Last weekend, I was in New Orleans for a panel with two of my students and friends Matt Weinert and Amentahru Wahlrab at the International Studies Association. The Association likes to haunt large hotels. I stayed at the Westin in which the lobby is on the eleventh floor and one must use one’s room key to ride the elevator up to the high 20s. The construction seems designed to keep the people of New Orleans away, though of course this is foolish since they work at the desks, wait on the tables, cook and clean up, responding with kindness and grace, and one can, if one wishes, communicate. The attitude registered in the construction was also visible in the police murders and cover-up during Katrina as well as in the driving out of black workers in the Seventh Ward. See here.
These hotels are on the Riverwalk very near the French Quarter. One has but to walk away. I was soon among the French structures of the Quarter, built solidly of cypress and painted brick on top of the original swamp long ago, the streets with resonant names like Chartres and Poydras, shops like Gnome, and the people, having little money, lifting their voices in song or playing a variety of instruments, filling the street with music, violin cases or cans beside them for contributions. There is no city of music like New Orleans. The French quarter was flooded by Katrina five years ago, coated with mud and swarms of flies, but now is reassembled, a rare place. One can even find a lively Jewish community selling the occasional t-shirt inscribed shalom y’ll in Hebrew and English or a contemporary jewelry shop with interesting workings of menorahs, mezuzas (in an old story, Yahweh barbarically slaughtered the first sons of Egyptians, but spared the sons of his followers who had put lambs' blood on the door; the mezuza is perhaps a later memory or equivalent) and dreidl iconography. The food is wonderful and often inexpensive, the people friendly, the music moves right through you and invites movement (why one would hide in one of these expensive hotels is beyond me).
Everyone has a story. Laura’s candy shop has magnificent pralines, and the woman who runs it – a big woman – talks to me about how she left in 2005, her home destroyed, and came back in 2007, having paid to have it rebuilt with all her savings. The contractor had taken the money, but not fixed it except for some beginning work. He had run away. She had given the evidence to the DA, but he still hasn’t pursued the case as of 2010. The shop is doing all right. But she is no AIG, no Goldman Sachs, has no Larry Sommers to counsel her smartly about how to make a still unregulated economy work for ordinary people…
Listening is important. As I left, she said: "Bless you."
A white woman bartending in a restaurant went to her father in South Carolina for 6 months. She spoke of the waters careening through the city, of the layers of mud and swarms of metallic flies even when she came back, of her collapsed apartment…
The people have a deep sense of kindness and bone-deep solidarity. They survived catastrophe together. The solidarity comes at an immense price. Haitians, too, have this solidarity.
New Orleans gave America and the world the blues. It has an airport named for Louis Armstrong, unique among politician or city names. It made jazz an international phenomenon, what America is, culturally, renowned for. It is hard to overstress what this city has meant to America. But it is mainly black.
The political establishment allowed the wreck of New Orleans to occur, did not repair it, and has chased many of the working class citizens of the Seventh Ward out. It is no longer overwhelmingly a black city, no longer simply an antipode to reactionary Republican Louisiana.
The catastrophe rivals that of the plague in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War which sets the stage, even under Pericles, for the corruption of Athens, its decline and self-destruction. The ravaging of New Orleans also marks the end of a stage in America, the beginning of American decline. Only a declining regime would have let this city go under when it could have been prevented, would have failed to attend to the suffering. An unembedded Fox News reporter, wading by a dead floating 2 year old in the water, screamed at Britt Hume “Where’s the government?” The question lingers.
Only a declining regime would have turned away a Coast Guard ship with medical supplies from the harbor as Bush and Brownie did and refused aid from Cuba which has experienced and well trained doctors to deal with hurricanes (one of Condi’s inept contributions).
The election of Obama promised something new. The reality of Obama, however, indicates that one man, leading a corporate party, will not change much. But there is hope and strength in New Orleans despite the decline.
At the ISA, Matt Weinert who teaches at Delaware, in a paper about Arendt and international politics, asked a question about Haiti. How come Haitians are now recognized as victims of nature – and the world sympathizes with them and acts to help them – but when they have been victimized by American imperialism (the overthrow by Woodrow Wilson of the Haitian republic in 1916, the overthrow by the two Bushes of the elected regimes of Jean-Bertrand Aristide), the world has turned away? One might add for the French: or joined to plunder – Sarkozy’s performance, given French slavery and repeated demands for reparations for slave-owners from their former slaves, was particularly skin-crawling. Aristide was kidnapped in 2004 by the marines and taken to the Central African Republic, a former French colony). Even Obama will not permit Aristide to return to the Hempishere (he is still in South Africa where Condi drove him). As I have written about the politics of relief in Haiti after the earthquake, on the one hand there is sympathy, on the other, racist stereotypes: Haitian coffins are like “cadillacs” says a New York Times front page story – see Death in Haiti here and here. Perhaps the same is true of New Orleans.
The people of New Orleans gave jazz to the world. Haiti was created by the one successful slave revolt in all of history, and the poor have a democratic vibrance which even the repeated murderousness of Haiti’s Northern neighbor cannot suppress. The people of New Orleans and Haiti deserve to be seen and honored as well as aided.
Still, solidarity opens new possibilities for understanding. Stephanie Feldman of the American Council of Learned Societies has put up an article on the ACLS website based on the comments of four fellows (including me) who study Haiti, sympathize with democracy and cut through the many-layered web of Hollywood/US government racism. See here.