Levees Not War
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Posts Tagged ‘new orleans’

At the Intersection of Jon Stewart and Brian Williams

Friday, February 13th, 2015

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Jersey BoysBrian Douglas Williams and Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz both went to high school in New Jersey and held common, low-level jobs before working their way to the top of their respective, and interrelated, professions.

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“Finally someone is being held to account for misleading America about the Iraq War.” —Jon Stewart on Brian Williams, The Daily Show, Feb. 9, 2015

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Last week we wrote a piece in defense of Brian Williams, little realizing it was probably already too late, even as other revelations of his storytelling were coming forth, and the social media pile-on was getting heavier by the minute. Then, this Tuesday, Feb. 10, we learned that not only is Williams being put on a six-month, unpaid leave by NBC management, but, even more distressing, Brian’s friend and ours, the widely beloved Jon Stewart, has announced that later this year he’ll step down from his anchor desk on The Daily Show at Comedy Central’s “World News Headquarters in New York,” the job he has held for 16 years. (“Jon Stewart’s Notable Moments on The Daily Show”)

It seems to say something about the nature of our society and culture these days that as Jon Stewart announces his departure, a satirical comedian is very likely the most trusted source in news—at least to an entire, younger generation to whom the name Brian Williams is, maybe, vaguely familiar. As media columnist David Carr of The New York Times wrote, “Oddly, Mr. Stewart will leave his desk as arguably the most trusted man in news.”

(In more sad news this week,  David Carr himself died just last night at The New York Times after hosting a Times Talks conversation at The New School in New York with journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras and NSA whistleblower Edward J. Snowden about the new film Citizenfour, directed by Poitras. Click here for a clip of that Times Talks appearance.)

jonstewartDave Itzkoff of The New York Times wrote, “For a segment of the audience that had lost its faith in broadcast and print news outlets or never regarded them as sacrosanct in the first place, Mr. Stewart emerged a figure as trusted as Walter Cronkite or Edward R. Murrow.”

Just think about that for a minute: Cronkite and Murrow. We’d agree, it’s a fair comparison.

As Jason Zinoman of the Times wrote in “A Late-Night Host Seamlessly Mixing Analysis, Politics and Humor”:

“The Daily Show” didn’t just offer insightful, cutting analysis, clever parody and often hard-hitting interviews with major newsmakers. For an entire generation, it became the news, except this report could withstand the disruption of the Internet far better than the old media. If anything, the web only made “The Daily Show,” with its short segments, more essential. Every time a political scandal exploded or a candidate made headlines or a cable fight went viral, the first thought for many viewers was: I can’t wait to see what Jon Stewart will say about this.  [emphasis added]

What Goes Up Must Come Down

Surely the status of being the most trusted man in news is one that Brian Williams wanted for himself, and it may once have been possible, but now that trust may be irretrievable. Further revelations have appeared about Williams’s whoppers, fabrications, outright lies, that make it hard to insist that he should be allowed to stay in his big chair. Even as we went to press with our piece last Friday (we learned later), The Guardian was reporting that New Orleans residents were calling into question some of Brian Williams’s tales about his time covering Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath—some of the very coverage for which we were expressing gratitude.

We said last week, “We do not know what is behind all this—why this story is coming out now, or what really happened.” A comment from AdHack on the cross-posting of “In Defense of Brian Williams” at Daily Kos answered that quite clearly:

It’s coming out now because Williams told his dishonest recollection of being shot down last Friday, after repeatedly being warned by NBC brass to stop it, and a bunch of military veterans called him on it, which was reported by Stars & Stripes and then picked up by other media. The question really should be: Why did it take so long for this to get out? Veterans have been trying to get out the truth for quite some time. 

Thanks to AdHack for that clarification. We have not found other sources attesting that NBC executives had told Williams to stop telling the tale about being shot down, but AdHack seems to know what he’s talking about.

Not the Only Tale-Teller with a Big Megaphone

We agree, though, with a Carla Wallach of Greenwich, Conn., the writer of a letter to the editor published in The New York Times on Feb. 12:

How sad that the NBC brass couldn’t see that all the brouhaha regarding the news anchor Brian Williams had nothing to do with his work. His fudging the truth regarding the helicopter incident was nearly an act of personal vanity, which is not a rarity among celebrities. So he was not on the helicopter that was fired on, as he claimed, but in one behind it: that’s close enough to death for me. A six-month suspension is too severe. People will have forgotten about the incident in less ethan a month. I will be among those welcoming him back. 

Nightly News with Brian WilliamsTrue, it doesn’t seem fair, especially when you consider the massive lies told in recent years and decades by government officials—too numerous to mention—and that there is an entire network with “News” in its name that does nothing but lie and distort, 24/7. But NBC Nightly News is and should be held to a higher standard of integrity. (See “Conservatives Have Waged a 50-Year War to Prove the News Media Can’t Be Trusted” at The New Republic.)

We just hope we’ll see Brian Williams back on the job in not too long a time. And, again, the attention he helped bring to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast was needed then and is needed still.

On a happier note, it’s Mardi Gras time, y’all (Tuesday, Feb. 17). Let the good times roll . . .

