• History •
September 4, 2005
“We’re all wondering now what will become of New Orleans,” writes Nicholas Lemann. “A big American city has never before been entirely emptied of people, and had most of its housing rendered useless, and had all its basic systems fail at once.” Lemann’s article is a daunting reminder of what is at stake in the rebuilding and recovery of New Orleans.
He also seems to understand the city’s unique character. New Orleans is an affront to nature, and nature isn’t shy about reminding New Orleans of it. Lots of other places are affronts to nature, too, but, if they are in the United States, they usually have the hermetically sealed feeling of high-rise beachfront condominiums and desert suburbs and houses perched on mountaintops. New Orleans is too scruffy ever to achieve that. Tendrils of vines poke up through the floorboards. Paint flakes, wood rots, stamps self-adhere, and chunks of concrete must fly out of the roadbeds in the middle of the night (how else could they have disappeared?). The air is wet and heavy enough to slice into chunks and carry out of town in shopping bags. Streams lose their coherence and turn into swamps. Rats and roaches and snakes sashay through the gutters. Southern Louisiana is the site of many environmental depredations, but one of them will never be a feeling of locked-down sterility as an appurtenance of human habitation. Nature has the upper hand.
His article, “In the Ruins,” is published in the September 12, 2005 issue of The New Yorker.
September 4, 2005
Jackson Kuhl, a writer who speciailizes in matters of history and archaeology, offers a quick summary of how New Orleans came to be in “The City Below Sea Level,” published at Tech Central Station.
Bienville had been eager to found a trading post at the foot of a Native American portage along the Mississippi which connected the river to a bayou, and hence to Lake Pontchartrain, in the north. He saw this as his chance. Law and the royal engineer both thought Bienville’s choice was ridiculous — the site was in the middle of a swamp. The small patch of dry ground lay at a curve in the river, Bienville argued, halfway between Fort Rosalie (Natchez) along the Mississippi and Fort Louis at Mobile. Also, he said, it would be safe from hurricanes. Then again, maybe not.
September 4, 2005
This eventful week became all the more historic with the announcement that U.S. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist had died late on Saturday. The Chief Justice’s battle with thyroid cancer was well-known, and he died less than a year after his diasgnosis.
Nominated by President Richard M. Nixon to the nation’s high court in 1971, he was elevated to Chief Justice after he was nominated by President Ronald Reagan in 1986. He served more than 33 years on the court — a life’s contribution. Funeral details have not yet been announced. President George W. Bush is to speak of the Chief Justice’s death later on Sunday.
Immediate speculation centered on how the Chief Justice’s death will affect the confirmation hearings for John Roberts, scheduled to begin on Tuesday. Of course, the larger issue is the new opening on the court and in the Chief Justice’s seat.
Here is the official statement from the U.S. Supreme Court, delivered by spokeswoman Kathy Arberg:
William H. Rehnquist, the 16th Chief Justice of the United States, died this evening at his home in Arlington, Virginia surrounded by his three children. The Chief Justice battled thyroid cancer since being diagnosed last October and continued to perform his duties on the Court until a precipitous decline in his health in the last couple of days. He is survived by his three children: Janet Rehnquist of Arlington, Virginia, James C. Rehnquist of Sharon, Massachusetts and Nancy Spears of Middlebury, Vermont; his sister, Jean Laurin of Grand Rapids, Michigan; and nine grandchildren. His wife, Natalie Cornell Rehnquist, died in 1991.
September 3, 2005
The October 2004 issue of National Geographic Magazine featured a major article warning of an impending catastrophe in the New Orleans area — a catastrophe most likely to be caused by a major hurricane. The article, entitled “Gone with the Water,” now appears to have been hauntingly prophetic.
