Dirty South Bureau

March 22, 2010

Thank God the health care vote is finally over

Filed under: The Feds — christian @ 10:50 pm

And we can get on to other issues. This whole thing went on way, way too long, and I for one am relieved that it is finally over. What we got: an end to denial of coverage for pre-existing conditions and the other worst abuses of health insurance companies. These sketchy tricks were really too atrocious, even for the US Congress.

Or is it the end? My understanding of the bill is that now we’re all going to be required to buy insurance, which creates an even bigger market for insurance companies. Which means they grow.

All in all, this move seems to resemble the sort of regulation that was taking hold in the first decades of the 20th century in other areas – such as transportation and utilities. But instead of guaranteeing an individual company, like, say, Entergy Corporation, a monopoly, we’ve guaranteed an industry a monopoly on the American public.

Which means that they’ll still be here to screw us, any way that they can. As I learned at the age of 14 when my family had to sue to get our insurance company to pay for our house, which was destroyed in the 1989 earthquake, insurance companies don’t make money by paying on claims.

This is the problem with regulation and other corporatist and mildly social-democratic solutions that do not embrace nationalization. You can’t “file their nails and let them live” like Huey Long tried to do with the bankers and the oil companies. Like the banks and the oil companies, health insurance companies are aggressive parasites, and will take more and more power when you aren’t looking. As the corporations have generally done in the last 45 years since LBJ’s Great Society.

Side note – one of the stranger aspects of this whole debate was Tea Partiers complaining about the threat to Medicare. Please, some ideological consistency. I thought you guys opposed big government? What is more social-democratic big government than Medicare? The right fought Medicare bitterly in ’65 as being socialist and now the Tea Party is claiming to be its defender? The lesson here is that when people get successful socialist policies and institutions (the fire department, anyone?), they cling to them desperately, even when they don’t understand them.

Let me be clear. I don’t believe in entirely eliminating the market. But as long as you have big companies who make money off of destroying our land, stealing our homes and not paying on claims, you have a problem. And one that only gets worse as they get richer and consolidate power.

However, it is important to realize that change has rarely come overnight in America. The American system has proven to be remarkably resilient and flexible. We don’t have revolutions every fifty years like some countries. Reversing the tide of free-market fundamentalism is going to take time. We aren’t going to get a single payer system in America without a major change in the dynamics of power, which means people re-learning how to organize like we did in the 1930′s. A few people shouting in the streets never cut it, and certainly not against the power of big business in 2010 America.

Will this lead to a public option? Who knows. For now, I’m just hoping that we can move back to energy legislation and get a national renewable portfolio standard, so we can start to address our tragic addiction to fossil fuels. Obama has won a victory, and that is good for all of us, because within the limited options of our national political system, the other option – a strategic win for big insurance and the Republicans – was not going to be pretty.

March 13, 2010

Freedom ride… to where?

Filed under: Class,New Orleans Politics,Race — christian @ 7:05 pm

Last night the New Orleans Human Rights International Film Festival opened with the excellent documentary, Freedom Riders. I can’t say how pleased I was to see this important piece of Southern civil rights history explored so fully and so well. The film focused on the Freedom Rides, where black and white students took buses into the Deep South together to challenge segregation laws in 1961, initially orchestrated by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). The film evoked the fear, courage and uncertainty of the Freedom Riders, and examined the dynamic between activists, leaders and the government.

I can sum up the lessons as such: activist lead, and when they win, leaders follow and then take credit for what happened. The film looked at the tension between Freedom Riders and the Kennedy Administration, showing the administration’s transformation from uninterested enablers of Southern racism to champions of the freedom riders, of course after the riders repeatedly forced the administration to take action or suffer the consequences in terms of worldwide bad PR. It also showed a timid Dr. Martin Luther King, who tried to talk the Riders out of their action, and at one point declined to join them on the buses.

This sort of bottom-up history is critical to understanding the way that social movements really work, because in the retelling, the “leaders” – whether in government or the movement – will take credit for things that they were forced to do by the movement.

