It might seem a small, if strange, footnote to the Sandy aftermath that Michael Bloomberg is unwilling to cancel the New York marathon scheduled for this weekend. The strangeness might lift for some members of this audience when I note that the thing is ING-sponsored. And it might get a little worse for you when I note that the marathon is to begin in Staten Island. As of late Thursday night, Staten Island officially accounted for nineteen of the forty confirmed Sandy casualties in the five boroughs of New York City. There were dark rumors, in New York, of more. And the generators alone that the marathon will require use of could power 400 Staten Island homes.
The holding of the marathon, for all the columns it’s inspiring, certainly isn’t the most pressing issue in a post-storm city that is only starting to reveal its wounds. It’s the heaviness of the symbolism that’s killing us. The optics of the thing are literally these: people who were spared by the storm will run, in a show of personal strength, past streets on which rescue workers have, in recent days, pulled bodies from marshes, and served ready-to-eat meals to the New Yorkers who have not been able to afford to flee. Whether or not the city uses up resources they might have spent otherwise on survivors, whether or not it is a show of “morale” and “strength” on the part of those New Yorkers who have reserves to share, it is exactly what it looks like.
A historian at the sports site The Classical offers the view that is no doubt lulling the sponsors to sleep at night: “for a city already at work on the business of becoming itself again, the marathon—a phenomenon that inspires us all to keep moving—seems an apt symbol indeed.” His defense is shared by other commentators who make vague stabs in the dark about showing strength in the face of tragedy. This is the go-to rhetoric of sports commentary, and there’s no real surprise in finding it here. But perhaps we all should take a moment to finish filling food and blood banks, pick up trash, check on trapped elderly and otherwise satisfy a few other of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. To make sure that there is, literally, nothing else we can do. Then we can let the self-esteem boosterism kick in for real.
Talk of displaying resilience feels like exactly that: talk, and rather cheaply bought at that. No surprise here. It is a commonplace thing in this political culture to substitute avowals of pride for the work of actually earning it. That is the general “patriotic” conservative strategy: if you shout, long enough and hard enough, that America Is Great, then she is so. The harder questions—like how an America where people can be bankrupted by illness qualifies as “great”—are shunted to the side in favor of feel-good flag-waving. And in the thirty years since Reagan played the country with the Platonic ideal of that sort of thing, it’s leeched into the political color generally. Rhetoric is more important to most political commentators than the stark reality in front of their eyes.
President Obama, I think, understands this enough to have pointed at it when he spoke in the first debate of “economic patriotism,” meaning that Americans ought to rally around the actual work of helping each other out of the economic sinkhole we’ve been in for going on four years now. But he swiftly dropped that term again. It isn’t considered good politics to place a modifier on patriotism, and we live in a time where “good politics” is paramount to any other concern. Keep moving, we tell him, you’ve only to get to the 6th and be elected and everything will be just fine.