the poor you have always with you

My time has been eaten recently and my mind distracted by the seemingly unending process of shopping for more and more of the things that one "needs" to set up an apartment. Every day I buy more things, maxing out my credit card, and yet every day the list of things I still "need" seems to grow. I long for the time when my new apartment, nice as it is obviously going to be, will finally and completely feel like home. I'm writing right now from my roommate's computer, with unpacked boxes littering my bedroom and unbuilt shelving systems obstructing the hallways. The environment sometimes makes me feel like a displaced person, but of course I know it's ridiculous to say such a thing in light of the thousands of people have been legitimately uprooted and displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

My frustrations with my move, my inclination to consider myself a wandering nomad, are indicative of the fact that we middle-class New Yorkers have no perspective on anything. We don't know how easy we've got it in New York, but we certainly know how to whine. Was 9/11 anywhere near as bad a catastrophe as Katrina? I would argue it was not. Far less real estate was destroyed. Beyond the 2,000 something people who died in the Towers, their families and friends, who was affected? Life went on. Tourism took a hit, as did the downtown economy -- but nowhere near the hit it would have taken had the entire city been destroyed completely. And the majority of the victims were middle-to-upper-income working people, some with huge pensions and insurance policies, people in finance, police officers and firemen who had unions supporting them and their families. You only had to listen to the voices of the siblings reciting the names on the anniversary last week to realize how white the victims of 9/11 were. Not all of them affluent, by any means, but probably pretty secure in their lives before those planes hit.

Down in New Orleans, everyone in the city has lost something, because the city is no more. There will be no "going back to business as usual" because there are no more businesses. Moreover, though, the people most severly impacted by Katrina have been the poor. To paraphrase Helen Schlegel in Howards End, "People who had little have less."

What did 9/11 prompt? More than anything else it made us into a nation of self-conscious whiners and worriers: "Why do they hate us?" It made us jittery, uneasy, suspicious of our neighbors, suspicious of unattended packages. It impacted the national psyche more than anything else; it's as if the flames of the World Trade Center transmitted the native neuroticism of New York from coast to coast.

For most Americans the impact of Katrina is already on the wane. I could tell last Friday when I was at a concert and the audience groaned audibly when the musicians began to mention hurricane relief. We're not worried about the long-term implications of the Katrina disaster because it seems out of our control: we can't control the weather, right?

The real problem with the Katrina situation, though, is not what might come next but what came before, the sorry societal setup that subjugates so many of our citizens to poverty. It took a big wind to blow the veil off of that and to get the media to pay attention. The wrangling about securing the levees and FEMA being subsumed into Homeland Security is beside the point. How as a people can we continue to underserve so many of our most vulnerable citizens and then, when catasptrophe strikes, leave them to fend for themselves? As this very perceptive column from the Chicago Tribune argues, Katrina is just a more dramatic example of the kind of calamity the poor face every day and which many of us never notice.

The point is not to shore up the levees. The point is to remember our fellow man, the people who could not evacuate because they had no transportation, no disposable income. I'm struggling to make ends meet right now, paying twice as much in rent and needing to buy a slew of things to equip my new home. But how blessed am I to be able to charge my purchases and defer payments. To get transit checks from my employer that allow me unlimited access to the subway. My frustration as I shuttle back and forth between Manhattan and Brooklyn these past few weeks has been intense, but how much more frustrating are the lives of so many of the tenants in the building where I work, for whom a one-way $2 Metrocard is a luxury?

When are we going to have the conversations that matter? Not about the Freedom Tower or democracy in Iraq, but about domestic democracy, about enfranchising all of the people who have been left behind by technological advances and by the economic boom. The Democrats aren't ready to have that conversation; they're glad that Katrina has pushed down Bush's poll numbers but they aren't about to start "class warfare." Electorally, they would be foolish to do so. Katrina serves them best as a tool for winning in 2006 and not the wakeup call that it should be to the fact that something horrible has happened in our policy towards the urban poor, something that has been going on for decades.

New York suffered a blow on 9/11 but it survived. But for many New Yorkers (perhaps the majority?), not much really changed on 9/11. Many young, black New Yorkers, for example, living in Brownsville, Brooklyn, or in the Bronx only came to know what the World Trade Center was because it was destroyed. They'd never been there, never been in the heart of their own city and they still haven't. They're cut off from prosperity, culturally as much as anything else. They function in the economy as consumers of cheap entertainment and sneakers, as people to fill up the prisons, but not as voters or constituents whose interests politicians give a damn about. Where are the memorials for the slow destruction of our inner cities? Because we can't pinpoint the date, does that make them any less dead? For all of them, 9/11 doesn't mean much.

I hadn't planned to write all this. My head's been full of comforters and kitchenware. I've been operating in bourgie mode a lot recently. Which makes me realize how easy it is to empathize with televised tragedy when the victim is someone who looks like you, who works a job like you do, who makes the money you make. You say, "That could have been me." That was 9/11 for you, where catastrophe seemed suddenly personal. The poor, though, even in their suffering always seem to remain invisible. It takes a major leap of analytical thinking to consider how the decisions that we make in our daily lives connect us to the impoverished people in Kandahar and Falluja and now in New Orleans (not to mention in Bushwick and East New York) who had little and now have less. They don't get individualized write-ups in the New York Times. We don't see their "Faces of Grief." They're lucky if we even count the bodies.


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