Saturday, January 07, 2017

Have a Convivial Carnival!

There they go. Don't blink.

And there went the sum of the action that was our annual ritual trudge out to wave at the Phunny Phorty Phellows regardless of weather conditions. Friday night those conditions were cold and rainy so we didn't spend quite as much time standing around drinking beer on the neutral ground as we might normally have.  But that's fine. Twelfth Night is really more of a moment of observance than it is a full-on celebration anyway.

On the other hand, that might be changing a little. Public Twelfth Night activities have expanded in recent years. That's pretty cool.  Did you know the Joan of Arc parade is already nine years old? This year the weather postponed them a day so we're celebrating a two-day Feast of the Epiphany this year.

And that's not all.  Here is Doug MacCash (I know, I know. That's who they sent.) covering the Not So Secret Society Of Champs-Elysees' inaugural ride on the Rampart streetcar.
Yet another new Mardi Gras custom may have been born Friday (January 6) in the chilly Crescent City, as a rolling Twelfth Night party rumbled along the tracks of the recently opened St. Claude Avenue/Rampart Street/Loyola Avenue streetcar line. The nascent krewe known as La societe pas si secrete des Champs-Elysees, or The Not So Secret Society of Elysian Fields, or simply The Society of Champs-Elysees, chartered a car in order to welcome in the 2017 Mardi Gras season with Champagne, king cake, conviviality, and a touch of chaos.

The evening began at Kajun's Pub, with fireworks and fanfare to greet guests and krewe royalty, including rhythm and blues maestro Al "Carnival Time" Johnson and activist Kathleen Barrow.  Despite a relatively stiff rain, the forty-member costumed rabble rambled to a red streetcar that waited two blocks away and climber aboard. With a lurch and a round of cheers, a new element was added to the growing downtown do-it-yourself Mardi Gras scene that has mushroomed since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The Society of Elysian Fields is similar to the venerable Phunny Phorty Phellows krewe that has ceremoniously ridden a St. Charles Avenue streetcar on Twelfth Night since 1982, though perhaps a tad more bohemian. In fact, rattling along with the costumed Not So Secret Society passengers was like finding oneself in the belly of a Bob Dylan song ... in the best way.
I'm sure the Champs-Elysees event was fun.  I thought I had read earlier that the group had planned a series of stops along the way that would have engaged more onlookers with something closer to the rolling street party feel one gets at an actual parade. The weather probably tamped that down a bit, though. That's a shame. But, still, congratulations them for doing a thing.

Anyway, if MacCash means to contrast the supposedly "more bohemian" nature of the Champ-Elysees with the supposedly more stuffy PPP, why does he write about it like a 19th Century society fop describing a romp at the estate of some lesser lord? Or, to put it another way, why does he write it up exactly the way Nell Nolan describes a deb party?
The beautiful clubrooms of the Pickwick Club were filled with distaff loveliness and festive formality when Mr. Pickwick hosted his 66th annual Debutante Presentation. Guests mingled from 7 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. with the presentation punctuating the conviviality at 8 p.m. Two hours later, breakfast was served. And then the lively dancing commenced to the music of the Jimmy Maxwell Orchestra.
One thing's for sure This is to going to be one hell of a "convivial" Carnival.

Or maybe it won't be.  Hostilities are already beginning to rise in some quarters. For example, just as we thought we had finally gotten past the bad feelings engendered by interminable policing of premature king cake consumption, along comes the Worst King Cake Ever Created to rile everyone back up.
Food Network's Semi-Homemade host Sandra Lee is infamous for her "Kwanzaa cake" (Anthony Bourdain once called it "a war crime on television") and white chocolate polenta (which is exactly what it sounds like, plus thyme) , but what she calls a "Mardi Gras king cake" may be just as bad. It calls for one package of Pillsbury breadstick dough and a container of pre-made frosting — no cinnamon, no spices, no filling, no fun.
On the other hand, this may be an indication that the year over year search for the most absurdly elaborate king cake has finally imploded.  Sandra Lee is just here to blow it all up because nothing matters now.

