A great international city holds back tears of shock. Founded in the name of adventurism, startled into greatness by wildcattters, favored by a Texas-born president to become galactic birthplace of the phrase “we have a problem,” she is today shoved under tentacled clouds of millennial flood. Like a knock at midnight, Hurricane Harvey has startled millions, catching each one just as they are, ready or not. Immediately, we see the un-faked humanity of it. A Texas-style friendliness, patience, quietude, occasional outbreaks of Gospel. Hands grabbing bodies in gestures of rescue and gratitude.
Like pockets of Harry Potter, souls of Houstonians were suddenly turned out. CNN National Correspondent Ed Lavandera gently interviewed Pam Jones, who had already spent one night in a flooded house with her elderly parents. As the boat they were in glided forward, the woman seemed very calm. But occasionally she raised her hand to her face, and there you could see the tremble. Her parents were in the boat now, headed for a dry bed in Friendswood, but you could see how the ordeal had exercised the very edge of her determination to prevail.
Yet, even by American standards, Houston flaunts herself as queen of the quick turnaround, defiantly unplanned and un-zoned, a wildcat attitude toward pressures and risks. We’ll handle it when it comes up. Don’t crowd our spirit. Zoning is for Nazis, planning for socialists; try to be more fun at parties. The character of a city entire was also turned out for global examination. And the world will take time to wonder. Is this the kind of city we want our town to grow up to be? As the individual people of Houston have melted our hearts, there is something in the structure of it that Harvey has come to witness against.
Technological knowledge is not lacking in Houston. Petroleum, plastics, aerospace aeronautics, or biomedical breakthroughs vs. cancer are not enterprises for dummies. But the skills tend to short-circuit themselves as they go from knowledge to achievement, from achievement to profit, and from profit to power. The people of Houston do not forget how to care, but they are largely constrained by structures—sometimes large Christian structures–that care not.
Our Governor, for example, is a hard-driven Texas-style politician. In legislative sessions recently under his leadership we have an Arizona-style profiling bill that will only further criminalize Hispanic populations without increasing safety or well-being. We also have a law—sponsored by a lawmaker from Friendswood–that beginning this Friday will make it more cumbersome and less rewarding for homeowners to sue insurance companies that refuse to pay fair claims for properties damaged by—guess what?—hailstorms, floods, or hurricanes!
And we had to endure a session specially called by the Governor in which he charged hard after a North Carolina style “bathroom bill” that would match your toilet seat to your birth certificate. The alleged Texas spirit of independence is being crimped by our Governor into tin soldiers of extremism. The Governor was hinting he might call another special session to get his “bathroom bill” passed when Harvey showed up, as if to say enough!
What Hurricane Harvey asks in its knock at midnight is what kind of person, city, state, or country are you right now trying to be? The Governor’s retrograde agenda reminds us that Houston has always been anti-zoning but never all that anti-segregation. Yet in the face of it all, Houston has produced other Texas politicians resistant to right-wing zealotry. Her Black wards have demanded leaderships of conscience, principles, and standards set, for example, in the exemplary name of Barbara Jordan.
With the President on his way to Texas, we wonder what kind of nation he wants us to be. The perils of it are too obvious. The Texas Dept. of State Health Services (DSHS) estimates that the 2015 population of Houston was more Hispanic than Anglo. Under categories of “Black” and “Other,” Houston’s raw numbers beat the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. When Mayor Sylvester Turner called Houston the most diverse city in the USA, the statement was rated by Politifact as mostly true. A better picture of it is presented by Anthony Bourdain’s 2016 visit, which includes a tandoori cookout upon a thinly-flooded field maintained by the Houston Indian Cricket Club.
Houston was born international as a Mexican-Anglo-African hub, built international as a port city, and will live international or die. In this regard, the President’s best-known opinions are irrelevant to the future of Houston. Instead of a wall, Houston will need bridges. Instead of repeal, Houston will need medical coverage. Instead of tax cuts, Houston will need penthouse elites to pay back some of what they have taken from street-level producers, the better to pay for world-class human needs of an internationalized USA.
And—as Andrew Smolski argues–instead of climate-change denying, Houston will need leadership in the sort of inquiry that built it as center of science for earth and space. In Texas we have been impressed this week with something the meteorologists are calling “The European Model,” which was able to forecast Harvey’s spectacular fish-hook path. We are mindful that the President is leading us to the rear in science. He should fix that before he leaves the beltway.
There is deep subtext that will not be widely covered. When Mayor Turner insists that Houstonians will stay in place, you may be thinking about flood safety. But who’s not talking about dispossession? Dispossession is the subtext. Impoverished workers cling to lands in the city core that are coveted for gentrification. They will risk their lives to keep their neighborhoods from being stolen. So we put the subtexts down here way below the lede because the closer they get to the top the more likely they are to suffer inversions, torsions that twist everything backwards from the truth of how things are. Those bayous run dark at night. You can google Joe Campos Torres. There is a Wikipedia about it.
Naomi Klein has done the advance work on crisis capitalism. Seen from Klein’s point of view, Harvey will be the moment that Trumpism waits for. It is our knock at midnight, too. As the President tours the impacts of something everyone is calling unprecedentedly catastrophic, we have to stay focused on each other. We have to stay organized and informed. And we have to demonstrate our hard-won skills at nonviolence. Escalating violence under these conditions is what some manufacturers always hope for.
Lastly, we already know who is going to do the dirty work, wall or no. So let’s not forget to defend their rights to health and safety. Our dignity—the dignity of the greater Houston family—will never be greater than theirs. When the next knock at midnight comes, let’s not be found unready.
Greg Moses is author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. He is also co-editor of Peace Philosophy and Public Life. He writes about peace and Texas, but not often at the same time. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org