Now that a certain chapter in New Orleans history — or a section within a chapter — has come to a close, it’s a good time to pause and reflect on what we’ve just experienced.
On the whole, we’ve comported ourselves admirably, joining together under trusted local elected leaders to bring about a more positive outcome than much of the rest of the country. Together, we have “flattened the curve” in New Orleans and thus avoided the catastrophic inundation of our hospitals that social distancing was designed to prevent.
On the other hand, age-old divisions, enmities, and anxieties, egged on by today’s toxic American political culture, have erupted into boils. Among these are the unbounded arrogance of the white Southern conservatives who beset our city on all sides, and the demoralizing misrecognition of New Orleans by national political and media voices, often on the left.
The misrecognition of Carnival is an ongoing irritation for New Orleanians who care what other people think of us. Terry Gross, interviewing Tulane professor and author John Barry on NPR’s Fresh Air, offered the typical misrepresentation, which has become so stubbornly pervasive and oblivious to facts that I have come to view it as a micro-aggression. After Barry described Philadelphia’s 1918 war bond parade, which was held well after the influenza had begun spreading through the city, Gross asked if that incident reminded Barry of how New Orleans “held its Mardi Gras parade” despite the dangers. The Mardi Gras parade? Clearly Gross’ understanding of Carnival in New Orleans comes from Disney’s The Princess and the Frog, which also partakes in the common misrepresentation that Carnival consists of a single, official, city-sponsored parade on a certain day. Why is it that New Orleans is the one place in the world about which a modicum of cultural literacy isn’t required before people open their mouths to criticize?
This pandemic has shown once again that the national perception of New Orleans is akin to how some people see a person with a distinctive mole on their nose. The mole is Mardi Gras. To some, it is unsightly; to others, it’s a charming beauty mark. But the point is that every other feature of that person’s physiognomy (shape of eyes, size of mouth, hair, etc.) is totally ignored because the viewer can’t take their eyes off the mole. The person with the mole, on the other hand, knows it’s there and has learned that, though it’s different, it’s not necessarily repulsive (well, some of us have not reached that stage). At any rate, the person with the mole does not walk around all day obsessed with its existence.
What’s upsetting is how every other feature besides the mole is ignored. If New Orleans comes up in the national conversation of COVID-19, it will be some offhand reference to Mardi Gras, usually derogatory. Without some reference to the mole on our nose, we fade into invisibility.
How often have we heard the report that “states in the deep south, for the most part, are not engaging in serious mitigation measures?” Why won’t they just add the three words, “except in Louisiana?” The Huffington Post reported on April 20 that Michigan “appear(ed) to be the first state to create a panel to address racial disparities seen during the pandemic.” Actually, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards did that more than a week earlier, on April 10. Louisiana was also among the very first states to release racial data on infection rates and deaths, on April 6.
It’s a truism that pandemics exacerbate existing social co-morbidities, and clearly race is one of those. At least America is recognizing that the racial disparity data is consistent across the country, and not confined to that basement of the American imagination called “the South.” Indeed, racism is more national in the Trump era than perhaps ever before. Confederate flags are as ubiquitous at the Michigan state capitol as anywhere else
Of course, the Trump poison—nonsensical white grievance– is very potent in Louisiana, though perhaps less so in this particular moment because of the careful, triangulating leadership of John Bel Edwards. Trump has been predictable in this crisis in the way he has divided, damaged, and disrupted, while eschewing any semblance of an effort to unite the country and provide stable, coherent leadership. All he has ever offered is rhetoric, but his rhetoric has its effects and they are always deleterious.
The singular poison he has concocted to make this crisis worse is the intimation, stated plainly on May 8, that mitigation efforts are just a liberal political ploy to damage him personally, and that the novel coronavirus would just go away if all mitigation efforts were stopped. That has set up a false dilemma between economic and public health concerns. The racial disparities in COVID-19 outcomes are bad news not only because they expose (again) these disparities as endemic throughout the country’s history, but because reminders of these very disparities make racist white people even more racist. They’re like a meme of a guy in a MAGA hat, waving a gun, with the caption, “Say RACE one more time!!”
The absolute lack of concern for the lives of African-American citizens is probably the most offensive thing about the Republican rush to “re-open” America, but other disturbing features of American uber-capitalism are also being exposed. Some of the most illuminating local texts have come in comments from Jefferson Parish Chamber of Commerce head Todd Murphy, New Orleans & Co. CEO Stephen Perry, and a full-page ad in the Times-Picayune by four rich white guys attacking our elected leaders’ mitigation efforts on April 19. Each of these shows the unbounded sense of entitlement felt by self-anointed “business leaders,” as well as their conviction that the primary role of the people of New Orleans is to make money for them, even if they must sacrifice their lives in the process.
It’s hard to decide which paragraph of the April 19 full-page ad rant, signed by Franco Valobra, Robert Lupo, David Monteleone, and Jay Batt, is the most offensive. It may be that the most innocuous statements are the worst. For example, when they say that “protecting the health of our citizens from this deadly virus and protecting our citizens from economic depression and despair is not a choice between the two but rather a decision should be made to address both at once.”
