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Monday, February 9 2015

Politics Ruins Everything

Recently, my fascination with New Orleans history and culture led me to a book titled The Mysterious Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau, by Ina Johnson Fandrich. Originally written as Fandrich's doctoral thesis in Religious Studies, it is an academic study of Marie Laveau, one of the most important figures in the history of the Crescent City.

While the book is quite informative on the subject—indeed, it seems to be almost the only modern historical treatment of Laveau—it  is entirely a product of modern academia. Armed with a full arsenal of arcane academic jargon, the author goes to great lengths to locate her subject in the context of the modern, liberal vision of the 19th century, antebellum South, making absolutely clear what a horrific place that was. She describes a culture of slavery and oppression, and of systemic brutality, and expresses this context with words and phrases like "imperialism," "white supemacism," "racial hegemony," and so on.  Along the way, she introduces her own perspective on what made Laveau such a unique and powerful female religious leader, distinct from mainstream Christianity's habit of casting women either as meek, submissive, doormat saints like Mary, or Mother Teresa, or as wicked, self-assertive, rebellious witches like Joan of Arc. And of course, the theme of modern continuation of racism and oppression arises more than once, in deference to liberal academic orthodoxy.

It is, quite frankly, the sort of language that sets a conservative's teeth on edge, especially a white conservative raised as a member of this so-called oppressive, imperialistic elite. It raises any number of political spectres; it sounds like the sort of language that would have racial hucksters like Al Sharpton or revolutionaries like Angela Davis nodding along in approval. And quite frankly, if I weren't so interested in the topic at hand—Marie Laveau and the origin of the unique, vibrant culture of New Orleans—it might have turned me away within the first few pages.

As I read on, however, I came to realize that, as inflammatory as the language might be within the political sphere, the author's ideas regarding cultural context and perspective are quite important, especially if the goal is to understand who Marie Laveau really was. The fact remains that, for those of African descent, 19th century America often was a truly horrific place, especially in the South. It became quite clear that understanding the importance of a figure like Laveau depends on a full and clear understanding of the power dynamics in New Orleans at the time she rose to prominence in the early 19th century. And with this realization came an important question: given the reality of what it was like to be black, whether free or slave, in 19th-century New Orleans, how else could that reality be communicated, except with words like "oppression," "brutality," and so on?

Why should language dealing honestly and plainly with that fact seem so threatening?

Part of the answer, I think, is the implication of inherited, collective guilt; as a white man, it often seems directly implied, if not outright stated, that I owe something to those of African descent, for what some of my ancestors might have made some of their ancestors go through. The larger part, however—and, as I see it, the more pernicious obstacle to true understanding—is the immediate association with the politics of race (hence the previous mentions of Sharpton and Davis). Much of the language of modern scholarship surrounding the black experience in America comes steeped in a history of association with revolutionaries like Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis, Bobby Seale: individuals whose political aims went beyond the elimination of racism, into the imposition of the tyranny of Socialism, or even outright Communism. American academia is irretrievably associated with Marxism, with the politics of the Left, and that association taints everything the academy produces.

Politics, as the saying goes, screws up everything.

And why shouldn't it? Politics is, at its core, the business of directing various forces and resources— personal, financial, military—toward the goal of shaping the actions of government. And, since government is, at its heart, about the organized application of force to human affairs, what this means is that politics is ultimately about deciding who gets force applied against them, and who gets to benefit from it. In politics, there are always winners and losers; the losers usually end up on the business end of a gun, or a nightstick, or a whip.  And so, whenever politics comes into play, whenever the stakes are who ends up on the business end of government, the element of fear must be introduced as a matter of course. And fear is the enemy of understanding.

Remove politics from the equation, and what is there to fear? Dissolve fear away, and what was before a coded language describing the arithmetic of political retribution, now becomes a song of pain, and of triumph over that pain.

One of the most remarkable things about Marie Laveau is the fact that she transcended the politics of her day: an illiterate, black, female priestess of an outlaw religion, who was almost literally the beating heart of the city she lived in and loved, the city of New Orleans. To fully comprehend that fact, one must understand clearly not just how singular it was, but how it so completely reversed the pattern of powerlessness, dislocation, fear and degradation that was the norm for her fellow African Americans. One has to comprehend the darkness in order to appreciate the wonder and beauty of the light that arose out of it.

Fear, and the politics that give rise to fear, make that a daunting task indeed.

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