Saturday, September 03, 2005

But it was thought, by some, that the deck would look too cluttered.

Whenever something calamitous happens, something utterly horrifying, when the terror and the initial shock start to wear off and give way to the longer-lasting emotions like melancholy, I inevitably turn to art. And almost always, I turn to literature, music, and film. It's just the way I'm wired; it's just the way I've developed over the years in which I attempt to frame the things that happen in our world, and in mine.

I do this because I think that what all artists do -- even the much-disparaged "pop" artists, the ones who fuel our "popular culture" -- is try to loan some perspective to the world, and find the sense behind a Universe that I've long held to be, at its most basic core, utterly devoid of sense. (Maybe, in this way, I'm looking in Art for whatever it is many others look for in God.) And in times like these, when an American city's very existence is no longer a given, I look to Art for some kind of lesson to be learned, something to take into the future that might be applied next time it happens. Because it always does, sooner or later.

This morning, for no apparent reason that I can think of, I was reflecting on the movie Titanic. I wasn't sure why. It's not like there's much to compare between the sinking of an ocean liner and the swath of destruction wreaked by a hurricane. But then I remembered some statements I've read in the last few days, and then called to mind more statements I've read over the last few years and beyond, and it came to me.

It was the poor people.

It was the ones who stupidly refused to leave the city, now forcing all of us hard-working taxpayers to take care of them. It was the ones who stayed behind because they figured it would mean a good opportunity afterwards to do some looting. It was the ones of whom, it was said, "Well, if they won't leave, then at least we've got a big domed football stadium for them to shack up in."

Or, as I choose to look at them, the ones who knew they were in harm's way but who had no real way of getting out, or anyplace to go if they did. The ones who could only watch as others with transportation, destinations, medicine, and whatever else made their way to certain safety. The ones whose only choice was between one variety of total uncertainty and another variety of total uncertainty.

Kind of like people who stood at the rails of a slowly sinking ship, wondering if any of the already-too-few lifeboats would come back, and if they did, whether they'd be one of the few to get plucked from the icy water.

There's a brief moment in Titanic, so brief that you might miss it entirely. Rose (Kate Winslet) and her fiance, Cal (Billy Zane), are in the midst of a confrontation over her increasing affair with Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio), when they are interrupted by one of the ship's stewards who, firmly but very politely in deference to the class of the passengers he's addressing, informs them that they are to move to the boat deck because something is afoot:

STEWARD: Sir, I've been told to ask you to please put on your lifebelt, and come up to the boat deck.

CAL: Get out. We're busy.

The steward persists, coming in to get the lifebelts down from the top of a dresser.

STEWARD: I'm sorry about the inconvenience, Mr. Hockley, but it's Captain's orders. Please dress warmly, it's quite cold tonight. (he hands a lifebelt to Rose) Not to worry, miss, I'm sure it's just a precaution.

CAL: This is ridiculous.

In the corridor outside the stewards are being so polite and obsequious they are conveying no sense of danger whatsoever.

We then immediately cut to this:


BLACKNESS. Then BANG! The door is thrown open and the lights snapped on by a steward. The Cartmell family rouses from a sound sleep.

STEWARD #2: Everybody up. Let's go. Put your lifebelts on.

MR. CARTMELL: What'd he say?

IN THE CORRIDOR outside, another steward is going from door to door along the hall, pouncing and yelling.

STEWARD #2: Lifebelts on. Lifebelts on. Everybody up, come on. Lifebelts on...

People come out of the doors behind the steward, perplexed. In the foreground a SYRIAN WOMAN asks her husband what was said. He shrugs.

This whole exercise in contrast between how the rich and poor are treated in the face of impending doom is over in about thirty seconds. But it's a moment I keep replaying in my mind today, for what I hope are obvious reasons.

Of course, back in the early twentieth century we could be open about our contempt for the poor; we could build a ship with lifeboats enough for only fifty percent of an ocean liner's population, and whitewash over that negligence with a "Well, we didn't think the ship was sinkable in the first place". Now, of course, we're smarter and we have more wisdom bought with the blood of nearly a century's worth of innocent people sacrificed on the altars of stupidity and poor planning and just plain not giving a shit, so we know that excuse won't fly.

So what we have now is, in my mind, even more perverse. Now we tell the poor: "Sorry if we don't have enough lifeboats, but it's your own fault if you didn't bring your own lifeboat along for the ride."

This is why I'm a liberal, folks. It's because I believe that we should have lifeboats.

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