Monday, August 10, 2009

Two things I wondered about last week

Can't believe I'm asking this, but is it possible that Texas librarians are cooler than Louisiana librarians? When I saw the Tattooed Ladies of TLA calendar on sale last week, I expected body piercings on the LLA website -- couldn't even find any interesting hairdos. I'd say something about the need for us paraprofessionals to assert ourselves, but I don't have any tattoos either. Don't recall seeing on that other blogging library worker either. In my defense, I don't have the kind of arms that other bloggers gush about. The tattoo I've always wanted, a heart with an arrow through it (with "me" written in it), would look downright pathetic on my puny bicep.

On a totally unrelated note, isn't it a little pointless to list being elected "Louisiana’s first black congressman since Reconstruction" (not to single out Clancy DuBos, just using a readily available link to a phrase that I heard a few too many times) among William Jefferson's accomplishments? It's true, but all he did was win a congressional election. He wasn't a trailblazer like James Meredith or Jackie Robinson who braved threats and abuse, and he wasn't even like Dutch Morial who beat the odds in being elected the city's first black mayor -- while the majority of the city's electorate was white*. When you say that Jefferson was the state's first black congressman since Reconstruction, all you're saying is that he won the first election in Louisiana's 2nd congressional district after Lindy Boggs retired.

While I'm on the subject, I will point out that Jefferson was no Willie Stark who started out as an idealistic champion of the poor and became corrupted. From his early days in the state legislature
About the same time, Jefferson launched one of his earliest ventures, in the rent-to-own appliance business. that was, like others that would follow, a joint project with several siblings, in this case brothers Mose and Bennie and sister Betty, a former School Board member who is now a city assessor. Through Jefferson Interests, a company they founded, the group acquired four REMCO stores starting in the early 1980s, after Jefferson had joined the Legislature.

Some called the business predatory. In 1986, Rudy Lombard, one of Jefferson's opponents in his second bid for mayor, noted in debates that some public-housing tenants in Algiers late on payments had complained of being "harassed and intimidated" by REMCO officials.

Lombard also ripped Jefferson for sponsoring a bill that would have allowed theft charges to be filed against renters who did not return appliances on time. Jefferson denied sponsoring such a bill at first, but the next day he conceded he had when reporters confronted him with the evidence. The bill never passed.

through his career in congress, Jefferson always put his own interests, and those of his wealthy backers, ahead of the concerns of poor people.

*The majority of the city's population was black in 1978, but, in part because the black population was younger, voter registration was still majority white. I don't know if an apparent error in yesterday's paper was the result of shoddy research (or no research) or merely a poorly worded sentence:
As always, a key piece of the puzzle is race. Political experts tend to agree that voters gravitate toward candidates who look like themselves. The rule of thumb has played out in New Orleans for decades as a majority black electorate installed African-American candidates in key government posts, including the mayor's office in every election since 1978.

It's not a major point, but the crowd that thinks that the city's worst racists didn't move to the suburbs but chose to stay in the city in an attempt to use "reform" as part of a nefarious plot to steal back the power they couldn't hold on to democratically always seems to get the history wrong.

I've heard people even say that "Figaro" (the defunct local weekly that in the 70's occupied a similar niche to the one filled by "Gambit" today) helped elect Morial by convincing liberal-leaning white professionals that Morial was a superior candidate to Joe DiRosa. This piece (you may need to use this link and click a second link) of pseudoscholarship tells a similar story:
According to Allen Rosensweig, a prominent New Orleans pollster, Morial got 97% of the black vote and 19% of the white vote. Political writers for the New Orleans Times-Picayune had only slightly different figures. They analyzed 42 precincts with 10 or fewer white voters and found Morial getting 94.73% of the black vote. In 68 precincts identified as having 10 or fewer black voters DiRosa got 78.29%to Morial’s 21.61%. Morial fared extremely well in the Uptown wards, frequently referred to as the “Silk Stocking” area, near Tulane and Loyola universities. In that area he garnered more than one third of the white vote according to detailed analysis. Candidate DiRosa’s son told the story in frank language. By his account, “The uptown white vote killed us. I guess it was just fashionable to vote for a black man” (Gillis, 11/14/1977).

Had the internet yet been invented, a four or five year old kid in Gentilly might have expressed his dissatisfaction with a choice between the racist candidate and the candidate of the yuppie left. Well, the word "yuppie" hadn't yet been invented either.

Little-known fact. We didn't move to Gentilly until we bought a house in the mid-80s. I tell people I "grew up" there because that's where my family lived while I was in middle school through college. Dad finally sold the house in 2004. For all intents and purposes it was "home". But before that we moved a lot. When I was born, my folks lived in the lower 9th. We also lived in the East and even a few years in *gasp* Metairie.

I know I know I'm such a fraud.

Anyway I tend to have an even less subtle approach to politics than you give me credit for here. Jefferson's "tragedy" isn't rooted in a lost idealism but in his continually misapplied talent. His ability to acquire and use power never ceased to tempt the backing of constituencies he habitually disappointed.

Jefferson's voting record technically scored well according to AFL-CIO's ratings but he didn't show up when it mattered most. But labor supported Jefferson right up until the bitter end last year. The argument was that if reelected and acquitted, he would be more reliable out of gratitude for the unwavering support.

Still, politics is a dismal game where the choices are always among shady unreliable representatives. I happen to be of the opinion that the very act of standing for office in the first place reveals something ugly and ambitious about one's character. I don't think that's a cynical outlook though because individual character is somewhat beside the point of all this.

Fundamental to my understanding of politics is that it is a process by which differently interested parties struggle over largely irreconcilable policies which benefit one or the other side. The question isn't so much whether the elected persons will "behave" in an objective sense as it is whether or not they will behave the way you want them to on questions of policy.

The trick, of course, is making them behave which requires constant effort, attention, threats, townhall meeting disruptions, etc. My problem with what I call "Yuppie Lefitism" is its tendency toward a lazy and unrealistic solution which proposes that we just elect "honest" people who "represent all of us" and then trust them to do the right thing.

Ray Nagin was supposed to be such a mythical creature. Your friend Jarvis just published a pretty good column which asks exactly who, if anyone, has Nagin managed to please these past 8 years.

We would probably be clearer about Nagin's allegiances if he hadn't shown a remarkable ability to get re-elected without a constituency. Some black voters who loathed him for most of his first term decided to vote for him in 2006 because they noted the white opposition against him.

Nagin was elected without a constituency. Bill Jefferson made a career out of cynically ignoring his. In each case, a large portion of the blame lies with people and their misapprehensions about politics in the first place.
I wondered if the joke at the end of the footnote would make it appear the entire post was directed at you. Figured I had to mention you when I mentioned librarians, nothing in-between was directed at anybody in particular. You're actually one of the last people I would have suspected thought that Jefferson started out an idealist. I even wonder how poor he actually started, but that's irrelevant. It's also difficult to judge talent in these cases because politics is such a cynical game. Whether they're called geniuses (Karl Rove) or dunces (Bush, Nagin) people without the slightest vestige of conscience often look a little more talented than there colleagues who retain some shred of humanity -- however corrupted that shred may be.
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