God's Gonna Trouble the Waters of Paradises Built in Hell

On this 4th anniversary of Katrina, I finally got to watch Trouble the Water, about which I had blogged briefly a year ago. So at the risk of repeating myself, allow me to repeat myself, from the previous post:

Following up on Mike's last post, and our previous discussion of the special Katrina issue of the Journal of Southern Religion -- the new film Trouble the Water appears to be a must-watch (has anyone here seen it yet?). The film captures Kimberly Rivers Roberts and Scott Roberts, two New Orleans Katrina survivors whose video camera provides an inside view of the days during and after Katrina. Of the film, Richard Corliss writes:

In the gritty, buoyant Kim they [the filmmakers] found a person who symbolized both the lower depths of urban life and the resilience, when faced with an impossible challenge, to rise to a level higher than flood tide. Maybe Kim, Scott and their crew were no angels before Katrina, but that doesn't matter--because in Trouble the Water, we see the lives of the saints.

In the "beyond parody" department -- our old friend Michael Brown of FEMA -- remember the good old days? -- makes a brief appearance in the film, and reminds us (unintentionally, of course) of the costs of neglect and ineptitude, as well as the costs of philosophies which denigrate government as the root of all evil. In case anyone was wondering what he's doing now, aside from a career as a "motivational speaker" here's one thing he's doing -- hosting an AM talk radio show on the largest station in Denver. I listened with fascination recently as he tore into the "incompetence" of the Obama administration. It was rather like if you heard me, after my latest pick-up basketball game debacle, tear into Dwight Howard for his incompetence because I had seen him mess up one fast break opportunity somewhere in last year's playoffs.

Rebecca Solnit's work A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster has been getting some attention lately, as well it should given the inherently interesting subject matter, and the author's engaging body of work to date. She covers ad hoc communities of communal help that arose after the San Francisco earthquake, during the London blitz, in Mexico City after the 1985 earthquake, and in post 9/11 New York -- times "when everyone has agency and no one has ultimate authority, when the society invents itself as it goes along." She also discusses Katrina and New Orleans, as a kind of counter-example. But the lessons to be learned about New Orleans strike me as rather different than some kind of Woodstockian celebration of spontaneous community, and nothing shows this more than watching Kimberly Rivers et famille in Trouble the Water.

Christine Stansell takes on this work in a usefully skeptical way in the latest New Republic (I can't find a link presently, will post when it's up). Stansell rightly finds this work suffused with the religious language of grace (I'd say a Rousseauian language of an ideal state of nature, as well) -- "Solnit's classless self-governing society resembles nothing so much as a state of grace; and her uprising of the spirit -- 'the joy in disaster' -- evokes the exaltation of a revival. . . . Solnit here taps into a repository of Protestant millennialism that lies deep in the American psyche. More precisely, it is an Arminian understanding of sin and salvation. God dispenses suffering as HE pleases, but we can make of it what we will, using the test to redeem ourselves and deliver ourselves into His hands, washed of our sins."

Stansell warns about the "pitfalls of self-delusion in any politics of transcendence," and her words came to me on viewing Trouble the Water, where one sees something closer to a hell built on paradise rather than a paradise built in hell. As Stansell points out, and the main characters of this documentary point out in their raw local argot, "In New Orleans, of course, the disaster was the lack of government. . . . That the reconstruction of a great American city has had to depend on a volunteer army of idealistic ill-paid twentysomethings is not a glory, it is a crime. . . . New Orleans needs more than volunteers and self-actualization. It needs generous and well-administered federal aid, and decent city government . . . That would be paradise."

Kimberly Rivers evidences grit, determination, and sometimes even a little joy in surviving Katrina and attempting to reconstruct her life and those of her family members. Yet her experience demonstrates the wisdom of Stansell's caution about Solnit's "utopian instincts of altruism and mutual aid, which can transform politics-as-usual," which shows "not interest in the vast and contrary evidence that disasters can bring out the worst in people as well as the best -- which is one reason why government action . . . is necessary and desirable." The relative lack of it in New Orleans -- before, during, and after the storm -- was close enough to hell for my tastes.

Watch clips of Trouble the Water here. A useful report on post-Katrina recovery efforts and the state of the city presently is here in yesterday's Times. There's reason for hope, but the waters are still troubled, as well. Obama's reflections on what needs to be done are here. The evidence so far suggests that Craig Fugate has been effective, showing (to paraphrase Stansell's critique of Solnit) that efficacy matters more than joy, that government matters a lot, and that "the destruction of communities is not a boon to communitarianism."


Unknown said…
Thanks so much for this, Paul--it's one of the more eloquent anniversary reminders I've seen.

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