The Sounds of Silence

Posted on Thursday 25 January 2007

The nation’s moved past the nightmares of Katrina and Rita, and nothing could have underscored this reality more than Tuesday night’s thundering silence on the subject during Bush’s SOTU address.

Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence

During last year’s SOTU speech, I hovered breathless in front of the television, waiting for Bush to talk about Katrina, the Gulf Coast, and New Orleans…. and he did, in fact, mention it. It didn’t get nearly as much attention as I’d hoped, but when the state of the union is as befouled as ours, I wasn’t overly surprised. Disappointed? Yes… but we’re a large country with rather a lot of troubles. (Ahem…)

This year, though, the entire speech went by with nary a mention of the Gulf Coast or Katrina.

In restless dreams I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone
‘Neath the halo of a street lamp
I turned my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
That split the night
And touched the sound of silence

The state of this particular part of our union is an appalling mess — an ongoing disaster that has become a slow-motion train wreck:

The city continues its struggle to recover from Hurricane Katrina, which pummeled New Orleans in August 2005, and some observers thought the absence of Katrina recovery from Bush’s speech was telling.

Nagin was unfazed. “We’re going to take whatever nickels we have, whatever pennies we have, whatever dollars we have, and we’re going to stretch it, and we’re going to make this recovery work,” he said.

The mayor made his remarks as he announced a two-year pilot program that would offer loans — interest-free for six months — to homeowners waiting to receive aid from the sluggish Road Home recovery initiative, a state program that distributes federal funds. Almost 101,700 families have applied to the program, but as of Monday, money had been made available to 258. [my emphasis]

258?????? Every one of us, as citizens of this country, should be outraged. If you can no longer muster the humanity for strong emotion, then how about this: as taxpayers whose funds created that languishing pool of money, we should all should be screaming out loud.

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence

Yes, I understand that the federal government has made the $ available, and it’s the state and local leadership who are now dropping the ball… but that does not relieve this administration of its responsibility.

Not only that, but I realize that even before Katrina, some folks didn’t care about New Orleans. Too far away, too different, too poor… too something. I don’t understand this thinking, but I grant its existence. However, that doesn’t relieve us of our responsibility, either.

“Fools”, said I, “You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you”
But my words, like silent raindrops fell
And echoed
In the wells of silence

He ignored it because he could safely do so; Bush’s silence was a clear signal of America’s indifference.

And while you may very well feel as if they “should have moved on by now”, or that “the city shouldn’t be rebuilt”, the fact of the matter is that they have not. They are not okay there.

And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said, “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls”
And whispered in the sounds of silence

* * * * *

Lyrics: Paul Simon

Reminder that no matter how sad or angry I am about this, I needed to write about it: Shaun Mullen.

17 Comments for 'The Sounds of Silence'

    January 25, 2007 | 10:27 am

    [...] Silence is sometimes its own sound, and in this case I’m worred — no, sad – that what it articulated was thunderous indifference from both the federal government, and the people it represents. I wrote more about this here. Posted on January 25, 2007 | Permalink | Categories Politics | | View blog reactions [...]

    January 25, 2007 | 11:08 am

    Thanks, Poli. You’ve probably read some of the NOLA blogs, and there is a lot of anger, and yes, incredible sadness around here.

    You wrote it wonderfully and it’s much appreciated.

    January 25, 2007 | 12:24 pm

    My wife, (French from New Orleans-family home in the Quarter) and I just got back from moving mom’n dem, (mother’n law) from a deteriorating section of Metairie where we’d made five trips after Katrina rebuilding her townhome, to a little house near breaux’n law so she wouldn’t have to climb stairs and wouldn’t have to hear gunshots at night. Metairie, as a population, I can report is “stressed” to the max. You can cut the tension with a knife! As we were driving back, my wife and I tried to put words to it and the only ones we could come up with were disheartening and discouraging. There is no cure for this that I can dream up. Yes, the Feds, the State and the local governments have botched this horribly; the locals have been largely left to go it alone and they are, but the price in human suffering is enormous and the cost in terms of the loss of trust in gov’t, particularly the Feds, I predict will be huge and far reaching. We have just one more debacle like this one and the Feds are going to find themselves on the wrong side of the line.

    I don’t mean insult or injury but as I was reading your beautiful piece, a thought and smile twinkled out, “Oh, Polimom, the Sounds of Silence? Dear, you do somewhat date yourself with that one.”

    Carry on!

    January 25, 2007 | 1:45 pm

    Interesting… you specifically note the responsibilities of the federal govt (actually, the Bush admin.), and the responsibilities of the total citizenry of the country (I presume that is what you mean by our responsibility) – but what I see missing is the responsibility of the NOLA local/LA state governments. There is a reason we have processes for distributing this type of money – much of it is about maintaining local control and accountability (mainly on the premise that those closer to the need have a better understanding of that need, and are more appropriately placed to make the tactical decisions.) And, in some cases the feds have dropped the ball – but you don’t hear the same level of wailing and gnashing of teeth about the MS coast (or even about east TX), even though there are problems evident there, as well.