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Further Reading

Jon Stewart Will Leave ‘The Daily Show’ on a Career High Note” (NYT 2/11/15)

A Late-Night Host Seamlessly Mixing Analysis, Politics and Humor” (NYT 2/10/15)

Kings of Their Crafts, but on Divergent Paths: Brian Williams’s and Jon Stewart’s Common Ground,” by David Carr, New York Times (2/11/15)

Brian Williams’ reports on Katrina called into question by New Orleans residents,” The Guardian (2/6/15)

NBC’s Brian Williams recants Iraq story after soldiers protest,” Stars and Stripes (2/4/15)

Jon Stewart’s Notable Moments on The Daily Show” (NYT 2/11/15)

Brian Williams Scandal Prompts Frantic Efforts at NBC to Curb Rising Damage” (NYT 2/11/15)

Conservatives Have Waged a 50-Year War to Prove the News Media Can’t Be Trusted” by Nicole Hemmer, The New Republic (2/13/15)

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Photo credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images for Comedy Central

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In Defense of Brian Williams, New Orleans’ Loyal Friend

Friday, February 6th, 2015

WilliamsKatrina

Now He Really Is Under Fire

The veracity of the leading network news anchor, Brian Williams of NBC Nightly News, is in question—by his own fault—and now the sharks and wolves smell blood. A feeding frenzy ensues.    [ cross-posted at Daily Kos ]

Williams has apparently fabricated a story in which a military helicopter he was aboard in Iraq in 2003 was shot down. Other accounts say that his helicopter was never fired upon. He apologized on air on Wednesday night with a less than candid account, and critics aren’t satisfied—but we don’t care.

We Stand with Brian

Our confidence in Brian Williams is not shaken, and we called NBC Nightly News (212-664-4971) to say please keep him on the air. E-mail NBC Nightly News at nightly@nbc.com. We do not claim that he’s done nothing wrong—it looks pretty clear he repeatedly told a lie, with embellishments—but he has done so much good, particularly for New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, that “all is forgiven.”

In a particularly rich nugget of hypocrisy, Howard Kurtz, an analyst at Fox News, says, “The admission raises serious questions about his credibility in a business that values that quality above all else.” We will not dignify that remark with a response other than to say consider the source: that’s about what we’d expect from fair and balanced Fox News, without which arguably there would have been no Iraq War for Brian Williams to report from. Other conservative voices are piling on. (Just check #BrianWilliams on Twitter—or, better yet, don’t bother.)

There is a tradition of news anchors going to places in the news, among the most famous of which was CBS anchor Walter Cronkite’s trip to Vietnam in 1968 (transcript here), followed energetically by Dan Rather. (Rather went so often to dangerous places—such as to Afghanistan in 1980—that he acquired the nickname “Gunga Dan.”) Such on-the-ground reporting from war zones is often courageous, is surely good for ratings, and brings an enormous spotlight to the place or the issue in the news. It was in this tradition that Williams was in Iraq in 2003. (The New York Times’s television reporter Alessandra Stanley gives a well-rounded overview here. More below.)

In response to Williams’s admission of error (though not of lying) there is much righteous indignation and moral outrage, some of which has elements of accuracy. Of course, many competing news outlets would love to see the leading network news program weakened, its ratings and standing lowered, its anchor disgraced, possibly removed, as CBS anchor Dan Rather was dumped in 2004 following a dubiously sourced report about George W. Bush’s National Guard service.

We do not know what is behind all this—why this story is coming out now, or what really happened.

brian_williams_katrinaWhat we do know is that we and the people of New Orleans and Louisiana and the Gulf Coast have great reason to be steadfastly grateful to Brian Williams for keeping the national spotlight firmly fixed on the region during and after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in August and September 2005. Williams camped out in the Superdome the night before Katrina made landfall, and was on the ground to report the damage and the resulting flood after the federally built levees and outflow canal walls failed.

For months, for years, he reported about New Orleans and environs, its struggles, successes, setbacks, and brave efforts and plucky initiatives to keep the good times—and life itself—rollin’. On the first anniversary of Katrina, on August 29, 2006, Williams took President George W. Bush on a walking interview through the Lower Ninth Ward—a Q&A in which Brian was visibly not taken in by Bush’s rosy account of things. (Transcript here.)

Brian-@-bayou1And in April 2010, after BP’s Deepwater Horizon well blew out and killed 11 workers, Williams reported live from Venice, Louisiana (around the “birdfoot”). On the fifth anniversary of Katrina (August 29, 2010), he anchored three straight nights of news reports from New Orleans and interviewed President Obama, Brad Pitt, and Harry Connick Jr. (Other national networks also commemorated the event with special reports, and Anderson Cooper too was a reliable, loyal friend to New Orleans and environs.)

NBC, through coverage by the late Tim Russert, Martin Savidge, environmental reporter Anne Thompson, and Rachel Maddow at sister network MSNBC, has consistently been the network most dedicated to keeping public attention on Louisiana’s environmental struggles. Brian Williams has been the most prominent and consistent of those nationally broadcast voices.

There are more reasons than these why NBC should hold steady and not even think about making Williams step down, but his loyalty to New Orleans and vicinity explains why we are willing to look the other way and remember that he is not the only prominent person of whom factual integrity is expected who has let the public down.

Damage Control, and Reputation Repair

To be sure, Brian Williams is very well compensated: The New York Times reports that his latest contract for serving as managing editor and chief anchor of NBC Nightly News reportedly brings him $10 million a year. That kind of money could help a lot of jobless, hungry families. (He’s not the only American with an extremely large salary.) Maybe he could create some goodwill by donating one of those millions to the Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America, and maybe another to Doctors without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières). Just a thought. (We, too, in our own modest way, contribute to those organizations.)

Brian, Illegitimi non carborundum

A member of our staff who minored in “cod Latin” reminds us of the well-worn phrase Illegitimi non carborundum—“Don’t let the bastards grind you down” (a motto often used by General “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell in World War II).

