Thursday, September 15, 2005

Responding to Katrina

I've been working on this piece, sorta solicited by the director of BPF. Her immediate response to the Katrina response can be found here.

When events as awesome as Hurricane Katrina happen, they are like a great karmic distress flare. Their effects are so huge that all aspects of this conscious life are lit up in stark relief. Meritorious deeds blind us with their shiny glare and melt our hearts, but our dark karmas that we so often shy away from, these too are revealed with startling clarity. As with a distress flare, the sufferings are sharply outlined, too brazen for us to ignore.
The understanding of karma can be simple, and it can be complicated. When revealed by the effects of a hurricane that was the size of four states, there is no denying any of it. Sifting through the wreckage can be tedious as well as devastating. Put simply, karma is cause and effect. Katrina is a karma, nobody’s fault (though global warming likely has something to do with it). Racism and classism are more complicated karmas. The gestalt of our karma, our interconnectedness, this interwoven webbed thread of connections, this is our reality according to Buddhism. If we pull one thread, we cannot help but find another, and another, and another. Hurricane Katrina reveals how we pull those threads, as individuals and as a society.

The notion that we are separate beings is an illusion, but it is one that many in these United States like to buy into. (And buy we do, too.) When I learned that a portion of New Orleans that was most likely to be underwater was the poorest, and that in a mandatory evacuation those poor and mostly black people were given no useful means to leave, I couldn’t help but look at this illusion of separateness. People take care of themselves first. As this great distress flare of a hurricane brought to light the heritage that is our city of New Orleans and its precarious vulnerability to flooding, I couldn’t help but think about who must have been at the table when plans to protect her were devised. Rich and middle class white people. Who was there to say, "When you declare a mandatory evacuation, how will the people without cars get out?" I mourned for those who died because this systemic classism had made no plans for them, and I mourned for those at the table, who surely must feel the pangs of regret.

With such a watershed event, it is too easy to pick and choose what bits of the interconnected karma we focus on. Now more than ever there’s an instantaneous access to thousands of bits of information, and one way or another bits can be found to bolster any point of view. I find myself paralyzed as I try to sift through all the information. A president who remains on a glad-handing vacation tour. Here in Portland, our own hate radio icon Lars Larson believes the post-Katrina disaster was entirely due to criminals of the 'projects' and the "lack of initiative and self-induced helplessness" of the "welfare wards". Countless right-wing ditto-heads (including the President) who repeat, "Now’s not the time to play the blame game," while an anonymous senior White House official blames Democratic Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco for not declaring a state of emergency. I boggle at their amoral genius. They know their so-called opposition the Liberals make a practice of emotional feel-goods like avoiding 'the blame game'. They count on the cascading torrent of conflicting information to confuse people. They count on enough people clinging to it as truth even when revealed as a lie.

I read blogs, email lists, Indymedia, and filter through mainstream TV and press. Accounts reported as fact that are later shown to be untrue, such as 'lawless thugs' shooting at relief helicopters, or babies murdered in the convention center. One person’s 'looter' is another's 'forager'. Conscious and unconscious prejudices determine the weight a fact is given. Well-meaning folks gather supplies and support only to be turned away by inexplicable orders. I wonder if questions will ever be answered over the delayed relief. I wonder if it is paranoid to entertain thoughts that incompetence conveniently masks test cases for martial law. How does the media turn from scolding incompetence to praising the swagger of a general? I wonder at the ease in which martial law is welcomed. How does a failure to protect become a military operation?

Some Buddhists feel that rage and anger have no place in the Dharma. Buddhist Peace Fellowship director Maia Duerr hesitated to use strong words, "Genocide. Ethnic Cleansing. Economic Cleansing. What else to call it when thousands of poor, Black people are allowed to die in front of our eyes?" What else can we trust but such heartfelt cries? A long time ago I was given a glimpse of my own racism when a Native American woman accused me of giving her poor service because of the color of her skin. I was shocked and defensive and didn’t believe it, but her burst of anger woke me up. Never again in customer service did I allow a white man to slip in front of a black woman because he's in a hurry. (They do, you know.) Never again did I allow a person of color to yield her place in line to a white person. (They do, you know.) I needed that person's anger to awaken me to a more skillful way of being the good person I wish to be.

So let me vent my own angry response, that I agree with Maia, "The decimation of New Orleans is the great tragedy and shame of the American people, and particularly, the Bush administration. We don't need terrorists to take us down. The empire is crumbling from within." I would say the capitalists who have stolen our country from us have set up a plutocratic hegemony. What does that mean to us who pay our tribute of taxes? They put unqualified people in positions where they rake in money, but do not bother to do the job that their position supposedly asks of them. They are lords of the manor squandering the hard-earned money of the serfs. Their titles mean nothing but are ornamental, simply a reason to divvy up the loot. These are the real looters, and they exploit the dark thread of racism as well as calmly install a Supreme Court Chief Justice in the midst of the chaos.

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