The Daily 750

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The Monster Culture

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

"All the while the stump was healing, the artificial leg had been at the back of the clothes closet, largely hidden from sight by the shoes on the floor and by the trousers hanging down from the crossrod. It still took some doing not to notice it, but I was determined and didn’t know what it was made of till the day Alvin took it out to put it on."
       from The Plot Against America, Philip Roth

Young Phil Roth’s terror and revulsion of his cousin Alvin’s lost limb is palpable throughout the chapter Roth named bluntly “The Stump.” Roth’s fierce honesty forces the reader to fear, see, touch the stump as well, and I’m left thankful that Alvin didn’t come home from war in the same condition as Max Cleland, who had both legs and an arm blown off in Vietnam when he picked up a grenade dropped by one of his Army buddies. Imagine what young Roth would have thought after Max told him, “I left three limbs on the battlefield.” You mean just sitting there? Couldn’t you bring them with you? Are they still there now? Did wild dogs eat them? Are there wild dogs in Vietnam? All questions he could never ask.

Cleland went into politics in his home state of Georgia when he returned from Vietnam, advocating for veterans affairs and Democratic Party issues, finally being elected US Senator in 1996, when the prestigious Sam Nunn retired. Cleland’s failure to win reelection in 2000 was widely attributed to television ads by his opponent, Republican Saxby Chambliss, that were said to have painted Cleland as lacking in patriotism. Voters in Georgia say there’s some truth to that, but mostly the majority just didn’t go along with Cleland’s increasingly liberal votes in the Senate. Still, I wasn’t the only one who wondered how anyone could possibly take a job away from a man who had managed to do so much with so little.

Then I listened to Cleland on Bill Maher’s HBO show this weekend. Even Bill became politically correct when Cleland said that after Hurricane Katrina, “Fifty percent of the New Orleans Police Department walked off their jobs, and 25 percent of them went on a looting spree.” Yes, and the other 25 percent were at the Krispy Kreme in Baton Rouge. Bill Maher himself might have cracked that, but here’s what I saw in Bill’s face: You have just said one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard in my life, an outright blatant lie, and I’ve got this great comeback; but look, there’s nothing in the right arm of your dark blue suit and there’s nothing under the table but a chair and a couple of stumps, and I just cannot blow you up one more time. So, Bill nodded once and went on.

The New Orleans Police Department has been, not one of, but the most corrupt, inefficient, lackadaisical big-city organization in America for as long as its been in existence. The many post-Katrina reports of individual policemen deserting their posts, looting, extorting, coercing and acting with brutality and insensitivity are shocking but not surprising.

The fact is that about 250 of the 1750 NOPD officers – FIFTEEN percent, not FIFTY -- remain unaccounted for and are being investigated as deserters. Another 15 or 20 are being investigated for crimes.

We live in a culture where a thing lacks weight and importance unless it is a monstrosity. Category 5, 50 percent, 10,000 dead, 20 feet of water. A Monster Culture. Anything less drops off the national radar before the nation can begin to understand it. Just six weeks after Hurricane Katrina and I have to go looking to find out how New Orleans is progressing.

Do we really need a monster to move us? Or isn’t it enough to know that a single artificial leg stands behind the trousers in the closet.