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Click here for a news media contact list.

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With an Apology, Brian Williams Digs Himself Deeper in Copter Tale,” New York Times (2/5/15)

After a Decade Building Trust, an Anchor Starts a Firestorm With One Wrong Move,” Alessandra Stanley, New York Times (2/5/15)

Brian Williams Admits He Wasn’t on Copter Shot Down in Iraq,” New York Times (2/4/15)

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Come to Rising Tide 9 in New Orleans on Sept. 13

Thursday, September 4th, 2014

RT9The Tide Rises Again | Everyone’s Invited

The ninth annual Rising Tide conference on the future of New Orleans will be held on Saturday, Sept. 13, at Xavier University in New Orleans. The keynote speaker will be educator and activist Dr. Andre Perry, formerly of New Orleans and now at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Rising Tide website

Rising Tide on Facebook

Click here to register today!

The conference opens at 9:00 a.m. at Xavier University, 1 Drexel Drive, in Mid-City (click here for map), and runs to about 5:00. Pre-registration is only $10 per person, and the public is welcome. Coffee and breakfast snacks are available, and lunch, catered by Lucky Rooster, is served ($10 extra for lunch, please).

Schedule of Panels and Keynote Speaker

9:00 | Registration, coffee warm-up, etc.

10:00 | Panel: Using Mobile Devices to Uncover Seemingly Lost Historical Memory of the Confederacy, Leprosy, and White Supremacy in New Orleans

New Orleans residents, both natives and more recent arrivals, enjoy participating in the city’s collective historical memory. Nevertheless, much of the past remains unexamined and often unknown. This is a panel presentation on digital iterations of South Louisiana’s historical memory. Three online and mobile tours will reveal stories about Louisiana’s past that have been misrepresented or ignored in historical memory. With Jessica DauteriveKevin McQueeney, and Michael Mizell-Nelson, University of New Orleans.

11:30 | Panel: Building Capacity in Marginalized Communities

Presented by the Young Leadership Council (YLC), this panel will focus on the cultural, economic, educational, and social challenges that New Orleans’ most vulnerable communities face, and how the YLC and other such organizations have mobilized vast volunteer-based networks to create, fund, and implement new programming in response to those needs.

Scott Sternberg, Moderator • Curry Smith, executive director, YLC • Kelley Bagayoko, legislative aide to state representative Helena Moreno • Alyssa Wenck-Rambeau, director of finance at New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center • Warren M. M. Surcouf, project manager for Fat City Friends, v.p. of development for the YLC board of directors

Lunch break

2:00 | Keynote Speaker: Dr. Andre Perry

Dr“Education is like water; put down your reform rake.” Rakes don’t organize water very well. Likewise, charter schools, vouchers and lotteries aren’t the proper tools to deal with the root problems of New Orleans education. New Orleans public schools must become a “unified school district” if the needs of children, families and communities are to be met. Getting, private and parochial school parents to believe we’re all in this together has been and will be the essential problem that needs solving.

Andre Perry, Ph.D., is the Founding Dean of Urban Education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He was associate director of the Loyola Institute for Quality and Equity in Education in New Orleans and served as the CEO of the Capital One–University of New Orleans Charter Network, composed of four charter schools in New Orleans.

Dr. Perry is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and a columnist for the Hechinger Report on education journalism. He has appeared on NBC, CNN, NPR, Al Jazeera America, and in The New Republic. In his book The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (University of New Orleans Press, 2011), Perry illustrates the tensions in post-Katrina education reform in New Orleans. He also contributed a chapter to Resilience and Opportunity: Lessons from the U.S. Gulf Coast after Katrina and Rita (Brookings Institution Press, 2011).

3:00 | Panel: Saga at Treme: The Story of How A Quest for Personal Resilience Exposed Incompetence and Waste in Government

City planner Amy Stelly: “Saga at Treme will be presented through PowerPoint and a discussion that focuses on tips and strategies for effectively engaging government through email communication. The session will also feature a discussion with the players who started the ball rolling. They worked to build community support at the grassroots level and have chosen to vocalize their displeasure as our engagement with the City of New Orleans continues to heat up.”

4:00 | Panel: Religion in Post-Katrina New Orleans

A conversation among representatives from diverse faith/spiritual communities over how such communities have been instrumental in the recovery of people’s spiritual health and emotional/psychological well-being since the flooding of New Orleans in 2005.

Charlotte Klasson, New Orleans Secular Humanist Association • Matt Rousso, Maryknoll Mission Education Office and St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish • Tahera “Ty” Siddiqui, New Orleans Lamplight Circle • Rev. William Thiele, The School for Contemplative Living • Rev. Tom Watson, Senior Pastor, Watson Memorial Teaching Ministries

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More about Rising Tide

Previous featured speakers have included Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, commander of Joint Task Force Katrina; David Simon (co-creator of HBO’s Treme and The Wire); the actor and activist Harry Shearer; N.O. geographer and historian Rich Campanella; Treme-born writer Lolis Eric Elie, director of the documentaryFaubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans; former Tulane professor of history Lawrence N. Powell, author of The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans; Mother Jones human rights and environmental reporter (Ms.) Mac McClelland; and authors John BarryDave Zirin, and Chris Cooper and Bobby Block.

Click here for a listing of previous Rising Tide programs, with links to videos and more.

Like Rising Tide on Facebook (don’t forget to share!), follow Rising Tide on Twitter (remember to retweet!), and check for programming updates on the Rising Tide Conference Blog or Rising Tide website. Visualize Rising Tide at the RT Flickr site.

