Reparations in New Orleans

Wed. October 24, 2007
Categories: Papers

Winter, 2007

Reparation, nature’s gift of grace, takes both good fortune [and] above all the emergence of reparative leaders . . . at a time when citizens will have them, as well as the long hard work of civilization, in order to bring reparation under the horizon of thought. Rarely is history so blessed. Let us not forget, however, that we as individuals do not require history’s blessing in order to follow the reparative natural law; nor do the communities we live in. (Alford, 2006, pp. 151-152)

To understand reparation one must first understand the idea of ‘natural law’ that Melanie Klein drew from when developing the inner, psychological meaning of reparation. Natural law is an ethical theory established by nature, as opposed to the positive law of a political community. At the same time, it is the basis of English common law as well as a component of the Declaration of Independence. It is a concept of natural rights thought to be in decline these days, or at least not well articulated by younger “informants” (Alford, 2006).

Not that there actually is such a law, rather it is a thoughtful appeal to a common understanding of what is right conduct outside of usual customs, especially when norms of behavior stand in the way of justice. Natural law was argued for by Aristotle and Aquinas, for example, one could argue that an unjust political law is no law at all; or that laws must be judged by their moral value. Hobbes in the 17th C. simplified natural law into the idea that we should be forbidden to do what is destructive of life. The values to be inculcated are simplified as peace, liberty, honor, gratitude, graciousness, forgiveness, positive outcomes, love and equality:

1)      Seek peace when you can, only go to war if you have to.

2)      Give other people as much liberty as you give yourself.

3)      Keep your promises.

4)      Show gratitude.

5)      Be accommodating to other people.

6)      Forgive others their past offenses if they desire it.

7)      Don’t think of the past while seeking revenge. Think of the positive outcome.

8)      In no way by thought, word, or deed declare hatred or contempt for another.

9)      Acknowledge that we are all equal by nature.
(, natural law, 2006)

Hobbes natural law is violated on a regular basis, and one does not have to look far to discover where! Then John Locke turned Hobbes around and said that if the ruler went against natural law and failed to protect ‘life, liberty, and property,’ people could justifiably overthrow the existing state and create a new one. This is the idea of natural rights that eventually found its way into the Declaration of Independence through Thomas Jefferson. The modern Catholic view, evolved from the thought of Thomas Aquinas, is that natural law is closer to conscience, which enables us to make moral choices. Melanie Klein often referred to Aquinas, but what Klein (1964) realistically adds is that the thing we call nature has destructive impulses, i.e., “that aggressive, cruel, and selfish impulses are bound up with pleasure and gratification” (p. 5).

Nature is innocent, and it is not innocent at the same time. While reparation is the desire to make amends for the harm we have done or wished to do, C. Fred Alford emphasizes caritas which, unlike Eros, cares more for the other person than oneself. He argues that the “caritas of reparation stems from a love for the goodness of the world that is akin to the goodness that both Saint Augustine and Aquinas see as the foundation of the natural law” (Alford, 2006, p. 4). In other words, one repairs the relationship because they care. Is caritas the basis of  reparation? What of the baby’s reaction when his or her needs are unmet? That is, that hate is known before love is ever experienced. If  infant/mother duos fail to develop in their relationship in such a way that the mother holds the baby’s hate and aggression, the child may very well project those feelings onto the world as an adult. It follows, then, that the world is perceived to be evil until amends are made.

Reparation as a process where we seek to make amends belongs not only in the solitude of our inner subjective world, but in the outer objective world of culture as well.

“The need to make reparation is so strong because we have longed to destroy the innocent, the pure, and the good. Not just in order to possess these attributes for ourselves, but because there is a deep and perverse pleasure in the destruction of goodness itself (envy). Reparation, indeed caritas, stem from the horror that humans feel when they come to know (even if this knowledge remains no more than intuition) the power of these destructive forces in themselves. (Alford, 2006 p.4)

To accept this level of aggression inside of us, that which is destructive of life, is a difficult developmental task. If our inner destructiveness is acknowledged it becomes a starting point for healing, not only in our object relations but in the world, whether it is reparation through art or acts of social justice.

