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Culture War Roundup for the week of May 1, 2023

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While perusing the Quality Contributions Report, I came across this comment by @FiveHourMarathon. My brief reply turned into a lengthy reply, so I thought I'd put it here rather than in a month-old thread. I hope this isn't too obnoxious.

Here's what sparked my interest:

Engaging in Dissident Rightist's favorite game of Noticing, while decades of immigration and migration have slowly eroded the prominence of the old Francophone Creole elite and Cajun underclass, when you find corruption in Louisiana {and Mississippi} you'll find French names. There's a history of an insular local elite minority, that intermarries and excludes, dating back to Jefferson. Roman Catholicism, the French language, and devotion to preserving their culture. Combined with the legacy of slavery, which produced an unassimilated Black underclass, you had a legacy of a local insular Arcadian/Cajun white underclass which tried to preserve its local traditions, and a local insular Creole elite that tries to preserve its privileges.

Tourist pamphlets play up Louisiana’s French-ness. In reality, the Creole elite has not been in the driver’s seat since Reconstruction, and arguably since before the Civil War. Rather than surviving through clique-ish endogamy, they did it by intermarriage with whomever was profitable at the time. That allowed some of their names and cultural influences to survive to this day, but it also diluted their power. They were ultimately successfully colonized, absorbed, and assimilated by the Americans.

Additionally, Louisiana has multiple black underclasses. The one most people find salient is urban, and it did not arise from the legacy of slavery. Rather, the peculiar institution as it existed under the French and Spanish allowed for the establishment of a functional, educated class of free blacks. This class was eroded by the Americans after the Purchase, but some of its institutions survive to this day. The urban black underclass as we know it arose from the failure of integration in the 1960s. The political coalition that kneecapped integration was not a Creole elite and Cajun underclass, but a distinctly American elite and a working-to-middle class of white ethnics.

In French Louisiana, “Creole” was not one ethnic group or social class. There were multiple intertwined status hierarchies - white, black, owner, laborer, etc. The ones whose descendants identify as Cajun were typically rural, white working poor. Many were French-Canadians exiled from newly English territory after the Seven Years’ War. Not all were an underclass of exploitable labor. Some established independent communities, not beholden to the planter elite. They settled undesirable wetlands outside of New Orleans, where they were proudly self-sufficient as trappers, hunters, and fishermen. Others fell into share-cropping, which trapped generations in indebted poverty. But they never represented a plebeian class jostling in the city streets for their share.

These groups would have quickly died out, had they jealously guarded their French purity. For example, early Louisiana had surprisingly strong German influences. Côte des Allemands was so called for the German farmers who settled there in the 1720s and preserved New Orleans from starvation in its early years. Accordions - God help us - remain integral to Cajun music. Some classically Cajun names are not French, but Gallicized German. The singer Wayne Toups comes from a sprawling Gulf Coast clan, all of them descended from a Germanophone Swiss named Kaspar Dubs.

Creole New Orleans did resist the Spanish when their first governor arrived to take authority. They attempted a coup, which was put down by a rather remarkable Irishman. Alejandro O’Reilly then served as governor long enough to implement reforms, including easier manumission and the abolition of Indian slavery. When the Spanish brought in a couple thousand Canary Islanders to help settle the area, some of these Isleños were absorbed into local communities. Their descendants would eventually show up in the state’s formal power structure. The Creoles absorbed and adapted to the Spanish newcomers. The architecture admired in the French Quarter is almost entirely Spanish, rebuilt after a devastating fire. The stucco double galleries with wrought iron balconies and concealed courtyards look nothing like the original French construction. O’Reilly’s successor as governor, Bernardo de Gálvez, won the favor of the Creoles by immediately marrying into their ranks.

