By James Freeman
There’s this old joke from back home. It goes something like this: Boudreaux and a couple of his podnas go to the movies — a John Wayne western.
Boudreaux, as they’re walking into the theater, bets them ol’ boys that there’s no way the Duke is going to get his horse shot out from under him in this movie. They take the bet.
About two hours later, as Boudreaux is paying off his friends, he laments his bad luck: “I done seen dis movie two time before now, and I thought dey ain’t no way dat John Wayne would fall off dat damn horse tree straight time!”
Louisiana, thy name is Boudreaux.
Since well before living memory, my home state has been a political, governmental, educational, social-welfare, public-health and criminal-justice basket case. Generation after generation, Louisiana voters have sent a parade of dullards, slicksters, mountebanks and felons-in-waiting to all the places they can do the most damage, from the parish police jury to the state capitol and governor’s mansion. And since well before living memory, Louisianians have been decrying the crooks and the deadheads . . . right before sending another bumper crop of doofuses, miscreants and doofy miscreants to the state’s not-so-hallowed halls of power, world without end, amen.
But there’s an explanation for this: “Dat’s Louisiana for you!”
Yes, it is.
The results have been predictable — bad roads, bad schools, bad . . . well, you get the picture. There has to be a better explanation than a three-century stretch of bad luck. Or a Gallic shrug.
Welcome to At the Movies, the Boudreaux edition. Being that we know Louisiana isn’t wholly populated by blithering idiots, despite appearances, we’re left with an explanation as obvious as Louisianians’ reluctance to entertain it.
It’s cultural. While Louisiana is a land of various rich local cultures — chock-a-block with great food, colorful traditions and a world of wonderful music — there is likewise something horribly wrong at its core, something that has rendered an entire state exceptionally bad at doing the grunt work of building a functioning civil society. And it’s been that way from the start.
It took Huey Pierce Long to build modern roads and provide schoolchildren with free textbooks? Three decades into the 20th century? Really?
It took the Kingfish and an authoritarian brand of ”Share Our Wealth” socialism to take a small, underfunded state military academy — LSU — and turn it into a proper state university? Really? Well, Bobby Jindal certainly is doing something about that.
Many will point out that Huey Long was a virtual dictator during his time as governor and U.S. senator, and likewise that Louisiana was a socialist state during his reign. I can’t really argue with that, frankly.
But it remains that the most dramatic progress Louisiana ever has made in social welfare, public infrastructure and higher education came about because a politician about 75 times more socialist than a tea partier’s worst Obama nightmare got himself elected governor, then ruled like a Hugo Chávez prototype. Can you imagine a Louisiana lacking that period of socialist, dictatorial . . . progress in its modern history? I’d rather not.
I’d also rather not think about whether the accomplishments of Long the First would’ve been politically impossible even for an autocrat if Standard Oil hadn’t been around to unwillingly pick up the check.
Of course, the Kingfish had his “deduct box” but, as Murray Slaughter told Ted Baxter in the finale of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, ”When a donkey flies, you don’t blame him for not staying up that long.” When a single politician puts in hard years overcoming an entire state’s historical indifference to the concept of commonweal, as well as that of education — higher and otherwise — you don’t blame him for not being ethically pure.
Repeat after me: Culture precedes politics. And it took a political fluke of history plus a few extreme measures to — for a brief time — overcome a culture that has made Louisiana what it isn’t today.
Look at it this way. The usual modus operandi of dictatorial regimes is a brutal suppression of the popular will for the sake of the ruling elite. In Louisiana, we had a virtual dictator suppressing all opposition, be it through the art of politics or the force of heavily armed state troopers, to force business and political elites to accept the sort of progress most other states then took for granted. You know . . . those roads, bridges, decent state university and free public-school textbooks.