Another indicator that the conviviality has yet to set in fully, the Krewe of Chewbacchus is still setting people off. Jarvis DeBerry explains in a recent column.
In January 2016 there was a second-line in the French Quarter for British pop star David Bowie, and in Treme in April those mourning Prince's death paraded there.

But neither of those second-lines was as controversial as the Krewe of Chewbacchus' announcement last week that it would lead a second-line for Carrie Fisher, the actress who played Princess Leia in the Star Wars franchise.   If you didn't know before that New Orleans is in a period of civil war, you know it now. People on each side are self-important and therefore needlessly antagonistic.

Davis Rogan, the musician and radio personality who became a character on the HBO show "Treme," wrote online that the Carrie Fisher parade was the one time he wished somebody would shoot up a second-line. Rogan later apologized on Facebook:  "In a discussion about cultural appropriation, I made a thoughtless and vastly inappropriate joke," he wrote. "It wasn't funny, even in context, and taken as an out-of-context screenshot, it looks horrific... I want to make it absolutely clear that I bear the Krewe of Chewbacchus no ill will whatsoever. I do not condone violence. I abhor violence, and I am sickened by violence at second lines. I apologize to everyone who was offended."
There's a lot of stupidity to litigate in this story and DeBerry does a good job of it.  He doesn't mention, though, that as asinine as Rogan's comments were, no sensible person should have interpreted them as an actual threat and informed the police of them which is what the Chewbacchus people did. So nobody is without blame here.

Still, one thing I wouldn't do is blame a Carnival club themed after Star Wars (and other sci-fi) fandom for paying tribute when one of its inspirations passes.  Maybe there are good reasons to ask why so many celebrity deaths seem to merit second line parades in New Orleans lately. Or maybe not. I don't really know.  But if we are gonna go down that road, the Carrie Fisher parade probably isn't the place to jump off from.  Besides, Jarvis DeBerry points out in his column that there are far more examples of questionable parading going on around conventions and corporate events. If you're really upset about the supposed cultural appropriation at work, it's probably best to start with those.

The NolierThanThou culture wars are tiresome. Like all culture war politics they tend to obscure the fact that the actual irritant at work here is class.  It's not really this simple but, roughly, we'd do better to stop arguing over cultural appropriation and think more about cultural commodification. This means we need to stop nit-picking each others' subjective style choices and start asking what it is that actually threatens our ability to enjoy our own.  There are infinite ways in which people experience and express joy. All of them have validity even those that don't happen to be your favorite. What obscures that, though, is the conversion of  folkways by which people express their joy into luxury goods.

What we once considered the simple pleasures of life in New Orleans; the food, the music, the so-called "street culture" of parties and parades became products packaged and sold for the enjoyment of tourists.  This isn't unusual and, to a degree it's fine. But we passed a point where the commodification has also meant exclusion. Central City is a popular parading ground for Mardi Gras Indians and second-lining organizations.  This makes it an ideal neighborhood to sell on Airbnb to tourists looking to #FollowTheirNOLA to an authentic experience. Sooner or later nobody actually lives in Central City anymore. Remember what the Native Americans of Grand Bayou said about being forced to leave their homes? "If you leave, you become someone else. You are no longer the same person. No longer the same people." 

The context of all of this is things that were once cheap or free but of great value culturally are being claimed by capitalism. And people are being deprived of their homes and their culture in the process. That's the source of the anxiety.  But we respond to our anxiety over that by attacking each other's aesthetic sensibilities rather than those who are monetizing ours. The problem isn't "hipsters."  The problem is the developers, hoteliers, and landlords getting rich off of your culture and turning it into something a hipster can conspicuously consume.

But none of this has anything to do with our capacity to experience and enjoy as much of the diversity of Carnival as we care to. These are public events that invite participation and elaboration regardless of how and by whom they are staged. I mean, most of us weren't born into the right family of corporate defense lawyers so we're never getting invited to the Rex ball. But a lot of us do like going to see the Rex parade. We're not all 'treppish transplanted comic book geeks either but Chewbacchus is a cool event too. There's a lot to see and do in the next month and a half. Do as much or as little as you wanna. As long as you can still afford to actually live here, you might as well actually live, right?

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