Bush Administration to the occurrence of a national emergency. This remarkable failure despite his vaulted claim after the terrorist attacks in 2001 that his administration would make the United States secure. The horror we viewed on the television resulted not from Hurricane Katrina, but from the Bush administration’s callousness to human suffering. At the moment when Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, Bush had invested our resources and his interest in another arena altogether—Iraq. Bush had invested our resources in an ill-advised, stupid and dangerous foray. As New Orleans flooded, the President’s priorities were focused somewhere else—and has as at least part of their aim to reward the wealthy for being rich. If Bush had boasted earlier that his reputation rested in the claim that his administration had made us after September 11th safer from disaster, be it caused by terrorists or nature, then the crash of the levees put the lie to Bush’s arrogance. Unless you are super Wealthy and super-White, you are horribly at-risk in the United States.

According to Aristotle, there are four causes, or ways things come into existence. I would apply Aristotle’s definitions to the destruction of New Orleans.

THE MATERIAL CAUSE REPRESENTS THE MATERIALS OUT OF WHICH A THING IS MADE. The destruction of New Orleans was caused materially by the flood waters which inundated the city when the levees broke. The known weakness in the levees remained unaddressed by the Bush administration. Hurricane Katrina was not the material cause of the destruction of New Orleans.

THE FORMAL CAUSE IS THE FORM INTO WHICH THE MATERIALS ARE CAST; THE FORMAL CAUSE IS THE FORM OF THE OBJECT DISTINGUISHING IT FROM ALL OTHERS. The formal cause of the destruction of New Orleans was the waters which overran the city when the weak levees gave way. The levees were known to be weak and vulnerable, but the Bush administration chose to ignore the forms of the levees in their foolish pursuit of other personal priorities. The formal cause of the destruction of New Orleans was not Hurricane Katrina, but the flawed levees and the uncontainable waters. Similarly, the abandonment by the government of the people in New Orleans most vulnerable in this catastrophe was caused by the absence by the Bush Administration (who tragically had to shorten their month long vacations!) of any meaningful formal response to the extremely dangerous conditions the people endured when the weak levees gave way and the city flooded. There were in this instance no materials cast into form. The formal cause of the people’s misery was not Hurricane Katrina, but the failure of the Bush Administration to function as a compassionate, caring and competent government; the formal cause was the denial of form and the acceptance of formlessness to govern.

THE EFFICIENT CAUSE IS THE PROCESS BY WHICH MATERIALS ARE MADE INTO SOMETHING. If we are referring here to the flooding of New Orleans, then the efficient cause of the destruction of New Orleans was the storm conditions and high volume of water which were Hurricane Katrina. The efficient cause need not have been the material cause if George W. Bush had taken care of what all knew was a serious flaw in the strength of the levees protecting the city. Had the levees been cared for, the waters would not have turned into flood. The waters broke through the defective levees whose purpose was to protect the city from deluge. Hurricane Katrina certainly contributed its share of water to the swollen Lakes and Gulf, but it was the crumbling levees that let the waters into the City of New Orleans. In another sense, the efficient cause of the tragedy of the people of New Orleans is the process by which nothing was done to relieve the endangered populace, the process by which no materials were used to form anything.

THE FINAL CAUSE IS THE PURPOSE FOR WHICH SOMETHING IS BROUGHT INTO EXISTENCE. Nature has no purpose; nature is its own purpose. Hurricanes exist, as do other natural phenomenon, be they treacherous or benign. But the levees were constructed to protect the city from the waters which surround it and the natural disruptions which are part of the natural order . They were planned and executed with only this cause in mind. When the levees broke apart, the city of New Orleans became inundated with water. The cause of that flooding was not the Hurricane Katrina; the breaking of the levees was the final cause—and those weakened and unrepaired levees were brought into existence to finance an illegal and immoral war, to re-direct resources to those least in need of them from those most in need. The final cause of the horrors which befell the people of New Orleans, and especially those in the city who were most vulnerable and with the least power and resources to save themselves, was the willful blindness, insensitivity and selfishness of our present executive branch of the government.

08 September 2005

Another Day of Prayer?

Another day of prayer! Now, there's a cogent, courageous and responsible approach to catastrophe which the population of New Orleans is now experiencing. Another day of prayer! Well that will be a relief to those now homeless, foodless, water-logged and water-less. There's a bone thrown to those whose lives were swept away in the flood waters which some careful forethought and government planning might have prevented. There's a distraction from the obvious incompetence and ignorance displayed by our present government leaders (hah!) who were forced to prematurely end their vacations for jobs they'd only incompetently handled.

What good are your fasts and your days of prayer? the prophet Isaiah asks. It's a rhetorical question. Isaiah knows that it is only in the form of reformed behavior that repentance is acceptable. Forgiveness comes only when we care for the orphan, the widow and the stranger.

I saw a picture of Dick Cheney walking with the Mayor of a city in Mississippi which had suffered from Katrina. Both men were white, and behind them was a house not just standing, but standing for the elite White aristocracy. Neither man was sweating, and they both wore clean clothes and walked with full bellies.

Another day of prayer? Hah!

07 September 2005

Justice, Justice, You Shall Pursue

This week’s Torah portion begins, “Justice, justice you shall pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land.” And this week John Roberts was nominated to succeed Justice Rehnquist as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. And this week the people of New Orleans find themselves in exile, in a diasporic state that Jews understand all too well. Jewish textual exegesis relies on metonomy—meaning derives from the contiguity of elements, from the proximities of physical placement in the text. Elements have meaning not in themselves but in relationship with what comes immediately before and after.

And so it seems to me that this particular confluence of events at this particular historical moment resonates with meaning. “Justice, justice, you shall pursue” the Torah reads, and here we are pursuing justices who are charged with upholding the law. But the reality of racial, ethic and class injustice in these United States is so blatantly obvious in the wake of the devastation wrought by the failure of the levees in New Orleans and the absolute destruction of the city by flood, that the pursuit of the Supreme Court Justice is irrevocably tainted by the failure of social justice so evident in American Society. I have little hope and even less faith.

Our feared leader took no steps to alleviate the suffering; made no effort to offer to the suffering any relief until he had no choice but to act: the world expressed its own sense of outrage and demanded action. It provided help not forthcoming from the Republican elite. Even the United Nations offered relief to New Orleans before the government aid began arriving. I’ve been wondering whether Bush did not go immediately to New Orleans because he is afraid of the water or contemptuous of the people? Probably both, I suspect. This president will move back to his farm in Crawford, Texas, wealthy from the spike in gasoline prices, and live his life in ease. And what justice is there?

This blog is a screed. I don’t care. I’m just too angry at the complete lack of justice. “Justice, Justice, you shall pursue.” My daughter is at a school meeting called “Peace and Justice.” I suspect these are two words outside the understanding of the George Bush, Dick Cheney, and the rest of the hooligans. They wouldn’t be caught dead at such a gathering. They leave the death to others.