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 19, 2015

The Beautiful South at its Most Ugly

The South is sweet and gentle, until it is cruel and brutal.  The South is hospitable until it is genocidal.

Northerners know most about the ugly South — the racism, the poverty, its sad legacy of slavery and oppression, the higher rates of obesity, illiteracy and teen pregnancy in certain areas.  And these are certain measures of the South, things one ought to know but that the South as a whole would rather forget.  Before I ever moved South, I knew about the Klan, the dummies with teeth missing, the abundant tackiness of certain Southerners.  But then I traveled to Mississippi and saw beauty that astonished me.  I saw poor people in the Delta, but where they lived was a beautiful landscape.  As a New Yorker, I had never seen poor people living in beautiful places.  I was delighted by the intense courtesy, even of gallantry, shown to me as a white lady.  I was charmed, seduced by the music, the food, the leisure, the heat that takes one breath away in mid-Summer, the magnolias and the honeysuckles, the sounds in the night of bull frogs and crickets, and the depth of the darkness no Manhattanite has seen on that island except during blackouts, and even then, the darkest of dark nights, punctuated by slivers of moon and fireflies clustered like gleaming pearl brooches on a mourner’s taffeta dress.

The South, I discovered, is beautiful, with its Spanish moss hanging like a bridal veil over venerable oaks, the sweeping hills of green crops budding, the long empty roads stretching as far as the eye can see.  What a beautiful place to live — until it suddenly isn’t beautiful at all.  Tornadoes hit.  Locusts eat crops. Neighbors back-stab. Rumors spread. Reputations get ruined. People get shunned.

The Ugliest Soul in the South on This Afternoon

The Ugliest Soul in the South on This Afternoon

We see in the horrible massacre at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston a contrast in the great, stately beauty of the South and its deepest ugliness.  A room full of accomplished people, contributors to their community in deeply meaningful ways, came together for an evening of peaceful prayer, like many other nights, in a beautiful old Charleston church, white-washed and elegant.  They came to read the Bible and its beautiful verses together in a spirit of love and fellowship.  This wasn’t Sunday, so these weren’t people who were half-committed Christians, back-sliders who might believe or might not — these were the faithful, the dutiful, the deeply committed, who had gathered together.  These were mostly older ladies, the kind with the best advice to give, if the young would but listen.  These were women whose lives already demonstrated virtue and wisdom.  The pastor, Reverend Clem Pinckney, was an elected official, a father of two, an articulate advocate for the community.  These people were beautiful.  They welcomed in warmth the young man who came in, a white man, an unusual visitor to a weeknight bible study at an African Methodist Episcopal church.  He sat with them for an hour, and they were kind to him.

Then, suddenly, like tornadoes hit, like clouds burst, like fires destroy barns, like fortunes change — this man revealed his intentions and murdered people, accusing old ladies of rape, of families that may have been in the United States longer than his own of “taking over America,” and in cold blood, to inspire terror and a new civil war, he killed these saints, these martyrs.  He calmly left, seeming to make no effort to disguise himself, to hide, to run from what he had done, to have no horror at it, to be entirely unrepentant, to believe ugly lies about the humanity of his victims.  He may not have planned this alone.  He assassinated an elected official.  He came to kill black people, he said.  He drove away in a car bearing confederate flag plates, He believes in apartheid, in slavery, in murder, in hatred.  The love he was shown when he walked in did not dissuade him from his premeditated purposes.  He saw no humanity in that room except his own.

It’s not as if we couldn’t see this coming, this storm of murder.  The FOX Network churns like an overloaded washing machine in the background of many households, spewing out perpetual paranoia and false racially-charged claims.  While most of America seems to have accepted the national project of a diverse society, whether they like our current president or not, perhaps one fifth of us, more of us in the South, I think, have become radicalized, and new hate groups spring up regularly, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.  It was inevitable that some people from houses of perpetual propaganda would believe the lies.  It was inevitable that with such easy access to guns, some of the propagandized people would obtain guns. It was inevitable, with such rampant drug use and insidious isolation in our culture, that someone propagandized and armed would tweak his brain enough he would lose his soul to the narcotics and the malevolence. While the Internet allows us to select our own news sources, however uninformative they may be, and to fall into chat rooms with people of shared beliefs, it was inevitable that this tweaked, armed and propagandized one would find a fraternity of evil thought online or in person.  Eventually, one of these people steeped in falsehood, hatred, drugs, and disenchantment would become this monster, a category-five inundation of Southern ugliness.

