Katrina gives new meaning to simplicity

In the days after hurricane Katrina, as I hustled to restore our Baton Rouge household to normal, my 9-year-old daughter's Christmas wish list grew longer by the hour.

With increasing frequency, as I hauled fallen limbs to the curb and packed away the portable generator, my daughter would tug on my sleeve to announce yet another doll or video game that she wanted under the yuletide tree.

I recoiled at the timing of her material longings. We were among the fortunate ones, after all - south Louisiana residents who had dodged most of the hurricane's wrath with no real damage to life or limb.

We had reminded our kids quite often of our good fortune, and it seemed that my 9-year-old, young though she is, should have been old enough to know that this wasn't the week to wish for more.

Why was she focused on filling her toy box in the midst of so much misery, with New Orleans evacuees arriving literally next door?

Walking into the living room after an afternoon of chopping brush, I got my answer. As I had struggled to clear away the debris of the storm, and my wife put in extra hours on statewide relief efforts, our daughter and 4-year-old son had turned to television as a baby sitter. Thanks to extra visits with children's advertising, our kids had learned of things they never knew they wanted, yet were now dying to have.

It reminded me that even in the face of the worst natural disaster in American history, our national notion of contentment through consumption continues apace.

The product pitches weren't limited to kids' programming, of course. While TV executives had limited commercial interruptions in the early aftermath of Katrina to accommodate breaking news, the regular cycle of TV ads soon resumed.

Not that there's anything inherently wrong with advertising, which makes commercial journalism possible. As a newspaperman, I rely on ad money to feed my family.

Even so, the marriage of Madison Avenue messaging with hurricane disaster coverage created a surreal juxtaposition for TV viewers. We witnessed citizens stranded on rooftops and come-ons for the latest family sedan in the same breath. A mother's fruitless search for her missing son was underwritten by a designer stereo system. Scenes of endless Gulf Coast rubble shared airtime with a 30-second spot for a luxury vacuum cleaner.

The promises of the marketplace seemed strangely off-key at a time when so many people had lost everything they owned, yet pledged to endure. And the ads continue to strike a discordant chord as another Christmas shopping season arrives.

One of the most striking things about this tragedy has been the way that so many evacuees are affirming their self-worth in the wake of financial ruin.

It would be wrong to romanticize the impoverishment of the displaced as some Amish ideal of yeoman simplicity. The pain of so much material loss cannot fully be imagined by those of us whose households remain intact.

But the resiliency and bonding of so many evacuees, even when dispossessed of things held dear, remind us that community, not consumption, is the true underpinning of the human spirit, and the spirit of Christmas.

The aftermath of Katrina has sparked what could be a useful national discussion on the nature of poverty and the need to reduce it. The deepest suffering inflicted by the storm seems to be among New Orleans' urban poor. The president and other leaders have promised to use the rebuilding effort to replace pockets of poverty with pockets of prosperity.

The idea seems rooted in giving more Americans a ticket to the American dream.

Maybe it's time to revisit the definition of that dream, so often framed as an endless shopping spree for the latest auto, appliance, or gadget from the global assembly line.

If Katrina manages to make us think more about who we are and less about what we own, then maybe we could alleviate not only material poverty, but spiritual poverty, too.

That is what the real promise of Christmas has always been about.

Danny Heitman is a columnist for the Baton Rouge Advocate.

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