Incontinental Drift

Already the Captains and Kings have departed, along with their attendant media grandees. It was nice of them to stop by New Orleans for the anniversary and give everyone a look from what must seem a comfortable distance.
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Already the Captains and Kings have departed, along with their attendant media grandees. It was nice of them to stop by New Orleans for the anniversary and give everybody around the country, and the world, a look from what must seem a comfortable distance.

Just five years ago, water was cascading into the Lower Ninth Ward, into Lakeview, into Gentilly and Mid-City and Broadmoor and St.Bernard. It would take a day or two, but the entire world was about to see what was possible in America, circa 2005.

At first it looked as if New Orleans had been smacked by a hurricane, which, of course, it had. It would take a while longer for people to understand that the images that halted the coffee cup en route to the mouth, or that kept their eyes open and fixed on the news past bedtime, were the result not of a natural disaster, bad as the hurricane was, but of a catastrophic planning and engineering failure on the part of the Army Corps of Engineers. Many still don't realize it. Of course, many also think that Iraq planned the 9/11 attacks.

And then, this summer, BP. It became a mantra: "You poor guys down there.... First Katrina flooded your city, and now this...."

All this spillage. It was getting kind of... embarrassing. To be an American, I mean. We had had some dicey moments before Katrina, to be sure. The Savings and Loan scandal. Then Enron, then World Com. They proved relatively easy to contain and, importantly, they offered no searing visual images to disturb the sleep of the Republic. By the time Katrina hit, we had been hemorrhaging money, human blood and credibility in Iraq for two years, but we had a story to cover that: We had been attacked. The mainstream media mostly went along with that particular narrative, even though it had nothing to do with the war in question.

Katrina, however, was different. Katrina exposed something rotten at the root. The federally built levees were weak as a wino's teeth, and the governmental response to their failure was worse than inept. The federal government suddenly, glaringly, resembled a drunk who had all too publicly lost control of his, shall we say, faculties.

Three years later, in 2008, at least partly as a result of the previous losses of financial control, Wall Street and the housing market sheepishly said, "We've had a little accident...," and a massive dose of anti-diarrheals in the form of endless debt for future generations was required to keep the body politic from draining out completely.

Two years later, another manifestation of the Great Incontinence, an oil well that ruptured and could not stop, millions (Billions? Who's counting?) of gallons of oil billowing out into some of the most ecologically sensitive waters on the planet. The government stood by, wringing its hands, as BP lunged at a series of ill-considered and untested solutions, one after another, falling repeatedly on their faces like country boys trying to catch a greased pig.

As their veins become less forthcoming, junkies, old-timers who have been shooting for years, are known to look for a place to hit anywhere -- between their toes, in their groins. Well, we Americans were famously "addicted" to oil. And with the Deepwater Horizon blowup, the needle had broken off and the earth itself seemed to be bleeding uncontrollably.

It was an image from the darkest wells of the collective psyche, a nightmare. They tell us that dreams exist to bring to light material that we are having trouble facing directly when conscious. What are these bad dreams telling us?

The result of uncontrolled indulgence is, ultimately, a lack of control when you need it most. Americans don't want to hear it. But we're not kids anymore, no matter how hard we try to act like it. There is an incontinence at our center now that is the result of years -- decades -- of telling ourselves that our destiny was manifest, our entitlement endless. We could spend uncountable amounts of money on a foreign war and offer tax cuts to the wealthy at the same time. We could consume energy without giving it a second thought - after all, we would be dead by the time the account ran dry. We could toss the regulatory chains from the shoulders of the oppressed banking and investment industries -- sorry, industry -- the regulations were, after all, so 1933. We could cut corners on crucial infrastructure projects since the odds were that they wouldn't fail anytime soon. As a result we are finding new orifices from which to bleed and drain at an ever-accelerating rate.

How is New Orleans doing? We are doing all right. We have a new mayor, we are strong. But how are you doing? The levee failures, the BP spill, the financial meltdown, all share the same root. Somewhere the nation lost the common-sense understanding that corporations and government agencies can't be expected to regulate themslves. Or perhaps we have only lost the will to act on the understanding.

The levees have been repaired, yes. In the places where they broke. The oil well has, finally, been capped, and all the oil has either evaporated or been eaten by microbes (you believe that?). The too-big-to-fail financial institutions have had their bad gambling debts paid by Big Daddy. Sleep well.

It may be comforting to imagine that Katrina and and this year's BP disaster happened "down there," but from down here they appear to be happening right in the middle of everything. On the day of the anniversary, the president for whom I voted so proudly not even two years ago, spoke in New Orleans, promising, as did his predecessor, a Full Recovery. But on the larger stage he is, dare I say it, pissing away his chance to articulate that oh-so-crucial sense of urgency, summon the necessary will to address a flawed underlying logic, rather than merely cleaning up the mess afterward. I know he doesn't want to be called a socialist. But if we can't figure out a way to grow up, and fast, there will be no diaper in the world big enough for us.

Tom Piazza is the author of Why New Orleans Matters and the novel City Of Refuge. He writes for the HBO series Treme, and he lives in New Orleans.

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