Writer Joel K. Bourne, Jr. outlined a “doomsday scenario” like this: The storm hit Breton Sound with the fury of a nuclear warhead, pushing a deadly storm surge into Lake Pontchartrain. The water crept to the top of the massive berm that holds back the lake and then spilled over. Nearly 80 percent of New Orleans lies below sea level–more than eight feet below in places–so the water poured in. A liquid brown wall washed over the brick ranch homes of Gentilly, over the clapboard houses of the Ninth Ward, over the white-columned porches of the Garden District, until it raced through the bars and strip joints on Bourbon Street like the pale rider of the Apocalypse. As it reached 25 feet (eight meters) over parts of the city, people climbed onto roofs to escape it. Thousands drowned in the murky brew that was soon contaminated by sewage and industrial waste. Thousands more who survived the flood later perished from dehydration and disease as they waited to be rescued. It took two months to pump the city dry, and by then the Big Easy was buried under a blanket of putrid sediment, a million people were homeless, and 50,000 were dead. It was the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States.
When did this calamity happen? It hasn’t–yet. But the doomsday scenario is not far-fetched. The Federal Emergency Management Agency lists a hurricane strike on New Orleans as one of the most dire threats to the nation, up there with a large earthquake in California or a terrorist attack on New York City. Even the Red Cross no longer opens hurricane shelters in the city, claiming the risk to its workers is too great. “The killer for Louisiana is a Category Three storm at 72 hours before landfall that becomes a Category Four at 48 hours and a Category Five at 24 hours–coming from the worst direction,” says Joe Suhayda, a retired coastal engineer at Louisiana State University who has spent 30 years studying the coast. Suhayda is sitting in a lakefront restaurant on an actual August afternoon sipping lemonade and talking about the chinks in the city’s hurricane armor. “I don’t think people realize how precarious we are,” Suhayda says, watching sailboats glide by. “Our technology is great when it works. But when it fails, it’s going to make things much worse.” The chances of such a storm hitting New Orleans in any given year are slight, but the danger is growing. Climatologists predict that powerful storms may occur more frequently this century, while rising sea level from global warming is putting low-lying coasts at greater risk. “It’s not if it will happen,” says University of New Orleans geologist Shea Penland. “It’s when.”
Now, look at this satellite image of Hurricane Katrina at her full strength.
September 2, 2005
Dr. Russell Moore, Dean of the School of Theology and Senior Vice President for Academic Administration at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is a proud native of Mississippi and its Gulf coast. He waited through anxious days to hear news of his parents and relatives, who had remained in Biloxi throughout Hurricane Katrina. Thankfully, they survived. Their homes did not.
How does one deal with the virtual disappearance of one’s hometown? Russ has written a moving first-person reflection, “Christ, Katrina, and My Hometown.” Read the entire article, but look carefully at his conclusion:
My hometown isn’t there anymore. But, then again, it never really was. The hope after Katrina is not for civil defense and architectural rebuilding. It is for Biloxi, Miss., and all of the created universe, to be redeemed and restored in Christ. There will come a day when the curse is reversed, and the Gulf Coast along with the entire cosmos fully reflects the glory of a resurrected Messiah. And John sees in his vision that, on that day, “the sea was no more” (Revelation 21:1). He also sees that in the Holy City, “nothing unclean will ever enter it” (Revelation 21:27).That includes the curse of Eden and all of its children: including a hurricane named Katrina. On that day, and not until then, nothing will ever threaten the New Jerusalem, our hometown.
September 1, 2005
Consider this opening paragraph from an article in today’s edition of The New York Times: Chaos gripped New Orleans on Wednesday as looters ran wild, food and water supplies dwindled, bodies floated in the floodwaters, the evacuation of the Superdome began and officials said there was no choice but to abandon the city devastated by Hurricane Katrina, perhaps for months. President Bush pledged vast assistance, but acknowledged, “This recovery will take years.”
More: And to the rising toll of victims killed, injured or homeless and jobless were added other plagues: possible epidemics of disease; overwhelmed hospitals and sanitation facilities, lost communications and transportation systems and almost everywhere hellish scenes of wreckage-strewn communities. . . . . The bulk of the city’s refugees were in or around the Superdome, which has become a shelter of last resort for more than 20,000 people. Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco of Louisiana said conditions there had become desperate, with food, water and other supplies running out, with toilets overflowing and the air foul, with temperatures hitting 100 degrees and tempers flaring. It’s becoming untenable,” the governor said. “There’s no power. It’s getting more difficult to get food and water supplies in, just basic essentials.” She said she wanted the Superdome totally evacuated within two days, and plans were being made to move most of the refugees to Houston’s Astrodome, 350 miles away, in a convoy of hundreds of buses. About 700 of the elderly and sick were removed from the sweltering stadium on Wednesday, but they were being sent elsewhere in the state.