I have fewer positive things to say about the discussion before the film. It was great to see actual Freedom Riders from New Orleans discussing their experiences. However, where the discussion turned to the present, it fell short. It is important to point out that racism still exists in the age of Obama. However we are in a different era today than 1961, and inequality has persisted long after the end of de jure segregation. The dominant discussions about oppression in our present era, based entirely on race without mentioning class, and specifically the intersection of race and class, are disingenuous.

There is a lot of pressure on us white anti-racists to not talk about these things. However, ultimately we writers and activists have a responsibility to our communities, white and black, to talk about what is really going on.

The black political class in New Orleans today acts more out of class self-interest than the interests of the masses, black and white, and such a race-based dialogue gives them cover. The largest example is that the majority of black politicians were complicit in the dismantling of public service institutions and the forced displacement of tens of thousands of mostly black residents of this city after the storm. All Nagin had to say was “Chocolate City” and his collusion with white politicians and business leaders was forgotten. All City Council members had to do was be black, and they turned out black votes, without any real accountability for what they had done and not done.

It can be argued that in a majority white state and with institutional forces arrayed against them, black politicians often have little choice but to acquiesce. But most black politicians in this city, just like white politicians, aren’t even trying.

There are exceptions, and exceptional moments. I recall State Rep. Charmaine Marchand leading meetings of Lower 9th Ward homeowners to advocate for the return of their neighborhood (something I did not see many other black elected leaders do), and every now and again black politicians sponsor promising legislation.

But most of the time, the blackoisie actively sells New Orleanians, black and white, down the river, and has for some time – just like white politicians do. Such sell-outs are not limited to politicians, and it was interesting to see some (though not many) of those individuals present at the screening, like radio personalities from a certain black radio station which gives Entergy Corporation, their funder, space to spread lies about their nuclear program. The radioactive waste from Entergy Corporation reactors will be around for hundreds of thousands of years. When it gives cancer and birth defects to future generations, it will not first check to see if they are black or white. And if current inequities continue, they will more likely than not be black.

It is not as though these things have never been discussed, in fact, only a few years after the Freedom Riders the battlegrounds became class and race. We see a Martin Luther King who is assassinated at the moment that he talked about economic rights for black Americans in the Memphis Sanitation Strike. We see the rise of militant movements, some of whom, like the Panthers, were explicitly focused on the failures of capitalism. The Panthers had no truck with black capitalist oppressors; even here in New Orleans much of their conflict was with blacks who preyed on the black community.

I do not accuse the panellists at the film of race essentialism, merely that this talk was an extension of the failure to talk about something that legitimately is more complex and nuanced than simple race. However, a pattern of race essentialism dominates contemporary dialogue about these issues in New Orleans, and by doing so sets us back fifty years. This is why so many contemporary discussions of race in New Orleans fall flat, such as Lance Hill’s failure to explain post-Katrina racial issues to white audiences. If what we hear sounds inaccurate and incomplete, it is because it is.

Even in the early 1960′s, more advanced thinking was being put forth by intellectuals, black and white. I encourage anyone to read Frantz Fanon’s writing about the post-colonial bourgeoisie in Wretched of the Earth (1961) and tell me what this says about the black political classes in New Orleans. Fanon literally says that the post-colonial bourgeoisie must be eliminated because it serves no purpose and holds back progress. Draw your own conclusions.

American capitalism can accommodate civil rights, and it can accommodate token black leaders. Real emancipation of the black masses is another matter. The long ride, for all of us, is far from over.

March 7, 2010

Nutriapalooza II

Filed under: culture,environment,Southern Louisiana,We Are Not OK — christian @ 3:57 pm

There are those nights when you say to yourself – this is why I live in the greatest city on earth, New Orleans. For the record, I felt this sentiment in fully sobriety, as has been my less-than-ideal state for all two weeks and five days of Lent.

Nutriapalooza is one of those events that could only happen in this city. Billed as a fashion show, it was actually simultaneously a fashion show, an environmental education event and a cultural celebration of South Louisiana and our city of beautiful freaks. Saturday night was Nutriapalooza II (I missed the first one, which I have heard was also great).

