I just received the quarterly newsletter from an outstanding affordable housing organization in Portland, Oregon called REACH. The Executive Director’s opening commentary included this quote from NBC TV anchor Brian Williams, made shortly after Katrina:
“If this disaster doesn’t lead us into a national conversation on the subjects of class, race, urban planning, the environment …. then we have failed.”
Katrina, like September 11th, created what philosopher Avishai Margalit calls a ‘flashbulb memory” — blinding light snapped inescapably right in front of our eyes. But memories — even flashbulb memories — are not conversations. They are images that, to become conversations, must connect to sustained focus, dialogue, action, and results. To an iterated effort that seeks both insight and change.
Recently, my daughter, like thousands of other students, went to the 9th Ward for spring break. The images — and words — she brought back portrayed a part of New Orleans every bit as devastated as it was a few days after Katrina hit. Put differently, the disaster remains as static and constant as it was when the flashbulb went off 7 months ago.
National conversation? No. Millions of us have conversed about Katrina in some reasonably sustained ways. Thousands struggle to do something in response. But there has not been any sustained national conversation replete with focus, dialogue, action and results. For that to happen, we would need ‘convesation leaders’ who have power and access to keep the focus and effort front and center. People like Brian Williams — and, of course, those who hold public offices.
Like September 11th, we’re mostly left with the flashbulb blinding our eyes.