Think back to last Saturday. Could we have imagined such a report? The suffering in New Orleans is beyond words. The grief throughout the region is immeasurable.
TO CONTRIBUTE TO DISASTER RELIEF: The North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention is the nation’s third-largest disaster relief agency. In order to contribute, go here.
DOCUMENTING THE DISASTER: The Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, BBC News, Forbes, The Los Angeles Times, The Times-Picayune [New Orleans], CNN.
August 31, 2005
From CNN: Harvey Jackson, of Biloxi, Mississippi, told CNN affiliate WKRG-TV that he believed his wife was killed after she was ripped from his grasp when their home split in half. “She told me, ‘You can’t hold me,’ … take care of the kids and the grandkids,” he said, sobbing. [Read the article, see the video] Hundreds are now feared dead even as the water in New Orleans continues to rise. Americans have never faced a natural disaster of this scale and immediacy.
In some areas, rescue workers pushed aside dead bodies in order to reach the living. As the television images make clear, the scenes are almost apocalyptic. [see gallery]
Hear this, you elders; give ear, all inhabitants of the land! Has such a thing happened in your days, or in the days of your fathers? Tell your children of it, and let your children tell their children, and their children to another generation.
[ Joel 1:2-3, English Standard Version]
August 23, 2005
Generations of children in the Soviet Union were taught the story of “Comrade Pavlik,” a young boy and “Young Pioneer” who “heroically” denounced his own father to Soviet authorities, accusing his father of hoarding grain. After young Pavlik [whose full name was Pavel Morozov] betrayed his father, he was supposedly killed by “kulak” relatives in retribution for his commitment to the Communist Party.
Thus, “Comrade Pavlik” entered the pantheon of Soviet heroes. Now, The Moscow Times reports, Russians are learning that the story was a fabrication. Here’s a section from the paper’s report: Generations of Soviet citizens grew up with the Morozov story, in one version or another. Illustrated biographies of Pavlik were written for children, poems and songs were composed, movies were made and Socialist Realist paintings contributed iconic images of the boy to the national subconscious. After World War II, statues of Pavlik were erected all over the country, and playgrounds, streets and schools were named for him. Almost anyone born before 1980 has heard of Pavlik and his heroic deeds.
The truth behind the story emerged recently with the publication of Catriona Kelly’s book, Comrade Pavlik: The Rise and Fall of a Soviet Boy Hero. Here is a summary of her findings:
As it turns out — not surprisingly — there are few if any facts in the Morozov affair that can be taken at face value. There is no record of Pavlik’s famous denunciation of his father, Trofim; no proof, indeed, that Trofim was ever tried for anything. There is only scant evidence that the boy’s father served as chair of the village soviet, and even then, not at the time of the alleged denunciation. Gossip and hearsay suggest that Trofim left his wife and children to live with another woman. There is, however, plenty of evidence in official records of animosity between Pavlik’s paternal relatives and his mother. What does seem reasonably certain is that in September 1932, near the end of the First Five-Year Plan — which brought the bloody collectivization of Soviet agriculture — a 13-year-old boy named Pavel Morozov and his 9-year-old brother, Fyodor, were found murdered in the woods outside Gerasimovka, a dirt-poor village in the forests of the Urals province. The boys had apparently been out berry-picking; their bodies were discovered some distance apart, splattered with cranberries and the blood from multiple stab wounds, and Pavlik’s head had been covered with a sack of some sort. Within a few weeks, the crime had come to national attention thanks to an article in Pionerskaya Pravda. Prosecutors contended that Pavlik had been murdered by a “nest of kulaks” resisting collectivization that included his grandfather, grandmother, uncle and cousin. These four people were found guilty in late November and sentenced to be shot.
Subsequently, the Soviet propaganda machine began to mythologize the story of Pavlik Morozov in fits and starts. . . . The authorities sought to turn the murdered boy into a model of selfless dedication to the state that could be useful in raising further generations of the “new Soviet man.”
There are real lessons here. One of the most important is the fact that any regime that would celebrate a boy’s betrayal of his own father deserves to die. A second is that such a regime will demonstrate little respect for the truth. The myth of Comrade Pavlik was a deliberate communist lie. But, as George Orwell understood; the bigger the lie, the bigger its impact. We should be deeply and eagerly thankful to God that this regime no longer exists.
August 5, 2005
August 5, 2005
My commentary today, “Hiroshima and the Burden of History,” attempts to consider the moral issues that remain even now, sixty years after the dropping of the bomb. With the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing coming tomorrow, we should look for interesting and thoughtful reactions in the media.
Today, The Los Angeles Times published a rather disappointing editorial commentary by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. Bird and Sherwin are coauthors of American Prometheus: the Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, published earlier this year. They place themselves squarely in the revisionist camp of historians. There are responsible revisionists who argue that the dropping of the bomb was not, at least taken alone, the actual cause of the Japanese surrender. But their statements in this commentary are misleading, to say the least. Take this paragraph, for example: The bomb was dropped, as J. Robert Oppenheimer, scientific director of the Manhattan Project, said in November 1945, on “an essentially defeated enemy.” President Truman and his closest advisor, Secretary of State James Byrnes, quite plainly used it primarily to prevent the Soviets from sharing in the occupation of Japan. And they used it on Aug. 6 even though they had agreed among themselves as they returned home from the Potsdam Conference on Aug. 3 that the Japanese were looking for peace.
All half-truths are problematic, but this one is especially dangerous. Yes, President Truman was very concerned about the possibility of a Soviet domination of Asia — and rightly so. We should remember that the Soviets did not declare war on Japan until two days after the Hiroshima bombing — the very night before the Nagasaki bomb was dropped. In the few days between the Soviet declaration of war and the Japanese surrender, Soviet troops moved quickly to seize the Kuril Islands and territory in Manchuria. Truman was right to be concerned.
The real problem with the Bird and Sherwin article is their simplistic claim that “the Japanese were looking for peace” before the bombs were dropped. This is just not a fair or responsible way to present the true situation. Interestingly, Bird and Sherwin cite historian Tsuyoshi Hasegawa with appreciation. But Hasegawa’s important book, Racing the Enemy, argues conclusively — using documents from the Japanese high command and war council — that the “peace” the Japanese were then seeking was nothing like an unconditional surrender, much less a surrender of all military authority. Hasegawa does believe that the Soviet declaration of war was the decisive event, but he is brutally honest about the fact that the Japanese war council was divided over the question of surrender right up until the Emperor’s decision ended the debate –and there was an attempted coup lead by army officers the night before the Emperor’s address was broadcast to the Japanese people.
The Wall Street Journal takes a very different approach in the paper’s lead editorial for today. Looking back after 60 years, who cannot be grateful that it was Truman who had the bomb, and not Hitler or Tojo or Stalin? And looking forward, who can seriously doubt the need for might always to remain in the hands of right? That is the enduring lesson of Hiroshima, and it is one we ignore at our peril. The editorial also dismisses the suggestion that nuclear weapons can simply be eliminated: Yet the notion that the nuclear genie can be willed out of existence through the efforts of right-thinking people is as absurd as it is wrongheaded. Just as guns and knives will be with us forever, so too will the bomb.
Another very insightful article is found in the current issue of The Weekly Standard. In “Why Truman Dropped the Bomb,” Richard B. Frank uses declassified military documents to determine what President Truman and his advisers really knew about the Japanese war council and its intentions [a very great deal -- almost all information drawn from decoded messages]. As Frank argues: There are a good many more points that now extend our understanding beyond the debates of 1995. But it is clear that all three of the critics’ central premises are wrong. The Japanese did not see their situation as catastrophically hopeless. They were not seeking to surrender, but pursuing a negotiated end to the war that preserved the old order in Japan, not just a figurehead emperor. Finally, thanks to radio intelligence, American leaders, far from knowing that peace was at hand, understood–as one analytical piece in the “Magic” Far East Summary stated in July 1945, after a review of both the military and diplomatic intercepts–that “until the Japanese leaders realize that an invasion can not be repelled, there is little likelihood that they will accept any peace terms satisfactory to the Allies.” This cannot be improved upon as a succinct and accurate summary of the military and diplomatic realities of the summer of 1945.
TIME magazine also published an important pair of articles timed for the anniversary. See “Living Under the Cloud” by Michael Elliott and “Crossing the Moral Threshold” by David M. Kennedy.
August 5, 2005
“Stimson, what was gunpowder? Trivial. What was electricity? Meaningless. This atomic bomb is the second coming in wrath!” Those words were spoken by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to U.S. Secretary of War Henry Stimson. Less than a month later, on August 6, 1945, Colonel Paul Tibbets and his crew flew the Enola Gay, their specially modified B-29 bomber, and dropped “Little Boy” over the city of Hiroshima, Japan.
July 14, 2005
Following my usual practice, a couple of years ago I quickly ran into a local card shop to pick up a Mothers Day card for my wife. Easy enough, you may say. Not so. Men are just not well equipped for greeting card shopping. It’s bad enough to pay an outrageous sum for painted paper covered with sloppy prose — it’s even worse to be forced to read through a few of the insipid messages in order to find just the “right” card for the occasion. This time, I blew it. Big time.
As the kids and I were gathered to tell Mary how much we love and honor her as the mother of our household, the time came for her to open and read my card. Disaster quickly followed. It turns out that I had picked out a card for “blended families,” which we are not. The card expressed awe for the mother’s ability to blend two families together. You can imagine the sound of a crashing airplane as background music.
Understanding wife that she is, Mary turned the occasion into an opportunity to laugh rather than to get angry. Our kids enjoyed it even more, warning me never to go into a card shop alone.
Greeting cards are a sign of cultural decadence. The card companies have largely invented new holidays, just to build business. What’s next? National Plumbers Day? When genuine sentiment disappears, the greeting card industry will remain. The slogan for the industry should be this: “How to say something close to something when you have absolutely nothing to say.”
The emergence of greeting cards for “alternative” families is just a sign of how commercialism follows demographics. But, does the commercialism merely follow? In some sense, it appears that the commercial aspect may actualy drive cultural momentum. After all, a new family form represents a new market. Every new lifestyle is a new opportunity.
Keep this in mind when you read The Los Angeles Times news story on the emergence of a new line of cards for adulterers. In “Adulterers Need Cards Too,” the paper reports that a woman named Cathy Gallagher has developed a line of cards for couples involved in an adulterous affair. The whole idea is profoundly sick, but the reality is truly revolting. A Christmas card for the adulterous couple includes this line: “As we each celebrate with our families, I will be thinking of you.”
According to the paper’s report: Gallagher says her Secret Lover Collection of 24 cards is the first line exclusively for people having affairs, and she expects hot sales. She says half of married people have had affairs (though some studies show the figure to be far less — more like 15% of married women and 22% of married men, according to the University of Chicago). From former President Clinton’s relationship with “that woman” to shenanigans on TV shows like “Desperate Housewives,” affairs are out in the open.
Further: Gallagher says her cards express sentiments that people in affairs can’t express to anyone else, even their best friends. “These are not sex cards; these are emotional,” she says. “No other card reflects having to share someone or not being able to be with that person on the holidays.” Yes, there’s nothing like a little home-wrecking sentiment to warm the adulterous heart at Yuletide.
Now, this little line of cards is not yet a major cultural phenomenon. After all, the major national greeting card companies have no similar product line — at least not yet. But consider this fascinating and revealing section from The Los Angeles Times story:
Hallmark, the nation’s largest greeting-card seller, says some of its relationship cards are broad enough that their meaning can vary depending on the situation, so it doesn’t see a need for an explicit line of cards for adulterers. The “Between You and Me” line covers a wide variety of relationships, says spokeswoman Rachel Bolton. She points to a card that says, “I love the private world that you and I share.” “I look at that and I’m thinking of my husband. You might look at that and think of your secretary,” Bolton says. “The purpose of a greeting card is to make somebody feel good — to solidify or further a relationship.”
Well, there you have it. Hallmark is marketing toward adulterers with a line that is “broad enough that their meaning can vary depending on the situation.” Capitalism triumphs with blandness and moral relativism combined.
As for me — I’m not going into the card store without a chaperone. It’s dangerous in there.