November 7, 2012

A Time for Superstorms

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“You came at the right time,” another guest said to me, as I looked up, bleary-eyed, from the coffee dispenser (my inconspicuous lifeline at that San Francisco hostel). The Giants had swept the World Series, and fans were expected to pack the streets for the team’s victory parade. If you came late you had to climb a tree to get a good view. A day later her words proved true, as my friends and I were engulfed by waves of orange and black. I felt criminal wearing purple.I was caught in a historic moment, by accident. Two of them, to be precise: I was still wandering around San Francisco because my flight back to Ithaca had been cancelled, on account of Hurricane Sandy, the “superstorm” that has certainly earned its moniker. That morning our rental car had been towed away, and we had to navigate our way through the buoyant parade spectators to get our car back.It’s been a long week. There’s a lot I don’t know what to make of. Millions of households in New York and New Jersey have lost power and communication services. The onslaught of wind and rain might make over 20,000 New Yorkers homeless. Hurricane Sandy has become nearly synonymous with “wake-up call” in recent press.  How to prepare for the next incarnation of Sandy has dominated conversations — for instance, what kind of storm barriers to use, and the extent to which the chosen mitigation measures will suffice.$2 billion in campaign spending later, Barack Obama narrowly ended Mitt Romney’s six-year bid for president. Already, commentators are hailing Obama as the Democrats’ Reagan. I won’t venture into further comment, since political enthusiasts of all stripes have been out in full force for weeks. But change is in the air (even if it is no longer electric), and plans are already on the drawing board.It was a strange feeling, confronting a steady stream of news reports and comprehending that I was a far-from-detached witness to these events. Of course, being stranded in California is hardly a bad thing. Mostly I tried, with limited success, to catch up on homework in an overcrowded hostel room. With far greater success, since my hostel was a 15-minute trek away from Chinatown, I ate a lot of Chinese food at Zagat-rated establishments (one of these had, plastered prominently by the door, the requisite pictures of the restaurant staff smiling with President Obama).But more importantly, any complaints I had seemed trite in the light of Sandy. All I could summon, in response to the chaos on the hostel television screen, were vague feelings or suspiciously contrived platitudes.  While waiting at the San Francisco airport, I chanced upon Anthony Lane’s excellent review of Cloud Atlas in The New Yorker. Lane observes that there is something “grindingly circular” in a film that has expended such “spectacular” energy to “connect people across time and space,” only to conclude with the startling news that we are all connected.” This left me wondering if it wasn’t also “grindingly circular” to explain away a disaster by saying “it was meant to be.”So I was immensely relieved when Kent Annan, writing for The Huffington Post, pointed out the sincere but silly things we say after a disaster. Such an act of God naturally compels people to, well, construe it as an act of God. But to say that “at least [the victims] are in a better place now” is to dismiss suffering, and the value that God places on this life. To say “we might not understand, but it was part of God’s plan,” is to suggest that the master plan is flawed. The common assertion of faith, Annan notes, is that God overcomes evil with good, not that this chaos is part of a meticulous plan.The events of the past week have also raised another question: when is the right time to be political? I’ve been a little annoyed hearing political strategists discuss how President Obama’s handling of the storm makes him look good — hugging New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and having media attention diverted away from jobs and the economy — and Mitt Romney bad.  As Max Taibbi recounts in Rolling Stone: the fearless editorialists of The Wall Street Journal took a swipe at The New York Times for stockpiling “tendentious ideologcal arguments,” just as people are “stocking up on food, water and batteries.” The Times’ alleged crime? Overtly politicizing Hurricane Sandy, particularly with the headline A Big Storm Requires Big Government.After jostling for Larabar samples during Octoberfest at Harvard Square over fall break, I drifted to a church, before which a large crowd had gathered. There, a man in a green kilt was juggling knives while riding a tall unicycle. Now this feat was arresting. But I was distracted. A small group had stumbled out of the church, dazed by the raucous spectators. Upon seeing the crowd, one quick-thinking Elizabeth Warren supporter held up a senatorial campaign sign, and kept it prominently raised for the duration of the show (I guess the move worked). She was free riding on the street performance, and I felt queasy watching.

Original Author: Daveen Koh

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