Dirty South Bureau

December 20, 2009

What is wild?

Filed under: Class,culture,environment,Southern Louisiana,We Are Not OK — christian @ 10:13 pm

Exciting news for Dirty South Bureau: tomorrow I am going to an interview on a short film that flimmaker Ed Holub and I produced on the impacts of hurricanes and loss of wetlands on communities in Lafourche and Terrebonne Parishes. It’s thrilling to know that our short, the Human Cost, will be shown along with the other winners of Gulf Restoration Network’s Defend Our Wetlands, Defend Ourselves film contest on local television courtesy of Timecode NOLA. When Ed and I shot the footage and the interviews we knew we were on to a big story, but didn’t figure that we would make local TV.

For those of you who weren’t aware of this, Southern Louisiana is experiencing an environmental catastrophe unparalleled in our nation. We are literally losing the land in our coastal parishes, as the wetlands and marsh slip away into the Gulf of Mexico. Why this isn’t a bigger national story says a lot about the warped priorities of our media, but also about our own ideas about what the “environment”, “nature” and “wild” mean.

Part of the film focuses on the struggle of the Point-aux-Chenes people, a native people living in Lafourche and Terrebonne Parishes, to survive. The Point-Aux-Chenes and other native groups in South Louisiana are not recognized by the federal government. Like the native Americans in Southeast Alaska, natives in South Louisiana waged no wars against the United States and were never put on reservations. The old folks speak French and they live next door to Cajun and other bayou communities, with a history of intermixing that appears to predate the purchase of the land by President Jefferson in 1803. With their French language, their diesel powered shrimping boats, and their assimilated way of life – not much different than their neighbors – they are about as far from the American cigar store, feather headdress image of Native Americans as you could get.

But is it European culture that assimilated these indigenous people, or the other way around? In many practical respects, if you forget about the diesel fuel and modern wooden houses, the way of life for those living off the bounty of the sea and the land is not fundamentally different.

The natives of South Louisiana challenge our post-Rousseau Western notions of what is “wild”. In the “untamed” West of the United States, we set aside huge areas of land as “natural” preserves, to protect some pristine notion of wilderness from our own impacts. After, of course, we removed the people who lived there. In this dichotomy of “wild” vs. “civilized”, the space for contemporary indigenous people is in a museum or on a reservation.

By these notions the land of South Louisiana is hardly “pristine”; but does that make it any less worth saving? What about the people who live there: Native American, Cajun and just folks who live down the bayou?

Much of the failure of modern environmentalism has been rooted in false dichotomies – nature vs. people, trees vs. jobs – which the large corporations who perpetrate environmental crimes, be they Shell or International Paper – are more than happy to perpetuate. But environmentalists are part of the problem. When environmentalist and their organizations – and the big national ones have been among the worst – speak the language of yuppie environmentalism, where the environment is something on the outside, separate from us, that needs to be “saved” (at times by removing people), the seeds of these conflicts are sown.

The truth is that we are dependent upon our environment, and the most pressing reason to be concerned about environmental issues is that they affect us, our health, and our ability to survive. We are the ones that need saving. Nowhere is this as clear as South Louisiana, which is ground zero for environmental issues.

A big thank you to Chuck Verdin, Nathalie Bergeron, Robert Bergeron, Marylee Orr, Paul Orr, Aaron Viles and everyone who made this possible. The Human Cost can be seen on YouTube.

December 12, 2009

The value of life: Jacquian and the Iraqi dead

Filed under: Class,Media,New Orleans Economy,Race,We Are Not OK — christian @ 9:41 pm

I’ve been thinking a lot this last week about the different value that we, a society assign to different human lives; how some lives, such as the lives of white people from affluent families, are seen as almost infinitely valuable, and how others, such as the lives of young black men from low-income neighborhoods, are treated as almost infinitely cheap. This is hardly news, but we, myself included, end up getting so used to this paradigm that after a while we don’t even notice that we have internalized these values.

One of the reasons that I have thought about this is the untimely death of Jacquian Charles, a young man who worked in the workforce training program at my day job. Jacquian was murdered shortly before Thanksgiving in Algiers, and the Times-Picayune story that ran after his death was boilerplate young-black-man-with-criminal-record-is killed-in-New Orleans.

Now I understand that writers some times have difficulty finding biographical information for stories, especially those written on short deadline. My non-profit wrote a letter to the editor that offered to augment the information in the article by telling readers about the Jacquian that his co-workers and friends knew; a hard-working, kind, humble man who was trying to turn his life around and provide a future for his children. As of the writing of this blog post, the T-P has yet to print this letter.

I have to contrast this treatment of Mr. Charles to the sensationalized stories that come our from time to time, such as when the young white woman went missing in Bermuda a few years ago, that are all over the television and the papers for weeks on end. I understand why different news outlets run this story: it’s good for ratings and ultimately ad sales. We, especially those of us who are affluent enough to be good to advertise to, are titilated and intrigued by sexual/violent fantasy images of the danger to this young woman’s virtue and life by dangerous dark-skinned savages.

But that doesn’t excuse anything, especially not on our part.

Several young black men die in poor neighborhoods every week in New Orleans. Their lives are trivialized by the poor educations they receive, by the low wages that are available to them in the tourist industry, and by a society that tells them that if they don’t have money they aren’t worth a damn. And these lives are further trivialized by the treatment they receive in the press, particularly the Times-Picayune.

I have to wonder how much of this is the result of a society that, particularly since the 1980′s, has taken a turn towards turning as many aspects of our lives as possible over to the market. I have to wonder if our net worth (including realized or unrealized cultural and intellectual capital) has become the sole social yardstick of our human worth.

A particularly egregious example of this is the dead from the Iraq War. And I am not talking about the U.S. Soldiers, who are meticulously counted. I am talking about the hundreds of thousands of nameless, faceless Iraqi men women and children who have died since we invaded their county seven and a half years ago. We don’t even know how many have died; though a 2006 study put this number at around 655,000.

Every American that dies is this senseless war is a tragedy. But I refuse as a human being to value the lives of Americans above the lives of others. It is a tragedy that over 4,000 American men and women have died in Iraq. But the Iraqi deaths are a tragedy of a far greater magnitude because so many more Iraqis have died.

But who cares about Iraqis? They are poor, brown heathens. They are camel jockeys, sahibs, sand niggers. Just like when we bombed North Vietnam and Cambodia, we were only killing gooks – not the ivory-skinned princes and princesses of Connecticut and Texas, California and Kansas. Just like the “thugs” in our city, their lives are cheap to us.

This attitude is an affront to our humanity. When we value one life above another because of wealth, skin tone and/or nationality, we do something obscene.

My condolences to the family of Jacquian Charles and of every young person who has died of violence in this city.