The road to recovery across southeast Louisiana is going to be a long one, and on it are lessons for all working-class Americans.
Louisiana’s road to recovery is lined with mountains of rubble and debris, stacked and scattered through winding suburbs, downtown shopping districts, and water soaked business offices. People do their best to smile and make light conversation. They sit out on the street corners, in working groups of four to five people, atop tossed out mattresses, ruined recliners, and downed tailgates to have a beer (or two…) before going back in for more demolition work.
Everyone, at this point, knows how to measure and cut sheetrock at four feet, cut and pull out insulation, and remove all kinds of assorted flooring. Crowbar expertise and ownership of a skill saw make a person exponentially more popular than ever before. Neighbors compare, compete, and comment on the size of one another’s front yard wreckage pile. Blow insulation is dreaded like a plague. So is trying to remove a kitchen cabinet with a lazy Susan in it, or pulling up all-wood flooring that, even after a flood, requires Herculean efforts to dislodge. People swap stories on their most recent brush with electrocution from a waterlogged car ignition or garbage disposal removal attempt. Everyone has lost so much, knows someone who has lost more, and everyone is trying to adapt to the new normal that is setting in.
Normal is now a workingman’s genuflection on the face of each person you meet. A quiet nod and two quick revs of a cordless drill are all you need to say hello to passersby and neighbors. Normal is now kids dashing up and down the streets in comic book hero tee shirts letting people know their parents have food cooked for anyone who might be hungry. Normal is a Red Cross truck driving by every few hours blaring a bullhorn offering of medical supplies and treatment for those who need it. There is nothing normal about it, except that everyone is sharing in the work and in the loss. The scale of the devastation is hard to conceptualize…the frustration is not.
National news agencies eventually apologized for an embarrassing lack of coverage of Louisiana’s historic flood, and proceeded to politicize the event in ways all too familiar…in ways not yet recognizing the gravity of Louisiana’s new normal. Politicians finally jumped onboard as well, hoping a few photo-ops and planned visits would be sufficient participation to pacify the outrage and return those of the working class to their customary role of silent laborers. All failing to understand the same trudged out lip service is insufficient when even the most industrious of people are at the ends of their ropes. The palpable disconnect between the governed and those governing is what has made the lack of media attention and the politicizing of tragedy seem so egregious, and it is a frustration that extends far beyond southeast Louisiana.
The legitimacy of any government is based on discourse between the population being governed and those in power. Citizens and those in power construct a shared reality through discussions with one another, and through those discussions citizens confer legitimacy. The damning mistake being made in our society is that legitimacy of rule is being taken for granted. Rather than leaders having conversations with citizens to create a shared reality and sense of purpose, there is an attempt to construct realities for citizens without even speaking to them. Both political parties use national media mouthpieces to push forward their visions and understanding of what the state of the nation is and should be…and both parties give bastardized versions that fly in the face of the day to day reality we all live and take part in.
Such an arrangement of assumed legitimacy can only stay in place if the citizens under such circumstances are able to fend for themselves, and do so comfortably. Working middle-class Americans can live with photo-op political responsiveness so long as the system is somewhat functional. Those flood victims in Louisiana without flood insurance can expect somewhere in the range of $10,000-$30,000 to replace their entire homes. Most will probably get around 10k, and to most that will not be remotely enough to meet their needs. Even those with flood insurance will not fare much better, as they receive pennies on the dollar for ruined furniture and appliances. Children will be without classrooms, and classes, for weeks, or months, depending on the area. People will have to continue their jobs, continue their lives, while living in storage units, houses under construction, or while living with family. They are living in a new normal, and they simply no longer have the patience to tolerate non-responsive government and a national news media that has become a party press system.
People, across the nation, are exhausted from helping themselves and helping one another; they are fearful of how they will make ends meet, afraid of what the economic outlook of the area is, afraid of how long it will be before the next record-breaking national disaster hits…and terrified that they can’t keep doing it alone. The anger and frustration over the political and national media response to this flood is not indicative of the people of southeast Louisiana. Rather, the anger and frustration of southeast Louisiana is representative of middle-class Americans who cannot continue to absorb blow after blow and maintain a government that ignores them…that cannot even relate to them. The lesson in all this is that we must have a more responsive, discursive, political system, and it has to be done…at least in part through the media. However, it is not just a media problem, we citizens have to demand more and not wait until disaster pushes us to our absolute limits to do so. We are all a part of this new normal, and we have to work together to make it better.
P.S. I promise that I will actually do an Olympic post with this blog next.