The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

October 8, 2017

Lessons from God — American politics and regional experiences

Imagine for a moment that all Americans believed in some kind of divine, at least in Jefferson’s “nature and nature’s god” from the Declaration of Independence.  Imagine now that all of us here also really believed what we say unkindly to those in trouble: everything happens for a reason.  How might such a set of universally held beliefs affect our regional politics?

I believe that when disaster strikes, especially when that disaster defies explanation, the rational mind shuts down and looks for paranormal interventions, whether we mean it to or not.  As a Christian, I have no trouble believing in the divine, but I also know that I have an irrational side that does not square with my theology, that believes that when a tornado warning goes off and a funnel cloud appears in the distance, no mater how much I know about meteorology, that the rotating winds are there as God’s thumb to squash me like a bug. No amount of schooling, no amount of storm-tracking by satellite, can prevent me from holding this view. There is part of me that cannot reconcile my immediate anxiety to a clear-headed rational thought.

During the Middle Ages, people made no pretense of rational thought in such circumstances, however resigned they were to meeting their Maker. In Palermo, during a horrible outbreak of plague, people wrote of seeing the plague appear in the form of a large black dog dressed as a bishop, cutting people down with a broadsword.  In Sweden, the plague was sighted as  beautiful maiden who waved a deadly saffron-colored scarf into one window or another in a village, causing all inside to die. In the absence of any germ theory or immunology, people did what they could in their terror to understand the emotionally incomprehensible.

plague

During the Middle Ages, people frightened by the plague hallucinated phenomena that could allow them to understand how one person could die while another lived.

Let’s be honest. For all our Doppler 4000 and our antibiotics, we’re no better. We respond to disaster viscerally, and because individually we are largely unable to control events larger than ourselves, we look to God.  It has often enough been said that there are no atheists in foxholes. Allow me to submit to you that in America, whatever our pretense of intellectualism or agnostic yogic meditative practices, there are no atheists in America when a disaster hits us, and consequently, we form ideas about the theodicy — the “how could God let this happen here” — of such events. As some events are more likely to happen in the North than in the South, in the East than in the West, regional concepts of the divine, not the church divine, the scriptural divine, but the irrational-brain-invented notions of god and that idolatrously constructed god’s mysterious ways, that influence how we understand commonweal and political responsibilities in the face of catastrophe.

yellow fever

In industrialized cities, wealthier people understood that letting the poor die of yellow fever without care endangered their own health.

In Philadelphia and in Chicago, it became clear that a system of government that could prevent and extinguish fires would be useful. It was clear that if Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked a lantern in a shed, the whole town would suffer. In New York and Boston, it became clear that some form of sanitation and public health system would be better than not having one.  While the pilgrims believed in an Abrahamic covanential sort of responsibility toward one’s neighbor, particularly towards one’s pious and hard-working neighbor who fell ill, in New York, the motives for this were different.  There, it became clear to the very wealthy that sometimes even when one leaves town during an outbreak of yellow fever, one might catch it anyway from one’s butler or one’s laundress. Hence, having health clinics for the poor might secure the health of the wealthy and powerful. Either way, in major American cities, we are all our brothers’ keepers even today. We understand that an attack from unseen forces on one of us is likely a harbinger of trouble for us. We show up to liberate people from airport jail during a fascist Muslim ban.  We dig through the rubble of the World Trade Center. We make condoms free during the AIDS epidemic. We make sure every building has a fire escape on it, and if need be, a water tank as well, so that Mrs. O’Leary’s cow can’t harm anyone but itself.

This is not what disaster teaches the irrational mind of Americans outside of sardine-packed cities, particularly not in the South, where tornadoes and hurricanes are the most common mass tragedies.

storm

A storm hits one place and misses another — are we spared catastrophe by our innate virtue?