The question to ask is if reparation is the right action to take in regards to the flooding of the Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina. Some of those harmed, as well as the needy, desperate, and despised, believe the levees were consciously broken to save less impoverished neighborhoods. Since the evidence was destroyed, it cannot be proven that a barge was driven directly into the levee, except that it sounded like an explosion before the flood waters came. A reparative act might be an investigation into the causes of the levee breaking, but it is unlikely that any individual or group of individuals will take responsibility for “doing harm.” Still, the perception continues to exist that someone is responsible and it is this perception that needs reparation. The following portrait story reflects this need, and although the survivor does use the word “terrorism,” it should be stated that this word has become over-used since “9/11.” As a cliché it has lost much of its significance, in spite of the fact that real terror was experienced by Katrina’s victims.

Excerpt spoken by subject, later transcribed:   I feel you trying to open a door…All I’m saying is … the Lower Ninth Ward has been a target … where something that the city planners want it, need it, and feel [they] now have. The only thing that I feel is so dramatic about the whole situation is for the U.S. to allow murder to go unpunished … regardless of it being a decision between the rich and the poor where the rich person would say whaddya need a poor people for? … And another thing to consider is terrorism … well the proof of a weapon, ya know, is what you have to consider, you have to consider the situation that was goin’ down so you know it wouldn’t be there. But if you need it for an act, that’s when it’s there and as far as you and I and a whole lotta people know, the weapon’s setting right there (the barge that sat in the Lower Ninth Ward for months after Katrina). They done chopped it up and moved it. It’s not whether or not the barge did this … it is not whether or not the explosion did that, it’s the weapon, period. No matter how you come about it. Here’s your proof. Don’t worry about it. Now, you know, far as who should be responsible for it … should be someone like the owner of the barge. If someone was rentin’ it, leasin’ it, rentin’ it to buy … that person and the person if there was also a person who was supposed to have it stored away. And if it was a person that was responsible for it movin’ or not bein’ there or comin’ out to find it. Because it’s on record that it exists so it’s not like, “Oh, I didn’t know that barge exists,” they have records of it existing, so all these people should be totally responsible for rebuilding this area. Not just the owner, not just the leaser, not just the one who stores the barges …we’re talkin’ about anyone [that] has had any kinda dealing with this particular barge. Not rebuilding New Orleans but rebuilding this section alone, because this is the part they destroyed so to show good intentions, to show that it wasn’t terrorism … step up and take responsibility.

Maybe there are civil engineers who will take the knowledge of what happened to their graves. Eyewitnesses saw an oddly positioned barge after the storm, but then again, a lot of things were oddly positioned after the storm. One could develop a well-thought out argument that the flooding of particularly poor neighborhoods and the preservation of middle-class neighborhoods might have something to do with race, class, and poverty in America but that is not the purpose of this essay. The question seems to be if natural law has been violated, or any laws for that matter.

Whether natural law was violated or not, it seems that, as part of recovery efforts, the community needs to make reparation even if the destruction was not of their own making. Perhaps reparation would also be an act of the community to protect itself against self-destructiveness, to repair an inner object relation. Oddly, I understand why ancient cultures made sacrifices to the gods. These were acts of reparation towards destructive elements of “Mother Nature” to repair their inner, subjective worlds. As such, it seems necessary to view the destruction as “no fault” even though many agree that weather changes, the storms, and the melting Antarctic are results of global warming due to the greenhouse effect. This effectively places the blame on everyone, perhaps the privileged more so. Cultural reparation, and its corollary caritas, would alleviate the horror that humans feel once they come to know the power of destructive forces in themselves. Especially when destructive forces appear benign, for example, we have yet to acknowledge our consumerism as a destructive force in the world.