Under the French and then the Spanish, an intermediate social caste of Creole free people of color emerged in New Orleans and environs. The Code Noir and Código Negro were not kind, fluffy, or humane, and their prohibitions against mistreating slaves had no teeth. Haiti is a terrifying monument to Creole cruelty. Nevertheless, these codes were less restrictive than were the Black Codes of the English colonies, and somewhat more favorable to manumission. As late as 1830, 13% of blacks in Louisiana were free, compared to .8% in Anglo-settled Mississippi. Louisiana’s free blacks eventually included a substantial number of educated artisans and some property owners. Most were mixed-race, and some were sent by white fathers to be educated in the metropole. This class established its own Catholic churches and schools, such as St. Augustine or St. Peter Claver in the Treme neighborhood. Entire units of gens de couleur libres served in the French and Spanish colonial militias. I repeat: Creole Louisiana armed the free blacks at scale. The foundation was laid for a healthy, functioning black society with educated, experienced leaders. This foundation was strong enough that its influence persists into the 21st century. The descendants of these people were overrepresented among Civil Rights activists. Homer Plessy was a parishioner of St. Augustine, and A.P. Tureaud of St. Peter Claver. St. Aug High School and Xavier University still stand as examples of black excellence.

Then the Americans came.

When Governor Claiborne took office after the Purchase in 1803, he found a very awkward situation on his hands. By God, these people have a colored militia! His orders from the top were to quietly wind them down. Some blacks still served as late as 1812 and helped Jackson trounce the bloody British downriver at Chalmette. Some were enslaved men fighting for a promise of freedom which was never honored. All in all, American rule would prove a significant downgrade for blacks, both free and enslaved. The somewhat nuanced Creole race classification, obsessed as it had been with gradations like quadroon and octoroon, began to collapse into the Anglo "one drop rule" binary. Also, after the 1807 ban on the African slave trade, the domestic market significantly shifted, and it was in this era that being sold downriver to the Deep South became synonymous with hellish misery. A significant population of Anglophone slaves were brought into Louisiana. Restrictions on manumission, literacy, etc. tightened, often due to fears stoked by slave revolts elsewhere. These fears were not unfounded. The largest slave uprising in U.S. history took place on the German Coast in 1811.

Meanwhile, Americans were moving into Louisiana. They settled the north of the state, in places like Shreveport (shudder). To this day, that whole area is full of Protestants who suspect that Hurricane Katrina was God’s vengeance for New Orleans’ wickedness. It was these people who produced Louisiana’s most talented demagogue, Huey P. Long, and his impressively corrupt political machine. He was beloved by Cajuns for championing the rural parishes against the city folk, but he was not one of them. He was a Southern Baptist from up north in Winnfield. You want to see corruption? Try some little town north of I-10.

The Americans flooded into New Orleans as well. They first settled a neighborhood upriver of the French Quarter. It is now known as the Central Business District; this is not a coincidence. These energetic, mercantile, urbane Americans were culturally quite distinct from the existing Creole elite. The latter were typically country gentry who kept a house in town, like P. G. T. Beauregard. While many Americans became planters themselves, they were overrepresented in business and trade.

They also legally suppressed the French language across the state. Cajun and Creole children were paddled for speaking it in their public schools well into the twentieth century.

The Creoles had… mixed feelings about all this. In New Orleans, Canal Street became an uneasy border between the Anglo- and Francophones. As folk etymology would have it, the median of Canal Street was considered the neutral territory between them, and this is the reason all medians in New Orleans are still called "neutral grounds" to this day.


Awesome post, would love to hear more of these deep dives

I'm not convinced that Louisiana is in some wholly different league of sleazebaggery than New York. Apparently if you ask reporters who cover politics, New Jersey and Pennsylvania are wretched hives of scum and villainy. The Dakotas apparently have high corruption convictions per capita (didn't see that coming). Mississippi and Alabama are not admired for their civic virtue, and only their Gulf Coast was ever terribly Latin. These things are obviously difficult to measure, but I'd have to look into them more to believe firmly that there is a strong correlation between Anglo colonization and current perceived corruption. Even thinking of global comparisons - are India and Jamaica significantly less corrupt than the median former Spanish colony? Are Egypt and Sudan?

