What Mardi Gras Can Teach America
Standing at the back of the ballroom at the New Orleans Hyatt Hotel I learned something that could go a long way toward healing our country during this polarized and mean age.
Michael Bell had just finished escorting one of the lovely young women into the queen’s court of the Mithras Ball and was standing next to me and several hundred other guys at the back of the room. We talked. During our conversation Michael said that someday he’d like to write an article on the meaning of Mardi Gras. Michael said that most people just see the exterior of the annual carnival, the parades, costumes, masks, and so forth. But the inner meaning of Mardi Gras is family, friends, and tradition. Through Mardi Gras we are participating in something much bigger than ourselves, the ultimate purpose of which is joy.
I have lived in New Orleans just long enough (this was my second Mardi Gras) to know that what most people think Mardi Gras is makes up only the tiniest proportion of this enormous iceberg of a celebration. The overwhelming reality of Mardi Gras (the months of preparation, the traditions passed from generation to generation, the legends and histories that shape the various groups of friends, neighbors and fraternal organizations) lies hidden beneath the surface. In fact, the small part of Mardi Gras that tourists and visitors see may lead them to draw the wrong conclusions about it.
If you happen to be on Bourbon Street some evening in the middle of the Mardi Gras season (as Debbie, our son, Jeremy, and daughter-in-law, Caroline were recently on our way to Galatoire’s for dinner), you might imagine that Mardi Gras is really just an excuse for Bacchanalian revelry, excess, and dissipation. But as we took our seats downstairs in one of our favorite restaurants, my family looked around the room at friends laughing and hugging, lovers gazing into one another’s eyes, anniversary dinners and birthday parties. Grandparents and children, teens and parents, old friends and new were all having fun, and, incidentally, renewing and enriching the mutual relationships that make life worthwhile and make it possible for a society to thrive.
Mardi Gras reveals the heart and soul of New Orleans, but only if we are willing to look deeply at the whole event in the context of its complex history. Mardi Gras also reveals a way forward for our country. How so?
New Orleans does not have a uniformly happy history. Nothing unique about that. No place has a uniformly happy history. We have known unrest, violence, riots, and racist killings. Debauchery has been so much a part of our history that one preacher once said that it is hard to get to heaven from New Orleans. We have been occupied by the troops of various nations, including our own divided country in the Civil War. Reluctant though many New Orleanians were to go along with Jim Crow, the city eventually did so. One of our favorite sons, Louie Armstrong refused to have his funeral here because of his own disappointment with our city’s history.
But New Orleanians know something many Americans (and citizens of virtually every other nation in the world) do not seem to understand: part of loving your community is to work for it to be better. And recognizing and dealing with a painful history is essential to getting better. Denying the painful aspects of a history can actually and unintentionally perpetuate it. New Orleans struggles with hearing voices that weren’t heard in the past and hearing stories about our failures to live up to our ideals. And we have discovered that we are a richer city in every way because of the contributions of every person and group. This sense of community was only strengthened in the days following Hurricane Katrina. As someone who observed from outside this city’s heroic recovery after this nation’s most devastating natural disaster, my already considerable admiration and love for this city grew daily by leaps and bounds.
What we witness in the history of Mardi Gras is the triumph of community over polarization. This doesn’t mean that the reality in every detail lives up to our aspirations, but our aspirations work on us over time, inspiring us to do better by one another.
Recently, David Brooks, the respected columnist for The New York Times, described the challenges facing our nation in the present politically and culturally divisive moment and the inadequacy of those solutions that thrive on fear and hatred rather than cooperation. Society is seen, he says, by the far left and far right as “an arena where certain groups crush other groups.”*
Brooks explains that populists on the far right see the world through an interpretive lens that believes “the coastal cultural elite” seek “to crush and delegitimize the white Christian patriots of the heartland.” “On the cultural left … language is [seen as] a tool the oppressor class uses to permanently marginalize the oppressed. On the economic left it’s the … class war. The greedy capitalist class rigs the system and immiserates the working class.” The core belief of each extreme, he says, is that “we’re locked in a life-or-death struggle of oppressor vs. oppressed groups. It’s Us versus Them — the good people here and the bad people there. The problems in society … were consciously engineered by The Evil Other, who must be broken. Our very existence if at stake!”*
Brooks, in a lecture last fall, said that during the past year, while many political pundits have focused entirely on the primary races or are stuck inside the Washington Beltway’s endless feedback loop, he has travelled the country from coast to coast listening to ordinary Americans. He said that what he has found are people in one community after another trying hard to repair the systems that hold society together: the school systems, the housing systems, the legal systems, the economic and financial systems, the systems of infrastructure, the various institutions from family to communities of faith to government that make society possible. He has seen the same thing time and again: neighbors are doing their level best to repair the systems and make things work better.
This is where Mardi Gras comes in.
Mardi Gras offers us a far older, deeper, more durable and more inspiring lens through which to see and understand the world we live in. Mardi Gras wouldn’t be Mardi Gras if it didn’t bring together a wide variety of constituent individuals and communities in a creative and joyful common venture. Much of the fun derives from the fact that (very!) different people from quite different perspectives have fun together. Mardi Gras reminds us that pluralism does not necessarily undermine social cohesion, it can be a means to enlarging the party.
Our country has long been held together by a far deeper and more positive ideal than any of the polarizing, hateful, fearful incantations conjured up by the far left or the far right. Benjamin Franklin said it memorably with his usual dark humor: “Either we will hang together, or we will hang separately.” But the National motto, “E Pluribus Unum” (from many one) says it elegantly and generously. “We the people” either includes all of us, or none.
A few days ago, a lady standing near our family in an Uptown parade, shouted “You are beautiful!” whenever another group of young people in a band, drill or dance team, or group of twirlers came by. The lady was white, the kids more often than not were black. Her embarrassed teenager asked her, “why do you keep yelling that.” The girl was embarrassed by her mother. Her mother turned and said to her, “Look at the pretty smiles it puts on the kids’ faces when I tell them how beautiful they are. I want to help them have an unforgettable Mardi Gras.”
Mardi Gras is not a single monolithic event, but a patchwork of hundreds of communal events and small personal moments. Or, to borrow and re-deploy David Brooks’ metaphor, it is a huge complex multi-hued, multi-textured fabric woven by thousands of hands over months and years and generations.
When the world shows up each year to watch New Orleans go a little crazy, what they don’t see is the deep wisdom at the heart of our madness. From the outside it just looks like a big party. From the inside, we know it is a big neighborhood.
*All quotes from David Brooks are from his essay, “The Future of American Politics: After Tribal War, the Politics of Weaving.” The New York Times, January 30, 2020. His opinion piece in the NYT on Friday February 21, 2020 was also instructive in writing this blog, as was his October 30, 2019 lecture at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City.
Artwork by Michael Jinkins.