Posted by: Dan | September 3, 2005

Writing in the Dust

And everyone has memories from the night that melted stone
The neighbour's nightgown, the screaming on the phone
And the tired man at the station says “we can't tell who's alive
All we ever know is that the tourists survive”
“Tra la la, tra la la, let's go” they say
“Let's go Pompeii”

~ Dar Williams, This Was Pompeii

Rowan Williams in his book Writing in the Dust: After September 11 speaks of his experience in New York (he was a few blocks from the World Trade Centre when the planes hit) and tries to articulate some sort of Christian response. One of his central points is the need for people to initially stay silent when crises occur. One's initial response can too often be co-opted by a religious or political agenda that only makes matters worse for everyone. Thus he talks about the importance of taking time to stoop and write in the dust (like Jesus did when the crowd brought him a woman who had been caught in adultery) before speaking. Those first moments of silence can change everything.

I have been thinking about what has been happening in New Orleans and have been on the edge of writing a post about it, responding to some of what the mainstream media has been saying but I realised that I needed some time to “write in the dust” before I spoke. And even now I submit these thoughts tentatively.

You see, my initial reaction was to cry out against voices that wanted to glamourise the event or trivialise other tragedies. Calling the hurricane's impact on New Orleans “our tsunami” only makes sense if American money is valued more than the lives of people in the two-third's world. The impact just isn't comparable. What such headlines reveal is the way in which those in positions of power are able to write history. Jon Sobrino makes this point in his book Where is God?. We all know the date when the planes hit New York but who can name the day when Afghanistan was first bombed, who can name the date when war was brought to Iraq?

However, I don't mean to make light of the loss of life and the suffering that has occurred, and continues to occur. In particular, I don't want to make light of the suffering of the poor. As Sobrino also notes, while reflecting on the earthquake that hit El Salvador in 2001 (who in the West remembers that date?), natural disasters have a way of revealing deeply rooted inequalities that remain hidden during other times. It was the poor in El Salvador who were genuinely devastated by the earthquake, and it will be the poor in New Orleans who bear the brunt of this crisis. This is becoming increasingly clear as the police, the major political forces and the media turn their focus to the protection of property and businesses — instead of focusing on saving lives.

I don't mean this to be a rant against the powers that be, I don't mean to trivialise what the people of New Orleans have experienced. Some who rail against the “our tsunami” comment mock the whole idea — people were told to evacuate the city 10 days before the hurricane it. There's no comparison. Yet what option do the poor have? Many people just don't have the ability or the resources to leave.

Thus, it seems to me that one of the inequalities that the hurricane reveals is the deep-seated racism that still exists in much of North America. It is saddening that most of the pictures of mourning and suffering people are of African-American people (at least the pictures that I've seen). It seems that poverty in New Orleans is still very much related to ethnicity.

And when the Associated Press runs a photo of a young black male with a bag of food he is described as “looting” a grocery store. When it runs a photo of a young white couple with bags of food they are said to have “found” the food at a grocery store.

So although I don't mean to rant I am trying to follow Sobrino's footsteps and “speak honestly about reality.” Especially since so many other voices will try to use this to reinforce lies that the hurricane threatens to expose.

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