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We Won't Bow Down

The tradition of Carnival teaches us that resistance to the status quo can be a pleasure and an adventure.
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Bourbon street, photo by Jay Allen

Crowds fill Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

Photo by Jay Allen

One day last July I sat next to the Salvadoran-American musician David Molina on a long bus ride. He showed me his pictures of Carnival in Paucartambo in the Peruvian Andes, and when he was done I showed him mine of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. The indigenous town at nearly 10,000 feet holds a raucous celebration with fireworks, costumes, people throwing stuff, playing with fire, kidnapping strangers and keeping them hostage at feasts, drinking in quantity, kids staying up into the small hours—the rules are all broken, and the first rule is the one of shyness and separation. New Orleans is about as different from Paucartambo as could be, starting with the fact that parts of it are below sea level, but it too keeps alive the old tradition of Carnival—not just on Mardi Gras, the last day of Carnival season, before Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, but all through the weeks from Twelfth Night, January 5, when it begins. What happens in Carnival is complicated. But let me send another float through this parade of ideas first.

Six years ago I wrote a book about hope. A few years later I went to look at the worst things that happen to people and found some more hope in the resilience, the inventiveness, the bravery and occasionally the long-term subversion with which people respond. It culminated in another fairly hopeful book, based on the surprising evidence of what actually happens in disaster. Civil society happens, and sometimes joy in that society; institutional failure often also transpires. Sometimes a power struggle to re-establish the status quo follows, and sometimes the status quo wins, sometimes it doesn't. Which is to say, sometimes we win, though that's far from inevitable. This is grounds to be hopeful. Now, being hopeful seems to me like it's preferable to being hopeless, but for six years I've been talking about these books in public. This means I've also been running into people at readings, talks and interviews who are furiously attached to hopelessness, to narratives of despair and decline, to belief in an omniscient them who always wins and a feeble us who always loses. To keep hold of this complex, they have to skew the evidence, and they do. They cherry-pick. They turn complex facts into simple stories. They constitute a significant sector of the left.

I don't believe that they represent the whole left; rather, it seems the self-appointed spokespeople for the left are both more privileged than the left as such and more attached to defeat. Defeat for the privileged means cynicism and an excuse for doing little or nothing; defeat for the oppressed means surrender to hideous or fatal conditions, which might be why hope has of late come from people like the Zapatistas, the indigenous campesinos of Mexico's poorest state, or the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the incredible undocumented-immigrant farmworkers organization that forced Taco Bell and then McDonald's into negotiations. Hope, in the myth of Pandora's box, is what is left behind after everything else has fled; those who hang on to everything else seem to give up or overlook hope. So they often say we always lose.

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"Always" is the key word here, because many leftists are also smitten with sweeping generalizations—and they are oddly willing to accept generalizations that everything is awful, while if you point out that not everything is awful they will believe you've said everything is wonderful and try to shoot that down. If you generalized about a race or a gender, they'd be all over you, but they'll turn history into a one-sided parade straight to the dogs and feel like they're facing the facts. Attachment to despair and defeatism is often portrayed as realism, though it flies in the face of our history, in which, though corporations have continued their T-Rex march, a host of liberations—from colonialism and age-old discriminations—have proceeded apace, so much so that our society is pretty unrecognizable from a 1965 perspective, wilder than anything in the science fiction of the time in terms of changed roles for women, people of color and unstraight people, changed ideas about nature, religion, power, justice and more. And corporate capital has been far from the only force at work in this era that has seen the WTO diminished into near irrelevance, the FTAA defeated and NAFTA almost universally reviled.

I think of these naysayers as the Eeyore chorus, after the dismal donkey in Winnie-the-Pooh, and I run into them a lot. It may be that for those coming from the mainstream to the left the chance to tell the underside of the official version—that it's corrupt and destructive—seems like the work at hand. I come from the left, and my task is clearly telling the other, overlooked histories of hope, popular power, subversion and possibility. Which elicits a lot of grumbling from Eeyore's many reps.

To say that Carnival reconciles us to the status quo is to say that it affirms the world as it is. Carnival also reinforces joy and ownership of public space and a kind of confidence in coexisting with a wide array of strangers.

I got a dose of one of the really common axioms of defeat from a well-spoken young academic woman early on my book tour. I'd been comparing disaster to Carnival in its disruptiveness and subversion of everyday roles. With some irritation at my invitation to consider a more open world, she raised the old bugbear that Carnival is not subversive because it reconciles people to the status quo. (It's a dimming-down of Mikhail Bakhtin's famous writings on Carnival in his book on Rabelais.) First of all, what is Carnival? I've only been to one, a couple of times, but it was in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and it consisted of a host of phenomena tending in all kinds of political directions. Mardi Gras and Carnival are not synonymous; the latter is a weeks-long season from Twelfth Night in January to the last day before Lent, during which krewes put on public parades and private balls. Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, is that last day. Rex is the central parade of Mardi Gras, led by the business elite of the town, and only grudgingly integrated after being forced to do so by the city (some of the other oligarchical Carnival krewes, Comus and Momus, just stopped parading rather than integrate). The city sponsors and organizes none of Mardi Gras; it just prevents unintegrated krewes from marching, polices a lot and sweeps up the tons of debris afterward.

