The city of New Orleans is debating whether to move Halloween to make way for the Saints game that Sunday. Beyond figuring out how to watch a game and trick-or-treat at the same time, we’d never figure out how to wear our Saints’ gear and a costume at once.
Silly? Maybe. But I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my country, about how divided we’ve let ourselves become over everything from red and blue states to which creature to like in the Twilight series. Maybe a city willing to move what’s become a children’s holiday to make way for a football game seems backward somehow, but this city understands something that the country seems to have forgotten – united we stand, divided, we fall. Why pick Halloween or Saints when we could have both? Why would one have to be better than the other, more important? What would choosing one over the other say about anyone that matters in the scheme of things? As Rodney King so simply asked, “Can we get along?”
Since Aesop first coined the phrase, “United we stand, divided, we fall” around 500 B.C., nations, corporations, communities and families have understood how important it is to focus on what we agree on and negotiate what we can’t in order to preserve the unit. Sun Tzu, in his military strategy book, The Art of War, suggested that the only way to defeat an enemy larger than yourself is to divide it against itself. Doesn’t it then follow that finding ways to remain united is not only important to the preservation of families, communities and corporations but is, in fact, a matter of national security? At the very least, it may help us to remain the truly great melting pot ideal, the United States of America.
This land once belonged entirely to the Native Americans. The English arrived and colonized and immigrants have been arriving ever since. People came as everything from political refugees to American dreamers to slaves. It really can’t matter anymore how we all got here, we have WAY bigger issues facing our people now than how their ancestors came to be here. Maybe if we can all agree that every American citizen is a “real” American, we can begin to find solutions for difficult issues like immigration. Let’s not use words like “real” anymore to leave groups of people out. “Real” women may have curves, but women without curves are just as real.
We have lots of lines to divide people now. We have the haves and have-nots, the educated and the uneducated, the homosexual and the “normal,” the pro-lifers and pro-choicers, and on and on. We’ve splintered the splinters until we have Jews for Jesus and pro-lifers who are also pro-death penalty. We don’t agree with ourselves anymore.
I think people see Louisiana as a pretty backward place politically. I did. But here’s a few facts. Our Governor, Bobby Jindal is the first non-white governor of Louisiana and the first Indian-American governor in the country. (He was the second Indian-American congressman). Our Congressman, Joseph Cao, is the first Vietnamese American to serve in Congress and the first Republican to serve in his district since 1891. Our Democratic Senator is a woman. Mary Landrieu is considered a very conservative Democrat and Cao is a aisle-crossing Republican. And you may remember that our former mayor was African American, Ray Nagin, recently replaced with Mary’s brother, Mitch.
Perhaps the diversity we’ve been able to vote into office is a testament to the idea that unity is born of inclusion at every level. Few places in America have endured the quantity and quality of problems that New Orleans and Louisiana have. A mosquito-borne disease, yellow fever killed more than 41,000 people between 1817 and 1905. Records state that 7,849 people died in New Orleans in 1853 alone. There are less than 400,000 people living here now so I can’t imagine what a chunk that must have been from the local community.
In 1862, New Orleans was invaded during the Civil War and an army of 5,000 men occupied the city. Though we can all agree that slavery was immoral and unAmerican, it was a large part of how the state’s predominantly agricultural economy worked. The cotton trade also dried up when getting cotton from places like Egypt became easier than dealing with wartime port blockades.
In 1927, Louisiana survived the Great Mississippi Flood. In 1965, Hurricane Betsy caused $10-$12 billion in damages. In 2005, Katrina killed at least 1,800 people and created $81 billion in damages. And in 2010, BP et al gushed 180 millions gallons of oil and at least 1.8 million gallons of Corexit into the Gulf of Mexico. The point is, bad things happen here, things that not only kill people and leave destruction in their wake, things so devastating that entire ways of life are wiped out.
And yet, we parade.
Perhaps this region can serve as an example for how to find common ground and remain united. People here love their city deeply and are committed to it. However, they offered no military resistance when the Civil War occupation arrived. They protected their culture, not their property. We define success differently here. Happiness and people are counted among someone’s riches.
And we live with our history whether it be good, bad or ugly. Rather than pretend “bad” things never happened, we integrate them into our culture, celebrations and songs. We create festivals and throw benefit concerts. After Katrina hit, I remember seeing a small ragtag group of people banging on pans and singing through the French Quarter on TV. I called my mom, sobbing, and blurted, “It’s going to get okay. They didn’t kill it.” The “it” I meant was the indomitable spirit I’m always going on about, the ability to face death and loss previously unimaginable in the United States and still parade. Parades unify all members of a community. As the saying goes – everyone loves a parade.
The truth is that the lines we’ve drawn between us are illusions. Obama was born in Hawaii but McCain was born in Panama. Quentin Tarantino has an eighth grade education and an Academy Award for writing. Homosexuality exists in thousands of animal species. Our skin may be different colors and we may speak different languages, but we all came from the same Ethiopian DNA. These aren’t opinions meant to stir some pot, they’re just what is. You don’t have to trust me, look it up.
I suggest that we act locally and think globally. First, create unity in your home, then your neighborhood, your community, your city, your state and your country. In New Orleans, that means focusing on what we agree on and negotiating what we don’t. It means focusing on the community first and not worrying about things like winning an argument. It means letting go of judgements and figuring out what works. It means festivals and concerts and parades. And it may mean moving Halloween to make way for the Saints.
To read my first “Why Football Matters,” written just before the Super Bowl and far more focused on football, click: