I woke up this morning, urinated into a clean toilet, washed my hands and face, brushed my teeth, looked in the mirror and felt a powerful surge of disconnect as the TV droned in the bedroom reporting story after story of the New Orleans nightmare.
Then I took as slow walk around my house, taking mental inventory of my possessions, sucking them into my psychic memory, savoring the pleasure of ownership while simultaneously acknowledging its meaninglessness.
As I continued my rote morning routine in the comfort of my air conditioned house, contemplating the activities to follow: —pick up the newspapers from my driveway— glance at them, eat breakfast, check and respond to my email, go to the supermarket, follow the preplan for the day—I became very aware of every free movement I made, and tried to imagine myself inside of the New Orleans convention center – tried to imagine being homeless, bereft of all the palpable baggage of life, stranded, hungry, dirty, inhaling the putrid air, perhaps even sick, and separated from loved ones, without any means of communication—powerless—powerless. And I simply could not fuse that hellish reality with anything in my imagination, despite the pictures, the stories, the words. I know I’d have to be there to fully comprehend.. I can see it in the faces, and hear it in the faltering voices of reporters who try, but simply cannot make the words live what they are experiencing.
I once went to a Singing Telegram Owners Convention at that convention center. Talk about disconnect. And I sat on the dirty floor of Preservation Hall enthralled by old men jiving.. Talk about disconnect. And who, visiting that city, is not brought to the cemetery as a tourist attraction? Perhaps not so much of a disconnect now, as coffins float in the streets.
I want to place blame. Everyone seems to want to do that. I want to blame—what I felt from early in the Iraq invasion—a grossly incompetent federal administration. I want to believe that this entire debacle could have been avoided had there been a great leader in our midst—had there not been budget cutbacks, had all the warnings and predictions of exactly such a catastrophe been heeded, had there not been a strain on our domestic defense personnel., had our homeland security plans been in perfect placement, had those who did not evacuate mostly for reasons of health or finances—been given the aid they required. And I don't want to believe my eyes—that those most brutally affected were poor, powerless black people, the majority of whom merely succumbed to their powerlessness.
What we haven't had in this country in a long time is a great leader. I am in the process of reading "Good to Great" by Jim Collins, who describes the difference between merely good companies and what he had labeled "great" companies, according to a whole set of criteria, including of course, competitive bottom line long term results. Leaders of the great companies have been self effacing, humble, non charismatic, insistent on the acceptance of reality, negative as it might be, and demanding of truth from his closest associates. They relied on the synthesis of strong debate, free expression of divergent positions on issues and the eventual consensus based on combinations of dissent.
I am hoping for a seismic political shift as this nightmare plays out. We can no longer afford mediocrity in government – a kind of easy way out as long as the unthinkable doesn't occur, a refusal to acknowledge what is unsettling and uncomfortable and real. If the "haves" aren't willing to give something up, the "have nots" will find ways to make it happen.
I will go back to my clean bathroom routine tomorrow morning, wondering when there will be a "chicken in every pot"—and clean bathrooms for all.
Last updated: 09/19/05