Pardon me while I veer into a bit of biography for a second. I have a news-oriented reason for doing so.
I spent my teen years in Port Arthur, Texas, which is right where the state of Texas starts morphing into the alternative state of mind called Louisiana. The horizon was lined with smoking oil refineries, and let’s just say that, back in the ’60s and ’70s, people didn’t care much about what you put in the air and the water. Throw in heat, humidity and mosquitoes that resembled fighter jets and it is easy to understand why the region’s best known cultural leaders were Janis Joplin and Johnny Winter.
Every weekend, there were many young people who would jump into their cars and head over the border to the bars, where they could pretty much get away with murder. As the son of a Southern Baptist minister, I was not one of them. Some people would head all the way to New Orleans, which was about as far into sin and depravity as one could go when you lived where I lived. It was not uncommon to walk the halls of our high school and hear people talking about who had wrecks getting home on those dark highways in the swamps. It was not uncommon for someone to get killed.
What’s the point? Let’s just say that there are some people in the Bible Belt who may be watching the hellish scenes we are seeing on TV right now with very mixed feelings. New Orleans is a strange and glorious and corrupt and soulful city, a place where the demons dance right out there in the open and the angels tend to hide in the shadows. It’s where the saints come marching in and lots of them are staggering because they are drunk. Right now, lots of them have guns.
There are people who love New Orleans for highly personal reasons and there are plenty of other people who have always thought that this great city might someday reap what they believe it has sowed. Let me put it this way: Have you ever heard people in Middle America make jokes about Los Angeles and earthquakes? It is kind of like that.
Is there a story in all of this? Will this conflict in the wider region affect the rebuilding effort? Is this a chance for New Orleans to shine and, perhaps, even bond with the rest of America, much in the way that New York City did in the days after Sept. 11?
Perhaps it would help to hear from someone on the other side of the church aisle. Howell Raines, the former (some would say “fallen”) executive editor of The New York Times, wore his heart on his sleeve in a memorial column that appeared — interestingly enough — in the Los Angeles Times. Note the undertow of cultural and religious themes in this chunk of it:
For millions of Americans who grew up in strait-laced towns, the Big Easy has always been the place to dance — the one Southern place where the Bible Belt came unbuckled. A hundred years ago, the Storyville section was America’s best place for the world’s oldest profession and the birthplace of America’s best contribution to world music, jazz. Like other young people in the preacher-haunted South, I bought my first legal drink in the French Quarter. We went for the booze, and in that world of cobbled streets and hidden gardens, some of us glimpsed the glory and costs of pursuing art or individualism. . . .
Oh, wondrous city of music that floats from the horn and poems drowned in drink! Oh, cheesy clip-clop metropolis of phony coach-and-fours hauling drunken Dodge salesmen, of gaunt-eyed transvestite hookers, of Baptist girls suddenly inspired to show their breasts on Chartres Street in return for a string of beads flung from the balcony of the Soniat House — will we lose even these dubious glories of the only American city that’s never been psychoanalyzed?
Read that passage out loud in a room full of folks down South and more than a few of them are going to roll their eyes and say, “Now that’s the kind of Southern guy who is going to move north and become an editor at The New York Times.”
Then again, behind the scenes, it appears that churches across the Bible Belt — left, right and center (including those Southern Baptists) — are already working overtime to get aid to the region.
This is as it should be. Right now, there are angels and demons on display in New Orleans and that is not going to end soon.
Please let us know when you see them show up in newspapers and on the networks.
UPDATED: A group called Repent America says openly what some people are probably thinking. (Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan.) If the Rev. Pat Robertson chimes in, hang on. Nice touch — adding the link to the classic “Sinners In the Hands of an Angry God” sermon by Jonathan Edwards. However, I am pretty sure this great early American evangelist did not claim that God’s wrath was zip-code-specific. And if you say it is behavior-specific, let he who is without sin cast the first stone.