Friday, September 15, 2006

Why America Hates New Orleans, and we don't care

excerpted from Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans anthology:
available at many bookstores and online sites.
CW Cannon author

Consider these four social features: 1) public habitation of the public space, 2) anti-Puritanism, 3) a "slow-brewed" lifestyle and 4) our Creolized culture.

These four areas of uniqueness cause outsiders to fear and loathe us, because they fundamentally challenge mainstream America in uncomfortable ways.

"Public habitation of the public space" means, among other things, that New Orleanians use the streets for purposes other than driving, and this is something many Americans, in this age of privatization of public resources and social balkanization, fail to see the value in. Why would the city allow a parade to hold up traffic, not just during Carnival, but on any given Sunday during the long second-line season? And year-round, people lounge on their stoops, chat it up with everybody in the grocery store, and crowd the sidewalks outside bars, cafes and grandma's house.

Anti-Puritanism may be the local feature most despised by Americans who call themselves social conservatives. While many New Orleanians distance themselves from the wilder antics perpetrated on Bourbon Street by out-of-town teens, the fact is, we tolerate it with a condescending smirk, rather than bust them all for "indecency," as the latter-day Puritans would have us do. And, as the Krewe du Vieux parade makes crystal clear, we can be pretty raunchy ourselves (albeit more creatively). Even more of an outrage to the American fundamentalist hordes is the tolerance that we've historically afforded for gay lifestyles, out and open in our streets.

To "keep it slow-brewed" means stubbornly to persist in our Mediterranean approach to prioritizing work and leisure. In an era where, as Bill Clinton used to point out, more and more Americans are working longer hours for less money, I'm more convinced than ever that knocking off work early to spend time with family, friends, community (or to rebuild your house) is a more healthful way to live than the mainstream American model of spending hours in traffic to put in more hours working for the shareholders.

Finally, I celebrate our Creolized heritage, the most controversial and least understood dimension of social life in New Orleans. The word on the American street seems now to be that New Orleans is severely segregated and a place of deep racial divisions. While we can't ignore the long and painful history of racial oppression in New Orleans, a moment's glance at almost anywhere else in America will show that the stone-throwers probably ought to clean their own houses first. Further, an honest appraisal of the history of racial interaction in the city should also give credit where credit is due: New Orleans, home of the "whitest black people and the blackest white people in America," as the old expression has it, offers to the world America's most striking blend of European and African cultural influences.

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