Topic: Damnable Deeds 2004
The Damnable Deeds of 2004
A partial review of the year’s most despicable developments
By J.B. Borders
In Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, the worst section of hell is reserved for betrayers, including those who are traitors to their kin. These sinners are very nearly the scummiest of all scum, the lowest of the low, the foulest of the foul.
In Dante’s vision of the underworld, traitors to their kin are more damnable than the lustful, the gluttonous, the avaricious, the wrathful and sullen, the heretical, the murderous, the lying, the hypocritical and the thieving. In fact, the only thing worse than betraying your kin, as Dante saw it, was being a traitor to your country or to those who are your guests or benefactors.
I disagree but only slightly. The worst sin has to be betraying your family, your blood. I won’t quibble with Dante, however, about his rankings. They have withstood the test of time. Besides, whether a soul is double-doomed or triple-doomed doesn’t make that much difference to me as long as all the damned get what they deserve.
For those who may have forgotten, the Inferno is one of the masterpieces of Western European literature. It’s a 14th century epic Italian poem whose narrator takes a 24-hour journey through hell.
Warned at the front gate to “Abandon hope all ye who enter here,” Dante and his guide, Virgil, the Roman poet who lived in the first century B.C., endure a hideous trek through a nightmarish environment filled with oppressive heat and cold, strong winds, fearful sights, terrifying sounds and rank odors as they descend into the depths of hell. Along the way, they also encounter scores of monsters and more than a hundred different sinners, including important historical figures.
Dante catches hell going through hell. It is an exhausting journey emotionally and physically. As literary critic Thomas Bergin has pointed out, the adventures trigger a range of emotions in the traveler: “compassion, pity, scorn, resentment, anger, vindictiveness, courage and even, once in a while, a touch of amusement. And all these emotions,” Bergin adds, “are superimposed on the constants of terror, wonder, and lively curiosity.”
Dante’s hell is overflowing with white people – as should be the case – but black folk are virtually nonexistent. In fact, the blackest person in his version of hell is Cleopatra and she’s obviously passing.
But if Dante were alive today and took a 24-hour tour of New Orleans’s underbelly, I wonder if he would find it significantly different than his own celebrated journey? The people would be overwhelmingly black, of course, and the weather might not be as bad. But would the emotional voyage be any different?
What would Dante make, for instance, of all those adults who were recently indicted for stealing money from the New Orleans public school system? Surely he would recognize them as the worst kind of traitors to their kin – scoundrels who steal from their own children, who rob their most impoverished young of the chance for a decent life.
Could Dante find it within himself to be compassionate and hopeful in the midst of so much that would evoke anger, scorn and a desire for vengeance?
I hope so. Because I’m not sure I can. Not after all we’ve had to put up with this year – the continuing futile war in Iraq, the fraudulent-looking presidential election, the mushrooming federal deficit, the senseless murders and shoot-outs in our homes and on our streets, the worsening poverty in communities already over the edge of despair.
There is a long-festering rot in our society and in our city that began oozing out in all sorts of unexpected ways this year. Unfortunately, this rot has ensnared too many of the poor, the black and the oppressed in crimes against our own kind.
The only way to stop this rot is to eradicate poverty in our city and on our planet. Not simply hide it or disperse it or ignore it or absolve the government of responsibility for helping to end it. But stop it. By all just means necessary.
These are the moral imperatives of our time: to end poverty and to restore the black race to a position of dignity in the world. These are the linked cancers, the twin viruses, the two out-of-control diseases we must corral and cure. It’s that cut and dry. If we don’t wipe them out, they will do us in. And it will happen much sooner than even the most pessimistic of us once believed.
There is no escape from these obligations – not if you’re black, not if you’re human. The notion of race and black racial inferiority are too deeply inscribed in the world’s psyche to disappear without a radical change in the material conditions in which people of African descent live throughout the world.
The education and the enrichment of a small black elite is not enough to stem the devastation, the hell currently being endured by the vast majority of us in the United States and Canada, the Caribbean, Central and South America, Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
Worse, with all that others from outside our race are doing to injure and oppress us, we cannot afford to continue injuring ourselves. We’re just not that strong or resilient.
Nor can we continue to pretend that we are not harming ourselves by refusing to acknowledge the misdeeds, publicly or privately. In fact, we have to take just the opposite approach. We have to draw attention to current abuses and we have to declare zero tolerance for blatantly harmful actions committed by black people against black people even as we continue to rail against the atrocities committed against us by non-blacks.
So in that spirit, here is my quick list of the most absurd transgressions of the Year of the Costume Malfunction, the Damnable Deeds of 2004.
The Eating Our Young Award: the New Orleans Public Schools employees who actually worked in some of the dilapidated facilities that our poorest children are forced to attend but stole much-needed money from the system anyway.
The Nice Work If You Can Get Away With It Award: the $504,000 buyout clause that was inserted into the contract of a Regional Transit Authority consultant as a means to dissuade the latest mayoral administration from replacing the firm.
The Dumbest Bribe Award: the lawyer who tried to make a habit of collecting money from convicted junkies and drug dealers in exchange for getting them off probation. Didn’t she know that junkies work for the police?
The Robbing Hood Tribute: the bank-robbing brothermen who have been waltzing away clean after a series of local heists.
The All-City Sexual Predator Award: the black attorney who manhandled another black attorney’s daughter and thought the victim wouldn’t do anything about it.
Crime Deserving Wider Condemnation: the violence against black women by their boyfriends and husbands.
The Better Luck Next Time Award: the crew of meter maids who sent phony auto repair bills to a major oil company after it admitted selling the public bad gasoline that could potentially damage the gauges in automobiles. Sure the oil companies made record profits again this year but they didn’t get rich by getting stiffed by consumers. The moral is: Don’t hustle a hustler.
The All-State Racial Sensitivity Award: the white Houma judge whose Halloween costume consisted on an orange prison jumpsuit, handcuffs, an afro wig and blackface makeup. If he didn’t see anything wrong with it, why should we?
The Who Wants to be a Thousandaire Award: City Hall employees and Orleans Parish School Board members.
The Please Don’t Endorse Me Award: David Vitter.
Happy New Year. Struggle on. We can make a better world in this lifetime.