    As far as our repsonsibility for rebuilding NOLA goes – ultimately, that responsibility falls square on the shoulders of those who live there. If they are incapable or unwilling to assume that responsibility and perform their roles (or unwilling / incapable of electing leaders who will) then quite honestly I don’t know what else Washington (or I) can do about it.


    January 25, 2007 | 2:03 pm

    Ed T —

    I’ve written (as you know) on this subject lots of times, and I’ve been pretty harsh on the local / state government. IMHO, the federal government’s responsibility at this point (nearly 18 months post-katrina) is to step in, if they must.

    I personally am not impressed by the argument that we should just give $ to the local leadership, and if they can’t figure out what to do with it, adapt a laissez-faire attitude.

    Obviously I’m close to the situation emotionally, but at a less-personal level, there’s still reason to care. It’s my money, Ed, and yours. I want it spent, and I want it spent to help… and so my responsitibility at this point is to hold the administration’s feet to the fire and make them a) remember the disaster, and b) unravel the stupid snafus that are clearly confounding the recovery.

    but you don’t hear the same level of wailing and gnashing of teeth about the MS coast (or even about east TX), even though there are problems evident there, as well.

    We don’t hear it because those areas don’t get the publicity. They never did — but I’m not sure how suffering in silence (assuming they are) improves their situation.

    January 25, 2007 | 2:09 pm

    “Oh, Polimom, the Sounds of Silence? Dear, you do somewhat date yourself with that one.”

    It does date me, but only because my elders sang it a lot (LOL). Actually, I’m only kidding, because I sang AC to sleep with Sweet Baby James for many years, and so she knows James Taylor well as a result. That outta confuse folks one day…

    the locals have been largely left to go it alone and they are, but the price in human suffering is enormous and the cost in terms of the loss of trust

    I think that’s what’s sending me over the deep end about all this. You’re exactly right.

    January 25, 2007 | 7:50 pm


    I would be so happy if the Feds would give us the money, and we could hire the Dutch to rebuild the levees. As you must know, the reason for New Orleans to be flooded was the failure of the federally designed, built, and maintained levees and floodwalls.

    Please, Feds, give us the money, so that we can hire someone capable to repair them! Our life depends upon it!

    Alas, we must wait for the US Army Corpse of Engineers, who couldn’t build a decent puddle.

    THIS is the reason why things are different on the MS Gulf Coast and NOLA. We in NOLA are reliant upon the levees, and thus reliant upon the Feds.

    January 25, 2007 | 11:34 pm

    Cities fall directly under the rule of states. Nothing prevents a state from removing the rule of a city except its own constitution issues. This is a state issue here. If problems with local leadership are that bad, it is up to the rest of the state to determine if this is becoming a drain on the state system. I believe that the LA governor is familiar now with what it takes to bring in the national guard. I’m sorry that people finally realize what a bummer it is to live below sea level next to the coast and have the safety of your home dependent on a wall of dirt, but that’s not a national issue beyond money given as a chance to make changes. This is an issue about the fact that natural disasters are going to happen and states have to learn how to manage that situation. The function of the federal government is not to pick up a single state’s problems that it can’t face and deal with.

    January 26, 2007 | 1:06 am

    Jack, read up on the Mississippi river levee system. Might I suggest John Barry’s “Rising Tide”.

    As the port of New Orleans is on the Mississippi river, it is the duty of the USACE to design, build, and maintain the levees: the flood protection for the port, and thus, New Orleans.

    Also, you might want to see about how much seafood and power to the USA goes through this port, which you evidently do not mind letting go fallow.

    January 26, 2007 | 4:56 am

    Polimom –

    Yes, I have read your posts on the subject, and I may have been a bit unfair by insinuating that you were pointing your key-tapping finger at the Bush admin (R) rather than at the state/local admins(D). HOWEVER, that does NOT change the fact that it is the state which is in fact responsible under our Constitution, which is an agreement between the sovereign states and the Federal government. How exactly does the Federal govt ‘step in’ in this instance without violating that basic concept? Remember, this is part of what got LA in so much trouble in the days preceding (and just following) Katrina – the Governor of LA made a deliberate decision NOT to call for Federal help.

    I agree – this shouldn’t be a matter of just throwing money over the border and hoping they spend it right. And, Lord knows there seems to be enough hijinks going on with how the money is being spent, anyway. However, ultimately, the folks on the scene in TX, LA, MS, AL, and FL are the ones whose communities need to be rebuilt – and if we in the Houston area were facing this issue, I would still be of the same opinion – and if we are in fact a sovereign people, and not simply a bunch of thralls whose masters are out in DC, we need to step up to the plate.

    Besides, maybe that way someone who knows how to build a levee could actually be brought in, as Ashley noted.


    January 26, 2007 | 5:36 am

    All –

    The levees, as Ashley said, are both the original problem and part of the solution. No doubt I need to write a separate post on that, since it’s been forever since I did (although I posted about them many times a year ago).