Take last night.  My husband and I hunkered down in New Orleans with our two dogs and more starchy food and alcohol in the house than we commonly have, cases of bottled water, and flashlights. We removed outdoor hanging plants from hooks and packed up lawn furniture. Why? Because Hurricane Nate was headed for us. Why? Because Hurricane Nate was supposed to land on us as a category two disaster. The mayor Mitch Landrieu wisely told us to stay indoors after seven pm.  He told people repeatedly not to go surfing on Lake Catherine — apparently a hurricane jackass dare. He called for a mandatory evacuation of three neighborhoods on the far-eastern side of town. We were battened-down.  We were prepared.

And then, at the last possible minute, the storm turned Eastward, away from us. We were spared from all disaster. I saw a rainbow in the sky. I knew we were fine.

Here is the insidious lesson that might be learned from the irrational-brain-god about this event, one that might serve to explain a lack of general compassion on the part of some for the problems of others, particularly those poorer than we are: We might learn that this god spared us because we are somehow better than our neighbors in his eyes.

We hear the occasional crack-pot preacher claiming Houston got flooded because it elected a lesbian mayor, that New Orleans has too much decadence in it, and that caused Katrina. I’m not really talking about those losers who say this. I think that the frightened human mind cannot quite help momentarily thinking that the disaster that narrowly missed us and hit another is a confirmation that we are just in the hands of a proactive and highly insightful deity who knew that the person whose house got clobbered by a tornado either had fantastic insurance and would get a much better house or was sinful in ways that we weren’t, and that’s why our house was spared. The lesson here is the opposite of the lesson learned in the industrial city.  In a rural community, Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicks a lantern in a shed, and the shed burns down, maybe her cows get loose, and her son gets scolded for sleeping in the shed drunk with a lantern that could catch the hay on fire. The person who got sick from yellow fever whose nearest neighbor lived five miles away probably didn’t spread the disease.  They won’t even know he’s dead until he’s half decomposed. The irrational brain divine tells us to believe in ourselves, in our own virtues, in such circumstances.  While this is not scriptural — Jesus says to us that rain falls on both the wicked and the just — it is an almost inescapable human reflex, one that is destructive to our Republic.

There are cynical politicians in Washington bought up by a few wealthy and greedy megalomaniacs who are willing to demand help for Katrina and withhold it for Sandy because it won’t directly benefit their districts and will cost their patrons more in taxes. They are what we call down here common trash scalawags, and I am not worried about them because I believe (despite recent political rallies) they are few in number. I worry, though, about people who refuse to learn either from the Bible, the Torah, the Koran, or rational and secular humanism that they ARE their brothers’ keeper, that if one of us burns down, we all do, that a flood in Biloxi, is a flood in New Orleans, is a flood in Houston, is a flood in Miami, is a flood in San Juan. How many of us are willing, relieved that we were spared, to share the burdens of others at a distance?

I am sitting writing this now in my un-flooded living room, my pit bull asleep on the love seat, one of the hands typing this intermittently reaching into a bag of starchy snack food that was supposed to sustain me in the event of disaster that never arrived. I feel comfortable. Two hundred miles away, there are sixty thousand people without power. That’s where the storm hit. Even as I send disaster relief, there is a small, barely conscious part of myself that wants to congratulate me for my moral hygiene and clever foresight that I was not the victim here. I need to smash that idol — right after I eat this bag of puffy starch sticks.

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June 13, 2017

Markup: Why We Need to Call our Senators Every Day This Week and Next

Danesfield crest

This is the crest of arms of my old school when I was a kindergartner in England (no, not Hogwarts).

Non Progredi est Regredi — Not to move forward is to go backwards — was the motto of my English school where I attended kindergarten and the equivalent of first grade, Danesfield Manor School in Walton-on-Thames in Surrey, about an hour outside of London. My father had a job predicting the impact of international oil production for Shell Oil in London, and in the 1970s, when I was sent to Danesfield in a blue pinafore and school blazer with a cute straw hat during the spring months, the place operated like a Dickensian panopticon (though now, it seems more progressive, diverse, and experimental than what it was). Each morning in chapel where we intoned a vague Anglican prayer after an off-key Anglican hymn I never knew, the head mistress, Miss Kate, a woman with a tight bun who truly never seemed to smile, had the older students conduct a reading of the marks.

