Thursday, March 13, 2014

The tricky magic of Louisiana

Well, this enraged a lot of people:

I was not one of them. I read this article unaware of the backlash, nodded my head and probably wouldn't have thought twice about it were it not for the criticism that followed.

Louisianans jumped all over blogger Dave Thier, decrying his alleged stance that there is nothing special about Louisiana and calling him a smug carpetbagger who watches too much Netflix instead of going out and being a New Orleanian, which he couldn’t ever truly do because, again, carpetbagger. That posturing riled me up more than anything he said.

A few points about me going in, if you don't know already:

• I am a south Louisiana native who lived there for 28 of my 34 years.

• I worked as an extra in the Louisiana film industry, most often in New Orleans, for more than a year.

• I've lived in four cities in three states, including Lafayette and Baton Rouge in Louisiana.

So if Thier is going to get static for the horrible sin of being born somewhere else and living in Louisiana for only three years so far (which is another, long blog entirely), then maybe my opinion will hold a little more weight with the lifers.

Not only do I agree with his view, but I think most Louisianans would, if they'd focus on what he actually said, and who he was talking to.

In sum, he said that Louisiana has a lot going for it, but it lies in real life, not the otherworldly, mystical aspects played up in pop culture. I could have said that. I have said that.

People with exotic notions of Louisiana (which they often equate with the more mystic aspects of New Orleans) seem to forget that the state is also part of the United States in 2014. That was the point of one of Thier's most-maligned comments:

I’ve been in New Orleans for three years ... Here is my life in the most magical city in the world: I watch a tremendous lot of Netflix. I play a tremendous lot of video games. I eat red beans and rice occasionally, but Pad Thai much more frequently. I go to music sometimes. Mostly, I do the things that American middle-class white guys in their late 20s are doing all over the country, because, as it turns out, New Orleans has been a part of the United States of America for more than 200 years.

Even though I would guess plenty of New Orleans residents indulge in Netflix, many took it to mean Thier was deliberately not immersing himself in the culture — giving them a convenient cue to dismiss him out of hand.

I interpret it differently. He brought up the mundane aspects of his life to remind outsiders that mundane things exist just as surely in “magical” Louisiana as anywhere else. He understands, as I do, that not everyone realizes that.

At a party in Utah in 2006, I was chatting with some friendly locals about life in Louisiana. One of their cellphones rang to the tune of “Take On Me” by a-ha. I remarked that I loved that song, to which the phone’s owner replied, with genuine surprise, “You have ’80s music in Louisiana?”

Do we? You can dance to ’80s music in the French Quarter! I have. Badly.

Thier is not trying to tell Louisianans what he thinks of their state — he’s telling outsiders what not to think of his adopted state. Considering that Hollywood South is increasingly turning Actual Hollywood into New Orleans West, that dialogue is pretty pertinent.

This is not to say that this city and this state are not great and unusual places, in a great many ways. ... But Hollywood wants Louisiana to be something more than a state. It wants an oasis from America, a netherworld right in our backyard with two nonstop flights from LAX every day. We might make a documentary about the plight of poor people in the slums elsewhere, but in Louisiana we can make Beasts of the Southern Wild. You don’t have to feel bad because it’s all magic, and magic just is what it is. We quickly leave the realm of celebration and move wholeheartedly into fetishization -- Southern Orientalism, an obsession with an imaginary other.

He wants fellow out-of-staters — in particular, the ones who have a hand in shaping national and world perception of Louisiana — that the “magic” is an entirely different kind than they're imagining. One grounded and coexisting with real life. A real, and better, magic.

The closer something seemingly magical is to reality, the more compelling I think it is. South Louisiana is a fun place to visit and live because it is a unique and energetic place with lots of history, attractions and friendly people. It has its share of spiritual curiosities, but even if you don’t believe, you’re still immersed in charm. All of this is true without any need to make a netherworld of the region; it's even more amazing because it is all real. That’s all Thier is saying, and he’s so right.

Indeed, the myth of south Louisiana damages it in more ways than any portrayal on camera ever could. When New Orleans becomes a netherworld, it’s easier for outsiders to dismiss its hardships. When political corruption and shoddy infrastructure become accepted parts of the Louisiana fabric, they become nearly impossible to fix. When poverty breeds mystique, the inclination to address it fades. When no one, regardless of residential history, can express complex thoughts about Louisiana without facing a brutal, personal backlash, the whole state suffers.

The best thing that could ever be said about Louisiana is that it’s an epicenter of unique culture where sometimes people stay in with their Netflix. That’s magical. More importantly, it’s real.

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