FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Floods of Heaven

America is crumbling, and bipartisan deregulation is to blame.  Free-market mantras and corporate welfare have destabilized the dollar, bankrupted suburban America, and drained every sign of government activity from the landscape.

For twenty years now, the consequences of this course have been hard to see: hard, because whenever the signs of damage appear, the free market was quick to label a “culture of dependence.”  A term that originated in the 1970s to attack American blacks’ use of welfare, the term “culture of dependence” has been extended to a broadening sphere of parties that have any relationship with government or law.  New Orleanians’ ruined houses were the result of a “culture of dependence” on federal infrastructure funds.  Policing the illegal trading of faulty mortgages and bandit short-selling represents a “culture of dependence” on the state.   Community organizers, Sarah Palin suggests, instill a “culture of dependence” upon organizations of teachers and workers.  Any individual or group with a relationship to government or law – any form of society, that is – stands at risk of imbibing a “culture of dependence.”

A series of shocks are shaking Americans into reconsidering those stories.  Disaster, like the sun, falls on the good and the bad alike; provisions against disaster, like a law-abiding financial sector, are a necessity for a functionally operating society.

The more we look at history, the deeper the case of interdependence appears.  Consider the case of those individuals who lost their homes in Katrina: accused of willfully building in a flood plain, foolish southern homeowners, some might say, needed to be punished by the hand of nature for their individual willfulness.  On the contrary, the floods experienced after Katrina were so devastating, in part, due to the increasing strains put upon levees at the base of the Mississippi River after a century of aggressive levee building upstream, a process that began, with federal aid, in the 1890s as Midwestern farmers lobbied for the federal canalizing of the upper Mississippi.  Levees aren’t the only way of managing a river: traditional communities also employ spillways and reservoirs for the purpose of managing flood.  Levees are the best for the purpose of navigation, and the most convenient for expanding farmland.  They’re also the most damaging to wetlands ecology, the most expensive in the long term, and the deepest in terms of the consequences for those who live in lowlands downriver.  From the 1890s forward, higher levees in Iowa meant worse floods in New Orleans, met by higher and more expensive levees there. Midwestern irrigation saddled householders downriver with a deep and mounting tax whose benefits they would never know themselves.

The cost of disaster insurance likewise reflected building choices made elsewhere in America.  Insurance costs for disaster were driven up in the 1990s by a sudden explosion of beachfront vacation and retirement homes, products of the real estate boom in California and Florida.  These houses plastered the beaches with expensive properties often ill-suited to the hurricanes and floods that faced them.  When Hurricane Andrew struck in 1994, the insurance payments leapt to four times their historic average.  The insurance agency recoiled in horror.  Actuarial experts wondered if risk assessment could ever be provided at sustainable rates again.

The consequences of superficial building along the coasts re-echoed in the heartland, where the debts of the insurance industry were foisted upon all those who lived by rivers and shores.  Higher insurance rates hit hardest small farming communities along the Mississippi River and working-class communities across the Gulf Coast: no longer able to afford insurance, they let it go.  According to the restricted provisions of federal aid, when they let go of private insurance payments, they let go their chance at federal subsidy for levees as well.  New Orleans, a community created by federal spending on levees upriver, was cut off from the historical conditions of its preservation.

Republican policy denies the enormous scale and weight of such connections.  Pretending that a few fund-raisers can reverse the tides of history, Bush points to the nation’s tender-hearted volunteers: church groups who trucked in to help Habitat for Humanity rebuilt a hundred homes in Louisiana, graduate students who carried the University of Iowa’s book collection to safety from the flood, one volume at a time.  Relying on saints, Republican policies dodge federal responsibility.  As if such acts of God were once-a-millenia occurrences, they deny the nation’s interconnectivity.  Yet the nation remains an interconnected whole of insurance rates and federal relief programs, of infrastructure spending and rebuilding planning.  Ruined levees in Iowa follow the disaster of New Orleans, and Gustav should remind us that more disasters will follow still.

Cosmic floods, like Noah’s and Gilgamesh’s, appear in myth to initiate human atonement: water wipes clean the memory of guilt, making possible a new era. The bloodiest of those stories, and perhaps the most direct, comes from Greece. Deucalion, the mortal son of a demigod exiled from heaven, was trying to atone for his family’s guilt by feasting the gods.  He could think of no more profound sacrifice than to slaughter his own son and serve his tender flesh.  When the Olympians discovered the act, so disgusted were they that they caused the destruction of the earth with a flood so powerful as to purge the memory of that murder altogether.  Cosmic floods, the ancients knew, were necessary to eradicate the awful memory of responsibility denied.

