Taking Shits In Bags: America’s Election And Its (Other) Disasters

Our man in Brooklyn and Manhattan Sam Spokony looks at American 'disaster narratives' in between Sandy and the election...

Today, we Americans will pick our next president — and in doing so, we’ll (kind of) answer the annoyingly pointless and ubiquitous question about which direction, which path, or whichever conversational cliché we want our country to follow over the next four years. Right…

A laughably immense amount of time and money, of campaigning and debating, have gone into this latest effort to figure out what — or at least what kind of person — defines our national culture. To find which buttons, when pressed, spark the most favourable response; or at least those that make us forget all the other things about you that we find so offensive. Even as we dissect the polls daily, read the pundits hourly and update our own Twitter accounts by the minute, we remain convinced that it takes a whole election cycle to reveal the true face of the nation. (Which, of course, is always more like two halves of a face that can’t stop trying to spit at one another.)

But it’s much easier than that. It has to be. As Hurricane Sandy just reminded us, that national face — and with it, the keys to our cure-seeking, A.D.D. hearts — becomes apparent in the aftermath of disaster. It’s not a particularly attractive face; it’s less like the stately visage of Obama or Romney and more like some kind of 50s sci-fi horror prop with extra mouths and eyes, but probably no ears. The kind of lame character that speaks in strange languages that don’t make any sense and doesn’t even help resolve the tortuous plot.

In the end, the big answer is that we don’t like answers.

When disaster strikes, we like to be shocked; we like to turn the event into a formulaic narrative, and we crave the subsequent debate that could, perhaps, end in some positive action. But when it comes to taking said positive action, or turning the embarrassingly hard-fought debate into any practical approach, we say fuck it. It’s too much trouble. It’s not really worth it. We’ll deal with it next time.

Of course I can’t speak for other countries, but in America the digital world has allowed us to feel this new, totally unhealthy contentedness in the wake of disaster. It’s the one-or-two-week period in which we all use the Internet to educate ourselves about every miniscule facet of the tragedy: its victims, its culprit, its (alleged) causes, the questions of how it could’ve been prevented. We, prodded equally by media figures and our own fantasies, collectively invent seamless narratives for both the guilty and the innocent. And since respectable and responsible intelligence comes not from the knowledge we’ve already gained but how quickly and thoroughly we can access information, we convince ourselves and our friends that the latest horrible circumstance has such depth, such weight, that it represents a societal question we can no longer ignore; we must now take sides and talk about it.

This is what happened to America in July after an intensely troubled doctoral candidate — who was studying neuroscience, if that matters — shot and killed a dozen people in a movie theater during an opening night screening of the new Batman film. That guy was on the front page of every newspaper for a the next few days (as one might expect in any truly civilized country at this point), but the real star to emerge from that experience — one we all ended up sharing, I guess — was a riled-up, rip-roarin’, good old fashioned debate over gun control legislation.

And the debate trickles down. So first you have the progressive politicians, intellectuals and outspoken actors, who give statements or write op-eds about the need to snuff out this self-destructive part of American culture that scares some of us into clinging to firearms for security and personal sanity. The conservative counterparts respond with barbed statements, the NRA rolls into town to hold a rally. This is digested via TVs and those mind-bogglingly slim tablets and then argued about over dinner and via social media.

This in itself is nothing new… but the problem now is how quickly we lose interest. The Batman story fizzled out by the end of the week; even after we’d created these great narratives and begun building arguments around them. It’s almost as if we’d gone through all the motions just as a kind of sport, and the disingenuous debate had just become some culturally proper way to allow us to (not actually) address the situation.

So after Hurricane Sandy swept through New York City and several surrounding parts of the American Northeast last Monday night — and tension over the upcoming presidential election was still building everywhere else — I wasn’t surprised to eventually see the same sport start to play itself out.

I was actually very lucky throughout the length of the storm, since my Brooklyn neighbourhood is far enough inland to have avoided any damage, and we never lost our electricity. But as I walked through affected parts of Downtown Manhattan in the days after the hurricane hit, I got a very clear sense of the kind of impact this thing had on people’s peace of mind, as well as the obvious state of emergency it brought on the poorer city residents, who simply couldn’t have prepared to be without electricity and water for a week.

So while it was surreal and kind of beautiful to walk around the East Village in total darkness, as the squatters on Avenue C grilled hot dogs and burgers on the sidewalk for all comers, it was an incredibly sobering sight. As a reporter for a weekly newspaper in that area, I never had to go and see the biggest damage of all — the literal destruction of homes in neighbourhoods in Queens and some other areas — but the scenes of my coverage area provided me with enough to know that a nice debate was on its way.

