OUTSIDERS DON'T understand Mardi Gras. When I told a friend from Massachusetts that we should take Mardi Gras to Washington to protest the flood of ineptitude that ruined New Orleans, she didn't get how truly outrageous that would be. She thought, like every TV-watching American, that Mardi Gras was just one day of the year when drunks parade down Bourbon Street hurling plastic beads at each other. Nor did she fully understand the nature of our catastrophe, the worst of which was not Hurricane Katrina but the flooding of the city through breached levees built by the federal government.
Mardi Gras is not just one day, it's a season that begins visibly after New Year's with social events that move from discreet to vivid until Mardi Gras day explodes, as Carnival ends and Lent begins. There are secret balls to decide the parade themes, sumptuous gatherings to elect royalty, masked balls to choose the courts, lavish dinners to honor newly minted kings and queens.
In Mardi Gras' 400-year history, the societies that ruled the krewes and parades were the same power brokers that ruled New Orleans. The festival itself, imported from medieval Europe, was a mechanism for letting out the true feelings, the frustrations of the populace. On Mardi Gras day, mobs rule the streets, and the rulers are obliged to shower the unleashed masses with gifts.
Carnival is essentially satirical, depicting folly, vanity and the vices, all the usually hidden flaws of humans who, it is hoped, will know better by Ash Wednesday, when they kneel before a priest and have a cross of ashes smeared on their penitent foreheads. "Carnival" derives from the Latin "\o7carne vale\f7," or "so goes the flesh." All human pleasure is temporary, but in what time remains the flesh is indulged.
In recent years, Carnival societies have become more political. Their satirical barbs have been directed at city and state officials, national leaders and world figures. The most daring parade, the Krewe du Vieux, which marches through the French Quarter, takes no prisoners. After 9/11, its giant effigy of Osama bin Laden sodomized by a U.S missile floated past cheering crowds. There were hundreds of "ghosts" wearing gas "masques." The Krewe du Vieux newsletter seethed with a kind of pamphletary zeal unseen since Thomas Paine.
This year, the same krewe put our profound anxiety and distress on display: Hundreds dressed as taped-up refrigerators marched in frigid weather; two enormous nude figures named Katrina and Rita, one black, one white, had explicit sex atop a float; a sea of FEMA blue tarps flapped in the wind from balconies, on floats, as capes on marchers. A sign proclaimed "Take us back, Chirac!" The blue tarp is the new flag of New Orleans, and the desire to return Louisiana to France is heard often, only half-facetiously.
Mardi Gras reveals New Orleanians to themselves: it's a spectacle and a portrait that is often brutal, and it would be downright intolerable without the liberal indulgence in the vices of the flesh that allow us to forget, forgive and move on.
Mardi Gras is also the only time when this city of intensely parochial neighborhoods comes together and displays its arts. Hundreds of years of dedication to spectacle have produced some profound talent. The high school marching bands of New Orleans are coached from within a tradition unknown elsewhere. In our nation of engineers, New Orleans is the province of artists.
This year there are few marching bands left in the city. The few functioning schools have been incorporated as "charter schools" that measure performance by "leap tests" and other abstractions devised elsewhere; they get no credit for the teaching of music and the arts. In a city were music is the transracial soul glue, this omission is unforgivable.
The city's psyche has been deeply wounded, and music, its medicine, is in exile. A number of musicians have returned from far-flung cities for this unique Mardi Gras, but for how long? Most of their houses were in the Lower 9th Ward and the parts of Treme and Midcity that were flooded.
This year, we need as much and as intense a Mardi Gras as we can muster to prove to ourselves that we still exist. It is the necessary beginning of our healing. We welcome tourists, but this Carnival is for those of us who are still in place. The national media, enamored of its Mardi Gras cliches, should pay special attention to the real Carnival's messages this year. Mardi Gras was never just spring break with drunken college students on Bourbon Street. But this year in particular, it's a different, more significant and more dangerous spectacle. Our very existence hangs in limbo. This may be our last party, if it isn't already a wake.