In the meantime, the expression of caritas is a beautiful burden that has been placed on the victims of disaster as well as volunteers. Likewise, reparation and caritas shown by our leaders would bring communities together so that the culture, acting as a container, could hold the painful feelings of destruction. Culture as a container reflects what Winnicott said of the mother holding the feelings of the child in order to help the child.

Klein’s student, Wilfred Bion, described thoughtlessness (the opposite of caritas) as the inability to link feelings and thoughts together (Alford, 2006). “Attacks on linking seem to stem from hatred of thought itself, a hatred of knowing what one is feeling” says Alford (p. 86). This goes back to the container that Winnicott talks about between the mother and child. It is one of the purposes of the Post Katrina Portraits to serve as a container for thoughts and feelings of survivors and volunteers. There is less chance of disintegration of thoughts due to the effect of unbearable emotions, and there is less chance of the lie which stems from the “inability to tolerate not knowing” (p. 88). Alford asks

What would a society look like that failed to contain its members’ unbearable emotions, and so encouraged attacks on linking? It need not be as extreme as the society that produced Eichmann…Might it not look like a society that confused its citizens about good and bad, convincing them that this or that injustice is necessary to the smooth functioning of the productivity machine? Would it not, in other words, be a society that encouraged its members not to connect the dots – that is, not to make the links between the prosperity we enjoy, the existence of a permanent underclass in our society, as well as persistent poverty in the third world? (Alford, 2006, p. 91)

Because of Lacan we can move object-relations out of the sphere of the mother/baby relationship and into the world of language, which moves it out and into the culture. “In a dramatic remodeling of Freud’s theory, Lacan transfers all Freud’s major concepts away from the family and bodily experience into culture (Minsky, 1998, p. 61). We find our identity not in ego, unconscious, and super-ego but in using language as consciousness, where the unconscious is likened to the gaps or silences between the words. To Lacan, the unconscious is only accessible in speech and in writing (Minsky, 1998). Language lies are contained in silence.

 “The father becomes the constraints and possibilities of language” while the penis that was the sign of sexual difference now becomes the phallus, the symbol of difference in culture (p. 61). Although in Lacan’s world the construction of language is patriarchal (class notes), it is possible that the phallus can serve as a container for feeling, in other words, through language we can know the truth, even though for Klein (1964) reparation operates in the unconscious (p. 62). Now that we are using linguistic concepts for the unconscious, we can talk about reparation on the socio-cultural level with greater ease. In objective relations (versus object relations) reparation can mend ruptures in our culture where we experience class, race, or gender differences.

According to Lacan, our sense of identity is not coherent or authentic, but exists in the Imaginary, Symbolic and the Real (Minsky, 1998, p. 64). The Imaginary is where identity is reflected back to us, and as such our ego or self is a mirroring because it depends on external identifications. When we acquire language we enter the Symbolic realm where we feel defined by meanings offered to us in language, but even this is capable of being de-stabilized by unconscious desire and loss (p. 65). “Symbolic order determines everything…we are not talking about tangible reality that exists in the symbolic order . . . the Real is that point of rupture in the symbolic order, like a trauma or facing the abyss or death (class notes, 2007). The Real is like a hurricane’s impact on our identity!

It is through language that we retain a sense of identity, thus the importance of telling our stories. Having one’s story written alongside a portrait that was drawn of them mirrors identity, that one thing which becomes so fragile when all else is lost.

At the same time, the desire for revenge because of futility, confusion, and helplessness can be mitigated by a responsive, nurturing government (that we will most likely never see):

Winnicott suggests that a certain kind of responsive, nurturing mothering produces creative, fulfilled individuals free from destructive elements which need to be projected onto others to avoid damage to the self  (Minsky, 1998, p. 172).

