Sunday, July 31, 2011

Geography as Destiny, or Maybe Not

Scrounging for something to read in another person's house, I came across an old Everyman Library edition of John Lothrop Motley's mostly-unread classic, The Rise of the Dutch Republic.  Motley certainly takes the concept of "rise" seriously; he begins with not, say, the Beeldenstorm of 1556, but with the semi-savages who tried to scratch a life for themselves in the fens and eddies of the great river deltas during the time of Jullius Caesar.

It's an unfailingly edifying story: man against nature yada yada, heroic collective enterprise yada yada, made not the less wonderful because it is largely true. Inevitably, it leads one to compare the other great episode in the long history of  land reclamation--Venice, where another gaggle of desperate strivers fashioned their own version of small-r republican mythology. Which inevitably moved me to venture off in search of other parallels.  St. Petersburg, for example--but of course not, St. Petersburg has no place in the chronicle of freedom because it was so dramatically and violently a top-down enterprise.

But then, what about New Orleans?  We always think of New Orleans as "special" somehow, when we think of it at all, as, for example, after a major meteorological disaster.  But special in what way?  Correct, music, and the story of New Orleans and its distinctive musical tradition appears to be a fascinating one, about which I know laughably little.  But politics in and around New Orleans remain as slovenly and slapdash as those of any  city in the country.  Why isn't there a proud, independent, republic of New Orleans, as there once was in Venice, maybe still is in rhe Netherlands.  Why is New Orleans different?

Mrs. Buce suggested the curse of oil, which is tempting, but oil didn't become a big factor in New Orleans politics until the last century until its character was already fixed. Could it be that at the end of the day, georgraphy just isn't that important after all?

No comments: