New Orleans and the Symbolic Politics of Place and Poverty

Curator's Note

At first, John Edwards’s announcement of his presidential campaign from New Orleans’ devastated Ninth Ward seems to be one more political trope with little in the way of substance. But further reflection shows the richness of the symbolism of this setting, in ways that Edwards himself may not have intended. The sparse population in this area of New Orleans symbolizes the lack of serious attention paid by American political candidates to the issues of poverty, racial and socio-economic exclusion, and the growing American underclass. It is as if Edwards, as he highlights these issues, is speaking to himself, to the kids behind him cleaning up a flooded house, and to the relatively small (and shrinking) segment of the electorate to whom such issues matter. Though Edwards intended to highlight the Bush administration’s failures in New Orleans and elsewhere, and to suggest his own ability to rectify them, the setting reflects a much more tragic aspect of American politics—that the vast majority of Americans have, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, continued to believe in the myths of infinite possibility, self-made fortunes, and the primacy of effort over inherited wealth and power. I suspect that the few people actually living in the Ninth Ward today would echo Edwards’s skepticism about these myths, but without much faith that government, whether led by Edwards, Bush, or LBJ, can do much to turn them into reality.

Comments

Michele White's picture

Mark, thanks for the

Mark, thanks for the intriguing post. It would be interesting to further consider local coverage of Edwards’s announcement. Have you looked at any of the print, television, and Internet reporting from New Orleans or even Louisiana?

Your post also made me wonder about the places or backdrops that people choose when making their announcements about running for president or other related governmental positions. Are there typical places from which these announcements are made? How are other people—family or the disenfranchised for instance—employed? If we could come up with a list of the kinds of places that were chosen and the meanings that they conveyed then what do these choices say about the politics of the individual, their campaign, and the ways they want to be seen by the public? What sort of frame is NOLA? This might help us to further think about what it means when political candidates are figured in New Orleans post-Katrina and the flooding of the city. What are the varied ways New Orleans is conceptualized in the political arena and how might we make this productive for people living in the area?

Mark Vail's picture

Thank, Michele, for your

Thank, Michele, for your comment on my piece. The discourse of politics and political representation has always been fascinating to me—how an elite like Edwards—well-intentioned, but elite nonetheless—tries to convey an image of concern and competence in the face of the horrible circumstances endured by others. The clip almost looks like a self-parody—with well-placed and industrious, but appropriately serious—children, who have no doubt been told exactly what to do. Class is such a powerful force in American politics, even more so than race in some ways, and yet we talk so little about it. The myth of the American dream must be preserved at all costs, and spots like this one come dangerously close to undermining that veneer. I think that being honest about the disparities of class and impoverishment—and the fact that there is very little that most people in those situations can do about them—is the only way to start bridging that gulf.

Thanks again for looking at the post and for your thoughtful comments.

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