How I dreaded hearing this recitation of the marks! Each of the three mark readers had a little red notebook from which they recited in a clear but dreary monotone, that always when a bit like this:

Danesfield students

I used to dress like this at school — only back then Danesfield Manor School made girls wear a straw hat with a blue ribbon.

“Forgetfulness marks for the day: Jane Emerson, 1 forgetfulness mark. Simon Smith, 2 forgetfulness marks…..Bad marks for the day: “Josephine Madison, 1 bad mark. Dicken Henry, 4 bad marks.”

And when Miss Kate heard of a student who had received anything more than two bad or forgetfulness marks, she would make someone like poor Dicken, who was always getting bad marks, stand before the rest of us and the entire faculty and her own merciless gaze, stand there hands clasped in front of him like Oliver Twist bereft of his empty gruel bowl, and attempt to explain himself.

“How do you account for your four bad marks yesterday, Dicken? I understand you stole a classmate’s pencil and called him a very bad word!”

Dicken would inevitably stammer out in a fearful soprano, “I don’t know Miss!  I don’t know why I did that!”

Oh! How I felt for Dicken!  How I was horrified that I might ever have a mark read against me!  I was never in league of pencil-stealers, nor did I know any bad words yet, but I might have gotten a forgetfulness mark, as I had neglected to put away a coloring book once, and I had left my sweater outside on a bench at lunch time. Oh — to have one’s name spoken in the monotone of obloquy of chapel first thing in the day! What could be worse, I thought?

At five, I could not have imagined the shamelessness of Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader from Kentucky, who is determined to commit an act of perfidy against Americans, worse than stealing a pencil, very much worth the utterance of bad words. He has orchestrated a legislative process in the shadows to remove healthcare from over twenty million Americans in order to give the richest one percent of Americans a hefty tax break. Instead of an open debate with public hearings in the light of day about a bill that will materially change one-sixth of the American economy, he and a few nefarious co-conspirators are behind closed doors, marking up a bill that will remove coverage for birth control (though it would seem Viagra will remain covered), mental health, hospital births, and many other needed treatments.  Rather than allowing a full airing of their activities with a fulsome debate about their merits, this dirty dozen Republican senators, under McConnell’s bulging and watchful eye, will execute the bill with no meaningful debate, ripping care away from poor children, the elderly, and the working poor.

How many bad marks would Mitchell McConnell receive, Miss Kate? I would like to think you would have made your face as flint in light of his misdeeds.

Senator cassidy and senator collins

Senator Dr. Bill Cassidy (R-LA), is perhaps the only doctor in America who is willing to endorse the Republican plan to leave tens of millions of Americans without health insurance.  The AMA, hospitals, AARP, nursing associations — they think his ideas are irresponsible.

Meanwhile, senators are claiming that their phones aren’t ringing about this. I find that hard to believe, as I know many people who have called Bill Cassidy, the senior senator from Louisiana, the Dr. Mengele of this healthcare, or as political commentator Jon Favreau calls it, wealthcare regression, has had his Washington office on voicemail only for days. At my other senator, John Kennedy (no, alas, not that John Kennedy, and not a worthy namesake) had a chipper intern answering calls one day recently, but yesterday, his phone went to voicemail as well.  We have been calling, and they have “forgotten” to pick up the line.  Is it because they want to “forget” to cover 23,000,000 Americans, close to half a million of whom reside in their state?

How many forgetfulness marks is that, Miss Kate?  Half a million? What kind of paddling or detention would that get the Senators from Louisiana?  Why are they not worried about the blood on their hands if this bill passes?