But your overall point is fair, and I don't mean to imply that Louisiana was a haven of prosocial, civic-minded Creoles who fell from grace in 1803 when they were invaded by a horde of ravenous, scheming Anglos. I've said myself that New Orleans is, in some ways and especially in its civic culture, better understood as a northerly outpost of the Caribbean or Latin America. In its pre-American period, it was ruled (like most of the pre-industrial world) through a web of personal relationships, favors, marriages, and patronage networks. You can find Creole corruption in our recent history, too. The 1991 gubernatorial race was between Edwin Edwards and David Duke. Edwards, despite his English name, was by heritage a Creole from Avoyelles who got his start practicing law in Acadia Parish. He was fantastically successful as one of the last of the New Deal Democrats, and he had already served three terms as governor. He had also already stood trial on charges of mail fraud, obstruction of justice, and bribery.

David Duke, on the other hand, was a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. "Vote for the crook," said the pro-Edwards bumper stickers. "It's important."

Most of my point is that, while the Anglos did not invent the game, they were gleefully enthusiastic players from the moment they stepped off the paddleboat. They've won the last fifteen rounds, and they keep resetting the board just so.

Louisiana indisputably was materially and culturally conquered by New Yorkers and Virginians and Texans. While it was too much to expect them to remake New Orleans into e.g. an orderly little German city where cops come by to ticket you for running your leaf blower outside of prescribed hours, the corruption in Louisiana isn't a special Creole kind. It's the normal American kind that you find in Chicago or Atlanta or Birmingham.

This is my favorite Mottepost all year. Can you recommend any good books on this history of NOLA and the Cajun triangle? I've got ties to the area and have always been enamored of its unique culture and history.

Thank you!

A great place to start is Bienville’s Dilemma. It’s not history, strictly speaking. It’s physical geography. But it speaks to the unique benefits and challenges of establishing a modern port city on an alluvial floodplain, squeezed between a river and a massive puddle lake. It explains the reasons for the city’s growth in certain directions and its overall demographic patterns. It gives you a real feel for the bones of the place. If you’re into that sort of thing, the colorful maps are sexy as hell. Anything by Campanella will be a pleasant and worthwhile read, really.

This is fantastic! I lived in NOLA for 7 years (see my nick/handle), and most of this history is new to me. The names some facts are familiar but not the conceptual fabric tying everything together.

Thank you! Hope you make it back down to visit.

I love this shit, because Louisiana history rarely looks like I pictured. Jackson looks great up there on his horse in the square, the bastard. But my mental image of the Battle of New Orleans didn't include these guys on the field with him. I'd heard plenty about Lee and Stonewall and Longstreet, but nobody really talks about "Napoleon in gray." His statue at the gates of City Park was taken down a few years ago, which was when I discovered just how involved he'd been in the Confederacy's pivotal moments. He was all up in that business! Designed the damn battle flag! And then this slaveowner Confederate general cautiously supported black civil rights after the war? And also, as a militia commander, protected black strikebreakers and helped put down white sugar workers? Jesus, what a contradictory personality. Not a man I could have imagined or invented. And what a contradictory place! Not one anyone could imagine or invent.

They also legally suppressed the French language across the state. Cajun and Creole children were paddled for speaking it in their public schools well into the twentieth century.

This is technically true, but the dominant factor in Cajuns abandoning the French language was that their bosses were Texans who preferred English speaking workers, and Cajuns who had mostly been paddled for speaking French in school and then continued speaking it anyways stopped teaching their children French because they wanted them to make more money as adults rather than be stuck in the rice fields subsistence farming. The paddling mostly suppressed the Cajun language in a few holdouts.

The narrative that state pressure, rather than economic factors, was the main reason for the decline of the French language is mostly driven by Cajun academics trying to cast themselves as oppressed by a white anglo hegemony alongside blacks- my grandfather told me "my parents spoke French, but they never wanted to teach me". For the same reason you tend to see occasional books talking about how Cajuns were more likely to intermarry with blacks or whatever- being oppressed is fashionable, and LSU academics who got French department sinecures through nepotism and themselves speak standard, not Cajun French want in on the grift.

Actual working class(the vast majority) Cajuns are more likely to point to anti-Catholic or class biases as reasons for their poverty, and are often not shy about criticizing lazy or dysfunctional friends and relatives, with the implication that those prejudices are much reduced and so there's not a lot of excuse for not succeeding.

Thank you so much for the additional context! I freely admit I'm more familiar with the city folk than the Cajuns.

stopped teaching their children French because they wanted them to make more money as adults rather than be stuck in the rice fields subsistence farming.

I don't follow. Why would that make them stop teaching them French instead of starting to teach them English?

TR giving a speech on the topic:

I stand for straight Americanism unconditioned and unqualified, and I stand against every form of hyphenated Americanism. I do not speak of the hyphen when it is employed as a mere convenience, although personally, I like to avoid its use even in such manner. I speak and condemn its use whenever it represents an effort to form political parties along racial lines or to bring pressure to bear on parties and politicians, not for American purposes, but in the interest of some group of voters of a certain national origin, or of the country from which they or their fathers came.

Americanism is not a matter of creed, birthplace or national descent, but of the soul and of the spirit. If the American has the right stuff in him, I care not a snap of my fingers whether he is Jew or Gentile, Catholic or Protestant. I care not a snap of my fingers whether his ancestors came over in the Mayflower, or whether he was born, or his parents were born, in Germany, Ireland, France, England, Scandinavia, Russia or Italy or any other country. All I ask of the immigrant is that he shall be physically and intellectually fit, of sound character, and eager in good faith to become an American citizen. If the immigrant is of the right kind I am for him, and if the native American* is of the wrong kind I am against him….

…Now for our own citizens. We represent many different race strains. Our ancestors came from many different Old World nationalities. It will spell ruin to this nation if these nationalities remain separated from one another instead of being assimilated to the new and larger American life.

The children and our children’s children of all of us have to live here in this land together. Our children’s children will intermarry, one another, your children’s children, friends, and mine. Even if they wished, they could not remain citizens of foreign countries….The effort to keep our citizenship divided against itself by the use of the hyphen and along the lines of national origin is certain to breed a spirit of bitterness and prejudice and dislike between great bodies of our citizens.

Long before Anti-immigration nativist sentiment was based primarily on conversations about the white race, it was based on questions of Christian denomination, on language, on a fear of factionalism within the country. Nativist Americans were hesitant to trust any immigrant who maintained cultural, linguistic, or ethnic distinctiveness.

Once everyone speaks English, what benefit is there to also speaking French? My maternal grandparents spoke cajun French at home growing up. Would my mother have gotten any significant utility out of being raised bilingual?

The answer is, “It would be cool, and there are maybe some moderate cognitive benefits. We think. Mostly it would be cool.”

The idea that you’d be able to travel and speak French to other Francophones is nonsense. The only fluent Cajun French speaker of my acquaintance once tried talking to Parisians and got laughed out of the shop.

New Orleans has more than one French immersion (charter, I believe) school now. Two proud Lycee parents once told me a hilarious story about the time a waiter in Paris mistook their daughter for a native and assumed these two Americans had come here to adopt her. I’m sure they tipped him well.

Bilingualism became a class marker shortly after the peasants stopped doing it.

Coolness only carries so far; You need an active initiative and local culture to really support it. (Which is why cajun-french lasted as long as it did, really.)

A friend of mine can understand both Cajun-french and German(due to his older relatives), but that doesn't mean he can speak it.

Well, beyond the swear words.

Contrasting that, while my grandfather could understand the language of the home country, he couldn't speak it - because his father and mother made a point not to have him speak it, and there was little benefit to knowing a second language when you were supposed to be American.

Still, recent changes in outlook has resulted in a rush to preserve the language, and Louisiana is one of the few places that has local governments having in-place bilingual laws and whatnot. But given how the older generation is slowly dying out... well. We'll see what happens.

(Though is is fun to see French tourists touring around the Acadian parishes.)

Learning Cajun French as an adult is moderately trendy, and there’s a decent enough live music scene and social activities in Cajun that it makes sense as a hobby in southwest Louisiana/southeast Texas. I’m given to understand that enough of the couples who meet this way (are trying to)raise their children bilingual that there’s probably a future of native speakers, even if the current native speakers make the ELCA look demographically healthy.

The misunderstandings between Cajun speakers and standard French speakers are hilarious, though.

The answer is, “It would be cool, and there are maybe some moderate cognitive benefits. We think. Mostly it would be cool.”

