Tuesday, September 26, 2006

“Do You Know What It Means, to Dismiss New Orleans...?”

The Monday Night Football extravaganza in New Orleans last night was so excessively championed as a big American celebration that I had to stop and remember what exactly was being celebrated.

Ummm... Let’s see... Pardon my cynicism. How many billions of our non-New Orleans-based tax dollars have been injected into that dire, now practically pointless economy? The number is so high that no one can recount it accurately. Billions upon billions. The federal government was handing out credit cards to those people. Remember? And we-all paid for them.

Now, because they’ve spent money on cleaning up the Superdome, we’re all supposed to rejoice that New Orleans is back. But is it? They were pillorying the football Saints’ owner Tom Benson last year, when he dared to (ahem) float the idea that maybe the Saints should move elsewhere, since they’d be hard-pressed to represent a city that virtually ceased to exist, and which will take decades and decades to return to its former, uh, glory. Frankly, I thought Benson had a realistic point, and I’m sure he wasn’t suggesting it to be vindictive. He probably looked around, thought it made no sense for a devastated town of 200,000 to have an NFL franchise, and looked at options. Even Bangor, Maine, probably looked pretty good at that point. But the guilt guys got to him, and the Mother Teat federal government has been spilling its endless supply of money-milk all over New Orleans, because the guilt guys got to them too in spades.

Of course, there’s always the chance that another Katrina might come along. They’ve plugged the dikes (dykes?) in New Orleans but the entire area’s coastal geology is in a chaotic recession. Yep, for several decades the feds, in concert with local authorities, dropped the ball on rejuvenating the shoreline and diverting the Mississippi in creative ways, even though there were plenty of experts at places like LSU who could’ve told them what needed to be done to avert catastrophe from, at that time, a fictional Katrina. It would have cost something like $14 billion to do such a task, and they needed to have started years ago. But they didn’t, and Katrina finally came, and New Orleans and other parts of the Gulf Coast region sat there with their thumbs up their bureaucratic asses, content with their manana attitudes and their “What, Me Worry?” sense of “God will provide” fatalism.

Meanwhile, that economy only works for the established white folks and old-money types who’ve been living in ease for generations. Thus leaving the poor and the blacks living in hovels and taking city buses to their minimum-wage jobs, with the idea of a Category 4-and-up hurricane the farthest thing from their minds.

So Katrina came, and this dumb-ass, ill-prepared, unimaginative city—but, boy, can they play zydeco and Dixieland!—just figured that maybe the wind and water would pass them perilously by. And when it didn’t, and they looked like fools—you get one from Column A: Ray Nagin, a mentally challenged, seemingly uneducated puppet mayor; and one from Column B: Gov. Kathleen Blanco (Wow! A female governor! Hurray for social progress!), who acted during the crisis like a grammar-school principal who had made a few mistakes in organizing the semi-annual fire drill—they rushed to blame the federal government for all their own ills.

Suddenly, “Brownie”—as in, “You’re doin’ a heckuva job”—was to blame. Now I’m not going to defend Michael Brown, President Bush’s then-man at FEMA. But why is it that, long before Katrina, we had all kinds of hurricanes in Florida and the Carolinas, and not one word was ever said about FEMA’s ineptitude? So suddenly FEMA is completely lacking? Well, FEMA didn’t order up the hurricane. They are a response group, and, under what obviously were very trying circumstances, I can only believe that many good men and women tried their best.

But moreso, FEMA was not responsible for what the hurricane exposed about New Orleans: That it’s a backwards place, that the poor side of town looks like the antebellum plantation South, that it’s hot and humid and some people walk around in rags, that rich aristocratic people pay crap wages to a virtual slave labor pool, and that the local government and police will always look the other way if it’s in their self-interest to do so.

Who can forget the firestorm of controversy in 1986 at Super Bowl XX, when Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon called the fine ladies of New Orleans “sluts”? Funny, that amid all that outrage, no one thought to actually correct McMahon’s assertion. They were only shocked that he said it. But nakedness and drunkenness are a couple of other things that characterize this fair city. Now I’m not really against either, no more than Jim McMahon was. But when drunken revelry and sluttiness are hallmarks of your town, should we be surprised that when the hurricanes come no one is prepared?

With its Southern political paternalism and ingrained bigotry, New Orleans always was a cesspool of official corruption, commercial vice and lazy Southern ways wedded to a culture of kinky sin and Christian repentance with an admixture of voodoo thrown in for good measure. Its highest testament to its sensual glory was always its music and food, but that was only public relations folderol. For the real dope on the New Orleans mise en scene, check out Clint Eastwood’s 1984 flick Tightrope (he starred; Richard Tuggle wrote and directed).

