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Idol Chatter

Tragedy awakens the need for something to grasp, something sturdy, reliable, and familiar. We saw this need after 9/11, with congregations growing within churches and other places of worship. We see this in times of war, especially in soldiers’–and their families’–reliance on prayer. Similarly, the second half of Spike Lee’s Hurricane Katrina documentary, “When The Levees Broke,” revealed just how much many New Orleanians depended on their religious faith to get them through this particular tragedy.

As the floods rose and the needed help didn’t come, many New Orleanians were overcome with anger, the predominant emotion that lingers today. In Lee’s documentary, interview after interview shows politician-bashing, government-cursing individuals who seem as if they’ll never be whole or happy again. They curse and threaten and vent their rage. But at the end of every angry outburst, it is God’s name that lingers on their tongues, and it is God who, in the words of one individual in the film, “gets all the glory.”

It doesn’t seem to matter that the hurricane came from nature, which most religious people presumably believe is controlled by God. These people do not curse God for their misfortune. Having lived nowhere but in New Orleans, most individuals in Lee’s film accepted hurricanes as a normal part of their lives. In dealing with the grief of Katrina and its aftermath, these people were surprisingly rational. No one blamed or cursed God, no one asked “Why us?” or “How could God do this?” Instead, it was state and federal governments to whom they directed these questions, and who were on the receiving end of the wrath that so many other people might blindly throw at God.

A large part of the Acts III and IV of the four-part documentary dealt with the moving-forward stage, nearly a year after the storm. In the most poignant segments from Lee’s four-hour film, citizens gathered in the streets and gave Hurricane Katrina a “jazz funeral.” A New Orleans tradition, jazz funerals are given not to mourn loss but to celebrate life. To watch these New Orleanians marching down the street, singing, dancing, and praying, was a religious experience in itself. A coffin draped with a sign bearing the word “Katrina” symbolized the survival of scores of New Orleanians–people who survived Hurricane Katrina and continued to survive living day-to-day with the memories of their loss. It was faith to which many New Orleanians clung when it was clear their government had forsaken them.

The first half of “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts“–a documentary from Spike Lee that chronicles New Orleans’ struggle before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina–is terribly disappointing in just one aspect: more people are not able to see it, since it airs on HBO. Luckily, in our multimedia age, it’s likely that the film will be released on DVD in the near future. Not only does Lee present a compilation of raw footage of both human and meteorological emotion, but he also offers a pinpointed look at the people whom some blame for the high level of chaos that occurred in the city, and which, to some extent, still exists there.

Acts I and II (which aired last night) examine the days between the first reports of the storm’s formation and the actions eventually taken by the federal government to aid stranded and dying citizens several days after the town was submerged. While a peppy jazz trumpet plays, chronological scenes from the destruction unfold–the people who refused to leave, those who did leave, those who took shelter in the Superdome, and those who stayed behind to help. Survivors tell their stories, one after another, unrelentless and strong, just like Katrina. After a while it becomes hard to watch, though Lee was right not to cut their testimonty down.

I assume that Acts III and IV (airing tonight) will examine Katrina’s aftermath: the rescue and salvage efforts, the outrage of those victims who feel their situations were made worse not by any act of nature but by a lack of care from their own government, and the grassroots efforts during the past year from individuals and groups across the globe to aid those who were and are displaced.

Alarmingly unexpected is the story behind the politics of the situation, which Lee unravels for us. This includes conflicts between New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and the ineptness of the federal government’s response, to name two examples. Few mainstream media outlets dared go into any in-depth exploration of the political reasons of why Katrina aid was handled as it was. Some did, and Lee, who has proved himself a reliable and relentless cultural commentator, grabs hold of their coverage and runs with it.

In “When the Levees Broke,” the reality of Katrina’s wrath becomes most real with the still shots of dead bodies floating on top of cars, on chairs under blankets in the middle of the street, and inside the Superdome. Lee offers these images while avoiding the shock factor and staying clear of any hint of tastelessness. Watching Lee’s film (which will be rebroadcast in its entirety on Aug. 29.), I felt angry and perplexed. Acts III and IV are sure to invoke more of the same–along with a sharp sense of urgency, when we see that, unlike most stories, this one has yet to come to a happy ending.

Last week marked the introduction of a new character on “Sesame Street”: Abby Cadabby, a fairy-in-training. Abby, who hails from Fairyside Gardens, Queens, is young, eager to learn, and has been described as a feminist who also likes being a “real girly-girl.” Looking different than your typical Muppet, Abby was conceived as a strong female character who is “someone from a different culture, without having consciously to introduce somebody from Indonesia or India.” According to the Muppet Wiki, “Her design was originally very earthy.”

Earthy? Could that be a code word for Pagan? Certain Earth-based sects hold a belief in fairies, or the Fae, as they are known. And, like Abby, they work magic, although Abby’s repertoire is currently limited. Plus Abby embodies the strong feminist message often espoused by pagan groups.

While it’s fun to speculate about Abby’s religious affiliation, she seems to be more pink moppet than pagan Muppet. Besides, it’s more likely that she’ll raise eyeballs amongst the conservative Tinki-Winkie’s-holding-a-purse set for being a feminist, pink Muppet from Fairyside Gardens, Queens. Is today’s episode is being brought to you by the letter “L”?

One thing is certain, however, “Sesame Street” producers are praying that she can work some powerful magic–powerful enough to bring in Elmo-sized dollars.

Last night on The Colbert Report, host Stephen Colbert–in his phony pundit persona, of course– mentioned that he’d visited Beliefnet.com (where he goes, he said, “after sinning on other sites”) and found our Atheists in Foxholes article by Rebecca Phillips.

Upset by the phrase “there are no atheists in foxholes,” Colbert argued that it is atheists who should be in foxholes, since they’re “not afraid to go to hell and be tortured by Satan for all eternity (which is what’s going to happen),” and so that good Christian boys can stay safe at home.

— Posted by Lisa Schneider