Sunday, September 19, 2010

Rising Flood

I’ve been wondering lately what the point is, ultimately, of a country, of what we loosely call society. In the US, unemployment is steadily creeping toward 10%. According to Bob Herbert in The New York Times, whose columns increasingly seem to shake with anguish, that’s “14.6 million people officially jobless, and 5.9 million who have stopped looking but say they want a job, and 8.5 million who are working part time but would like to work full time…nearly 30 million Americans who cannot find the work they want and desperately need.” Herbert says: “The politicians’ approach to the jobs crisis has been like passing out umbrellas in a hurricane. Millions are suffering and the entire economy is being undermined, and what are they doing? They’re appropriating more and more money for warfare while schizophrenically babbling about balancing the budget… The U.S. will not remain a stable society if this great employment crisis is not addressed head-on — and soon.”

What’s A Country For?

Herbert seems tragically correct to me. Policy-makers mention those millions of Americans, in an abstract kind of way, but not with real urgency or passion, and it’s true, nothing ever gets done. The ideological divide between spending and tax cuts might as well have an electric fence running along it; no one ever penetrates from one side to the other. The media, to the extent it addresses these issues at all, seems much more interested in interest rates and inflation risks and corporate sentiment than in the underlying human experience. The country sometimes seems to have become deranged, and Prime Minister Harper, you increasingly feel, would happily steer Canada the same way.

The real proof of this idiocy is in Herbert’s other point about the rationality exemption apparently attaching to war. When you listen to the supposed rationales about national security and potential threats, there’s really no way to make sense of it except to assume that every American life must be almost boundlessly precious, justifying any amount of defensive expenditure. A mature and self-aware society, surely, would focus on the real problems of its citizens, rather than fixating morbidly and grandiosely on largely theoretical dangers. No one seems willing to say that the risk of major terrorist attacks – which in any event doesn’t seem very high – might, beyond a certain point, just be one of those tolls society has to bear. We can fixate on it, sure, just like we could let our lives be constrained by the (much more tangible) likelihood of being hit by a bus, but it’s just not the recipe for an optimum collective existence. Which brings me back to my first question: if thirty million suffering people don’t prompt the sense of urgency and purpose that 9/11 fleetingly did, then what’s the country for?

If God Is Willing

It’s impossible not to keep returning to this question, and the endless sad variations on it, as you watch Spike Lee’s four-hour If God Is Willing And Da Creek Don’t Rise, currently playing on HBO Canada. It’s a follow-up to his earlier documentary on Hurricane Katrina, When The Levees Broke, five years later, revisiting some of the same people and issues and examining what may have come of all the rebuilding promises made at the time. The movie starts off with the New Orleans Saints’ Super Bowl victory, but from there it finds many more lows than highs. What eats at you isn’t that there’s still so much devastation; even in the best of scenarios, the physical and psychic rebuilding would have taken decades. It’s how little collective weight the community still carries for decision makers, despite everything.

Perhaps unpredictably, the film is often most riveting when most immersed in purely local issues, such as the woes of the school system, the gutting of the mental healthcare infrastructure, or in the apparently copious evidence that development and property interests trump just about all other considerations (it has lots to say about the local police force too, but I guess that kind of corruption narrative is all too sadly familiar). Many of the points of light, sadly, involve the efforts of celebrities, in particular Brad Pitt’s astonishing project to build attractive, viable low-income housing in the most devastated area. Pitt’s work here probably serves to earn him the unwarranted deification he’s received for other reasons, but you wonder if this is what the country’s come to, relying on the instincts of privileged individuals, with government’s theoretically greater power for good now neutered or squandered.

Because Lee’s canvas is broader than in the first film, he sometimes seems to be barely in control of it – subjects like the local diet’s dismal nutritional virtues, or the legacy of Mayor Nagin, come and go in just a couple of minutes. He makes a detour to the devastation in Haiti, which someone says made Katrina look like a garden party, but the exact point he’s getting at there eluded me. The film later moves on to the BP oil spill, which in geographic terms may largely be a horrific coincidence (one of the speakers says that after so much bad luck he’s recently come to believe in voodoo), but which many people also believe would have attracted a more incisive government response if it had happened in the Hamptons. Or, I suppose, Lower Manhattan. The film leaves no doubt about the widespread vein of grievance running through the region, but it seems this only intermittently turns into rage or organized action.

Party Scene

It ends on a long rundown of all the on-camera participants, which seems to last almost as long as a normal movie. Lee stages a cast and crew party, at the end of which the participants all troop off the stage, almost like the end of a Fellini film. It’s unclear whether this marks Lee as a great optimist or rather, for all the seriousness of his intent, as something of a dabbler (as if encouraging us to take the latter view, he reminds us at the very end that he’s from Brooklyn). But then, for better or worse (and his filmography truly has ample evidence for both conclusions) he’s never been too worried about letting his movies drift off course now and then. Still, it does mean you don’t come away from If God Is Willing And The Creek Don’t Rise seething in the way you might have anticipated. On the other hand, in its perhaps messy but highly valuable laying-out of wrongs, in the emphasis throughout on community, and in that final assertion of his film as a collaboration, it certainly suggests a better vision for America than the one currently holding sway.

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