The washing of guilt begins, that is, when neighbors recognizes their culpability in each others’ fate. On Youtube this summer, self-annointed preachers made videos explaining how white Iowa was being punished for the suffering of New Orleans.  They referenced slavery and the invasion of Iraq, alluding to biblical atonement and Noah’s flood.  Suffering ignored, they suggested, travels from Louisiana to Iowa in the form of suffering compounded.  The rattles of New Orleans overheard when Americans discuss Iowa represent one attempt to wrangle with the awful question of interdependence.

In America, government and insurance in one place are never far from the next.  Atonement, in such a landscape, means naming the players responsible for ruin: reckless building, untenable insurance rates for the poor, unsustainable river design, and weak government.  Only a plan that would hold those actors accountable will prevent further losses when hurricane, flood, and earthquake threaten other towns in the future.  Only such a plan would reckon with the ancient weight of collective shame, the guilt of interdependence denied.

JO GULDI is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Digital History, at the University of Chicago.She can be reached at guldi@uchicago.edu

 

 

Your Ad Here
 

 

 

 

More articles by:
August 20, 2018
Carl Boggs
The Road to Disaster?
James Munson
“Not With a Bomb, But a Whimper” … Then More Bombs.
Jonathan Cook
Corbyn’s Labour Party is Being Made to Fail –By Design
Robert Fisk
A US Trade War With Turkey Over a Pastor? Don’t Believe It
Howard Lisnoff
The Mass Media’s Outrage at Trump: Why the Surprise?
Faisal Khan
A British Muslim’s Perspective on the Burkha Debate
Andrew Kahn
Inhumanity Above the Clouds
Dan Glazebrook
Trump’s New Financial War on the Global South
George Wuerthner
Why the Gallatin Range Deserves Protection
Ted Rall
Is Trump a Brand-New Weird Existential Threat? No.
Sheldon Richman
For the Love of Reason
Susie Day
Why Pundits Scare Me
Dean Baker
Does France’s Economy Need to Be Renewed?
Jeffrey St. Clair
A Mighty Voice for Peace Has Gone Silent: Uri Avnery, 1923-2018
Weekend Edition
August 17, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Daniel Wolff
The Aretha Dialogue
Nick Pemberton
Donald Trump and the Rise of Patriotism 
Joseph Natoli
First Amendment Rights and the Court of Popular Opinion
Andrew Levine
Midterms 2018: What’s There to Hope For?
Robert Hunziker
Hothouse Earth
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Running Out of Fools
Ajamu Baraka
Opposing Bipartisan Warmongering is Defending Human Rights of the Poor and Working Class
Paul Street
Corporate Media: the Enemy of the People
David Macaray
Trump and the Sex Tape
CJ Hopkins
Where Have All the Nazis Gone?
Daniel Falcone
The Future of NATO: an Interview With Richard Falk
Cesar Chelala
The Historic Responsibility of the Catholic Church
Ron Jacobs
The Barbarism of US Immigration Policy
Kenneth Surin
In Shanghai
William Camacaro - Frederick B. Mills
The Military Option Against Venezuela in the “Year of the Americas”
Nancy Kurshan
The Whole World Was Watching: Chicago ’68, Revisited
Robert Fantina
Yemeni and Palestinian Children
Alexandra Isfahani-Hammond
Orcas and Other-Than-Human Grief
Shoshana Fine – Thomas Lindemann
Migrants Deaths: European Democracies and the Right to Not Protect?
Paul Edwards
Totally Irrusianal
Thomas Knapp
Murphy’s Law: Big Tech Must Serve as Censorship Subcontractors
Mark Ashwill
More Demons Unleashed After Fulbright University Vietnam Official Drops Rhetorical Bombshells
Ralph Nader
Going Fundamental Eludes Congressional Progressives
Hans-Armin Ohlmann
My Longest Day: How World War II Ended for My Family
Matthew Funke
The Nordic Countries Aren’t Socialist
Daniel Warner
Tiger Woods, Donald Trump and Crime and Punishment
Dave Lindorff
Mainstream Media Hypocrisy on Display
Jeff Cohen
Democrats Gather in Chicago: Elite Party or Party of the People?
Victor Grossman
Stand Up With New Hope in Germany?
Christopher Brauchli
A Family Affair
Jill Richardson
Profiting From Poison
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail