The problem with Louisiana is it's in the 'hood.
Hell, it is the 'hood. Historical ironies abound.
If a whole country of 300 million can have a 'hood, Louisiana fills the bill. It's got poverty problems. It's got crime problems. It's got health problems. It, Lord knows, has education problems.
It even has had not only a Marion Barry -- the former ethically and chemical-dependency challenged mayor of Washington, D.C. -- but several Marion Barrys in its "colorful" political history. Note that when one speaks of "colorful" government, this is not a synonym for "effective" or even "minimally competent."
America's 'hood also suffers from an economy too reliant on just a few things. One of the few things on which Louisiana is overreliant happens to be the petrochemical industry -- this bad neighborhood of poor folks and problem cases is where we stick all the industries we depend upon . . . but don't want in the "nice" part of town.
It's where we put all the offshore oil rigs -- like the Deepwater Horizon -- we rely on for our daily petroleum fix but don't want anywhere near, say, Malibu. Or Martha's Vineyard. Or Miami Beach.
And if something goes BOOM! in the night, it's just blowing up people -- whole cultures, even -- whose main qualification for the honor is being unlike "people like us."
And if the thing that's just gone BOOM! in the night starts to soil Boudreaux's marsh and Thibodeaux's oyster beds, we'll leave the cleanup to the negligent screw-ups who caused the mess in the first place, because . . . who cares? It's the 'hood!
WE HAVE good reasons for maintaining a 'hood. This is just one.
Of course, we have other reasons for having national 'hoods, just like our local ones. For one thing, it makes it easier to find people to exploit -- from your local streetwalker to your low-paid service- and hospitality workers, who provide services and hospitality somewhat different from that of low-wage hookers on the corner.
For another, the 'hood provides a convenient focus for the attention of "progressives" striving for "solidarity" with someone . . . anyone. And for hipsters, it provides a handy place to seek "authenticity" in all manner of things -- food, music, culture, "expression."
How very quaint to possess the charms of the rustic . . . or the dispossessed.
Charm and "authenticity" are not enough, however, to save you from toxic emissions, failing infrastructure, a poor education or even a big-ass oil spill that eventually will destroy all the Stuff White People Like about you.
If you're the 'hood we call Louisiana, note well the stuff people like about you, which is different from actually liking you. Because they don't.
There is no place on earth with more "authenticity" in music, food, culture and all other manner of expression than New Orleans. The place is chockablock with Stuff White People Like. Was that sufficient for the American people to safeguard all this authentic goodness by preserving robust wetlands and building Category 5 hurricane-protection levees?
It's the 'hood, for God's sake.
What's hailed as "colorful" culture and politics in south Louisiana, is a clear case of "Edna! Call 911!" if it makes its way to Our Town. That or occasion to urgently convene an anti-corruption task force, depending.
Don't get caught in Uncle Sam's neighborhood after dark. We're going to want to know how you got that nice car you're driving.
OF COURSE, the underprivileged now and again take extreme umbrage at some slight, real or perceived, and they start to "act out." This has to be carefully managed. Usually, you can head things off by putting the ringleaders and "troublemakers" swiftly in their place.
Here's how the mayor and "civic leaders" handled things in 1963 when "the Negroes" started to get out of hand in Omaha:
Billy Nungesser, the president of Plaquemines Parish whose frustrations about the federal government response have been featured prominently on TV in the past few weeks, told ABC News that in the private meeting the president had with local leaders here today, President Obama "chewed me out."DAMN. I seem to have put up the wrong clip. Let's try this one:
Nungesser, a Republican, told ABC News that President Obama "told me that we need to communicate."
He said that he told President Obama that after his first visit to the region a few weeks ago, "We got the jack-up boats done cause of you. And you spent more time with us than any other president. But since then, it was a bottleneck. Things weren't getting done. All of it was sitting in the marsh."
Nungesser said the president told him, "'Well you know, if you can't get it done through the chain of command' -- and he's made some changes; we've got a guy on the ground now that can make decisions -- he said, 'you pick up the phone and call the White House. And, if you can't get me on the phone, then you can go blast me.'"
And I will make one last point -- and I said this to every leader who is here: If something is not going right down here, then they need to talk to Thad Allen. And if they’re not getting satisfaction from Thad Allen, then they can talk to me. There’s nobody here who can’t get in touch with me directly if there is an idea, a suggestion, or a logjam that needs to be dealt with.S***. Third time's the charm, right?
So we’re in this together. And it’s going to be a difficult time, and obviously the folks down here are going to be feeling the brunt of it, but we’re going to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to get this solved as quickly as possible.
Last May, the Rev. Mr. Jones and several other young ministers formed the 4CL, or Citizens' Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties. "They barged into my office," angrily recalls Mayor Dworak, "with a series of outrageous demands. I offered to appoint one of them, the Rev. Rudolph McNair, to my biracial citizens' committee. Apparently, that wasn't enough, because they picketed the very first meeting of the committee. We won't stand for that here in Omaha."
Made up of Omaha's most influential citizens, the Mayor's Bi-racial Committee claims it is carefully laying the groundwork for the correction of Negro complaints. Says Morris E. Jacobs, a prosperous Omaha businessman and one of the leaders of the committee, "We're trying to set up an ideal that can serve as an example for the whole United States. And what happens? They picket! I got wind of it beforehand, and phoned Reverend McNair. I said. 'We didn't know about your grievances. Now that you've made them known, give us a chance to settle things and redeem ourselves with dignity — don't crowd us.'Look magazine, Dec. 17, 1963
THIS IS the formula for dealing with the 'hood. Sometimes, it backfires and you get a big riot or something, but it's still the "industry best practice" for dealing with "those people."
Let's review: First, those running the show must sound reasonable so that the troublemakers sound like . . . unreasonable troublemakers. Second, it's important to be intimidating. Never, ever should a mayor, governor, civic leader . . . or president . . . show fear.
It's like dealing with the wild kingdom -- some species can sense fear, and that will not go well for the power elite.
Third, it helps to be condescending. This is related to intimidation. Highly effective with low-class people, who may harbor inferiority complexes you can exploit.
Finally, if those in charge want to stay in charge, they must always voice their sincere intention to work on the issues that so aggrieve the restless hordes. They must stress this over and over. Likewise, they must implore the aggrieved to be "reasonable" and "calm," emphasizing that people must "work through the system."
See, "Call center, BP."
In all this, sincerity is the key. If governmental and civic leaders can fake that, they've got it made.
Of course, the needed resources never seem to materialize. It's the 'hood, after all, and Americans don't do 'hood. Nothing ever seems to be done; nothing ever seems to change, and we like it that way.
Because it's the 'hood. Republican or Democrat, the consistent policy is "out of sight, out of mind." The 'hood is not like us. For the most part, we're quite content to let it -- and everyone in it -- die.
Though we'd just as soon not see or hear about it. See, "Gag rules, clean-up worker" and "Restrictions, press."
WHEN IT COMES right down to it, this is the moment I have been writing about for almost four years now. Every time I've written about Louisiana and its political and cultural challenges, this is what I was getting at.
I didn't know how it would happen, but I knew Louisiana's existential crisis would come -- in many ways, had come -- and that when it did . . . the 'hood wasn't any place you'd want to be. But there Louisiana is.
In the 'hood. With all the bad things, few of the good things, and with "les Americains" probably figuring they're better off with Louisiana dead. If you want to survive, Boudreaux, go chain yourself to an oil pipeline now. We'll take care of those, probably.
In effect, what I've been trying to argue -- poorly -- is that if Louisiana were a TV show, it would be Sanford and Son, and it probably would earn a nice write up in Better Homes & Ghettos. Now, America thought ol' Fred G. Sanford was funny and all -- "colorful" and "authentic," no doubt -- but there's no way we'd want the real-life version of the irascible junk man in our neighborhood.
What I also have been arguing for these past few years -- poorly -- is that Louisiana's survival hinged on its somehow transforming itself into a higher class of (ahem) "ethnic" program, say The Cosby Show. The Huxtables, they had it goin' on.
America loved Cliff and Clair Huxtable -- the doctor and the lawyer. America loved their bright and adorable kids. America welcomed the Huxtables into their homes every week, and they would have welcomed them into their neighborhood, too.
There's plenty percentage in being like the Huxtables. America would do anything for Cliff and Clair, and even if they didn't, the Huxtables could shift for themselves just fine in the modern world.
Unlike Louisiana. Alas.
Is all this right? No. Are all men created equal? In the eyes of God, at least.
But aren't we all Americans? Equal under the law? E pluribus unum, and all that?
In theory, yes. But theory is just another word for marketing, and marketing always takes liberties with the unvarnished truth.
The unvarnished truth is that this is a fallen world we inhabit, a true vail of tears. In such a place -- in such a country as even this -- it's a hell of a thing to have "always depended on the kindness of strangers."
Blanche DuBois. Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire."
Set in New Orleans.