Friday, March 23, 2007

beware of greeks bearing gifts

One of the insidious things going on in Louisiana that I did not know about was the attempt to purchase land from the people who own property in the areas affected by the aftermath of Katrina. I have read blogs and seen video of people even worse off who apparently have had their homes condemned by FEMA and then seized as the living conditions are unacceptable. In only that way is anyone in charge of reconstruction willing to admit that current conditions merit attention.

For anyone to whom an offer has been made, I must warn as loudly as possible that you stop and find any First Nations person/American Indian anywhere and ask them what kind of deal you're going to get when a rich white guy offers to buy your property at your darkest hour. We exist at a moment in time right now when black people in awesome numbers, poor and underprivileged people are at an age and in a position to leave something to the next generation. You'll hear lots of stories from wealthy suitcoats about how much they love to hear about someone who started from nothing and made something of herself. What frightens them is hundreds of thousands of people in every niche of the North American caste who started with something and due to that had fewer odds to overcome.

I have been wondering about this type of thing for a while. I remember asking a few years ago about the First Nations history here in Canada. I had a reasonably good education from K to the end of high-school, the same education anyone else would get here more or less. I learned about the Plains of Abraham and Louis Riel. I learned about the Metis and the different tribes who aided and traded with the English and the French. What I didn't learn was their history. I know people got here and I know most of the tribes were wiped out in various ways. I know many remain, but as their tradition is mostly oral, I have no idea what was going on here before any white person got here. And since the Europeans wrote the history books, the subject isn't available until you get to the university level.

I pose the same question about Africa. We know and are taught over and over about our own history, we are shown in some part the history of slavery. We learn about slaves and about the history of the end of slavery. We are told that slavery is over and that it doesn't happen anymore here. (more on this later, pimps are slave traders.) We are not told about the mentality of slavery. We do not learn about how to deal mentally and emotionally with people being taught for centuries that they are slaves and people being taught for centuries that black people are slaves. In Canada it is slightly better, but we learned that freed slaves were those who wished to escape, those who needed to be granted freedom by displacement. These lessons have lasting effects. I never got taught what happened in Africa after the slaves were taken. I learned about the many years of the trade happening, and the economics of it I learned quite well, but I have no idea what happened later. This type of displacement has the same effect as genocide. Without the living history of a people, reminders are lost. Instructions are lost, advice and history is completely lost. A level of trauma that high will turn a country against itself. Good news for anyone who wants to stay in charge for a while, but the long-term effects of trauma on that level are almost always civil war. This is a country's, a city's, a society's version of self-harm.

There is acceptance too in this, of ridiculous treatment. One of the most popular commodities in Africa right now is skin bleach. HIV is rampant, a genocide is being committed in Darfur, Lake Chad is gone and the people living in these deplorable conditions are strongly encouraged to get white as quickly as possible. This is an export of insanity. Our culture is rapidly homogenizing Asia and Europe, but they are wealthier areas, able to support a cultural assimilation in stages and with less personal damage. These too are areas that include long histories, living ancestors, reminders and teaching of how to live. These cultures have the wherewithall to slowly include different ideas about beauty, food and lifestyle safely.

Many complain about American Imperialism, myself most definitely included. But the imperialism that allows so many people to ignore a tragedy at once is much larger and more insidious than america's version. The country (as we currently know it) is too young to have rooted the history of it's lifestyle. It's still forming itself and the memory is not yet long enough to give reasonable perspective. The kidnapping and subsequent sale of an entire civilization happened so recently that black people still have to fight not to be seen as slaves in this day and age. Within the mentality of ownership comes the implicit comprehension that the person owned cannot help herself. This can produce charity, but almost always it produces exploitation. When an entire race, an entire city and certainly an entire state is seen to be owned somehow, to be beneath others, naturally it is going to be used and discarded more easily, it's citizen's cries for help more easily ignored.

We are doing nothing about reconstructing the Gulf States. We are dancing around the word genocide in Darfur because no-one wants to get involved and calling it what it is will force our hand. We are not solving the AIDS crisis as we so quickly could, we are rewarding agribusinesses like Starbucks not just to purchase at shameful prices the products of Ethiopia, but in fact to patent the ancient words from languages centuries old in order to prevent them from doing it themselves and bringing some healing to their own people. My issue is sovereignty and this is a personal sovereignty that is being infringed upon. There is a limit of acceptance to how much we give away and when too much is taken from us, what is left often is complex rage and simple despair.

