Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Haunted Weather

In terms of historical circumstances operating at the level of metaphor, nothing could be more nakedly symbolic than Hurricane Sandy.  Sandy itself was widely seen as a disruptive force for the presidential campaign, its destructive force spiraled into a discussion, albeit a superficial one, on climate change after the subject was left out of the debate process.  But beyond this stunted and somewhat teethless reaction was an enunciation of what we all knew about the election and which none of the nonstop chatter could seem to articulate; the fact that regardless of who won the vote,  our only certainty in the aftermath was a continuation down the path of disaster capitalism.   And if climate change wasn’t touched upon in the debates, neither were the failures that lead to the 2008 crash, another time when thousands of homes were underwater, and how little has been done to preclude the repetition of those events. 

In Sandy were a vast swath of the American population caught up in circumstances beyond their control, left powerless to a destructive force laid upon them and, in the wreckage, literally without power, left to the ramshackle devices of a busted government  that had been purposely stripped down to incapacitation.   This is not to downplay the amazing work of emergency crews and first responders operating on the government dime, who did do truly incredible work at both avoiding catastrophe and lessening its impact when it transpired.  However, you don’t have to go far to find places where FEMA and even the Red Cross was totally impotent, inert, or absent.

Until recently, you would think Lower Manhattan was the only place that got hit.  Though the devastation was wide, reaching across several countries and over 20 states, the media aimed its focus on New York as the center of culture.  The flooded subways were cleared days before precious resources were even getting to poorer areas like Staten Island, Long Island, and Rockaway Beach.  The concerns of the poor were washed away as the bankers returned to work, Broadway shows began bustling again, and we restarted the marathon race to the bottom. 

Yet, the view from Manhattan made it abundantly clear where the concerns of private concentrated power lay, as the skyline went dark except for the Goldman Sachs building, a bold demonstration of the self-preservation of industry.  GS can’t be blamed for the surrounding area not being hooked into its own grid of generators, but this illustration of the vastly unfair centralization of resources certainly made them look indifferent to the suffering of those around it.

Like clockwork, the quips about whatever convenient pet cause God seemed to be punishing us for came spewing out of the mouths of the attention-seekers, but overall we were spared the quips about cleaning up public housing and the like that came out of Katrina, because, you know, rich people were affected too.  Still, God, if he was present, seemed to be telling us a whole lot of things in the rich tapestry of young adult level symbolism masked in drowning Dumbo Carousels and Seaside Heights rollercoasters being carried out to sea, telling us that the halcyon days of the American dream were over. 

In the gas shortages, we were treated to what might have looked to believers to be a recursive loop back to 1979 when the current economic crisis really started and the Fed created new ontologies to deal with it.  With a more global oil crisis a near-guarantee in the near future, those gas lines looked less like a circumstantial setback and more like a grim vision of the future.  The democrats scored great points in the election off of the “success” of the auto bailout (a success paved with concessions by one of the last strong unions around), but without a concerted effort to build fuel efficient cars that the least wealthy Americans (the largest growing population) can afford ,we can only expect to see higher prices and longer lines at the pump we run out of places to bomb for our depleting resources.

As the storm barreled towards the U.S., it caused a massive amount of damage in Haiti, Cuba, The Bahamas and other places that regularly get affected by U.S. actions/inactions but hardly garner a notice in the national attention span.  The news media, in the spirit of Halloween, declared the Hurricane’s mixture of tropical and wintry conditions a “Frankenstorm”, and though it’s hard to make the case for any single weather event being the direct result of climate change, it was hard not to view this beast as something man-made, a Frankenstein’s monster out for revenge on her maker.
The storm approached at a glacial pace and telejournalists, unsure of what to do with no new facts coming in, spent an inordinate amount of time focusing on the HMS Bounty, a ship best known for its use in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies that had been lost at sea.   As certain doom loomed over millions of people, people stranded in their homes strapped to their TVs were using their last bit of energy for weeks watching the news tell them how relics designed to look like they were from the 17th century were in serious danger.  Kind of like being told that corporate monoliths needed to be bailed out while underwater homes who had been pirated by these vessels sank without so much as a life vest. 

America, via the filter of Sandy, was a home exposed, like the one pictured above, but it wasn’t the image of a bunch of unreliable backstabbers looking to swindle one another on the lifeboat as it went down, sharks patrolling the waters looking for things to loot as the “fake” Sandy pictures indicated.  On the contrary, overwhelmingly, people came out to help their displaced neighbors.   What stuck out was institutional rot, piled up like lines of debris on the side of the street.

Romney’s death knell was not even the campaign rally-not-rally in Ohio that turned into an empty gesture of filling trucks with canned goods that his staff bought to give to people to give back to him that the Red Cross didn’t even want.  Instead, the fatal blow was a quip made at the Republic National Convention months earlier in which Romney ironically mocked the very thing that was about to happen.  “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans”, he said pausing for a laugh with gusto as the sea levels ensure that they’d have the last one, “and to heal the planet.  My promise is to help you and your family.”

But where Romney’s truck fiasco failed at both the level of symbolism and the level of real aid to real families in need, the Occupy movement, quickly regrouped into Occupy Sandy, succeeded in New York.   All the things the media had criticized OWS for were proven immediately wrong- that they would ultimately falter without strong central leadership (on the contrary, without a hierarchical bureaucracy, they were able to help more people), they were too disorganized (the group used real time social media to call attention to hot spots in need of immediate attention and direct essential aid where it was needed), they were a bunch of spoiled whining college hippies (they sprung to direct action almost immediately after the storm struck), the movement was basically dead (recent forecasts on their one year anniversary were almost unanimous in pronouncing the movement irrelevant), and that they would never win popular support without streamlining into a single message (unless they make their core message assistance to those victimized by economic inequality). 

Reports began pouring in from everyday citizens that they had yet to see any government or Red Cross aid, but Occupy Sandy was there.  The effort was so great that even the mayor’s office and the National Guard conceded and acknowledged their service to the city.  Somewhat unthinkably, New York police officers stood in solidarity with the volunteers, chanting “We are unstoppable” with them.  

40 Years back, when our country was the closest it ever got to real revolution since it could only conceive of things with war, a fringe group took its name from a Dylan lyric that claimed “You don’t need a weatherman to see which way the wind’s blowin’”.  A mere week later, a nor’eastern blew in and dropped far more snow than had been predicted in recent weather reports.  Sometimes, all it takes is a strong enough gust to show just how worthless those weathermen are.