Monday, September 05, 2005

Katrina's Clowns

One of the few positively instructive things to come out of the aftermath of a calamity like the one unfolding in New Orleans is the opportunity to watch America's various clowns of conscience suddenly exposed for what they are. In times of relative calm, these purveyors of irrelevance--and America seems especially blessed with fashion designers, Hollywood stars, grunge bands, comedians, movie critics, nightclub owners, animal-rights advocates, celebrity athletes, stock gurus, television chefs, interior designers, sports-radio talkshow hosts, etc--all seem somehow germane and even important to the fabric of a society. But when true tragedy strikes (10,000 people dead?) things change overnight, and suddenly a clown must come to terms with an awfully inconvenient dilemma: how, in a time like this when the horrible realities of life have taken center stage, does one continue the trajectory of a trite and superfluous calling without seeming utterly and absolutely ridiculous?

The first few hours are telling. Usually a tragedy of any real magnitude is followed by an eerie calm from that corner of the Big Tent where the clowns make their residence. For two or three days there will be a sort of subdued and embarassed silence as they wait patiently for the rescue workers to pluck the victims from their flooded houses. These are the hours of devastation and deliverance; of heroism, not hedonism. Luckily for them, most clowns live in the parts of the city that have been spared the highest waters, the blackouts, and so they are able to watch it all on television.

It must be a disheartening time for a person like this to see their life's priorities suddenly relegated to second-class citizenship in the hierarchy of human values, their current vocation placed onto the much more significant backdrop of death and rape and murder and disease. One can't help feeling sympathy for the New Orleans musician whose first big gig had been scheduled for the night of the hurricane. Or for the Tulane football player whose start on the offensive line was postponed because his stadium was being used to "accomodate" the survivors. Or even for the New York fashion designer whose press conference to announce a new line of lingerie has been unfairly overshadowed by the hurricane and its aftermath.

Tragedy does not discriminate.

But Americans are nothing if not resilient. As the waters begin to subside from the city and the remaining refugees are whisked from the temporary shelters to their new lives in exile, the country will breathe a collective sigh of relief that this tragedy is finally behind us all, and that now, at long last, we can begin to pick up the strewn-about pieces of our customary way of life.

It is here that the clowns will click off their television sets, relieved that the long wait is over. Ever so slowly they will begin to reapply their face paint--the perpetually surprised eye brows, the big red-lipped smiles--and make their way, sheepishly at first but then with a renewed sense of authority and purpose, back into the arena of American life. To announce their return they will organize a benefit performance of some kind, perhaps a fashion show or black-tie gala, with proceeds directed toward the relief effort. Then they will hold a wet T-shirt contest in memory of the victims. With more and more gusto the clowns will eventually come to their rightful place in society, until they have once again assumed the controls.

Which is a good thing.

In fact, the argument that nearly all clowns make when justifying their singing and dancing on the still-decaying bodies of the victims is that by returning to such shenanigans (which, remember, would not be shenanigans at all if the bodies didn't happen to be there) they are actually helping to "restore a sense of normalcy." (Be wary of this mantra, my friends, as it is the battle cry of the clown on his march back into town!) And so the Surf-And-Sand Invitational Volleyball Tournament, the Country Music Jamboree and All-Nite Carnival, the 7th Annual East Coast Barbecue Cook-off, the Five States Celebrity Pro-Am Golf Challenge, the Father-Daughter Gunnysack Race and Pie-Throwing Competition, the parades, the festivities, the endless fun and frivolity that must be held from one end of the country to the other in the name of the disaster's hundreds of thousands of outcasts from among the swampy ruins of what used to be the Gulf Coast--all of it is not so much a tactless and belated trumpet played to the tune of the world's suffering, now brought home, as it is a much-needed respite from the hopelessness of the situation. By going ahead with the ceremonies for the World's Largest Hot Dog Eating Contest, which, after all, has been months in the planning, event organizers manage not only to salvage their investment, but, more importantly, to provide a much-needed service to the storm victims by reassuring them that their lives can once again have hope and meaning. (In this sense, the more superfluous the activity, the more comfort that is provided.)

Even better is when the tragedy can somehow be incorporated into the clown's normal routine: thus, a chef might bake eclairs for a hurricane shelter; a movie star will make an appearance at a refugee camp to sign autographs and offer words of encouragement; and an animal rights group will offer to provide free housing for displaced pets. During their programs, sports-radio hosts discuss the impact of Katrina on ticket sales for the upcoming season, just as sports organizations from around the country offer donations to the victims--millions upon millions of dollars--as if to say to the victims, Here, this is to help you get on with your that we can get on with ours.

All of which casts the spotlight on an even greater question. What exactly is this so-called life of normalcy that we in America are all so eager to return to? Is it the pleasantly familiar one where the baker can tend to his eclairs without feeling guilty about the thought of refugees? (As if the world's 35 million refugees could somehow settle in the evacuated bowl that is New Orleans.) Or a place where a professional athlete can play his game without being needlessly distracted by the awareness that innocent people are being raped and murdered on the streets of a city somewhere? (As if the quelling of looting in New Orleans could mean physical safety to people in other places of the world.) Or, perhaps, we all desire simply to return to a friendlier place, the happier time, not too long ago, when the ocean's waters were just a little bit cooler to the touch?

(Isn't it just a little ironic that in our day and age we have no better point of reference to compare the force of a hurricane than the equivalent force of an atomic bomb?)

So yes, America will return to its previous ways. And, rest assured, there will be something built to take the place of what was once New Orleans. And the World Series will be played as it has nearly every October since the rest of us can remember. In time the clowns will be there to resume their place in life, just as they have after every period of crisis. It is their time to shine, to be of real service to their society in a way that nobody else can. And when our clowns have returned, the rest of us will be there to greet them with open arms. And we will make sure to be there at every concert with our celebratory hats on, our party favors in hand, and a pair of big floppy shoes, tied to each other with their laces, draped around our shoulders like a wreath.