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Remember August 29, 2005

Friday, August 29th, 2014

aug28katrinaIf you don’t live in or around New Orleans you may have forgotten, but August 29 is the day Hurricane Katrina assaulted the Gulf Coast with Category 3 winds (up to 175 mph) and storm surges of 25 to 28 feet, killing 1,833 and costing some $108 billion in damages, the costliest tropical storm in U.S. history. It was not until the following day that we began to realize that although the eye of the storm had curved eastward and the city was spared the worst—“we dodged a bullet”—the city was flooding! In addition to coastal St. Bernard, Plaquemines, and other parishes, 80 percent of New Orleans flooded when Katrina’s massive storm surge burst through the city’s outflow canals to Lake Pontchartrain, the Mississippi River–Gulf Outlet (MR-GO), the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal, etc.—53 different levee breaches in all. (The surge was about 10 to 20 feet around New Orleans, and nearly 28 feet at nearby Pass Christian, Miss., exceeding the previous record set by Camille in 1969 by some 4 feet.)

The most dramatic and infamous of the flooded areas was the already poor Lower Ninth Ward. An animated graphic produced by The Times-Picayune shows the sequence of events, still horrifying to watch. It was a catastrophic failure of the mostly federally built storm protection system, and in the years since the scorned and humiliated the Army Corps of Engineers has worked overtime to rebuild and reinforce the area’s defenses against flooding. (The Corps’ funding and directives come—or don’t come—from Congress; this blog does not hold the Corps alone responsible for the failures.) For more about the flooding, and recommendations on reinforcement of the area’s flood defense system, see our interviews with Mark Schleifstein and Ivor Van Heerden.

See The Times-Picayune’s dramatic then-and-now photo essay and editorial “Nine Years Post Katrina: A Recovery Still in Progress.”

New Orleans: Proud to Rebuild Home

Much of the city has been rebuilt, and in some ways life in New Orleans is better than ever (see Magazine Street, for example). Other parts of town are still damaged, depressed. There are neighborhoods that will never be the same. Many people had to leave and will never return—they left to avoid the storm and could not have imagined they would not be able to return, or would not want to—but those who remain are bravely, determinedly rebuilding, and there are also thousands and thousands of new residents, many of them young, talented, imaginative and energetic. There is a relatively new and improved mayor, Mitch Landrieu, and the New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl in 2010 the same weekend Landrieu was elected—a good warmup for Mardi Gras a week later. And then, lest anyone get too optimistic, a few months later, on Earth Day (April 22) 2010, BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil drilling platform exploded nearby in the Gulf of Mexico and became the most destructive marine oil spill in history, devastating the state’s coastline, seafood industry, wiping out livelihoods beyond measure. The lawsuits go on . . .

8-29Much has improved since the storm, and much remains the same, or worse. The United States remains embroiled in Middle East and Central Asian wars, some of our own making (or making worse). The nation continues to spend far more on its military than on its crumbling infrastructure, and the Pentagon receives hundreds of billions per year that could instead go to a national healthcare system that covers everyone, to an improved educational system in which teachers are compensated as though their work is valuable, and so on. Scroll through this blog’s posts (samples below) and you’ll see that the issues are plenty, and the work goes on. Congress remains dysfunctional or, worse, actively hostile amid widespread unemployment, persistent and seemingly deliberate shredding of the middle class and its safety net (rolling back the New Deal and the Great Society), and ever-increasing corporate profits and tax evasion, and diminishing taxation of the super-wealthy. The earth’s environment is under increasing stress from carbon emissions (again, one party in Congress stubbornly denies that global warming / climate change even exist, or that humanity is responsible), so the warming and rising seas threaten not only coastal Louisiana but the entire globe, as New York and New Jersey learned from Superstorm Sandy in October 2012.

Well, on the bright side, there is plenty of work to be done: we shall not lack for causes to advocate for, write about, and urge elected officials and community and business leaders to assist with. Readers’ ideas are always welcome. E-mail us at leveesnotwar@mac.com.

As we have said many times, National Security Begins at Home. And, as we wrote on our About Us page years ago:

If New Orleans is not safe, no place in this country is safe. . . . Where will the federal government be when you’re down and out? Earthquakes, wildfires, tornadoes, collapsing bridges, hijacked planes . . . If the federal government neglects one city’s disaster, it can neglect them all. Without funding, without investment, things fall apart. The collapse of the physical infrastructure and the hospitals and schools and the justice system after the storm—what’s happening to New Orleans is happening to the entire country—except perhaps in luxury high-rises and gated communities. The Lower Ninth Ward is the national predicament carried to an extreme.

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In the next few days we’ll be posting about the upcoming annual Rising Tide conference to be held in New Orleans Saturday, Sept. 13. We’ll also be writing soon about a massive People’s Climate March in New York City on Sunday, Sept. 21. We’ll be at one but not the other—but both are important and we hope you can be there, too.

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Further Reading: Check Out These Important ‘Back Issues’

Levees Not War, a New York–based, New Orleans–dedicated blog, primarily covers the environment, infrastructure, and war and peace. Below are some selections that will appear in The Levees Not War Reader, forthcoming in 2015 from Mid-City Books. 

Hurricane Katrina / Environment

Is Katrina More Significant than September 11?  (9/11/10)

Understanding Louisiana’s Environmental Crisis

Louisiana Flood Protection Agency Sues Big Oil to Repair Wetlands  (7/25/13)

BP Celebrates Earth Day with Bonfire, Oil Spill: Well Leaks 210,000 Gallons a Day into Gulf of Mexico (4/26/10)

When Harry Met a Cover-Up: Harry Shearer Talks About The Big Uneasy  (10/14/10)

Interview with Mark Schleifstein, Pulitzer Prize-winning coauthor of Path of Destruction: The Devastation of New Orleans and the Coming Age of Superstorms

Interview with Ivor van Heerden, author of The Storm: What Went Wrong and Why During Hurricane Katrina

Interview with Christopher Cooper and Robert Block, authors of Disaster: Hurricane Katrina and the Failure of Homeland Security

IEA Sees “Irreversible Climate Change in Five Years”  (1/21/12)

Wrath of God? : Global Warming and Extreme Weather  (5/24/11)

Infrastructure

Framing the Case for Infrastructure Investment, Taxing the Rich (2/7/12)

Infrastructure, Baby, Infrastructure! A Defense of Stimulus Investments  (4/9/10)

Republicans Secretly (Seriously) Like the Stimulus  (8/20/11)

Public Works in a Time of Job-Killing Scrooges  (3/3/11)

Barack, You’re Totally Our Infrastructure Hero! Obama, in Wisconsin, Calls for $60 Billion National Infrastructure Investment Bank  (2/14/08)

War and Peace

A Reluctant, Tentative Endorsement of (More) U.S. Military Action in Iraq  (8/10/14)

Obama Sends Troops to Protect U.S. Embassy in Baghdad  (6/17/14)

Congress, Now Is the Time to Vote “Hell No”  (9/4/13)

Here We Go Again [Syria]  (6/14/13)

As “End” of Iraq War Is Announced, U.S. Digs In, Warns Iran  (10/30/11)

As Combat Troops Leave Iraq, Where’s Our National Security?  (8/19/10)

“Kill the Bill” vs. “Stop the War”: A Tale of Two Protests  (4/11/10)

Deeper into Afghanistan: 360 Degrees of Damnation  (12/10/09)

Tax Day: How Much Have You Paid for the War?  (4/15/10)

Politics and Social Issues

GOP Is Not to Be Trusted with Adult Responsibilities  (10/17/13)

Marching on Washington [1963] for Economic and Social Justice  (8/29/13)

In Honor of Medgar Evers and Res Publica  (6/12/13)

Occupying Wall Street with Nurses, Teachers, Transit Workers, and the Rest of America’s Middle Class  (10/6/11)

“Arguing about How to Defuse a Huge Ticking Bomb”: Burn-it-Down Nihilism Spreads Among Tea-Infused House Republicans  (7/20/11)

Tyranny Disguised as Fiscal Discipline  (3/13/11)

Anti-Islamic Furor Helps al Qaeda, Endangers America  (8/23/10)

Nagasaki, Not Forgotten [65th anniversary]  (8/9/10)

Are “Conservatives” Conservative? Are They Even American? (10/6/09)

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“8-29-2005 Remember” design courtesy of Mark Folse.

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Louisiana Anthology Interviews Levees Not War

Monday, July 7th, 2014

Louisiana AnthologyUsually when Levees Not War is involved in an interview, we do the interrogating. But now, we’re happy to report, the tables have been turned: Levees Not War is the subject of an in-depth interview with the editors of the Louisiana Anthology, Bruce R. Magee and Stephen Payne, professors at Louisiana Tech in Ruston. The Levees Not War Q&A is the second of a two-part interview with blogger and author Mark LaFlaur, focusing on Elysian Fields, a novel of New Orleans, that was posted on June 28 and July 5. Click here for the iTunes podcasts.

Bruce and Stephen have kindly posted two pieces from Levees Not War on the Louisiana Anthology website, “Is Katrina More Significant Than September 11?” and “Disaster Capitalism Will Solve U.S. Budget Deficit? Ask New Orleans and Wisconsin” (original links here and here).

At about 39:30 minutes in, the interview includes a 5-minute shout-out to the Rising Tide conference on the future of New Orleans held annually in mid-September at Xavier University (Sept. 13, 2014)—affordably priced and always interesting—with mentions of prominent keynote speakers such as Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, Harry Shearer, John Barry, and David Simon. Click here for more information about Rising Tide 2014.

The interview was conducted by phone in late April. Since the Q&A with Bruce and Stephen, Elysian Fields’s presence in bookstores, especially in the South, has expanded significantly. The book is now available at the stores listed below: support your local independent bookstores. We hope you’ll spread the word among your book-readin’ friends, and we welcome your suggestions of indie booksellers near you who you think might want to carry Elysian Fields.

EF_Kirkus

Bookstores Carrying Elysian Fields

[ see complete, up-to-date list here ]

New Orleans: Crescent City Books, Garden District Book ShopMaple Street Book ShopForever New Orleans, and Toulouse Royale

Baton Rouge: Cottonwood Books, Barnes & Noble at LSU

New York City: Three Lives & Co., McNally-Jackson Books

Atlanta: Eagle Eye Book Shop (Decatur)

Birmingham: The Little Professor Book Center in Homewood

Mobile: Bienville Books

Jackson, Miss.: Lemuria Bookstore

Oxford, Miss.Square Books

Bay St. Louis, Miss.: Bay Books

Memphis: The Booksellers at Laurelwood

Nashville: Parnassus Books

thanxamazonChapel Hill, N.C.: Bull’s Head Bookshop (UNC)

Durham, N.C.: The Regulator Bookshop

Austin: BookPeople

Houston: Blue Willow Bookshop

Little Rock, Ark.: WordsWorth Books & Co.

Berkeley, Calif.: University Press Books

San Francisco: City Lights Books

Portland, Ore.: Powell’s City of Books

Seattle: Elliott Bay Book Company

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Rising Tide Update: “Category 5 General” Russel Honoré Is Keynote Speaker

Sunday, September 8th, 2013

Atlanta Falcons v New Orleans SaintsThree-star general hailed as “John Wayne dude” by former N.O. mayor Ray Nagin

The  annual Rising Tide conference has been ramped up to a whole new level: the keynote speaker will be Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honoré, the no-nonsense “Category 5 General” who took command of Joint Task Force Katrina that coordinated military relief efforts following the August 29, 2005, hurricane and resulting “federal flood” of the city of New Orleans.

The 8th annual Rising Tide conference will be Saturday, Sept. 14, at Xavier University in New Orleans. Please see below for details about panels and other conference attractions. Registration (only $20) is still open; all are welcome. Click here for a map to Xavier University.

Honoré, a Louisiana native (born in Lakeland in Pointe Coupee Parish) and graduate of Southern University, was designated commander of Joint Task Force Katrina by President George W. Bush two days after the storm. Amid official incompetence from local to federal levels, Honoré exhibited decisiveness and a gruff management style, but also restraint and a local’s understanding of the people he had been sent to assist. He knew that the task force was on a relief mission, and barked at one soldier who had flashed his weapon at a New Orleanian in a threatening way, “We’re on a rescue mission, damn it!”

“Now, I will tell you this—and I give the president some credit on this—he sent one John Wayne dude down here that can get some stuff done, and his name is Gen. Honoré. And he came off the doggone chopper, and he started cussing and people started moving. And he’s getting some stuff done.” —former New Orleans mayor C. Ray Nagin

Rising Tide is delighted to welcome Lt. Gen. Honoré. Copies of his new book, Leadership in the New Normal, will be available for sale.

An Aug. 29 interview with Lt. Gen. Honoré by WWNO ’s Jim Engster on the eighth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, including remarks about the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, can be heard here. See also the expansive Washington Post profile, “The Category 5 General” (Sept. 12, 2005), CNN.com’s profile., and Lt. Gen. Honoré’s impressive curriculum vitae. • Historical note: In his interview with Jim Engster, Honoré mentions in passing that at the time he went to Rosenwald High School in New Roads, La. (class of ’66), the school was segregated: all-black. (As Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead; it’s not even past.”)

[ Because of health issues in her ongoing recovery from a gunshot wound in the Mother’s Day parade shootings in the Seventh Ward on May 12, 2013, the previously scheduled speaker, Deborah Cotton of Gambit Weekly, will not be able to appear. We wish Ms. Cotton well—and the other victims of that shooting, too—with a full and speedy recovery. (Contributions to a fund to help Deborah Cotton with her medical bills can be sent here.) ]

Rising Tide panels

Click here for more schedule details.

•  Creating Community for Writers of Color: MelaNated Writers Collective

•  Beyond Tourism Beyond Recovery

•  Charter School Access & Accountability

Second Stage: Tech School

•  Working with Bloggers

•  Personal Branding: When You Are What You’re Selling

•  Using Visual Tools in Online Promotion

•  Content Marketing

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More about Rising Tide

Past featured speakers have included David Simon (co-creator of HBO’s Treme and The Wire); the actor and activist Harry Shearer; N.O. geographer and historian Rich Campanella; Treme-born writer Lolis Eric Elie, director of the documentary Faubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans; former Tulane professor of history Lawrence N. Powell, author of The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans; Mother Jones human rights and environmental reporter (Ms.) Mac McClelland; and authors John Barry, Dave Zirin, and Chris Cooper and Bobby Block.

Click here for a listing of previous Rising Tide programs, with links to videos and more.

Like Rising Tide on Facebook (don’t forget to share!), follow Rising Tide on Twitter (remember to retweet!), and check for programming updates on the Rising Tide Conference Blog or Rising Tide website. Visualize Rising Tide at the RT Flickr site.

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For more information, please see our earlier post, “Rising Tide 8 is Sept. 14 in New Orleans: Register Now!

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Happy 295th Birthday, New Orleans!

Wednesday, May 8th, 2013

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Bonne fête à La Nouvelle-Orléans! Un joyeux anniversaire!

Now entering its 296th year, the city of New Orleans was founded by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, on May 7, 1718.

The map above shows the city as it appeared about 1721, when the settlement of La Nouvelle-Orléans, on the high ground along the edge of a bend in the Mississippi River, was laid out as 14 blocks, with a drainage ditch around each block.

The first map below depicts the city and environs as it appeared in 1798, five years before the Louisiana Purchase (click here to enlarge). The second map below shows the city in 1763, the year France ceded the settlement to Spain (only to take it back in 1801, and then turn around and sell it to the United States in 1803). The “city,” of course, was then what is today known as the French Quarter. Click here for a timeline of the city’s history.

Better yet, read Richard Campanella’s excellent Bienville’s Dilemma: A Historical Geography of New Orleans (2008). See also Lawrence N. Powell’s The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans (2012) and Craig E. Colten’s An Unnatural Metropolis: Wresting New Orleans from Nature (2006). Many more sources about New Orleans are listed on our Literature page.

Here’s to 295 more years—though we worry about how much of the city will remain above water in the year 2308.

