Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Thoughts from New Orleans on Fat Tuesday, 2015

-One of the most striking things about New Orleans during Mardi gras, oddly enough, is the attitude of the police. (Okay, lest you be questioning whether red blood still flows through my veins, there are other striking things too, noted below, but this one was perhaps the most surprising). I’ve never seen police so chilled out in my whole life, entirely unconcerned by the debauchery around them. I spent a while watching them trying to figure out if this was

a) the fact that nothing surprises them anymore, having seen all this nonsense thousands of times,

b) part of a brilliantly devised ‘small footprint’ strategy whereby they let small infractions go and concentrate only on the big stuff, as the debauchery is important for the city and police antagonism will mostly make the situation worse, or

c) whether they were in fact wholly nonchalant about crime, and simply didn’t give a flying @#$%.

It’s probably a little of all three, but I ended up putting more weight on the latter option than I had initially. Part of this came from hearing various stories from locals, including seeing a cop in uniform light up a joint, someone trying to alert police to a man passed out on the side of the road and receiving a shrug as the official response, and of course the murder rate of 57 per 100,000 which would make the Republic of New Orleans the second highest murder rate country in the world.

-Related to strategy b) above, New Orleans really reveals the absurdity of open container and street drinking laws. Who would have thought that people can actually take a beer from a bar out into the street and society doesn’t collapse around them. Instead, the focus is on more practical thing like having all drinks served in plastic cups to minimize the risk of broken glass. You’d think that this kind of sensible example would catch on around the western world, but only if you’d never seen the absurd moral panics that society gets attached to. Giving people a ticket for having a beer in public is contemptible and unworthy of a free society.

-Having a passing familiarity some of the extant literature on the subject, there was actually less public nudity at Mardi Gras than I expected. Which is to say, there was some, but it certainly wasn’t ubiquitous. Never underestimate the power of good editing to create a very unrepresentative sample. As well as being more clothed on average, the crowd was also older and blacker than the literature would suggest. The fact that editing would hide the first fact is unsurprising, the second fact perhaps more so.

-In the annals of ‘curious facts about male sexual preferences’, the odd fascination with public nudity is definitely up there. This is put into sharp relief when you have on Bourbon street multiple strip clubs which will show you highly attractive fully nude women at a moment’s notice for not very much money. But instead, during Mardi Gras people seem far more interested in the possibility of a one second flash from some who isn’t a stripper, and usually doesn’t have a stripper’s body. Never underestimate the appeal of the illicit, of seeing what is normally covered up, and overall the aspect of slight reluctance. Seeing someone get convinced by a crowd to flash appeals to the male brain in ways that a girl on stage willingly taking off her clothes never quite captures. Male sexual preference is odd indeed, especially when it comes to strip clubs

-Mardi Gras attracts a large number of very earnest Christians out to try to save the souls of revelers. I find these people fascinating. Say what you will about their beliefs, it takes some serious cojones to stand in the middle of Bourbon Street carrying a huge cross and yelling about Jesus to the potentially antagonistic drunks all around you. Most of us never believe anything with that kind of sincerity (for better or worse).

-The fact that Mardi Gras is associated with the Catholic traditions around Lent is always hilarious to me. People seem to have taken the idea of penance and renunciation for Lent and instead transformed it exclusively into a time-series shift in debauchery while keeping the total amount either constant, or more likely increasing it in total. Even funnier, the tradition of increasing sordid behavior before lent stuck around long after people stopped following the other part of piety and giving up pleasures. Substitution effects are tricky things.

-Bourbon street is another example like the Vegas strip of the unusually strong power of network effects. There is very little architecturally, visually or resource-wise to set apart Bourbon street from nearby streets. But one of them is packed when the others are nearly deserted. Truly, people like being around other people.
-I went to the Orpheuscapade Ball, which was awesome. I only found out about the various balls because one of the girls in our group had grown up in New Orleans, and knew that this was the thing to do (while the tourists all go to Bourbon Street). There were thousands of people in black tie, watching the floats go through the New Orleans convention center. I really enjoyed seeing the old Southern High Society. You never hear about them much – I kind of thought the Civil War had routed most of that old tradition, but it still lingers on. All you hear about the South is the rural white trash side, but never the rich upper class white side. Especially the Southern society girls. Smoking hot, rich, conservative – what’s not to love?

-Related to the above, the ball had as its main musical act a guy who was apparently a big country star. I’ve been in this country more than a decade now, which is long enough to lull me into the sense that I’ve pretty much got the hang of the place. And then I’ll hear a country music concert and get reminded how there’s a huge side of America than I just about never see. To make matters even stranger, a lot of the country music crowd would probably vote in a more similar way to me (if I were inclined to vote, which I’m not) than the people I live around. Though if you broke it down issue by issue instead of shoe-boxing everyone into one of two parties, the overlap would certainly become smaller. While the crowd here was a long way from the standard rural Republican voting set, the enthusiasm of the crowd for a wholly alien musical genre was a bit of a reminder of the extent of the country that is essentially invisible when you live in big coastal cities.

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