    However, none of this discussion helps me understand how it’s possible that the President of the United States stood in front of the American people and said nothing about the condition of a number of states in the union… or why it seems that only New Orleanians, liberals, and Polimom, seem to be bothered by this. Perhaps I’m generalizing too widely, but I waited to post this, because a) I’m not living in New Orleans any more and b) I’m not a liberal. I hoped for something that didn’t happen.

    What I saw instead was that the objections that did come were greeted with hostility and derision from many quarters, and I was appalled.

    Bush’s silence on the subject gives tacit approval to the rest of America to not worry about it. Out of sight, out of speech, out of mind. Whether there can or should be something different done does not equate to ignoring what we all know is a heartbreaking situation.

    January 26, 2007 | 9:12 am

    Maybe the problem, Polimom, is that we live in an age where the most serious, the most seemingly intransient problems and issues are dealt with in 44 minutes (so as to fit into the time frame of a self-contained 1-hour TV show, with time left over for commercials.) And, when the problem/issue proves resistant to the “Made-for-TV Movie of the Week” treatment, we lose interest and turn our attention to something else (unless, as is the case in Iraq, events conspire to slap us upside the head on a daily basis.) Did anybody really think that “Mission Accomplished” meant there wasn’t a hell of a lot of work awaiting us in both Iraq and Afghanistan? Did anyone really think that GWB standing in front of Jackson Square and reading from a prepared text was somehow going to solve decades (if not centuries) of incompetence and self-destructive behavior by all parties involved in New Orleans?

    Unfortunately, as in Iraq, sectarian violence in the streets has combined with bumbling idiocy on the part of those elected to govern to cause many folks to feel that, in fact, the folks in NOLA are getting exactly what they deserve – and that they are deserving of this, not because they are poor or black, but because they are responsible for (re-)electing the clowns who are their leaders!

    And, last but by no means least, I find it difficult impossible to believe that the citizens of NOLA are sitting on their lazy butts waiting for Uncle SugarDaddy from DC to come down and, with a wave of his magic wand, fix all that is broken. Certainly there has got to be some sort of on-going reconstruction effort. However, after a while, reporting such activities is not considered nearly as newsworthy as tabulating the latest count of the slaughter, or performing an in-depth analysis of the color and cut of the Speaker’s outfit for the SotU address.


    January 26, 2007 | 12:01 pm

    The President didn’t mention La. or NOLA, so what. Get over it.

    UCACE is responsible for the levees but so are the people in and around NOLA. We have seen the enemy and it is us.

    January 26, 2007 | 6:43 pm

    The last time I went to Red Lobster I didn’t notice anything crossed off the menu. Maybe this is why so many people don’t feel there is something horribly wrong with the port or New Orleans. They haven’t been missing anything.

    Maybe it would be more clear if you pointed out the value of having Katrina mentioned again in the speech. What helpful things could he have said about it? What change would have come about because of it directly. I noticed that the fight against terrorism and Iraq were in the speech somewhere. How much better are those coming along since the speech?

    January 26, 2007 | 6:50 pm

    Jack –
    Perhaps not at Red Lobster, but most of their shrimp and crawfish comes from China.

    You might have noticed gasoline around $3.50 a gallon at some point. People were realizing our importance then.

    Also, the 250k people misplaced by the federal flood might like to know that the country still cared. To me, that would be a good reason to mention us in the SOTU. However, according to Mr. Bush, Burma is more relevant than the Gulf South.

    January 26, 2007 | 7:15 pm

    You’re right, Jack. I probably could have taken a more positive tack with this — but I have a confession to make, and I’m sure it’s part of why I ran the post the way I did: I did not notice that nothing had been said until much later.

    And when I did realize it, I felt terrible — because I, too, forget sometimes, and I’m actually more tuned into the situation that many folks around the country. For those of us “out here”, life has gone on. For those who are still struggling so hard, it has not.

    They’re stalled; their lives were thrown akimbo, and they don’t have the luxury of forgetting about it unless they simply give up and walk away from their city.

    So what could Bush have said? In a report to the nation on the state of our union? As in… the condition of our country? He could have at least acknowledged their struggle, and reminded us all that things are moving very slowly there.

    Would that have changed anything? No, of course not, but if I can forget — even if only for a few days or a week at a time — then how far must this be, now, from the minds of those further removed?

    Aren’t they part of our union? And isn’t their condition, in the aftermath of such devastation, relevant?

    And don’t you think the folks there feel the silence keenly? Or worse — the insults, when they dare to mention that things are not okay?

    There’s value in demonstrating one’s humanity, even if the best one can do is words.

    January 26, 2007 | 10:34 pm

    As always, you nailed it Poli. Nothing would have changed. We’d still have Nagin/Blanco to deal with, we’d still have all the other problems here, but at least we would know, KNOW, that the President and maybe this country gave a hoot. It was the total lack of mention that was bothersome, especially given that it was a State of the UNION address.

    Of course, (thanks, Ashley for posting this) this is what happened, at least in through the eyes of those of us here:

    Worth checking out that link.

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