This time, the big one is about accepting the onset of climate change and constructing massive barriers or sea gates along the coast, which would conceivably protect New York from similar storms that will only continue to appear in a world slowly succumbing to global warming. It seems like a good idea, one that forces us to recognize the dangers of climate change and could possibly even remind us that it’s not quite too late to slow or stop this waste-induced shift within our ecosystem. It could prevent future suffering, and that’s probably worth it, one would think.

There was a nice back-and-forth series of essays by experts in the New York Times five days after the storm had passed, some arguing for the construction of barriers, others saying that different measures would be more effective. The mayor of our city has already said — even as he and his regional counterparts works to repair billions of dollars worth of flood and wind damage — that the kind of construction talked about would be too expensive, unfeasible. The big media buzz was pretty much over after that, and the trickle-down began to take place.

It’s now been just over a week since we felt the effects of this latest disaster, and I’m looking forward — in my own sick way, I guess — to how the debate will play out this time, once the recovery efforts move further along. I’m not optimistic, and I have a feeling it may already be dead, to be honest. But, hey, as election day is upon us, there’s no better way to remind ourselves of the great American principles we follow in the digital age: ignorant bickering, intellectual laziness, and the constant creation of mindless theatre around things that should be treated not only with seriousness but with genuine action, with focus.

And forget about the debate on a more immediately pressing issue in the wake of the storm — the income inequality it revealed within New York as rolled through and took away electrical power and running water for days, or in some cases a week or more.

Not that people who actually live here didn’t already know this. That this city is now home only to the upper and the lower classes, with few cases of a distinguishable middle between them. But it’s always good to be reminded of the kind of silent havoc the developers and the city government wreak when, over years and years, they plant the seeds of gentrification and big luxury hotels that eventually squeeze the poorest of the poor into those resource-less, shitty, high-rise project buildings that I think need no further introduction. Once again, I can only speak to the scenes in Manhattan in this case, but I think that’s good enough.

Think of it this way — I met people over the past week who literally couldn’t survive over a span of, like, six days without power. For people of privilege, or at least people with other options — people like me — it’s an inconvenience; you stock up with as many supplies as you can beforehand, and then maybe you leave town to stay with friends or relatives. But after actually speaking with residents from the projects in the East Village and the Lower East Side over the past week, it’s pretty clear to me that, regardless of all the city relief efforts and the donations, these people had no safe place (barring cramped city shelters) to which to evacuate, and they didn’t have the individual or collective resources to live through this crisis on their own, even as their physical homes were never in danger.

These are thousands and thousands of human beings who live in squalor and dejection. It’s criminal, right? I mean, this is an issue we already knew enough about… the storm just brought it back out into the open. But whatever, the time has passed, the spotlight has run its course, we’ve talked about you enough, you scum of the city, you’ve got your power back and your government-issued food rations, so be pleased that we’ve even taken this much time out of our lives to humour you with a few op-eds and maybe a three-minute feature on a TV news show.

But this is really what we want. We love this shit. Everyone here loved watching the presidential debates, not because we thought we’d be surprised, but because we already knew all the lines. Our favourite talking points are like the classic tunes we go wild for at arena concerts; just enough of a dose to get us screaming, not so much that it distracts us from getting back to the passive and the mundane three minutes later.

And when the pick our president today, it’ll be sport. It’s the Super Bowl.

Last night, hours before the polls opened, our two major candidates gave their final televised speeches to the American public. During the half-time show of Monday Night Football! Yes!

I think it’s funny that people become so incensed when they realize that their iPhone was actually designed to become obsolete and start breaking after a year or two. Because this is how we live. Our digital cities, our physical and societal infrastructures, our awkward national zeal — these are parts of a great, 21st-Century American engine that’s designed for productivity, efficiency and sheer power. But in the smallest, most vital way, it’s been built to crack and fail. We like to talk, and we like to argue, but we’ve lost any sense of urgency to address the flaws within our own culture. And for the presidential candidates, I guess it’s just better to talk about the federal budget and Iran.

One day, all these forgotten debates — the guns, the rushing sea waters, the starving man on the Lower East Side — will come back to us, and, like the people in the projects who sat through the storm, we won’t have anywhere to go. We’ll be trapped in our own homes. Taking shits in bags and throwing them in the incinerator, as one woman told me had been happening in her high-rise building just last week. What happens when the incinerator fails?

But until then, enjoy today’s American election! It’s the most important thing in the world!

Sam Spokony is a reporter for The Villager in New York City

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