I find it fascinating that Gov. Jindal has used some of the same means in a quest to undo the last vestiges of Longism, but this isn’t about him. It’s about you and how you keep ending up in one fine mess after another, like having to choose between a future inmate and a former grand wizard for governor in 1991 or voting for “reform” in 2007 but ending up with the hot mess that is the Jindal administration.
Of course, you don’t have to go all the way to Baton Rouge to marinade in a world o’ suck. Though if you happen to live in Baton Rouge, my hometown, you don’t have to go all the way to the state capitol.
Let me illustrate the big story of what Louisiana’s mutant civic culture keeps serving up with the little story of two schools — Baton Rouge Magnet High, my alma mater, and Omaha Central, the oldest and largest high school in the city of nearly 420,000 that’s been my home the past 25 years.
Baton Rouge High did not exist in any incarnation until around 1880. Baton Rouge formally incorporated as a town, remember, in 1817, five years after Louisiana entered the Union.
In 1859, the year what now is Central High came into being, Omaha had been a town for just four years. Nebraska wouldn’t be a state for eight more.
In 1859, there were public schools in Louisiana — and at least one in East Baton Rouge Parish, I gather — but they were few in number and apparently not exactly part of the fabric of their communities.
That is because the South was — and is, to a substantial degree — a society based on class and the privileges thereof. If your station in life allowed you the luxury of an education, that could be purchased.
If one was of mean estate, that’s how one was apt to live out one’s days — poor. And ill-educated.
And for the vast majority of Southern blacks in 1859. . . .
A century and a half later in Baton Rouge, those who have the means can purchase a fine, private education — and that’s where you’ll find most white kids today. In private schools, or as residents of Ascension or Livingston parishes. Where they fled, starting in 1981, when “forced busing” came to town in the name of racial integration.
Meanwhile, as late as 2010, the most prestigious public school in town looked like a casualty of Katrina. That year, construction crews began a two-year teardown and rebuild of the entire Baton Rouge High campus, save for a renovation of the historic main building.
The school where Baton Rouge sends its best and brightest — its children, its hope for the future — was decrepit. A sometimes dangerous facility to which Omahans would be afraid to send their dogs. Plaster fell off interior walls in large chunks.
Ceiling tiles fell on students’ heads.
The locker rooms were rusting, crumbling and nasty. I’d think tetanus had to have been a concern.
There were potholes in the gymnasium floor.
On a 2007 visit there, I saw it all. Or, rather, as much as I could take. When I left the gym, I was nearly in tears. Three decades before, when I was a student there, BRHS was notable for being the least dilapidated public school I’d ever attended.
As the middle-aged me stood amid inhabited ruins, shooting roll after roll of 35-millimeter film and careening between grief-stricken and apoplectic, it almost seemed as if the school had been abandoned the day after I last walked across the auditorium stage — in 1979, in a cap and gown.
Today, the “new” Baton Rouge High is beautiful, a showplace. What’s shameful is that to get there, it took almost losing the school altogether. Even then, it was touch-and-go.
What’s frightening is to wonder whether it will long stay a showplace. Whether, as is the case with all things Louisiana, past becomes prologue.
It is difficult to explain things like this to Omahans, who support inner-city public schools like Central, with some 2,400 students and a beautiful century-old building on its hilltop campus downtown where once stood Nebraska’s territorial capitol. When “forced busing” came to Omaha in 1976, whites did not flee the public schools en masse.
Five and a half years ago, when I got some of my Baton Rouge High pictures developed at an Omaha photo lab, the proprietor asked my wife about them. He wanted to know whether the photos were of a school destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.
In other words, what people in my hometown had come to accept as normative, people in Omaha assumed was due to a great catastrophe. What can explain such a disconnect? Only wildly divergent assumptions about what is and isn’t acceptable in the public sphere — or perhaps whether we, in our heart of hearts, even believe in such a thing.
That’s culture at its most basic level. Are we or are we not our brother’s keeper? Are our children precious gifts, or are they just another damn thing costing us money?
Do we sacrifice a new RV or bass boat today to invest in our children and a better future, or do we just eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow who cares?
