Publicity Writing about New Orleans in the fall of 2007 is not for the unsubtle-at-heart. The prevailing school these days for some locals is a strict double standard: praise her to outsiders and bitch about her to locals. In other words, don't wash your dirty laundry in public if anyone farther than Algiers is listening. The problem with this black-and-white approach is that it's patently false for a city that's always been paradoxical, hard-to-define and attractive to creative people precisely because of her paradoxes. New Orleans is both a great city and a cesspool. Mark Twain called her 'the upholstered sewer," and so it is, and that is what attracted a multitude of kinky free spirits here. New Orleans is also a Catholic, deeply religious city that revels in sin and gets ecstatically gleeful about forgiveness. New Orleans was run by racists and is still racially divided. The history of New Orleans is a series of disasters that were mightily romanticized almost as soon as they happened. Immigrants were drawn here under false pretenses and died of horrible swamp diseases as soon as they got here, which is what made us the great 'multi-cultural" city of today. Pirates were murderers, yet they are now the 'saviors of America in the war of 1812," when Jean Lafitte helped defeat the British. We were the worst slave-market in North America, which, among other things, left behind legacies that can be traced directly to our public schools and Carnival parades. Our famous whorehouses gave birth to jazz, and they are still the destination of choice for hypocrite Republicans. The thin line between magnificent civic celebrations and orgies is only blurred by the kind of alcohol served. Sazerac or beer?
Our history has inspired both real writers and hacks. The real writers wrote about her contradictions, the hacks wrote for boosters and profiteers. The publicity was good one way or another: the real stuff attracted bright spirits, the bullshit got the speculators and tourists. These days, after the storm, the city is being covered by journalists who don't know much of the true history and certainly nothing of our deep flavor and profound funk. Some locals are outraged by the 'bad publicity," while others, mostly outsiders themselves, have appointed themselves to fiercely defend New Orleans as some kind of mecca of genuineness in a sea of American conformity. The journalists call it as they see it, superficially perhaps, but on the basis of evidence. The fact that our city government is corrupt and our citizenry better at partying than working is no news to the locals. But if you're not a local and call it that way, you're a 'carpetbagger." On the other hand, if you go around singing hosannas, the locals will applaud you publicly and laugh at you in private. You can't win with either approach, and it doesn't matter anyway. Getting attention, good or bad, is what we really like. We can put on our saints' halos and our wings on a moment's notice. If that doesn't work, out come the horns. Just give it to us, baby. The real is as real in New Orleans as nuns at Mardi Gras.
Andrei Codrescu's latest book is New Orleans, Mon Amour: Twenty Years of Writing From the City (Algonquin Books).