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.
But as The New Yorker’s Philip Gourevitch bravely pointed out on Twitter last night, everything on, say, Staten Island will not be fine, no matter who wins the election. This is not a problem limited to this particular tragedy alone. Everything that’s happening in New York and New Jersey pales (so far, anyway) in comparison to the sufferings of Haiti, or of post-Katrina New Orleans, but the solutions are all of a piece.
We’re never going to get past the disasters the scientists tell us are to come unless something fundamental begins to change. Unless we get an engine for salvation that is more than the self-serving, scare-quotes-included “hope.” Unless we start living in a country where the act of caring matters as much as the appearance. Spectacular indifference to suffering may have been around a long time—just ask Auden about that old painting of Icarus: “the expensive delicate ship that must have seen/ Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,/ Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.” But we need to move to a place where we recognize what an abomination it is.
The most depressing fallout from this election, surely, will be that it isn’t a panacea in that regard. Bloomberg himself may want movement on climate change, as he said in that post-Sandy Obama endorsement. But we already know how hard that is to get through Congress, even when you’ve sailed into office on a mandate of change, let alone one of “hope.” The indifference of the wealthy and the powerful, who can insulate themselves from the effects of catastrophe, can be hard to displace. No one thinks that will come with someone other than Obama, of course. But one person, one president, isn’t and will never be enough. The fault is in ourselves, as some old white guy once said. Or at least in the people who think their personal athletic achievements provide nourishing “inspiration” to everyone else who’d prefer a hot meal.
UPDATE: The marathon has now been cancelled. But Bloomberg is holding a grudge, though: "We cannot allow a controversy over an athletic event — even one as meaningful as this — to distract attention away from all the critically important work that is being done to recover from the storm and get our city back on track.” "controversy." The lack of empathy that elevates the "meaningful athletic event" over the actual suffering of hurricane victims still manages to astonish even when he's doing the right thing. Amazing.
Read Dave Zirin’s plea to postpone the marathon.