Now we have the big Superdome coming-out party, with President Bush the First making the coin flip, and Spike Lee sitting in the announcer’s booth with ESPN’s racially correct talent lineup—a Jew, a black and an Italian white man (they would never allow an Anglo-Saxon or Celtic white man in there, of course, unless it’s an OLD Celt like John Madden)—and electronic media’s answer to “Why Isn’t Mom at Home?”—Michele Tafoya—asking murderously insipid questions of Harry Connick Jr., who was not and never will be the latter-day Frank Sinatra but is trading big-time on the Katrina market even though he’s spent the last 20 years of his life outside of New Orleans being a pop star and then launching a mediocre acting career which has no doubt reached its zenith with his ongoing role in “Will and Grace.” Yah, Harry’s from the Big Easy. Big deal. (New Orleans native Avery Johnson, also interviewed on ESPN, gets a pass in this diatribe. He was a very good NBA basketball player, seems to be a very good NBA coach, and truly appears to be a sincere and hard-working and grateful fellow.)

Meanwhile, ESPN cameras zoom all over the refurbished Superdome, where we get to experience all over again how New Orleans is a slovenly land of lazy good-for-nothings who were content to live there all those years with a corrupt sociopolitical infrastructure—so ingrainedly corrupt that the morons have since returned do-nothing Mayor Nagin to office, even after he clearly proved to be a name-caller and a blamer-of-others when Katrina suddenly forced him to step up and show his face. (It was so much easier to be an inarticulate African American toady for the old-line white power brokers; then Katrina came and the world saw what was going on in his city. Tough luck, Ray.)

So, 70,000 people cram the Superdome, their faces painted like Halloween, their gros booze-swilling bodies festooned like Mardi Gras, with slutty ladies hanging on the monied arms of men who easily evacuated the hurricane while 200,000 po’ black folk were engulfed by fatal waters that destroyed what was left of their shanties and shacks.

I don’t wanna hear some New York-based electronic journalist tell me one more thing about the “Upper 9th Ward” or the “Lower 9th Ward,” phrases bandied about as if there would be some cathartic exorcism of our collective guilt if we only repeated them over and over, like some age-old Cajun mantras.

I don’t have any guilt. It wasn’t my fault. I wasn’t there. And, like everyone else, I fear and respect natural disaster. But by God, they came and took our money and they handed it out like candy to all the people of New Orleans. And they gave them charge cards–which someone used to buy Louis Vuitton luggage, goddammit—and then they forced us to wear a national hairshirt because... because...because New Orleans was a screwed-up place to begin with! It had not addressed its deep-seated and long-standing social problems, it had not addressed its deep-seated and long-standing coastal-erosion and river-flow problems, it hadn’t even built up its levees sufficiently to keep pace with what was going on geologically and, yes, meteorologically. (Do they have TV weatherpersons down there in the Big Easy like they do in every other big city? Hell, if there’s a light dusting of dew in Nashville, the weather guys and gals put on a show five times a day. They explain it, they analyze it, they go crazy about it. And they even tell you when you can take your umbrella out of the closet, bless their hearts.) So, I’m just wondering: Do the New Orleans weather people know that hurricane activity has been particularly antsy in the recent era? Could there have been one forward-thinking person anywhere in the entire city, somewhere along the line, in the past 20 years, to at least have urged the city to get minimally prepared for a Katrina? Well, no, not if you’re like Dennis Quaid in The Big Easy, which was a very big movie in 1987 but actually sucks if you watch it now. Alas, it remains a reminder of the N’awlins mindset: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and if it IS broke, don’t bother to find out. Just get your cut, and head to Tipitina’s for some crawfish.

So New Orleans has a football team again. Swell. That’s okay, the po’ folk who got chased out by Katrina and were relocated at my expense couldn’t afford to go to those games anyway. Meanwhile, they want to sink more and more money into rejuvenating the Crescent City, or as Connick explained: They need more people (like us) to come down there and spend our hard-earned money on their music and food and their night-life and hotels, so New Orleans can be great again. And maybe that’ll be a lot more fun, too, now that all the deadwood poverty-stricken have been forced out of town. Golly, maybe Katrina was a blessing!

Sorry, Harry. They already came and got my money and sent it down to New Orleans. In fact, I want my money back. Hell, I’ll take the luggage. Then maybe I’ll take a trip to Seattle. I hear that’s a pretty intelligent place. And they don’t have a hurricane season, either.


Kerry Woo said...

Martin, WOW...

What I find tragic are the "forgotten" people outside of New Orleans who aren't getting any attention (i.e. assistance).

Cheering for the Saints is one way to mask the responsibility that lies ahead; why fix things when we can PARTY.

Hope that the Saints don't go on a losing skid - FEMA doesn't need that burden.

Martin Brady said...

Amen to all of that. Thank you for writing!