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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Saturday, July 20

Gapers Block

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Editor's Note: Richard F. Carnahan is on vacation and will return next week. This column by Ramsin Canon originally ran on September 7, 2005, a week after Hurrican Katrina hit the Gulf Coast.

Don't love my quietly
Do it with intensity
Or you'll miss the point...
Do it with every single strain
Or there's no love to be gained

'Cause we are nearly civilized
And I could almost love you now
We will throw this building up
Just so we can tear it down again...

--Esthero, "Nearly Civilized"

Put yourself somewhere you know you have been. Somewhere you can walk to blindfolded — somewhere the smell is familiar, the sounds, the faces. Put yourself at the corner of State Street and Madison Avenue, the Carson Pirie Scot Building — put yourself there, but clinging desperately to that historic awning. Put yourself there looking out across nothing but filthy water, clogged with death. Put yourself there with a little girl, atop a car with her grandfather, tear-streaked and screaming for help.

Is this civilization? Are we civilized? If the answer is "nearly," then what is it to be civilized?

Ultimately, words mean things. They mean things, they just do. At some point, things reduce to terms, to a underlying structure. It is a myth, I think, that events of incomprehensible tragedy can have "good" come out of them. This is because of the fact that the world is a world of things, real things. A material world. The needless destruction of life and lives cannot be dignified by that justification of justifications, "a greater purpose."

The play-pretend world our nation's leadership have been splashing around in for 25 years has now butted up, uncomfortably, against the real world, the world of things, and now people are drowning. A city is drowning. America's name is mud throughout the world. The egalitarian, decadent paradise that cannot save its own people from encroaching water.

With three days notice.

With years of predictions.

With furious cries for help.

With more than a thousand operational Chinook helicopters.

With offers of help from every neighboring National Guard force.

With urgent requests for help in to the President of the United States.

With express emergency powers over the private sector.

Do not be sad, or frightened, or fretful or empathetic. Be angry. It is a good cure. The cowards and children who have been having fun playing government for the last 25 years have made a mess on the carpet, and their noses must be rubbed in it.

Aren't you angry? Aren't you infuriated that an entire city could be left so unprotected? If this was our city — Lake Michigan overflowing its banks and washing over the city, destruction all around, the survivors left to die, no plan in place to even mitigate their suffering slightly — would there be an end to your rage? That all these years of working hard, abiding by the rules, paying untold tens of thousands of dollars in taxes hadn't even earned you the right to a dignified death — had not even made you an afterthought of a government that is supposed to be "of you, by you, and for you?"

Chicago underwater. And think what would be destroyed first. Grant Park. The Art Institute. The Historical Society. Science & Industry, Field, Shedd, Adler. Daley's precious Bean. Trying to evacuate thousands from skyscraping lakeshore housing — in Chicago, the poor on the outskirts would probably flee easier than the wealthy crowded against the lakefront. Your neighborhood, erased forever, many of your neighbors, your friends or your children floating face down, bloated, their translucent skin cracking in the sun, maliciously abandoned by the institution whose sole purpose is to protect you.

Not ignore you. Not smirk at you. Isn't that clear? To protect you.

But decades of play-pretend time, of charades of the uselessness of any government and the omnipotence of the private sector have taken their toll, decades in the cave cavorting among the shadows of reality have made the emergence into sunlight infinitely more traumatic, more chaotic — made the infantilism of those to whom we thrust the sacred torch of our liberty and security more nakedly apparent.

Obviously, this is not a partisan failure, not in the least. As we watch fellow Americans — but that's a catchphrase, distancing us. As we watch ourselves in the midst of flailing, mad desperation, we must know that it is the fault of all in power who have shirked their responsibility. Not only conservatives whose word games have robbed our great American experiment of any meaning, but the once-progressives who valued job security above principles and the so-called centrists who preferred the play-pretend world of word games and retail politics to the crushing reality that they were once the guardians Americanism.

And the media we trust to protect us, to pursue the truth relentlessly and with abandon, have sunk into frivolity. They have also become enamored with the shadows in the cave, the half-reality of word games and PR flacks, forgetting their responsibility to the real world outside.

Politics, government, is not a frivolity. It isn't an end of itself, it isn't a contest and it isn't just a career. Government, politics, isn't a non-starter. It is life and death, the beginning and end, the laboratory for the great American experiment, the only thing that ultimately separates man from beast. It's everything, the whole ballgame.

The principles by which our government functions are a secular theology, a reflection of Americans' souls.

Why is human life, and its protection, an afterthought? Have the rushing waters of Lake Pontchartrain extinguished the torch of the American experiment? Why have we allowed the children in power to make us all soulless, simply beasts who hoard and sleep and feed? The needless suffering we faced in the Gulf Coast region has proved those who rule us to be cowards and parasites. If this is so, we have an obligation to the American ideal to dump them off our back.

They have put us in a situation that forces us to question our own civility. Are we civilized? Do civilized people consent to being governed this way? Allowing ourselves to be ignored, smirked at, maliciously abandoned, allowing our brothers and sisters to live like animals, drowning in filth amidst the stench of death and decay, entire cities, communities, families to be wiped from the face of the Earth? How have we become but "nearly" civilized? Has this happened because we failed to appreciate our gift, because we have slouched toward this grand experiment? I think that's right — I think we have begun to merely hoard and sleep and feed, and love our nation, if at all, quietly. To love it is to demand the best of it, and shake it free of the parasites that are but nearly civilized.

Cherish your amazing opportunity to participate in the great American experiment — every day we participate in this society, we are making history. Please, please, please do not love this American experiment quietly. Love it with intensity — or you'll miss the point.

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About the Author(s)

Ramsin Canon is the former Revenge of the Second City columnist, who still fills in from time to time when Richard Carnahan is away.

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