In the last three weeks, my mind has been turned constantly towards Japan and the continuing devastation wrought by earthquake and tsunami. I have no doubt that this will color my experience of the study tour ahead, providing contrast and context. The images of whole towns and cities obliterated by a giant black wave remind me again that history is littered with the remains of once-thriving civilizations laid low by disasters both natural and social. In a bit of serendipity, a recent news story about the rediscovery of "Atlantis" references both Japan and New Orleans in the same breath with lost civilizations like Pompeii, Babylon, Ayutthaya, and Petra.
My first taste of America was New Orleans, in 1997. Perhaps it wasn't the best introduction to America, as its culture and ambience set it drastically apart from the rest of the country. But I found it memorably, rapturously alive, with an appealing darkness and danger about its edges. I'm not sure how my memories of Crescent City will be revised by this post-Katrina encounter. Our itinerary promises an in-depth look at the circumstances of the disaster and the subsequent recovery efforts, and I look forward to the education.
I've also been going through the material provided by the IWP as background for the tour, and I'm quite frankly amazed to discover that an attitude that I've sensed or intuited hazily about America actually has a name: exceptionalism. Given my ignorance of this philosophy, as well as my cultural background, I'm approaching the subject a little warily, although the more I learn about it, the more it seems to illuminate the things that puzzle most about America. I think this will drive much of the discussion in the days to come.