Mardi Gras Needed for New Orleans' Mental Health
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Today is the feast of the Epiphany, also called Twelfth Night. Many Christians celebrate it as the day of the three kings' presentation of the gifts to the Christ Child. It's also the beginning of the Carnival season. In past years in New Orleans, that meant that bakeries began to be stocked with king cakes and people started putting up Mardi Gras flags, streamers and lights. Commentator Michael Depp lives in New Orleans. He's not exactly sure what Mardi Gras will be like this year, but he knows it will happen.
From the brink of oblivion, New Orleans thrusts a defiant grindstone-gloved fist. There will be Mardi Gras this year. Many Americans understand that Mardi Gras is big business for New Orleans. They reason that this year's Carnival is being held for their sake, or more specifically for the sake of their badly needed tourist dollars. But this year's Mardi Gras is for us. We need it now for our mental health. For 150 years, Mardi Gras has been the city's most essential outlet for conversing with itself, for unpacking its anxieties, its political strife and class conflicts and parading them, literally, down the street.
Consider the hierarchy of the parade. Well-heeled parade organizers or crews mount a succession of elaborately dressed, papier-mache floats, heralded by faux royalty and followed by a court of masked riders. Often these floats are decorated to mock our flawed city leaders, our broken local institutions, our deplorable football team. Riders on the floats throw beads, cups and doubloons to the throngs of parade goers below them, whose voices are shrill with begging, their arms frantically waving above them.
Mardi Gras lays layer upon layer of subversion. Each year, one of the city's wealthiest white men rides high as Rex, King of Carnival, waving his sparkled scepter and taking ceremonial control of the city for a day. But for all of his grandiosity, Rex is also ridiculous. After all, how seriously can anyone take a middle-aged businessman in gold lame tights, a Buster Brown wig and a crown of costume jewelry?
In New Orleans, we've always used Mardi Gras' irreverence and absurdity to cope with the harsher sides of the city's reality: chronic poverty, economic stagnation, flagrant political corruption. Mardi Gras is our way of saying, `We're on to you, all of you,' and hanging the architects of our inequity out to dry. Maybe we can't prosecute them, but we sure as hell can laugh at them. For these reasons, New Orleans needs Mardi Gras now more than ever. We can't fully make sense of what has happened to us until we bring it into the public sphere of our parades. We can't fully castigate our leaders until Mardi Gras. I can see the float designs now: Mayor Ray Nagin looking frantically for his missing plan for rebuilding the city; President Bush waving from Air Force One at our people dying on rooftops; FEMA's Michael Brown. We'll probably need to devote entire parades to vilifying him.
Ceremonies play an essential role in marking momentous human events. In New Orleans, we desperately need to evoke Mardi Gras' ceremonial power this year. Rex needs his rhinestone reign. Crew members need to ascend their papier-mache chariots. And as for us New Orleanians who will line up to watch them parade and throw our arms into the air for beads, we need to show ourselves, and the world, that we're waving, not drowning.
NORRIS: Michael Depp lives in New Orleans.
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