The cognitive benefits of knowing 2 languages is probably in the bottom 5% of reasons given to learn a language.

I wonder if the benefits are greater if you learn languages far removed from each other, like simultaneously trying to learn Welsh, Magyar and Navajo.

Hey, it's one of the reasons I'm doing it. (Of course, I'm getting old enough that cognitive benefits start becoming important again...)

Yup, hence my overall skepticism and focus on the class signaling.

Because natal bilingualism was not understood to be completely possible in the 1940's.

I don't believe that. There were bilingual regions in the world way before that.

As a former ESL teacher, I can tell you that well into the 1980s and 1990s, it was common for schools to discourage ESL students from speaking their native language at home, and for immigrant parents to basically not teach their kids to speak it, because it was widely believed that this would inhibit becoming fluent in English.

Now we know that this is the opposite of true, but bilingual education really wasn't well understood, even in places where you could see kids growing up bilingual.

I think I heard this theory in the past, but I heard it exclusively from Americans. That fact makes the "we totally weren't trying to stamp out your culture, guys" theory look a bit suspicious, rather than argue in it's favor.

It was also the norm across a lot of Europe for a long time. My hometown in Europe switched from a local dialect of a minority language to the national language in about one generation, for this reason.

This really was the received wisdom of the time. My grandmother was not taught Spanish because one was not to “confuse children’s minds” with more than one language. Nonny still cursed in Spanish when she was losing at bridge, I’m told.

That doesn't mean Cajuns in the 40s knew that. I had an immigrant teacher from Latin America in HS who told me how his parents spoke only English at home to Americanize the children better, so that by the time he was an adult he couldn't speak Spanish.

If you are a peasant under Jim Crow in the rural southern US, you are unlikely to know about them. And to be clear, it was the mainstream narrative in the USA that simultaneous bilingualism was undesirable and barely possible.

And to be clear, it was the mainstream narrative in the USA that simultaneous bilingualism was undesirable and barely possible.

Yes, it's almost as if someone decided to stamp out all competing cultures on the territory, make it look voluntary, but wasn't shy about using the paddle if someone was being stubborn.

Well yeah, obviously there was top down assimilative pressure and obviously there were kids beaten for speaking French. But these weren’t Native American residential schools here- the English only assimilationism failed when it was all stick. Yes, a lot of the carrot was on the basis of false narratives being fed by educated people to subsistence farmers. But it’s important to note that this wasn’t a pack of lies being fed to the backwards peasants to get them to cooperate in their own cultural dissolution or whatever narrative some academics are pushing- aside from French, Cajun culture is doing fine, and the Cajuns themselves wanted their kids to speak English with a normal American accent rather than as a second language while the educated people they turned to for help happened to hold false beliefs about how to do that, but those false beliefs were the expert consensus of their day and applied literally everywhere.

Experts hold false beliefs for non-malicious reasons all the time, eg face masks stop Covid.

To be clear, my point in bringing it up was not so much that Cajuns were an Oppressed Minority (TM), as to show that the incoming Americans 1) intended to remake the place in their image and 2) had the power to do so. As you pointed out, their real power lay in having the capital to do so.

But the standard parenting advice, received even by middle- and upper middle class families of the time, was to teach your children English, and English alone. It was mistaken, but it was not malicious. This was what the wealthy and educated did as well as the peasants. This was the advice followed even by, for example, the daughter of a Castilian banana plantation owner born in Honduras. She was educated in New Orleans, she married an Anglo-American, and she spoke only English to her children. That was how it was done in those days.

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but those false beliefs were the expert consensus of their day and applied literally everywhere.

I honestly doubt that. The idea that bilingualism is somehow bad could be seen in the wild until pretty recently, but in my experience was limited to the Anglos, and might even have been mostly an American thing. Maintaining it requires a huge amount of anti-curiosity, and blindness to other parts of the world.

Experts hold false beliefs for non-malicious reasons all the time, eg face masks stop Covid.

Sure, once an idea gets rolled out from the top, it tends to get repeated in good faith by the lower strata of society. It seems that this is how Anglos have always done it.