So there's Rex, but it has to wait for Zulu, which is a parody of Rex and of stereotypes of African-Americans—it features the city's black elite in grass skirts and leopardskin with spears and jungle floats. Zulu's procession goes before Rex and traditionally, I'm told, likes to keep Rex waiting. Louis Armstrong was once the king of Zulu—the Carnival krewes create their own royalty—and once said to the king of England, "This one's for you, Rex," when he sang "(I'll Be Glad When You're Dead) You Rascal You." The spirit of Carnival let a son of the New Orleans streets spit in a king's eye. More recently, a queen of Zulu, Desirée Rogers, became Obama's social secretary.

Zulu, like a lot of the African-American krewes, isn't just an organization that puts on a parade. It's an outgrowth of the social aid and pleasure clubs that were once widespread in the South, and the clubs are a version of the benevolent societies that were once a huge social force for the working class of the United States. My friend Eric Laursen has written about them. He says:

Fraternal orders (which also included women's organizations) were an enormous social force among American working people in the first half of the 20th Century—nearly as significant as labor unions. Also known as mutual aid societies, their defining features were [what David T. Beito described as] "an autonomous system of lodges, a democratic form of internal government, a ritual, and the provision of mutual aid for members and their families."... The legions who joined the fraternal orders were not anarchists. The orders tended to be organized in a rigidly hierarchical way, and their leaders loved to underscore their Americanism and denounce radicals and revolutionaries. But perhaps they protested a bit too much. Anarchists have always projected mutual aid as the basic organizing principle of a non-hierarchical, non-authoritarian society. And despite their many defects, the fraternal orders carried out perhaps the most ambitious experiment in mutual aid in US history -- a project that cut across classes and gave immigrants and people of color a tool for advancing themselves when government and capitalist business structures were both geared to keep them in their place. The orders provided a powerful demonstration that mutual aid could serve as an alternative method for organizing a complex modern society.

Mutual aid societies provided tangible necessities (social aid) when things went wrong but intangible ones (social pleasure) when they went right.

African-American social aid and pleasure clubs grew out of the benevolent societies of the nineteenth century, which, as Laursen points out, provided funerals, medical coverage and accident and unemployment insurance to their members. Put that way, they sound as dreary as the corporations I write checks to for my health care and other insurances, but they were vibrant organizations that provided a real sense of membership. You weren't giving your money to the faceless bureaucracy and hoping for something back; you were taking care of your brethren, who would take care of you. Put another way, they provided tangible necessities (social aid) when things went wrong but intangible ones (social pleasure) when they went right. Pretty different from your HMO—and pretty cool. Zulu's website proclaims that "during the Christmas season, the organization gives Christmas baskets to needy families, participates in the Adopt-a-School program [where one elementary school was named after a deceased member, Morris F.X. Jeff, Sr.], contributes to the Southern University Scholarship Fund and donates funds and time to other community organizations."

In one sense Carnival keeps the mutual aid societies of New Orleans alive, but in another sense the societies keep Carnival alive. But Mardi Gras is one day, and the big downtown parades are only one aspect of a festival that, like most Carnivals, lasts for weeks. There are a lot of other organizations parading, from Muses, the women's krewe, which is sort of feminist and sort of raunchy, to informal things like Julu, the klezmer-inspired takeoff on Zulu my friend Rebecca Snedeker belongs to. I joined Julu in 2008, and we roamed the streets and stopped off for drinks and ducked out to see other parades. There are about nine gay krewes with their own balls, and there's an AIDS ritual involving cremation ashes on the day of celebration, one day before Ash Wednesday.

The Mardi Gras Indians, who date back to the 1880s, are small bands of African-American men in flamboyant, massive beaded costumes modeled after American Indian regalia. They are said to honor the relationship between slaves and American Indians in an earlier time, and their beadwork is really more Yoruba than it is American Indian, part of the mysterious survival in New Orleans of ties to Africa that largely vanished elsewhere. In The World That Made New Orleans, music historian Ned Sublette says, "The Indians embody resistance" and "collectively, they're part of what knits New Orleans's black populace together." According to him, the refrain of one of their songs includes the line "We won't bow down." The Mardi Gras Indians head out on their own without announced routes on Mardi Gras and a few other days every year, but making the costumes and maintaining the communities lasts all year. This is probably the very essence of Mardi Gras and all Carnival as I understand it: maintaining community.

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