And he did this in plain sight, this appropriately named Mr. Storm Roof.  Uncles saw him lost, and gave him guns.  Friends saw him pop pills, and they did not stage an intervention.  Everyone heard him say harshly racist things, but they took this as a joke — as if those jokes were ever funny.  But by then, Mr. Storm Roof had identified an enemy, and that enemy wasn’t his joblessness.  It wasn’t a family that misunderstood him.  It wasn’t a lack of education.  It wasn’t an economy where the jobs a man like this could get could not pay his bills.  It was innocent black church-goers.  What did he think would change if there were only white people in America?  What part of his pointless life did he honestly think would improve? Why didn’t he understand that his presence in a purely Caucasian nation would only demonstrate all the more that he was poor, uneducated, drugged out, and shiftless?

He just got arraigned today on nine counts of murder.  In the court room, the family members of the deceased beautiful Christians forgave him because Jesus says to forgive our enemies.  The beautiful South looks beautiful again in light of their total commitment to the principles of their faith.

But then, here’s the truly most deceptive part of the South’s beauty — it covers over scars.  Once the flotsam and jetsam after the hurricane are hauled away, and the houses are rebuilt anew, it’s like the storm never happened.  Most days, there’s not a cloud in the sky.  The South forgets, like a woman sobered up after a night of debauchery, who declares with a Southern drawl, “I had so much bourbon last night, I don’t know WHAT-ALL happened!”

The beautiful South forgets and attempts to make us forget.  But if we forget the ugliness, we are doomed to repeat it.  If we never confront the racism in white communities and the propaganda machines that perpetuate it, we are doomed to live with it forever.  Most of us in the South are pursuing beauty.  However, the fifth of folks who aren’t, we need to have ugly confrontations with them, show them the falsity of lies they have believed, and then we must help them understand that a South rising again is a diverse South, an egalitarian South, and a South that actually remembers what really happened in the dark night of its soul.

March 11, 2015

The Catastrophic, Horrible, Atrocious Blizzard of Lafayette County of 2015 — or How the South Really Freaks Out When It Snows

When tornadoes happen in the South, my students remain stoic throughout.  One day, there were five tornado warning sirens at the University of Mississippi, and each time, I cowered in fear, but my Southern students asked to work through class even though I wanted to hide under the desk.  Southerners are brave where I see the finger of God in the form of a funnel cloud squashing us all like sinful bugs.  I respect them in such moments.

But God forbid a half an inch of ice forms anywhere.  The Confederacy loses its mind.

Yankee progressives like me shake their heads when Southern politicians deny global warming by bringing a snowball into the Capitol Building, as one man did earlier this year.  However, this is not the only form of political climate denial going on down South. While this winter was harder for every part of the country than usual, every year in Mississippi and Alabama, there are some days where ice covers the roads.  This is an annual phenomenon, almost without exception.  But the Southerners, who hate taxes, refuse to pay for municipal salt trucks and snow plows because they are in denial about their annual necessity if businesses and schools are to stay open.  I won’t insult Southerners by suggesting that they deliberately do this to get more days off. I don’t think Southerners are lazy, even though I have never seen a New York minute down here.  It’s perhaps that snow is too scary, like the volcanic ash of Pompeii, to contemplate ahead of time.

And maybe my ice skating lessons as a child pay off annually, but it’s like Southerners have never learned to balance on their feet on a slippery surface, even though pageant hopefuls teeter on vertiginous heels, and boys who attend football camp learn to weave between defensive linemen while cradling a ball.  They fall down easily. They don’t know how to steer cars in snow, either.  It’s too scary to correct when the surface is even a little slick.