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Some of your links are broken, the proper syntax is [text](URL).

Edit: Actually, the problem seems to be that some of them are using ”fancy” quotation marks instead of "normal" straight quotation marks.

Oh, no! Thank you for the heads up.


But ultimately, there was too much money to be made by consorting with the Americans. Creole real estate investor Laurent Millaudon worked alongside New Yorker John Slidell to develop the Carrollton area. Slidell married a Creole named Mathilde Deslondes. The Creoles simply could not afford insularity. Slowly, they began to be absorbed and eclipsed by the Americans. Look at a list of mayors of New Orleans. The Anglo names begin in 1844.

In this antebellum period, European immigrants poured in. The 1840s saw such a massive influx of desperately poor Irish that the city treated them as utterly disposable in building exciting new drainage canals. It was during this time that the Yat accent first emerged in the rows upon rows of “shotgun” houses built for dockworkers and other urban working class. People often remark on how similar the Yat accent sounds to a Brooklyn accent. This is because it was brewed from the same blend of Irish, Italians, Germans, the odd Croat sailmaker, etc.

Antebellum New Orleans began to sprawl up and downriver, swallowing and subdividing and developing one plantation after another. The neighborhoods upriver of the CBD, all the way to where the river bends in Carrollton, are now called Uptown New Orleans. They encompass the Garden District, the mansions of St. Charles Ave, the rolling golf greens of Audubon Park, and the graceful campuses of Tulane and Loyola Universities. This is where the old money still lives. This is where Saints’ players’ children can attend the city’s most expensive K-12, founded by a Jewish philanthropist. To serve this new American New Orleans, Anglican and Presbyterian churches sprang up. So did fraternal organizations and social clubs, including Rex and Comus, the two most prestigious Mardi Gras krewes. These were the faux royal courts attended by a Romanov in 1872 and some Windsors in 1950. All the while, there was considerable intermarriage with the Creoles. If you are favored with an invitation to Rex or Comus’ bal masque on Mardi Gras night 2024, you can read the debutantes’ names in the program yourself. They will be Anglo, French, Anglo, Spanish, Anglo, French - huh, look, an Irish one - Anglo…

On the eve of the Civil War, this was Louisiana’s elite. Not an insular clique of French Creole aristocrats, but a mix of bustling, striving Anglos intermarrying with the French and Spanish stock.

The Yankees captured New Orleans only a year into the war. From that time until the late 1870s, the city (and then most of the state) was ruled by an occupying force or by the Reconstruction government. It was an Anglicized, Americanized elite that “redeemed” the state from the carpetbaggers and scalawags. White Creoles supported and perpetuated white supremacy, of course. But much of the leadership were the sons of New York real estate developers or Maryland lawyers. This was the composition of the White League, the Knights of the White Camellia, and the Klan. The architects of Jim Crow in Louisiana were men with names like John McEnery and Robert Mills Lusher. The movers and shakers, for whom streets are named, included Virginians-by-way-of-Texas like Robert Henry Downman. While the Creoles’ influence lingers still, they never again exercised political or cultural dominance.

Louisiana has long had desperately poor and marginalized black working classes, both urban and rural, which often bled into unsavory and criminal elements. But the black underclass as we know it? That grew out of urban poverty after the 1960s failure of integration. The white leadership who tanked the project of integration were the grandsons of the White League, and the housewives who screamed at Ruby Bridges were mostly Yats or Yat-adjacent. The Creoles were long-conquered, and the Cajuns were damn far away in a swamp or cane field or refinery. When the Yats lost their segregated schools, they fled the city in droves. Their accent is now associated with the suburbs, especially “da Parish” of St. Bernard. New Orleans fell into the downward spiral experienced by so many American cities around the same time.

As for corruption, graft, and slime? Don’t bank on a French name attached. You’ll see all kinds, from Irishmen from Kentucky to Austrian Jews to black farmers’ sons with English names. The word “mafia” first entered the American lexicon through New Orleans newspapers.

Louisiana and its elite are thoroughly colonized by the Americans, and have been for a century. Almost everything that’s fucked up about the place has American fingerprints all over it. It’s so much more complicated than a Creole old boys’ club.