Letters from Ground Zero IV
Robin Morgan asks us to avert the "far bigger storm than Sandy looming" by going to the polls Tuesday—in this commentary delivered today on her radio talk-show, "Women's Media Center Live."
Twelve years ago, in the aftermath of 911, I wrote three “Letters from Ground Zero.” To my surprise, they went viral on the Internet. Today, my country, my city, and on a human level those of us who live in the lower part of Manhattan, are reeling from a new blow. So this is the fourth letter.
I’m reaching out to you from a makeshift studio in a storm-devastated New York City. Superstorm Sandy was a first for us New Yorkers. We’re a notoriously arrogant bunch, tough talkers with tender hearts who are used to surviving tourists, terrorists, and even regular presidential motorcades. We don’t do tornados like Kansas—though we’ve actually had a few lately. We don’t do earthquakes like California—though recently several have surprised the hell out of us. We don’t do floods like Mississippi or levee surges like New Orleans or windstorms like the Great Plains, though Sandy managed all three.
We do traffic.
Hurricane Sandy changed that. Oh, not the arrogance, I’m afraid. But the "we don’t do” part. Words like ‘historic,’ ‘unprecedented,’ and ‘catastrophic’ are being used. People—including political officials—walk around stunned, stammering, “never seen anything like this.” Just why they haven’t, why none of us has—well, more about that a little later.
For now, a few words about those officials.
I’m going to say something you very, very rarely hear me say, so pay attention. It’s about men. It’s about some powerful men. It’s praise.
I am not fond of billionaire New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who stole an extra term for himself illegally and who—oh lots of other not good things. I have little affection for New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a decent enough state attorney general, a serviceable HUD secretary in the Clinton cabinet, and a not bad governor (but look who he followed: George Pataki and then the brief mortifying reign of Elliot Spitzer)—but who has always lacked the vision, daring, and eloquence of his father, Mario Cuomo. And I certainly do not like governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, whose so called lovable bluntness has for me the adorability of a buzz saw.
But here’s the thing. Think: London during the World War II blitz. Adversity brings out the best in many people. These expert political cynics put aside the spin for once. They exhibited professionalism, efficiency, cooperation, straight talk, un-egocentric praise of others, and round-the- clock on-the-case devotion to actually doing the job we elected them to do. I’ve found their actions admirable, even moving. Furthermore, the way the system has been working—city government, state government, regional cohesion, and federal support: more than admirable, more than moving.
I keep thinking, this is the way power should work, this is the way government should work—and this is why we need government—not as the down-with-all-government-folks, neo-anarchists of the right and the left, would have it.
(I do confess that I especially enjoy it when Republican Chris Christie, who has attacked President Obama in the past as ‘ineffective,’ gratefully applauds Obama’s leadership in sending in the National Guard and gives high fives to the president for declaring New Jersey a disaster area—no jokes about it always having been one anyway, please. I confess bemusement when Romney and Ryan are caught doing staged soup-kitchen-volunteer-service campaign photo ops, while Obama not only looks but acts presidential—phoning governors, touring disaster areas, sending in the Army Corps of Engineers, and releasing onto the afflicted states a restructured federal emergency management agency so efficient that good grief conservative pols admit it makes the Bush-Katrina FEMA look even more pathetic than it did when George W. praised it so embarrassingly. )
But reactions of my lower self aside, let’s look at New Yorkers in a moment like this. Those first responders—cops and firefighters and sanitation workers and EMS crews. Magnificence. And the lifeguards and Coast Guard members who risk their lives plunging into 30 foot swells to rescue morons who insist against all warnings on surfing in a perfect storm, because being sensible would be, like, 'a drag, dude.' Or to rescue coastal or island residents who decide to sit it out because evacuating would mean more spoiled groceries forgodsake.
New Yorkers suddenly check on their neighbors, bring each other food, pause their cars and wave each other on first, at intersections where traffic lights have no electricity so it otherwise would be every car for itself. They recharge strangers’ cellphones from their laptops or e-readers. They clump amusingly in hot spots on street corners (like outside shuttered Starbucks) clustering as if they were bees around a bloom furry with thick pollen, sending and receiving backed up emails, tweets, texts, and calls. They offer apartments in nonaffected areas, electric socket use, showers with hot water (a great concept!), car services, and spare rooms or beds or cots or sofas or sleeping bags.
The camaraderie is real. The goodwill and spirit of wry adventure and sense of the absurd, the empathy, the offers of help—they’re real. Tears sting my eyes as I write these notes, not of sentimentality but of longing, for this to become our normal state of being human. For there to be a realization that we are—the species is, the planet is—truly in a state of grave catastrophe, so if adversity is what’s required to inspire us to heights of sanity, fairness, and cooperation, well, the crisis is already here.
Governor Cuomo, to my surprise, was the first person I heard (on my little shortwave battery radio) dare say something that I haven’t yet heard from any other official or any media reporter or pundit: he said, "when once-in-a-century storms come twice in one year, that gets my attention. This is not political—this is fact. We can’t ignore or deny this any longer.” Good for you, Andrew—the son finally finding his own voice and guts. Naming it.
At this writing, 15 New Yorkers have died, and more deaths are anticipated. Fifteen is a small number in the grand scheme of statistics—but not to those 15 people, each unique one of whom embodied a universe of consciousness, hope, anger, love, laughter, grief, and memories, now forever gone.
