Botched refereeing rekindles a familiar Whodat Nation vibe: paranoia

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New Orleans Saints

The Saints' logo and the city's emblem are one and the same.

The Saints’ logo and New Orleans’ official emblem are one and the same.

New Orleans Saints

So I guess we don’t get to have another black-and-gold day until next fall. And I was planning the perfect outfit for next Friday to kick off a Whodat Super Bowl weekend. Now all I have is righteous indignation: botched refereeing robbed us Whodats of the NFC championship.

That’s a familiar feeling. After all, persecution fantasies are “naturally N’Awlins.” Randy Newman’s popular anthem commemorating the 1927 flood crystallizes the paranoia in its refrain: “They’re trying to wash us away, they’re trying to wash us away.”

Historian Shannon Lee Dawdy, in her study of French colonial New Orleans, “Building the Devil’s Empire,” noted that, “By the 1720s, writers were characterizing the colony of Louisiana with a language of failure and abandonment.” The reasons for early fears of abandonment are easy to understand. The French largely left the colony to fend for itself after the financial collapse of the company authorized to develop it.

That abandonment became the first of New Orleans’ many opportunities to make lemonade out of lemons. It inspired self-reliance and inter-dependence among the people who were here—French, Africans, Native Americans. It also fostered illegal trade ties with nearby Spanish and British colonies, creating a culture that one day would be celebrated for its polyglot distinctiveness.

Centuries later, Hurricane Katrina resurrected the sense that the broader national community doesn’t give a %^&*$ about us. Not without moments of friction, some of them abrasive, New Orleanians worked together as neighbors in the storm’s aftermath, rescuing people, checking in on others, distributing “looted” goods to hungry residents, organizing waste disposal. It was, all in all, a marvelous display of grass-roots self-government. But the national media spun an entirely opposite tale, instead emphasizing what Time Magazine columnist Sonja Steptoe called our “lawless depravity.”

OK, pro football is just a game, but the cultural practices and emotional responses around it are a game of a different sort. They are governed by strict rules and an insistence on factual accuracy—with glaring exceptions like the missed pass-interference call in the play-off against the Los Angeles Rams. But sports fandom is a theater for enacting mythical identities.

The eardrum shattering decibel levels we achieve in the Dome may be an exception, but most of our well-known cultural practices—from crazy costumes to conspiracy theories—have no bearing on game play. Yet NFL football would not be recognizable as a cultural institution without the off-field creativity of fans.

In “A Short History of Myth,” scholar Karen Armstrong reminds us that myths are expressions of unconscious “desires” or “fears.” Deeply rooted modes of New Orleanian self-expression make Whodat Nation the poster child for Armstrong’s theory.

It’s not surprising that the fans of New Orleans’ NFL team are particularly adept at spinning a weekly hour of game time into a rich and complex cultural phenomenon. Whodat Nation magnifies the business of an NFL team into a cosmic struggle of the forces shaping local identity.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the performance of Whodat identity is how it juggles the competing ideologies of NOLA identity in general: New Orleans exceptionalism and New Orleans Americanism. New Orleans exceptionalists want to see the city as an alternative to a default American identity, while New Orleans Americanists simply want to be recognized as legitimately American.

Too many students of New Orleans get bogged down in knee-jerk debunking, trying to prove that this or that aspect of our collective mythology is poorly rooted in historical fact. But these true-or-false exercises miss the point. Myth always cherry-picks fact, emphasizing certain truths at the expense of others. We need to understand myths as myth—as quasi-factual projections of subconscious fears or desires—and stop vainly groping for levels of facticity more appropriate to science or history. In other words, no, there is not a broad national conspiracy to deny the Saints a shot at another Super Bowl title, but the conspiracy theories do tell us a lot about how we view ourselves in the national context.

In general terms, there is no enterprise more Americanist than fielding an NFL team. The whole point is to earn national recognition, to hear the rest of the United States acknowledge our city as “the best” at that quintessentially American pursuit, pro football.

The persecution fantasy that many Whodats are now giving vent to reflects a very Americanist fear—that “they” won’t let us succeed on the American playing field, that for some reason New Orleans is singled out and denied the fair play that Americans are supposed to have a right to. This fear is supported by a conglomeration of inconclusive but suggestive facts: officials in the Dome last Sunday missed an egregiously early and high hit against Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis, a call that would (most likely) have sealed a New Orleans victory. AND (big reveal coming)…many of the refs that day had vague ties to Los Angeles.

The last time Whodats descended into persecution fantasies was similar. The 2012 season could have ended in the first-ever home stadium Super Bowl, since the game was slated for the Superdome and the Saints were still contenders, two years after their glorious 2010 Bowl. Then came “Bountygate,” and penalties—including a year-long suspension of Coach Sean Payton—that struck Saints fans as excessive. Thus the crippled team fell out of contention for a home-turf Super Bowl.

NOLA exceptionalists counter Americanist fears of exclusion from the American community with bravado, falling back on aspects of our culture that are cherished precisely because they distinguish us from the rest of the country. We see the exceptionalist side of Whodat Nation in the way fans customize their team appreciation and adorn it with local signifiers. The pervasive faux-French spellings are the most visible sign (e.g. “Geaux Saints”).

The local arts of costuming and parading are also front and center, in ways often misunderstood by outside observers. I still remember washed-up conservative comedian Dennis Miller’s bewilderment, when he was briefly a Monday Night Football commentator, upon seeing Tom Benson dance with an umbrella after a game. He just couldn’t figure out what the umbrella was about and wrongly assumed that it must be the owner’s personal idiosyncrasy. Now the Saints have the umbrella, with the late Benson’s initials, sewn onto their game jerseys.

The suggestions that we should have a parade for the Saints anyway, in defiance of the national assumption that parades go only to Super Bowl victors, and turn Super Bowl weekend—arguably a more American holiday than even Thanksgiving—into a celebration of local identity, are notably exceptionalist responses. The city that celebrates frivolity for its own sake is also now adding new meaning to the idea of “frivolous” law suits, as a couple of Whodats sue the NFL for “loss of enjoyment of life.” The demand that life be enjoyed rather than just endured is certainly one of New Orleans’ exceptionalism’s defining features.

But we also hear the defensive and resentful side of the exceptionalist spirit in the trash talk against other NFL cities. In an era when area bumper stickers proclaim, “This is LA, not L.A.,” Los Angeles is a stand-in for an America perceived as boring, homogeneous, and unattractive (though wealthier). And of course Atlanta is the eternal sign of Southern Americanism, a city, at least in the New Orleans imagination, that is far more successful on the American economic and social playing field, but of course less imaginative and less beautiful. Now is the predictable time for the memes proclaiming, “We will wake up tomorrow in New Orleans, while they have to wake up in bland old boring ___.

The implication of those memes, seen after many a Saints loss, is that life here is more meaningful, magical and playful than the drudgery faced daily by those poor Americans who don’t live in New Orleans. It’s a foundational principle of NOLA exceptionalist ideology. It might be made from sour grapes, but it’s a great tonic for Whodats in this moment of such flagrantly unfair treatment by an American institution like the NFL. Thus even the most ardent Crescent City Americanists imbibe NOLA exceptionalist draughts when they sense a snub from a national institution.

So it’s time to box up the extravagant black and gold feathers, sequins and what not. Fortunately, unlike rival NFL cities, we have other avenues for senseless beauty.

Happy Carnival, everybody!

C.W. Cannon

C.W. Cannon teaches “New Orleans as Myth and Performance,” and other courses, at Loyola University. His latest novel is “Sleepytime Down South.”

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