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Tom Piazza on Writing for HBO’s “Treme”

Tuesday, December 20th, 2011

“New Orleans has a mythology, a personality, a soul, that is large, and that has touched people around the world. It has its own music (many of its own musics), its own cuisine, its own way of talking, its own architecture, its own smell, its own look and feel. . . .

“It may be hard for people who have never been to the Crescent City to understand the passionate love people have for it, to understand why it’s worth fighting for—why it matters. . . . New Orleans is not just a list of attractions or restaurants or ceremonies, no matter how sublime and subtle. New Orleans is the interaction among all those things, and countless more. It gains its character from the spirit that is summoned . . . in the midst of all these elements, and that comes, ultimately, from the people who live there. . . . That spirit . . . is what is in jeopardy right now.” 

from the Introduction to Why New Orleans Matters

 

A few nights ago we went to the Center for Fiction in Manhattan to hear our friend Tom Piazza talk about writing for HBO’s popular show Treme, which most readers of this blog know is set in post-Katrina New Orleans. Piazza is an accomplished and versatile writer of short stories, novels, and books about jazz, blues, and New Orleans—ten books altogether. He has won a Grammy and other awards, and his writing has been praised by Bob Dylan, but until co-creator and executive producer David Simon phoned him in 2009, he had not written a screenplay.

The following is an account of the evening, with some paraphrasing and some direct quoting of Piazza’s remarks, and a bit of background explanation about the show, which we highly recommend. Tom Piazza did not say this, exactly, but one of the qualities of Treme that we have found most appealing, besides its vivid realism and honest evocation of America’s most unique, world-unto-itself city, is that about half of the show’s main characters are African American (Antoine Batiste, LaDonna, Albert “Big Chief” Lambreaux), and each is an individual, not a (stereo)type. This is almost unheard of in American television. In fact, all of the characters, of whatever complexion, are treated with respect and psychological subtlety. Music, too, in many varieties, is accorded a place of honor. In many scenes, music is not there merely for atmosphere—it’s part of the action, like the other characters.

A Show Set at the Heart of New Orleans Music

A brief clip of a Season One episode that Tom had written was shown to give the audience a taste of the show, then the Center’s executive director Noreen Tomassi (shown with Tom in photo below) asked him a series of questions about similarities and differences between writing fiction and screenwriting, how the writing work on the show is organized, and so on.

(For those unfamiliar with New Orleans neighborhoods, the Treme, or Faubourg Treme [pronounced “truh-MAY”] is a historically African American “back of town” section of the city behind the French Quarter, across Rampart Street. It is named after a French planter, Claude Tremé, who married a free woman of color. The oldest African American neighborhood in the United States and home to a large population of free blacks since 1812 [thus 2012 will be its bicentennial], Treme includes the site of the legendary Congo Square—now covered by Louis Armstrong Park—where slaves were allowed to gather on Sundays to play drums and sing and dance. Treme has been the birthplace of countless jazz and other musical talents, including Alex Chilton, Louis Prima, and Shannon Powell, as well as Kermit Ruffins and the Rebirth Brass Band, who often appear in the show. What New Orleans is to America’s music, Treme is to New Orleans.)

Of the six writers for Treme, two are residents of New Orleans: Piazza and Lolis Eric Elie, a former columnist for the Times-Picayune who grew up in the Treme. Elie, too, though an accomplished journalist and maker (with Dawn Logsdon) of the documentary film Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans, had also never written television screenplays. The other writers are the show’s creators, David Simon and Eric Overmyer (who worked together on HBO’s hit show The Wire), the late David Mills, and George Pelecanos, all veteran screenwriters.

Piazza explained that screenwriting is a combination of collaborative and solo work, some done with the others in the writers’ room and some alone. The six gathered at a room HBO had booked at the Monteleone Hotel. Certain plot and character aims were established early on—for example, by the end of the first season we’ll want this character to have moved physically or psychologically from here to here. After group discussions, sketching out rough outlines, the writers each went off to do solo work, which would then be brought back to the group to be worked over, cut, altered, elaborated, and so on. For one thing, writing for TV definitely requires working well with others, being able to compromise, bite your tongue, and bide your time.

In Treme, he explained, you have eight or ten principal characters who have “point of view”—that is, characters you can be alone with, whom the camera follows through a scene. The trick in making an episode is to “shuffle the deck” of the scenes in such as way that the pace never flags, the tension on the line never goes slack. But if you shift too much or too rapidly, the viewer may become disoriented or the narrative may get scrambled.

At the Crossroads of Fiction and TV

One way in which screenwriting is like fiction is that you’re writing against the tension of not knowing whether the material you’re writing is actually going to be used. You may work long and hard on scenes that you end up deciding not to use after all—fiction writers know about this—and the same thing can happen in the writers’ room.

As for screenwriting’s influence on his fiction, he said, at first he was wary of the schematic element creeping into his work, the necessary focus on plot (more than character and psychology). And yet there were ways in which the differences in the genres have sharpened some of his fictional instincts.

“One thing I’ve thought a lot about since starting with screenwriting for Treme is that in fiction there is always the question of what you dramatize and what you want to explain by way of exposition. In other words, do you show something happening, or do you tell about it as having happened at more of a distance? In film, where everything is dramatized, there is no equivalent to exposition except for the voice-over (such as something like having a narrator say, ‘It was a bleak winter of homes and entire neighborhoods nearly leveled, and determined residents struggling to get by and start over . . .’). This experience of writing for the screen where virtually everything is dramatized sharpened the questions I asked about what to dramatize when I turned back to fiction.”