I want to run through the darkened streets crying, “people, this is what we mean! It’s called climate change. We’re not Cassandras or Chicken Littles. The West Side Highway is under six feet of water. Some subway stations are flooded up to their ceilings. People’s homes, businesses, lives, have been threatened, ruined, destroyed.”
I’m fortunate. This is my way—these words—of running through the streets crying. But each of you who hears or reads this is likely a self-selecting proud member of the choir I’m preaching to. So we each need to take it out further, to people not in the choir, triaging nobody and writing no one off since we’re all stuck with this small fragile endangered exquisite blue planet that’s stuck with us.
I’m fortunate, too, because I have friends to stay with until the power comes back on, have places to go to recharge my laptop and ipad and iphone so I can write these notes. (By the way, reliance on these devices, and on the extended brain attachment that is Google, and on email and Twitter and Facebook , is as addictive as I suspected—not to mention the sudden lack of television news images. Deprivation of these now daily devices that are so lacked and hungered for by most of the world is a consciousness-raiser: I feel amputated, bereft, and somewhat Neanderthal.)
I’m also fortunate, because I work with a team of extraordinary women—the team of Women’s Media Center Live—who, while dealing with the wake of the storm in their own Washington, D.C., and environs area, have been relentless in their work to make possible what you’re reading and hearing, to find ways, invent ways, to make this show go on. That they have done so sometimes in the middle of the night, or from at home when unable to get to the office, and done so in a manner at once humorous, smart, loving, and skillful makes this work, for me, without hyperbole, an honor.
Yes, I’m fortunate. My home is still intact, trees in the garden held, though they lost enough boughs and branches to make the garden look like the black-and-white part of “The Wizard of Oz" before Judy Garland’s concussive Technicolor starts. I can report to you that cold showers are bracing, and qualify the bather for a speed-shower record. I can also report that it’s a challenge to live by candlelight, however romantic, because when the pool of illumination is small, so, consequently, are one’s perceptions. And I can report that there is just so much frozen spinach and homemade chicken soup stock one can consume before gagging.
But all these are infinitesimally minor problems compared to the real stuff.
The real stuff?
For one thing, this was, people say, not a manmade disaster like 911 but a ‘natural disaster.’ I beg to differ. This was a manmade disaster—fluorocarbon-made and fracking-made and agent orange-made and gas-belching-ozone-layer-perforating made.
The real stuff?
You know, the usual. Human suffering, human empathy. Now New York begins to understand in the pore and at the bone how Manila acts with its regular fetid floodings, how Fukushima felt, how post-Katrina New Orleans smelled.
Yet we can do something about it, not only rebuild but change the how and what we rebuild, the why and who of the rebuilding.
Which brings me back to the original theme we had planned for this show.
Every election, we say ‘this is the most important election in history.’ this time it really, really is. Two imminent retirements on the Supreme Court and the choice of who fills those vacancies—that issue alone defines justice in this nation for the next quarter century or more. The soul of our republic is at stake, as is our labor, our education, the shapes and shades of our very bodies—our wombs, our pigmentation, our utterance, our minds.
Nor is it just us. I wish the whole world could vote in U.S. elections, since those elections disproportionately affect the whole world.
“Men, their votes and nothing more; women, their votes and nothing less.” That was a slogan from the 19th century women’s suffrage movement—a protracted struggle that took 100 years and cost women their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, in the words of the Constitution’s framers (who had ignored women). In fact, all but a very few of those women had any fortune whatsoever, their honor and reputations were shredded by ‘unladylike’ activism, many suffered prison time and lost their health due to torturous intubated forced feedings as punishments for hunger strikes. Several women lost their lives. But, as Susan B. Anthony prophesied on her deathbed, “failure is impossible,” and the suffragists won.
Won is the operative word, remember. When someone misspeaks of a time “when they gave women the vote,” set them straight about the ‘won’ part.
I think of those women and that struggle often—especially of Anthony and the great Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Stanton smiles out at us from sepia daguerreotypes, a dimpled, plumpish elderly woman (she lived past 80) in a lacy shirtwaist and full hooped skirt, tidy sidecurl ringlets of white hair above each ear. Yet Stanton’s radical vision, unsatisfied with the suffrage fight, also focused on the institution of slavery, on economics, on reactionary ways of child raising, and on the institution of marriage (though she was married—but had refused the promise to obey—and the mother of seven children). And she confronted the church, facing down religion openly when she published The Woman’s Bible—thus giving her friend and colleague, the more pragmatic Anthony, periodic bouts of indigestion.
These women believed that the vote could change everything. And from their perspective, one can see that it might have. To this day, there are numerically a majority of female citizens in this country (and almost all others). Theoretically, we could bring about world revolution simply, swiftly, nonviolently, even concertedly, at the ballot box. Anthony’s vision was of women marshaling our power as a bloc vote—"hoard your vote" she counseled. But although almost a century later we have a sturdy gender gap, we’ve really been at this only half a century, since the 1960s. At least 50 more years to go.
Might as well get started, then. Use these words as your own. Share them with someone. Help somebody get to the polls. Argue persuasively with those too disillusioned to vote, or too bitter, or too pure. There’s a far bigger storm than Sandy looming, but it’s one you and I can maybe avert.
So we’re reaching out—the remarkable women with whom I have the privilege of working and me—sending you this message in a bottle from a makeshift studio in a storm-devastated New York City—the fourth of the Letters from Ground Zero.
Election Day is coming.
Carry yourself as one who would save the world.
Because you will.
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