The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival rolled in this time of the year in typical fashion. It’s the leading example of New Orleans’ creole, transatlantic culture that’s celebrated from all over the world ranging from the Americas to Africa. The Festival usually attracts over 425,000 attendees worldwide. A thriving culture in New Orleans is what keeps the City alive when politicians try to tear it down.
Greek writer Lafcaido Hearn wrote about New Orleans during his 10 year stay (1878-1888):
“Times are not good here. The city is crumbling into ashes. It has been buried under taxes and frauds and maladministrations so that it has become a study for archaeologists. . . but it is better to live here in sackcloth and ashes than to own the whole state of Ohio.”
Mr. Hearn had a lot of political drama with the city of Cincinnati that caused him to leave so his statement shall be taken somewhat with a grain of salt. However, his underlining point remains in what is a backhanded compliment to the city of New Orleans. Despite all of its imperfections, a magic exists that makes it a desirable place to be.
Everyone describes the magic in their own way, but people know it exists. Author and native New Orleanian Chris Rose wrote of this magic, “It is impossible to capture the essence, tolerance, and spirit of South Louisiana in words and to try is to roll down a road of clichés, bouncing over beignets and beads and brass bands and it just is what it is.” You’ll see many more descriptions of New Orleans similar to this, but all of them exclude one thing: the government.
New Orleans is not great because of its politics, but because of an enduring mixture of people that created an enduring culture. Everyone knows the history of politics in New Orleans is an ugly one, but New Orleans is still here. There are jokes about crooked politicians because it is an accepted fact of life. The nastiness of its politics is just as alive today as it was during Lafcadio’s time and beyond. In the midst of nastiness, the people operate separate from New Orleans politics. New Orleans politics exist in one of the many worlds of New Orleans, but many of its worlds does not coincide with its politics. That is why we can have heated debates about issues that politicians create while enjoying festivals as if no one was divided in the first place.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu understands he is not part of the rest of the worlds that New Orleans has to offer. That is why as he makes himself the face of the nasty world of politics (perhaps a regrettable action), he is trying to put his face on the peaceful, enduring worlds that exist in New Orleans. A recent Times-Picayune article showed a video of Mayor Landrieu praising the success of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival saying “Jazz Fest is New Orleans at its best.” He is correct in the spirit of his assessment, but he had nothing to do with that. No politician could ever create the “best of New Orleans” as well as the Festival.
The Mayor said he was “disappointed” in the community for being torn-apart over the removal of the monuments. This is the same community he is celebrating at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. It’s not so much a contradiction when you realize the community operates in the many worlds of New Orleans. The Mayor has engulfed himself in the world of politics and not the other worlds of New Orleans. His disconnect from the people is the reason they were torn-apart, but he was not the reason they came together at Jazz Fest.
Politicians fail at representing their constituents, but fail even more at representing themselves. The Mayor is attempting what many in New Orleans have failed time and time again: To be present in the worlds of New Orleans while staying in the world of politics. This is as practical as being near the sun in day time and near the moon at night time. He attempts to present himself in the other worlds with an understanding of his constituents- but he understands just as much as an American understands an Argentinian. He can only understand through taxes, regulations, and laws. These are personal actions from an impersonal administration whereas the celebration of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is a personal action from a personal community. This does not exist through laws and taxes, but with the interaction of many cultures that create the magic of New Orleans.
The money everyone is spending at the Festival is money that is not being spent on the corruption of politics in New Orleans. This makes the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival a counter democracy to the politics of New Orleans. This doesn’t mean politicians don’t get their cut, but people are showing they rather spend their money elsewhere. They do not celebrate the government with a grand festival because the government imposes its own festival of taxation- and it’s no fun. What the Mayor and the Festival represent is a microcosm of the continuing story of the city of New Orleans. It’s the struggle between the worlds of New Orleans and the world of New Orleans politics. New Orleans culture was here before Mayor Landrieu, and it will be here after Mayor Landrieu. This counter democracy has kept the city of New Orleans alive for 300 years while the politicians have tried to erase it from time. It has outlasted all the other politicians, and it will outlast this one. The Jazz Festival has succeeded far more in unification than Landrieu or any politician ever will.