As Danesfield taught me so young, non progredi est regredi —  in 2010, Congress wisely established a national healthcare system as almost every single industrialized country has done, an imperfect system, but one that has at least improved upon the no-system system, where the shoe-shine guys in front of Grand Central Station could only get healthcare in the emergency room at Bellevue Hospital, where people lost their homes because they couldn’t afford cancer treatments for their mothers, where children when without needed visits to the doctor so that the family could eat. What the Republicans have been lobbied to do by the insurance industry, big pharma, and sundry billionaires with pathological greed, is to eliminate even this imperfect system so that the billionaire class pays an even lower percentage of their gains than the workers for minimum wage.

Non progredi est regredi — not to go forward with better coverage is to go backwards, fatally for many.

So what can we do? We must make them know we will hold them accountable, be the Miss Kate of their five year-old consciences, surely the last time that they felt them keenly in some cases.  Call the Senate switchboard twice today and every day for the next couple of weeks to get connected to your two senators, wherever you live in the country.  Their telephone number is (202) 224-3121.  Tell them that all Americans need healthcare and deserve full coverage from a healthcare system.  If you know somebody who may die from their schemes to enrich the already-rich, let them know all about that.  Read their bad marks aloud. Do not let them forget who they work for — you.

Non progredi est regredi — we won’t go back to a Dickensian era where the young heroine dies in the poorhouse, no doctor to help. Americans deserve better.

January 10, 2017

Joan of Arc as Inkblot — What She Symbolizes Today and Where She Symbolizes It

On March 22, 1429, Joan of Arc wrote to the head of English occupying forces in the city of Orleans and told him that God was giving him exactly one chance to surrender the city to her, a fourteen year-old girl dressed in armor, the equivalent of drag king attire at the time, as women were not trained to be soldiers. “Faites raison au Roi du ciel, rendez à la Pucelle qui est envoyée ici par Dieu, le Roi du ciel, les clés de toutes les bonnes villes que vous avez prises et violées en France. Elle est ici venue de par Dieu pour réclamer le sang royal.” — Do right by the King of Heaven. Give back to the Maiden who is sent by God, the keys of all the good cities that you have taken and raped in France. She is come here by God to defend royal blood.. The English general in command laughed at the letter, though she said he would surrender Orleans peacefully to her that day or after bloodshed the next day.

The next day, to his astonishment, he surrendered Orleans to Joan.

joan-of-arc

The real Joan of Arc was a distorted fun-house mirror for the politics of the fifteenth century. She hasn’t changed a bit in that regard today.

For the people of the Late Middle Ages, Joan was either a great saint or a horrible witch, a nasty woman. Though within a generation of her execution Joan was exonerated of all charges and her inquisitor charged with heresy for ever bothering her, at the time of her death, they burned her at the stake for daring to dress like a man. The heresy charges couldn’t stick; Joan’s theology was conventional if eccentric in the extreme. The only policing that could kill her under rule of law was the fashion police. She wore armor, and the sentence for that was death.

Today, I submit to you that she remains a political figure who operates something like an ink blot. What is in the heart of the beholder reflects the interpretation, even the reenactment, of Joan’s unusual story.

joan-of-arc-nola

For the people of New Orleans, Joan of Arc is a symbol of French heritage and the traditions of an inclusive and costume-loving city. Her arrival right after epiphany marks the beginning of carnival season.

In New Orleans, rather than old Orleans, Joan remains a powerful symbol.  As the commander of the battle of Orleans and its hero, as well as the patron saint of France, it is easy to understand her potent symbolism for a town named for the place of her victory. She is an old French symbol for what one man I met called the capitol of a nation that never came into being, a new France on the Gulf of Mexico. This past weekend was the annual Joan of Arc parade, a parade to mark the official beginning of carnival season in New Orleans (yes, it’s a whole season down here, not a day, not even a week). People disguised in medieval costumes parade through the French Quarter, where they share a vin d’honneur toast with the head of the French consul, a priest from the Saint Louis cathedral blesses the crowd’s paper machie swords, and a general party in the carnival style. This is odd, really, as Joan of Arc was not what Bakhtin called “carnevalesque.” She was anti-libidinous, a virgin who remained so in order to retain the purity of her angel voices. Then again, she got killed for being in drag, and there are a lot of people in this town who might sympathize.  She was an uppity woman of the first order, and people here like women who know their own minds and aren’t afraid of much. So while she might not have invented Mardi Gras and would never have taken her top off if someone threw her some beads, she fits right in here.