Volunteers provided this nurturing through their relief efforts, at a time when the government’s response to the disaster was weak and shallow. It is also the reason that these stories need to be heard by others who were not aware of the huge outpouring of relief from thousands of volunteers. As a culture, we need to read the stories to keep it in our frontal lobes that there have been “language lies.”  What are language lies?  Paul J. Griffiths (2004) says:

observe closely what’s going on around you; pay attention to its particulars and try to understand why they are what they are; you will often know when something you see or have proposed to you is offensive to the natural order; when you know this, protest it, remove your cooperation from it, refuse to listen to those who offer theoretical justifications of it, and do what you can to prevent it from continuing. This won’t, thinks Orwell, solve all political and economic problems. Some can only be addressed at the theoretical level . . . [But] in the kinds of cases that interest him, Orwell thinks that the clear eye can be sure that what is recommended is wrong – surer than the intellect can be of the upshot of any theoretical argument at a high level of abstraction. (Griffiths, 2004, 38)

Alford (2006) says this same conviction lies at the heart of the natural law of reparation. It is not just

big evils far away, but the evils of the average hating human heart, beginning with one’s own, for which we must make reparation. But first we must see, and to see we must feel, and to feel we must repair the links that make knowing and feeling possible in the first place (p. 92).

How ought reparation as a reflection of natural law be cultivated in our culture, he asks, so that it becomes thoughtful, imaginative pity for what we and others suffer in life, and not the superior pity that sends hundreds if not thousands to their death. It is as if he suggests that we valorize reparation, that making amends can be a way of life. Reparation becomes a moral duty in all of our relationships; as the first thing that we think of when we have the slightest envy, greed, lust, anger, pride, gluttony, or insufficient love. In this way, I can see reparation as a part of natural law. Forgive me the long quotation that follows good social relations depend on coming to terms with our denied hatred:

If frustrated greed, resentment and hatred within us do not disturb the relation to the outer world, there are innumerable ways of taking in beauty, goodness and love from without. By doing this we continuously add to our happy memories and gradually build up a store of values by which we gain a security that cannot easily be shaken, and contentment which prevents bitterness of feeling. Moreover all these satisfactions have in addition to the pleasure they afford, the effect of diminishing frustrations (or rather the feeling of frustration) past and present, back to the earliest and fundamental ones. The more true satisfaction we experience, the less do we resent deprivations, and the less shall we be swayed by our greed and hatred. Then we are actually capable of accepting love and goodness from others and of giving love to others; and again in receiving more in return. In other words, the essential capacity for “give and take” has been developed in us in a way that ensures our own contentment, and contributes to the pleasure, comfort or happiness of other people. (Klein, 1964, pp. 118-119)

Hurricane survivors need to understand this idea of reparation, as well as receiving well-deserved monies. And our leaders also need to understand reparation in this sense, and to be vocal in linking our feelings to the thoughts we have about climate change, natural disasters, and political events.  This is because we all fear deprivation, at least I do.

Officials are making it extremely difficult to maintain culture and identity for survivors in the Ninth Ward, and I suspect it is in part due to efforts to “gentrify” the area. I have alluded to this form of colonization elsewhere. For example, public housing residents in NOLA who reoccupied their homes in the C.J. Peete housing deveopment were told (Wednesday, February 14) that they must vacate their units or lose their vouchers. This would leave their extended families homeless. Even the young volunteers from New Jersey who have been helping to clean up the development were threatened with arrest for their efforts to help residents (20007).  Thankfully we are seeing resilience in the communities through the effort of grass-roots relief organizations like Common Ground, and the expression of autonomy in spite of all efforts otherwise.

The natural law of reparation that officials should follow would reflect caritas, which would heal the pain from the loss of dignity, the dignity which natural rights give to every person. Violation of the natural law of reparation translates as cultural disintegration from within (we will not need a terrorist attack to destroy us!) Respect for the natural law of reparation is of profound psychological importance, just as caritas is of great cultural importance.

Comments are closed.