Blog Carnival- Louisiana: Closed For Remodeling by Greg Peters

Aug 23, 2008 by

Y3K: First Annual HumidCity Blog Carnival

(For a complete and updated list of all Blog Carnival Posts visit this page.)

What the fuck happened? Or, in pukka: Why are we they way we are?

Pirates, mostly. Privateers, if you want to split hairs.

Look, I’m not *blaming* anything on pirates. I like pirates. But the fact is, it was Jean Laffite who provided the tipping point after which Louisiana started the long slow slide.

Laffite, for you out of towners, was a privateer (that is, a pirate with a license). He and his brother roared around the gulf near the turn of the nineteenth century, liberating the contents of ships of all nations and carting them back to the island nation of Saint-Domingue, from which they were transferred (okay, smuggled) into New Orleans.

In 1808, however, the Louisiana government (such as it was) decided to start enforcing the Embargo Act of 1807, which barred any American ship from docking at a foreign port. Saint-Domingue was now problematic, so Laffite moved his operation to Barataria, near Grand Isle in Barataria Bay. Once unloaded there, the swag was transported to New Orleans through the bayou via pirogue (that’s a boat for your corn farmers).

This solution worked swimmingly for several years, until the revolving door of New Orleans civic leadership turned again and dumped Thomas Robinson into the lobby. Popular Governor William Claiborne had taken a leave of absence in 1810 and left the sniveling and unpopular Robinson in charge. Robinson proceeded to villify Laffite, snorting and honking about brigands and righteousness and you can probably fill it in.

The people of New Orleans, however, stung (as were all Americans) by the embargo, rather liked Laffite, and especially enjoyed the auctions that Laffite and his crew put on at a small island in the Bay, where they could buy goods meant for the ruling elite at pennies on the dollar.

Here is where the disconnect begins: The citizens of New Orleans brought home with them not just furs and furniture; they brought home the understanding that what the government said or did had nothing to do with how they lived their lives.

There are still pirates in New Orleans. Some of them even blog here. They’re not really privateer-type pirates insofar as they don’t sack ships in the gulf and sail to Barbados to spend the swag; they’re pirates of art, taking the aspect and title as a statement of purpose, style, and mission. But they take the pirate title and style quite seriously, even belligerently. There seem to be quite a few in and around the French Quarter, appropriately — a throwback to the old pirate days, a place where the real and the unreal maintain an unsteady mix, a place of proud history and cheap plastic fabrication.

The French Quarter is by turns perfectly American and indomitably *not*. It clings to its origins in Caribbean and European leisure and gentility, while selling that idea back to visitors in its most vulgar freebased form. It’s a great microcosm of Louisiana, and of Louisiana politics.

When the people of New Orleans realized the disconnect between the rhetoric of the politicians and the struggles and successes of life, the transformation of politics from something to do into something to watch began.

Guy Debord called it the Spectacle, Jean Beaudrillard called it simulacra: the persistence of illusion the particularly American preference for the reproduction rather than the real and the tendency to view events outside of our experience as a show on a screen, put on for our amusement. You can snicker at Froggy philosophy all you want, but Debord and Beaudrillard (and Deleuze and Bataille and Kristeva) are on to something here.

And Here, especially. Politics in Louisiana, the cliche goes, is entertainment. The more outrageous the better; it’s like professional wrestling with all heels and no babyfaces. People love to watch the scandals.

Not really true, though. It would be more accurate to say that politics in Louisiana has historically been an other, something separate and distinct from daily life, occasionally entertaining but usually something to be merely regarded, like a passing car. Even when the shit gets serious, when the shit starts to fly in a way that would send a more self-actualized state into cataleptic shock — think of the Edwards/Duke race in, say, Idaho — we hesitate, our fingers hovering between the FIX IT and FUCK IT buttons, wondering just what would happen. We push our politics in directions sure to appall the rest of the country, just for shits and giggles, because our politics haven’t been real to us.


And what’s good for the goose: New Orleans has always been America’s great mythical city, cloaked in artifice and manufactured impenetrability, famed for masks and plastic dubloons. New Orleans, and by extension Louisiana, simply isn’t real to most Americans. It’s Disney World with negroes. Louisiana’s insistence on otherness, of being apart from America, speaking French, and trapping itself in all that spooky shit, from gibberish-barking swamp-Cajuns and their pet gators to voodoo queens and hexes and those goddamned swoony gay vampires, has cemented an image in the minds of spectacle-med America: this is a big sticky black gay vampire theme park that closes down from the end of Mardi Gras to the beginning of Mardi Gras. Real people live there? Probably just enough to maintain the rides, right?

There are a lot of reasons so much of America failed to respond, or responded poorly, the Katrina and Rita and The Flood: Poor, southern, and Black has never been a combination high on anyone’s give-a-shit list. But the continuing failure of America to respond or even understand has roots in the perception of Louisiana as artificial and apart.

We were America’s yard-selling privateers. We sold them an image, and they responded with coos and tourist dollars and gawking, and being in show business, we all lapped it up. They took home their trinkets content in the knowledge that what happened to those colorful natives had no chance of affecting their lives.

And here we fucking are. The flood and the hurricanes woke a lot of people in Louisiana up; the complete failure in all levels of governmental response stunned citizens who never had to call on government before but by Christ assumed it would handle things better than Lennie Small handled mice. There is motion to take back the politics, to get the reins on the runaway horse of the political process, but it’s going to take time. Its like starting an exercise program after 300 years of sitting on your ass watching teevee.

Maybe this is a better analogy: It’s like waking up on a pirate ship, off course and without a captain. We have to learn to steer the ship and get it back to port. And by the time we get back, we’re going to be the meanest motherfucking pirates this country has ever seen. We’re real (always have been). We’re hurting (way more than when everyone started not caring) and we have to fix up our own ship.

And when we do, we’re going to be the scourge of the gulf once again.

-Greg Peters | Suspect Device

(For a complete and updated list of all Blog Carnival Posts visit this page.)

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