And do “our” children begin and end with kin and clan, or does the idea of “our” encompass more than that?
Culture. It encompasses both who we are and how we see ourselves and the world around us. It colors both our assumptions and our autobiography.
What does a world-weary Gallic shrug tell the world? When that is a culture’s response to endemic political corruption, unrelenting violent crime and chronic underachievement on almost every benchmark for a functional society, that serves as wordless biography . . . the sad story of what a people holds dear and what it doesn’t.
The Bible — a book many Louisianians profess to hold in profound esteem — says “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
“The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light,” it goes on. “But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!”
That’s from Matthew, Chapter 6. Those are the recorded words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount. The question for the good people of my native state — so many of whom are so fond of proclaiming this a Christian nation and theirs a Christian culture — is whether the word of God applies just to individuals or also to the societies they help build.
And what would Jesus say about the fine mess they’ve made of Louisiana? What would He say about smart kids in squalid schools? About the hopeless, hapless children of the underclass, so many of whom have become human killing machines, laying waste to entire swaths of Baton Rouge and New Orleans?
What would the second person of the Holy Trinity say about a city — my hometown — where whites with any money at all fled the public schools the second a federal judge ordered busing to desegregate them? What would He say about middle-class folk who don’t give a second thought to paying a “private-school tax,” or to buying RVs larger than a shotgun house . . . or tricked-out bass boats . . . or “camps” on the bayou but think that paying taxes at a sufficient rate to maintain a functioning commonweal will bankrupt them.
(And yes, Louisiana, your property taxes are scandalously low and your sales taxes obscenely high.)
Perhaps the Louisiana Family Forum could tell me what the hell kind of Christian pursues pleasure at the expense of his neighbor. Maybe a better Christian than myself could explain how “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” doesn’t apply to the dirty work of building a functioning civil society — one in which “thy neighbour” might have the same shot at a decent life as “thyself.”
Culture. You never know just where it will pop up. It even transcends this mortal coil, this vail of tears.
Of course, Louisianians are quick to invoke the C-word when it suits them. In the wake of Katrina, editorial writers at The Advocate managed to invoke the uniqueness of Louisiana culture in a way so singularly stupid (not to mention insulting to Omaha) that I saved it on the hard drive.
It was Sept. 27, 2005, and the subject at hand was housing the displaced of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
“The idea of “temporary” parks that last for years is not necessarily wrong, but there is already considerable political pushback against locating them in some communities,” the editorialist wrote. “This is not the most welcoming or even humanitarian attitude, but it is one that is complicating the task of housing the afflicted.”
He continued, unfortunately:
There are also political pushbacks for housing vouchers. Some New Orleans politicos fear that poorer constituents will find greener pastures, better jobs and better schools if they have vouchers for apartments in other cities for a year or more.
That’s a real risk, but we don’t think that should stand in the way of a voucher program. For one thing, New Orleans is still a unique city in this country. We wonder how many people will find homes compatible with their souls in Salt Lake City or Omaha, Neb. No offense to the kind cities that have taken our evacuees in, but it’s hard to find a decent bowl of gumbo in a lot of those places.
Of course, before Katrina hit, city and state officials didn’t exactly care enough about New Orleans “souls” — at least the poorest and most hapless among them — to actually get them the hell out of Dodge. And at the height of the Katrina meltdown, a predominantly African-American crowd followed Mayor Ray Nagin’s instructions and walked across the Crescent City Connection toward Gretna, seeking to escape the hellish scene at the Convention Center.
On the bridge, they were met by a scene reminiscent of Selma 1965. That’s a part of Louisiana culture The Advocate, no doubt, would have folks ignore.
After thousands of New Orleanians arrived at Baton Rouge’s River Center, they were met by a citywide freak-out, complete with wild rumors of a gang-banger insurrection followed by locals stockpiling firearms and shuttering their businesses. As a Baton Rouge native, I can attest to how much a part of local culture the citywide freak-out has been.