Where to begin? The tattooed models on the runway in Audrey Hepburn-esque fur outfits made from our favourite invasive species? The outrageous rock and roll auction of nutria fur? The beautiful work that went into turning rodents into fashion?

Again, only here. Before I go further, let me explain for those of you unfamiliar with what they called on Broad Street “nutria rats” that the nutria is a member of the muskrat family that was imported into Louisiana in the early 20th century to be raised for its fur. Nutria got loose, bred like, well, rodents, and have been helping the oil industry sink out wetlands into the Gulf of Mexico for over 50 years. So we have to get rid of them, one way or another. Which means killing them off. It’s them or us.

Also, they happen to have really fine fur.

The show was sold out, and my friend and I got the last two tickets for standing room only. It started fairly slowly, with a presentation by the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program (BTNEP) and its charismatic “invasive species” guy, Michael, who was frequently interrupted by questions from a rowdy audience that wanted to know, among other things, why nutrias had such poor dental hygiene. (They don’t. Their teeth are naturally yellow-orange.)

There was also a discussion of nutria as cuisine, an idea that State of Louisiana officials have, in the past, devoted millions to. This was not particularly successful. And while I strongly believe not wasting the flesh of dead animals, my own experience with nutria, as have been documented on this blog, were not pleasant. I think it could work out roasted with a honey glaze, but for God’s sake, DO NOT STEW. It is not a good idea to stew any particularly gamy meat, and especially NOT NUTRIA. Maybe I hadn’t cleaned it properly, but I ended up with a broth that was really only suitable for chemical warfare. Also, I will note that the hindquarters were much gamier than the rest.

There was also a presentation by Mr. Pitre, the last nutria furrier in Louisiana and the man who supplied the rodent furs for the fashion show. This was a rare moment – in a freak venue on St. Claude, to have a second-generation furrier from rural South Louisiana explaining his family business and the fluctuations in the price of nutria pelts to a fascinated audience.

Finally, after a few more shows including the inadequately-miked but charming Jurassic Parish Folk Ensemble and their song about five dollars a pelt, the models came on.

Before I go any further, I have to say that I’ve never really been able to understand why scantily clad tattooed women in fur bikinis do it for me. Maybe it was growing up reading too many Savage Sword of Conan comics, but this was hot.

The designs were not only beautiful but daring and broad in scope. We saw and entire gamut from Red Sonjaesque and Native American-inspired designs (where did the gutterpunks get the idea to all dress like late-19th century Native American train robbers, anyway?) all the way to 1940′s and 1860′s styles, and a hauntingly beautiful homage at the end of the show to recently deceased fashion designer Alexander McQueen. There were even nutria designs for men, but unfortunately few of these items were on sale at the auction later.

John C. Calhoun was one kick-ass auctioneer, regularly performing multiple kicks in the air and stage dives, backed by the newly-formed Invasive Species, which is actually they guy who works as a notary public on Prytania on guitar, and Helen the cellist on drums.

But what’s amazing about all of this is that this was an environmental awareness event, and worked as such. It was also a tiny bridge between the urban-rural divide in South Louisiana, where rural residents often show contempt, financial jealousy (“they get all the federal money and we have to make do on our own”) and fear of our city, and people in New Orleans forget that rural Louisiana even exists. Which is not in our best interests, if for no other reason than we need the wetlands for this city to survive. More and more people here are getting it, which can be the basis for a political movement which will be necessary (and which may not be enough) for South Louisiana to survive this century.

Every student of environmental communications should study the Righteous Fur movement. This truly was making environmental issues sexy. In our own weird and beautiful way.

Thanks to Cree McCree and Righteous Fur, Micheal and BTNEP, John Calhoun, Helen Gillet, Notary Guitarist/MC Guy, Mr. Pitre the furrier, all the designers and models (especially the Rat King) and everyone else for a superb event.


Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program

Righteous Fur