The Choices They've Made

I’ve had choices, since the day that I was born
There were voices, that told me right from wrong
If I had listened, I wouldnt be here today
Living and dying, with the choices I made.

–Billy Yates and Mike Curtis*

As noted elsewhere, Ray Nagin was improbably re-elected mayor of New Orleans yesterday. Glenn is unimpressed, but I think he and others are missing part of the mark on this one. He’s quite right when he says, “Louisiana’s political class isn’t just greedy — it’s greedy and stupid,” but Ray Nagin is not a part of Louisiana’s political class. That distinction belonged to his opponent, Louisiana Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu, the brother of US Senator Mary Landrieu and son of the last white mayor of New Orleans, Moon Landrieu. This was only Nagin’s second election, and he campaigned the first time as a political neophyte running against the old corrupt machine of former mayor Marc Morial (the extra-legal machinations of which were, not coincidentally, the only reason Mary Landrieu was ever elected to the Senate).

I’m not here to defend Ray Nagin. I think he acted stupidly in the run-up to Katrina, his buffoonery in the aftermath speaks for itself, and I have low expectations for his second term. Frankly, after being in the city a couple of weeks ago, I was not expecting Nagin to win. Like a lot of bad choices Louisianans have had to make in the past, this election came down to incompetence (Nagin) vs. corruption (Landrieu and the old Democratic machine).

After seeing the state of the city and snails-pace of the recovery, I figured the scattered electorate would be happy to settle for a corrupt but quicker rebuilding process in the hands of the old guard. Add to that Nagin’s recent pandering to Al Sharpton racialism (he was originally elected with a strong majority of the white vote), I fully expected Landrieu to pull in almost all the white vote and enough of the black vote courtesy of the Democratic machine to win easily.

Instead, Nagin was re-elected. Whether the vote reflected a genuine disgust with old Louisiana politics or was more a case of choosing sides racially, I don’t know, and in the end it doesn’t matter. The scattered tribes of NOLA have made their choice, and they’ll have to live with the good and the bad.

Now for the hard part.

I’d mentioned something an oyster shucker said to me last week, “If the military had gotten here when they should have,” referring to the much-discussed ‘late response’ of the federal government after Katrina. His unstated follow-on was, I feel safe in assuming, ‘… a lot of bad things wouldn’t have happened.’

He was almost certainly right, but when you consider what that statement really means, it says a lot more about the state of New Orleans on August 29, 2005 than it does about the Feds. I’ve been through a lot of hurricanes in my life, but I’d never seen anything like the complete societal breakdown that occurred after Katrina.

Eloise in 1975 and Opal in 1995 both wrecked, shut down and isolated my hometown of Enterprise in south Alabama. They and other storms did even worse damage to a lot of other towns in the area. Nearby Geneva and Elba have both been flooded as badly as New Orleans was, and on multiple occasions. All of those towns have substantial black populations, and much of Geneva and Elba are as poor as poor gets. None of them ever needed the National Guard to step in and end a “Mad Max” reign of chaos.

(Just an aside here.)

(We’ve all read and heard innumerable complaints about how long it took the Guard to get in and start cleaning up. Let’s set aside the physical realities of mobilizing troops or traveling on shattered highways, and just assume for the moment, that oh, say 24 hours before Katrina had hit, George W. Bush had issued the following statement:)

(“My fellow Americans, a category-five hurricane is bearing down on New Orleans. Because of the high likelyhood of looting and violence, and because the local authorities are not competent enough to conduct an evacuation or to adequately shelter those who cannot evacuate, I am sending in the National Guard immediately to preserve order and public safety.”)

(Can you even imagine what the reaction to that statement would have been? But I digress.)

This isn’t fun to say, but it still has to be said. The worst destruction of Katrina was man-made. We can fix broken levees. We can rebuild flooded houses. We can’t, however, fix a broken society as easily.

Louisianans in general and New Orleanians in particular made too many bad choices for too long. They acquiesced to governmental corruption and incompetence with a shrug and the inevitable, “that’s just Louisiana.” They allowed an unfettered criminal class to fester and thrive, until it literally took over the city. They put too much trust in luck and “the great elsewhere,” as local author Chris Rose puts it, to bail them out when things were at their worst.

And so they lived and died with those choices.

Now it’s time for them to choose again. I can’t speak for the rest of the country, but what the heck, I’ll speak for myself and we’ll see who agrees.

Here’s the deal, Louisiana. We’re going to help you. We really are. You are our neighbors and our countrymen and our friends, and we love you today as much as we ever did, in spite of and in no small part thanks to all the weirdness and flaws down your way. It’s hard to see it from where you are, but we’re helping you now, in our slow and ponderous way. We’re not going to let it end like this.

But like every deal, this one has two parts, and I’m going to state yours very bluntly: You people are going to have to get your act together. You’re going to have to end a lot of the old ways of doing things. You’re going to have to get serious about corruption. You’re going to have to get serious about crime. You’re going to have to get serious about joining the 21st century economy. You’re going to have to pick up the trash and take care of your yard, and nag your neighbor to take care of his. Yes, all that is going to change you, and we know you don’t like to change, but you can’t go back now.

One thing I can promise you is, you cannot go back to the way things were Before. You have been down that road, and you know exactly where it ends.

* The definitive version of “Choices” was of course recorded by George Jones. The song’s been on my mind since I heard the Driskill Mountain Boys play it at Jazz Fest two weeks ago.