Unfortunately, Baton Rouge reserves the right to freak out primarily for those times when folks fear the Negroes are coming to kill them. For the bad roads, the crumbling schools, the lengthening list of disheveled neighborhoods that year by year resemble Port-au-Prince more than they do Salt Lake City or Omaha . . . not so much.
Meanwhile, 1,100 miles north, planeloads of New Orleans evacuees were met by ordinary Omahans lining downtown streets. No guns, no police dogs, just lots of “Welcome to Omaha” signs.
At the Civic Auditorium shelter, Nebraska’s governor and Omaha’s mayor greeted the evacuees at the door.
Yet . . . yet . . . what passes for serious thinkers at the Baton Rouge newspaper expected that “soul compatibility” and a good bowl of gumbo alone should be enough to bring the dispossessed back to a state that, stripped of its “laissez les bon temps rouler” façade, was revealed more tragically than ever as “the Poor Man of America”?
And the thing is, for people who knew nothing but life in their New Orleans neighborhood, that culture was enough to bring them back against all odds and, sometimes, against all common sense. As a friend once said to me during a session of expatriate bitching about the shortcomings of the place we’d left but can’t get over, “Our mama may be a whore, but she’s still our mama.”
True enough. But sometimes you see the high price of low expectations, both in your family and in your home state, and you start to wonder.
At what point do I begin to expect as little from myself as I expect from my government? Why the hell do I think it’s funny that my gub’na says the only way he can lose is if he gets “caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy” — particularly when you know it’s the God’s honest truth?
Why is “Thank God for Mississippi!” an entire people’s main prayer of thanksgiving?
Why do I think, as I survey the broad scheme of things in America, that me and mine are normal?
Like it or not, if you’re wrestling with questions such as these, you fight your own personal war with a culture that adds seasoning and cyanide in equal measure to the Louisiana gumbo. What the hell do you do when so much of who and what you are is part and parcel of why Louisiana’s more crooked, more broke, more ignorant and more unhealthy than almost all the U.S.A.?
I guess you do the best you can. Culture, like family, is hard.
And serious as a heart attack.
My curiosity — and my discontent — first led me to Nebraska early in 1983. A friend was from here originally, I liked the Huskers and it was as far from home as I could find a newspaper job.
When I returned to LSU in the fall to finish up my bachelor’s degree, I returned as a married man. But it wasn’t just the now-former wire editor of the North Platte Telegraph who had won my heart.
Two moves — two jobs — later, one of them back in Baton Rouge at the old State-Times, I was still aiming to get back to the Cornhusker State. My wife, the Omaha girl, was not unhappy at that prospect and in 1988, we finally made it.
Looking back, I guess it came down to culture. I found one I liked as well as the one I was born into — and it was better for me. It takes a while to acclimate, of course, but you do it. You do the best you can, and you try to hold fast to the best parts of your Louisiana birthright. The worst, no.
Actually, it’s kind of gratifying that first time you visit the Gret Stet and some crazy thing that once struck you as normal now strikes you as “What the f***?!”
As a Louisiana expatriate here in the Gret White Nawth, I have come to understand one important reality over the decades: I come from a foreign land. Things are different here in the United States, and that’s all right.
More than all right, actually.
James Freeman, a Baton Rouge native and LSU journalism graduate, works with words and music at www.revolution21.org in Omaha, by God, Nebraska. He writes on this and that on Revolution 21’s Blog for the People and commits freeform radio every week on the 3 Chords & the Truth podcast. He also makes a mean pot of chicken-and-andouille gumbo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- How low can we go? Louisiana higher education leaders decry deep budget cuts (bobmannblog.com)
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- Louisianans to Jindal: Enough Is Enough (dianeravitch98.wordpress.com)
- A hate-love relationship: Bobby Jindal and his special-interest lobbyists (bobmannblog.com)
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