Piazza said there were some tough questions facing the creators and writers and actors when preparing for the first season, such as, How do you come back after an extreme catastrophe like this? How do you try to get back to the kind of life your city had before? The writers and actors focused on the life of New Orleans as depicted in Why New Orleans Matters, copies of which were distributed to the members of the cast and crew by the production office before filming began. That book, which Tom wrote in five intensive weeks shortly after the storm (publ. Nov. 2005), shows the city’s life and culture as based around food, music, dancing, festivals—all of which are intertwined. While Season One was very much rooted in Why New Orleans Matters, Season Two was more about the nuts and bolts of survival, rebuilding your home and your city, struggling to get back to normal, dealing with the insane bureaucracy and other obstacles.

Doubts Allayed by High-Fidelity Realism

One audience member asked what impact the series has had on the people of New Orleans.

“Dozens of bars and restaurants with HBO host Treme-watching parties on Sunday nights. Even the Charbonnet Funeral Home has HBO. It’s a fantastic thrill to go to a bar or restaurant and all these people watching these lines you wrote are talking back to the character and responding to things they do. And there are all these blogs that have sprung up to discuss the show, such as Back of Town and Watching Treme that have this ongoing midrash of discussion about episodes and characters and verisimilitude, significance, etc.

Before the show started there was a certain amount of caution and skepticism, with people wondering how are outsiders going to tell this story? How do they know what we’ve been through? It was similar to the questions in early 2006 about whether there was going to be a Mardi Gras so soon after the storm. There was some hesitancy about whether it was appropriate, but enough people said, Of course we’ll have Carnival: there’s no way we’re not going to have Mardi Gras.”

When asked which characters he most enjoys writing for, Piazza replied that “you have to love writing about all the characters—and this is true of fiction too—but I especially have fun writing for the character Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn), who comes from this Uptown Garden District family, but he’s bohemian, a would-be musician who hangs out with all these musicians and artists. He switches modes of diction very flexibly, depending on the setting he’s in. Also, it’s wonderful writing for actors as good as the ones in the Treme cast, because whatever you write, you know they’re going to get it and be able to play it.”

As for what might be expected in the third season, Piazza was teasingly discreet, and too professional to spoil any surprises. He did venture a supposition, however, that a viewer could reasonably be surprised if the season did not deal in some way with such major events in the city’s recent history as the aftermath of the Danziger bridge shootings or “the savage, cynical, deliberate destruction” of public housing complexes that has made it difficult-to-impossible for lower-income residents of New Orleans to rebuild their deep-rooted lives in New Orleans.

Piazza was asked about the future, about how many years out the character developments can be envisioned. David Simon has said publicly that he sees Treme as a four-season show, though HBO has paid Simon “the compliment” of saying it’s as if in this complex, multilayered series Simon is writing a novel, and we want him to be able to bring that novel to completion.

That comparison strikes us as accurate, and although many works of fiction have been adapted for the screen (especially by HBO lately), Treme is one of the few television dramas we know of that can stand comparison with a serious novel for richness and subtlety. For those who might have missed David Simon’s remarks at Rising Tide 6 last August on the making of Treme and the show’s relationship to the city it represents, see our live-blogging here and a video of the keynote speaker here. See also

Until Season Three airs next spring, and even long after the show has resumed, we highly recommend Tom Piazza’s Why New Orleans Matters, along with his novel City of Refuge (2008) and his latest book, Devil Sent the Rain: Music and Writing in Desperate America, a collection of articles and essays about musicians, writers, and New Orleans. He has written ten books altogether and is at work on a new novel, so he’ll keep you busy—and will repay the attention you give his writing—for a long time to come.

For More about the Treme and New Orleans . . .

Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans, a documentary film by Lolis Eric Elie and Dawn Logsdon

After the Flood: The Creator of ‘The Wire’ in New Orleans” (New Yorker review of Treme by Nancy Franklin)

New Orleans African American Museum: Tremé 200: Bicentennial 1812–2012

When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts | Spike Lee’s acclaimed 4-hour documentary (HBO, 2006)

If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise | Spike Lee’s follow-up to When the Levees Broke (HBO, 2010)

Trouble the Water | Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary Feature, 2008. Includes 15 min. of video footage just before and during Hurricane Katrina by Lower 9th Ward residents Kimberly Rivers Roberts and her husband Scott. Winner of 2008 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize.

Michael E. Crutcher Jr., Treme: Race and Place in a New Orleans Neighborhood (2010)

Ned Sublette, The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square (2008)

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“If there is a single factor most responsible for the extraordinary distance New Orleans has traveled in the years since its near-death experience, it is the city’s culture. Not only the city’s music, dance, funeral traditions, cuisine, and architecture—its look and its smell and its feel and its sense of humor—but the interaction among all those factors, their coordination, is what makes the city live, what makes it alive, in its unique way. . . .

“As of this writing, the notion that the written word is doomed, or doomed to irrelevance at least, because of the power and immediacy and omnipresence of electronic media, is so widespread that it has become almost axiomatic. But it is not true. . . . In the private space shared by the writer and the reader, one individual soul encounters nother and a spell is cast, created by both of them. . . .”

—from the Introduction to Devil Sent the Rain

 

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Credits: Top photo of TP (at P.J.’s on Maple Street?) by Sean Gardner, from Williams College alumni magazine; Congo Square illustration (dancing the Bamboula, ca. late 1700s, drawn by E. W. Kemble ca. 1880s) from Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University; The Center for Fiction’s executive director Noreen Tomassi and TP from The Center for Fiction; Treme Season Two poster from HBO.

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