No, it’s not the mangled syntax that bothers me. It’s the insinuation that our local elected officials do not feel exactly the same way. Why do they suggest that only they want to balance medical safety and economic survival? “Staying closed is not a plan,” they gravely intone. But since when was it anyone’s plan to stay closed forever?
What the self-important “business leaders” neglect to mention is that the path to a return to normalcy is clear. It’s about testing — testing which, for some reason, the federal government of the United States has been unable to produce on the necessary scale to re-open normal business activity. Other countries have been able to do it. But the party of Donald Trump seems to have given up on the necessary testing, accepting tens of thousands of deaths (of the employees whose labor creates their wealth) as collateral damage.
Valobra, Lupo, Monteleone, and Batt could have paid for a full page ad to demand the federal government get off its duff and use the Defense Production Act to ramp up production of tests, testing supplies, and personnel so that we can all get back to work. But no — the easier solution for them is to tolerate the deaths of hundreds of their neighbors (and the desperate people who work for them) and call it an operating expense.
The weirdest statement in the April 19 diatribe concerns the future of the French Quarter: “The deeply unsustainable cancellation of all public events in our city for 2020, will irreparably damage if not destroy our city’s culturally important French Quarter.”
I’m in the Quarter every day. It doesn’t look “destroyed” to me. Do we really need to point out that no physical damage to structures has taken place as a result of the pandemic? Why do they equate a cessation of mass tourist attractions in the neighborhood with “destruction?” The reason is a core principal of capitalist ideology: the only value is exchange value. If something can’t be exchanged for money, it has no value. Thus, a beautiful work of art is useless until somebody pays a lot of money for it. Food, too, has no value unless somebody pays for it. Need we point out, finally, that human lives also lack value if other people can’t make money off them? We don’t need to say it, because the zeal of some to sacrifice lives for profits during a pandemic (and in every other circumstance) is clear on its face.
Many folks like me, who grew up in the Quarter, might come to quite a contrary conclusion: that the destruction of the Quarter happens when it is converted entirely into a cash cow for tourist industry profits and no longer has any value besides that.
Tourist industry magnates are livid that Mayor Cantrell thought it wise to cancel — for one year — major attractions that draw people from all over the world to the city. Do the whiners really think that it’s prudent, as COVID-19 peaks in places that did not take necessary measures, to invite hundreds of thousands of people into a city that has just painfully done what it needed to do to nip the virus in the bud?
It’s not Mayor Cantrell who has put a multi-year crimp into the tourist business. It’s the virus itself, and the failure of the United States to produce sufficient testing to even know where it’s spreading at any given time. The other sad lesson we’ve learned is that the United States government is just as incapable at economic mitigation as it is at public health. I still haven’t seen the check — with Donald Trump’s name on it — that was supposed to float me through April. America’s state-level patchwork of unemployment insurance has proven itself utterly inadequate to the task, small-business relief got sucked up by large corporations, and people are losing their employer-based health care during a pandemic. In this mess, Americans realize that we’re on our own and may have to risk our lives for the paltry scraps our employers are willing to throw at us. Conservatives call it “freedom” and we can celebrate it by refusing to wear a mask around the people who are forced to serve us.
If self-appointed “business leaders” really cared about the well-being of people with low-end tourist industry jobs, they’d join the rest of us in demanding universal health care, a higher minimum wage, a unionized work force in all major hotels, and federal funds to help cover losses of states and municipalities that have met this crisis head on while the president fiddled in the White House. Instead of meeting these dire needs, the geniuses in the state legislature have decided to funnel the dwindling pile of state revenues to giant global oil companies. How generous Louisianans are to hand over to BP and other energy behemoths the remaining pennies that would have gone to our schools and hospitals!
I’m proud that New Orleans and Louisiana have been a model for dealing with this crisis, even though I know we won’t get recognition for it beyond the 504. The national myths of dysfunctional New Orleans are too great, and too internalized by locals, to overcome with the good governance we’ve witnessed these past weeks. We were among the first to put strict social distancing guidelines in place, and now we’re seeing the fruit of our efforts. We don’t know when or how it will end, but we’ve handled the initial moment of the outbreak with grit and grace.
Unfortunately, regardless of public health outcomes, the political side of this is just going to get uglier. It’s scary enough to wonder how long the pandemic will extend, how and whether schools will start in the fall, how we will be able to feed and house ourselves. The abdication of government responsibility outside New Orleans—in the state legislature, U.S. Senate, and White House–means that we will probably suffer a great deal more before this is over.
C.W. Cannon is the author of four novels, including ‘French Quarter Beautification Project,’ which explores the lives and minds of French Quarter restaurant workers in the 1980s. He teaches in the English Department at Loyola University New Orleans.
The Opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Engagement Editor Tom Wright at email@example.com.