How do so many people at once fail to come to the rescue of desperate citizens? The first step would be in admitting that so many people have been educated to think of blacks and southerners as poor and underprivileged and therefore ignorable or in need of charity. How can major news media who so consistently held accountable those who were supposed to help turn to other things and not revisit the issue? It's not a story anymore. "They" were poor before and they're poorer now. It's no longer the aftermath of failure, it is becoming the norm. We are now starting to hear about New Orleans as though it no longer exists. As though it is something almost fictional from a history book.

I live in a place of strong cultural identity. The French people here were abandoned by France itself at the time this country was developing. The Francais here, the Acadians and the Metis had to come together and figure out what was going to happen. No-one was going back to Europe, and the English were colonizing all over the place. Immediately across the lake was a huge war of independence, so we were mostly on our own. In more modern history, this province was so rapidly becoming English that we passed a bill to ensure that our street signs, businesses and government used and lived our language. This was quite upsetting to many people at the time, but they got over it. It still upsets people, but we have two official languages in our country, our kids are taught two languages which directly affects their intelligence, we do not fear to raise cultural issues in Parliament because we recognize how important a sense of identity is to an entire people. There are moments like the two referendums we had, like the FLQ crisis, like the Oka crisis, like the recent shootings, where we felt like we were dangling. But there is a difference between dangling alone and dangling on the end of a long line. Even small stability is reassurance enough to come through to the other side whole. Louisiana knows a little about being abandoned by the French. And Quebec knows a little about the displacement of lost people, in our case, freed or escaped slaves who made it here.

I was shocked at the time that everything was happening, but in the immediate aftermath, I was also shocked at how few people bothered to do anything. When it came to a few months after the fact and most people still hadn't been given a trailer, the debris had not been cleared, bodies were still being found in houses, how did every black person in america not stop everything they were doing and hold the government hostage? How did mothers everywhere not see what conditions the kids were being left in or who had been separated from their parents and not bring the country to a standstill? I would have loved to see the people of New York shut down the stock exchange and refuse to finance any activity worldwide until proper steps had been taken. How does the governor of Louisiana not mobilize the caucuses of every Gulf state to close oil and gas refineries until such time as proper attention is paid to the citizens in need? How does the mayor of New Orleans not call the mayor of every other major city on the planet and insist that pressure is put on all governments to pay attention to this? It won't happen now unfortunately because there is a presidential election going on. This is a time for people to promise to do things, not to actually do them. More ooomph is gotten out of saying what will be done in 2008 rather than simply mobilizing now. I can't help but notice the democratic congress failed entirely to remember that something needed to be done like, yesterday. And the current white house is now in a position to simply run out the clock. If there is such a thing as a localized hurricane, I hope one hits the home of Jeb Bush and Trent Lott over and over and over again like in a snowglobe.

With despair comes acceptance and forgetfulness. We are beginning an amnesia about how we treat each other. There is a point at which the momentum is lost and the immediacy of a situation becomes day to day life. Any soldier in any war zone anywhere will tell you that it becomes day to day because it has to in order for the human mind to survive. Only looking back do you realize how little time was spent in the trenches, only a few months or years maybe, and it seems like eternity. We are condemning ourselves to just such a mindset again.

We are all in this together. This place may seem large, but it is our only home. We are all citizens and as such we must be able to expect a bare minimum of civility and cooperation from each other.

I won't forget, but I want to know what's happening. I want to know whether those people got their homes back and how they are doing now. I want to know if the levees have been rebuilt or even begun, I want some reassurance that the people who were displaced are being offered a way home, I want to know if as humans we are making any moves towards prevention of such a disaster in future.

I don't actually care where Angelina Jolie's new house is, but for her kids' sake, I hope it's very nice.


orangelina said...

This is one of your best pieces. It's brilliant. I feel like you've hit the nail squarely on it's head. History is repeating, like it always has. The fascinating thing is that more and more of the "haves" are being affected this time around. Fortunately for them, these "haves" are protected by their status. The ONLY FEMA trailers I saw in New Orleans were in Lakeshore, an upscale, predominantly white neighbourhood. I'm sure there were trailers elsewhere. I didn't see them in the Nineth Ward though. They weren't in the projects either. It's only a few months until the next hurricane season begins. It's only a matter of time until the next wave of our soldiers are sent to Afghanistan. It's only a matter of time until the FBI refuses to open the documents on Leonard Peltier's mistrial and subsequent illegal incarceration (again).
The truth is that we're all going to be next.

"Like the miner's canary, the Indian marks the shift from fresh air to poison gas in our political atmosphere; and our treatment of Indians, even more than our treatment of other minorities, reflects the rise and fall in our democratic faith."
-Felix S. Cohen, 1953

Freshwater Mermaid said...

well said!