Here, Joan is a symbol of French heritage of the city but not of a fierce French nationalism. While the occasion of a blessing at the cathedral, she is nevertheless ecumenical. The people who put on this annual parade are a social club, not a religious sisterhood. The Krewe de Jeanne d’Arc claim their mission includes people of different religious and ethnic backgrounds and attempts to encourage artistry and revelry. They are interested in fun, not fundamentalism, as is in fact all of New Orleans. This is, after all, a city with pirate heritage, not just French heritage, and if a gal shows up in the Vieux Carre with a kind of butch haircut dressed as a guy, one hardly notices. As all of New Orleans revelries, the Joan of Arc parade is inclusive and frolicking. Joan symbolizes the old French ways of the city in the hands of the gender-complicated, a place of liberation from oppression not so much from the English as the Anglo-Saxon stiff upper lip.

jeanne-darc-marine-le-pen

For the National Front, the rough equivalent of Trump and the Alt-Right in France, Joan of Arc (depicted here as a gold statue behind party leader Marine le Pen) has been appropriated as a symbol of white nationalism, as Joan fought invading foreigners. Rather than chase away the English, Marine le Pen wants to chase away Muslims from North Africa and the Middle East.

There is another group this year that has embedded Joan into their mission, though they do so with far less revelry and fun, although they are known in France as “le FN.” The menacing alt-right has been growing in France, just as it has been here.  The National Front is the party of Marine Le Pen, whose mission it is with other white people to deport all the immigrants, all of them, particularly those of North African and Middle Eastern descent.In the 1980s, the party was an ugly joke, run by Jean-Marie LePen, Marine’s father, who said disgusting things to scare people like immigrants were bringing AIDS to France and that it could be spread by mosquito bites. Marine LePen is less crude and less confrontational than her father, but the party is capitalizing on France’s recent terrorist attacks to suggest that only white people should be considered French and that all others, regardless of place of birth, ought to be deported.

For the National Front, Joan is the scourge of the foreign incursion, a saint of France, a pure French girl who could be the vessel of a pure French white bloodline. She is a call to return to traditions long since considered too narrow in France by most people. The party is overtly racist, and they see Joan as a purifier of the race, giving that royal blood Joan mentioned in her letter by extension to all those whose families have been in France for centuries. She is often evoked at their rallies, and she is a call for exclusion by any means necessary.  Their Joan says surrender the city, you foreigners, today, or pay for your residency with your own blood tomorrow.

So what are we to do with Joan, a prisoner of our divergent political ideologies? Is she a saint of white nationalism, or is she the patron saint now of a town that values individual expression and racial and gender diversity? Is she a witch or a saint? A better question for us to ask is who we are. Are we a community of a liberated city celebrating its victory over hegemony, or are we a bunch of fascists who so distrust other people’s customs that we would shove them out of our midst? If we are white, is this the source of our purity, or is our purity a purity of heart, of goodwill toward all? Are our swords a costume accessory or a way of life? I submit our parade route has hit a fork in the road.  Either we dance toward a welcoming cathedral that would offer blessings, toward a balcony for a celebratory drink, or we are headed into a battle where either way, win or lose, the things that are really pure in us get burned alive. Who will we be during this carnival season? Who will you be, my reader, in this hour of occupation by those most of us have not chosen? How will you stay pure, my maidens? I say don’t put down your swords. We are going into battle. In all things, do right by the King of Heaven. We are sent by God here for this very hour. Know what is right and do it, whatever it may cost you.

 

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