So this year, the South canceled a week of school and shut businesses, too, for ice that could have been salted away, for snow that might have been plowed. Everybody built a snowman. One guy in my neighborhood got arrested because he knocked down a bunch of snowmen with his truck.  It might have also have had something to do with his level of intoxication, but I prefer to consider this an ineffectual application of antifreeze to the circumstances, a well-intentioned but flawed plan to find a practical solution to the frigid times.  At least he wasn’t cowering in a corner.

I find the Southerners are able to laugh at their comparative ineptitude in this climate. There are cute videos online about the excessive panic that ensues when it freezes over, but the South isn’t Hell freezing over.  It’s not even a form of purgatory. There isn’t anything to fear but fear itself, I say, but the South seems to reason, knowing I am quoting that New Dealer FDR, that such a remark must be untrustworthy. There are no salt trucks planned for next year. That would be socialism.

January 24, 2010

America’s hidden autobahn

Henceforth I ask not good-fortune—I myself am good fortune;
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Strong and content, I travel the open road. — Walt Whitman, from “Song of the Open Road”

America has a secret, all you New York commuters, carefully finding a place in stop and go traffic.  That secret is the joy of a two-lane highway with nothing behind and nothing in front.

I discovered Whitman’s open road in Alabama on my way to Vicksburg — one lane going my way, no smoky to my bandit, and I drove for hours at 85 MPH on an absolutely empty straight shot toward my destination.  I might have hit a possum in my haste, had I hit anything, but in fact I hit nothing.  Not even a leaf was taken  out of its path in the wind by my one-lane drag race with myself.

New Yorkers don’t really believe this American possibility — good, empty road with nothing in our way, not even in rush hour, but I promise you in the deep South, tax dollars have built solid highways where there are no blizzards and no mass commutes.

They are a joy — roads with speed minimums.

However, I discovered a darker aspect of the lovely isolation of these paths last Wednesday night.

I was on my way home — three hours from one place to another, with nothing in between — and it was dark, a dark New Yorkers have never experienced on the road.  The emergency broadcast system interrupted my Mississippi Public Radio “All things Considered” listening.

This was not a test.

I was in an area where I was in danger of golf-ball sized hail hitting and shattering my windshield, tornadoes — As a New Yorker, I have every strategem under my belt about avoiding potential muggers, but tornadoes?  What does a gal in designer shoes do with that kind of danger? — and a definite promise of a severe lighting storm destined to fell trees and wreak havoc, let loose the dogs of war.

If I had been hit by a tree or some golf-ball ice, nothing would have heard me scream before I  died.

Undestand that on this stretch of road, the only settlement of humanity I saw was a bunch of RVs amid the pines hung all of them with the Confederate Flag — yes, I thought it was a KKK compound (Kompound?), too.  Honestly, if they were parked in this mess, they were in more trouble than I was on my way home, now slowed to 50 MPH, despite all emptiness, because I couldn’t see in front of me or behind me except when the sky lit up with dracula-movie lightnihg, only there was no Transylvanian castle in which to spend the night.

I prayed loudly to myself as I drove for the next hour and a half home.  The emergency broadcast system interrupted me several more times to let me know the many ways I might just die right now or in a few minutes,  but I pushed forward, really having no better alternative than to outrun the storm such as I could.

On a clear day, Whitman’s open road is the American dream. There is nothing in one’s way.   As he says, I myself am good fortune on these roads.  However, after some warning signals and dire computerized-voice cautionings, I am my own malediction on this road in stormy weather.

The German’s autobahn links large populations together, and they collectively speed between them.

Our highways with no hindrances are between little places, clusters of humanity nestled together between places, were you to fly over them at night, enveloped in unrelenting shadow.

America is its roadways. The dream is a clear shot wherever we’re headed, but forget about rescue in a time of extraordinary adversity.  Rescue will come too late to save us, unless it descends from God.

I thank God for my safe return home, where my new husband poured me a  glass of Jack and covered me with a blanket.  I was weeping.

I’m looking forward, however, to my next foray on that highway.  The weather report predicts promising clarity.

I am an American, after all.

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