Saturday, May 16, 2009

Joe Longo's "warning to us all"

In a guest column for today's T-P, Nolafugees.com editor Joe Longo asks us all to "Think that you might be wrong" ... or something since "the digital age" has suddenly laid bare our "electronically cataloged" "narcissistic malevolence" if I'm using those quotations in the correct spirit. (He also made certain to mention the buzzwords "Facebook" and "Twitter" within the space of his column which I thought was a nice touch.) Longo is expressing a seemingly noble sentiment. But what he's really doing is dampening the discourse with a mushy kind of thinking which ignores obvious distinctions of context in the interest of everybody getting along.

Longo's main trick is to compare Stacy Head's widely-discussed "Wal-Mart" email with a Salon.com blog entry by local art gallery employee Leeandra Nolting elegantly entitled, A Guide to the Douchebags Who Come Into My Gallery That's right. We're reading someone start with the ridiculous assumption that the statements of a public official are weighted equally with those of some art-chick's blog entries and then run with that. It is Longo's assertion that the two literary works in question are guilty of the same sort of "venomous thoughts about other people" which overrides and nullifies all other context of the authors' differing stations, class, or subject matter. Longo, in fact, goes out of his way to make this exact point.
What is interesting to observe about Head and Nolting is the way the class conflict element informs their prose. Head, an earnest gentrifier, can't get her mind around why poor people make lousy nutritional choices. Her sarcastic (one assumes) declaration that she will vote for "that freak" John McCain in the upcoming election reveals a liberal sensibility under strain, a mindset even the most empathetic New Orleanians have had to confront within themselves.

As for Nolting, art gallery prole, presumably just getting by on her meager hourly while she dreams of becoming Sarah Vowell once the larger world comes around and appreciates her cutting wit, the resentment comes from below.

Regardless of whether the anger that fueled the writing was righteous or mean-spirited, the fact is that these two locally grown electronic me-centered missives should serve as a warning to all of us.

What seems like an elevated appeal to our better angels of decorum is really a lazy attempt to gloss over facts in the interest of preserving niceties to the ultimate detriment of meaningful debate. Here is what Longo is telling us. He's saying that it doesn't matter that Head is an "earnest gentrifier" who has selected to place herself in a position of civic leadership the same way it doesn't matter that Nolting is a private citizen who appears to hold a customer service position which demands that she accept a tacitly subservient role to all manner of brutish personage on a daily basis. But it does matter. It makes all the difference in the world.

Head's public leadership position subjects her words to an entirely different sort of scrutiny than what we expect to fall upon Nolting's opinions. To those of us who read these pieces in their proper context, they tell us very different things. Head's tells us that an elected councilperson harbors irrational hatred toward citizens who receive public assistance. Nolting's tells us that an underemployed young woman feels a bit angsty when subjected to the endless parade of douchebags (and yes that term is quite apt) which makes a progress through the city's tourist-infested neighborhoods. However, according to Joe Longo, none of this matters so much as the fact that the tone of each work is a bit too dark. (This, incidentally, is a surprising criticism coming from the editor of Nolafugees.com but there it is.)

What, by the way, is this "warning to all of us" contained within this tale? In concluding his little fantasy, Longo needs to pull our heartstrings once again and goes immediately for the most sensitive one

Summer is approaching, and those of us who stick around will eventually get on one another's nerves. Then, odds are, in a few months we'll all be stuck in traffic together dodging a hurricane.

Then when we come back, we'll have mayoral and City Council elections to contend with, where the candidates will fan the flames of our rage toward whatever "them" we blame the sad state of the city on.

The last thing we need is a digital catalogue of our resentful selves.
So to sum up, Longo is warning us against the dangers of open discussion about petty things now so that when the time comes to sort out something important like another hurricane snafu, we'll know not to question each other then either. But at least no one will say anything mean.

Update: Since her post was mentioned in this morning's paper... and likely in response to the discussion in her comment thread (although the overwhelming majority of the comments are positive), Ms. Nolting has been intimidated into appending a "disclaimer" to the beginning of her post in which she sort of apologizes to the "99% of people who walk in the door to the gallery" who are "certainly NOT" douchebags. This is unfortunate and, frankly, ruins the artistry of the entire post for me.

Upperdate: On the other hand, I thoroughly enjoyed Ms Nolting's response in the NOLA.com comments to Longo's op-ed.

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