They’re off their meds again. Let’s see what damage the residential property jihad is doing this time. And before the end of this, why don’t we think about what the sane people of New Orleans (yes, there are some, starting with NOLAscape subscribers) can do to stop them.
Truth and lies, reality and delusion, tumbling about on the unlikely playground of some simple restaurant regulation amendments proposed by Council Member Nadine Ramsey. We’ll get a look at them all, but try to focus on the one before Council last week, NMR 16, and especially the process. How they spin the messages. How the paranoid tendency uses the lessons of Edward Bernays and Josef Goebbels.
Let’s look at the original texts first, to see if they match the propaganda our Respectable Preservative Citizens have been spraying around town:
Restaurant, Standard. An establishment where food and/or beverages are prepared to order, served by wait staff, and usually consumed on-premises. A standard restaurant’s principal method of operation includes ordering by customers from an individual menu or menu board and the service of food and beverages by a restaurant employee at the same table or counter where the items are consumed. Standard restaurants may offer alcoholic beverages for sale as incidental to food and non-alcoholic beverage service. Food service and sale of non-alcoholic beverages shall constitute at least fifty percent (50%) or more of the revenue for said establishment.
Amended definition NMR 16 replaces highlighted sentences with:
Standard restaurants may sell and serve alcoholic beverages. Average monthly revenue from food and nonalcoholic beverages shall exceed fifty percent of the total average monthly revenue from the sale of food, nonalcoholic beverages and alcoholic beverages.
Do you see high drama there? No? No OK Corral? Not ready to man the barricades? Maybe you are not spiritually pure enough to belong to a Residents’ Defense Organization. You need more political indoctrination.
How about writing op-eds and appearing on interviews to insult and accuse Council Member Nadine Ramsey of all sorts of crimes? Maybe you are a member of a residential property association, but you don’t see grounds for abuse and threats. Could you be in the wrong club? We have an intern evaluating everything she calls CRAs (Crazy Residents’ Associations) have been saying since May 14th. They will be analyzed into the malign and the gullible; the rude and crude or coldly polite; the occasionally awake and incorrigibly stupid; the followers of Meg Lousteau and the others, if we can find any. Our database can help you decide which is the right combination of mean spirit, uncritical acceptance of the Talking Points, self-righteousness, prohibitionism and anti-music activism that suits your particular personality type. All communications will be strictly confidential. Your secret vices are safe with us. Give us a call.
Vocabulary item: at the CZO session in May, Acting President Stacy Head assigned a name to one side of the restaurant argument: “French Quarter People.” It included VCPORA, its junior partner French Quarter Citizens and their me-too, Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association. Now they have reached out to other neighborhood associations around the city in their ongoing struggle against demon drink and the satanic Ramsey using their talking points – every restaurant will be a liquor store, etc. I doubt that many of these groups do the homework of checking out the actual amendments, following the arguments in council, reading Ms Ramsey’s own comments or communicating with her office for background. Let’s call this collective FQP.
The nub of the fuss about NMR-16 is removal of the word “incidental.” Restaurant managers want it out because it is ambiguous. Does it mean you can only serve a glass of wine with some food at the same time? Or that serving alcoholic beverages cannot be the main business of the restaurant? How wide-angle is “incidental”? Selective enforcement and private lawsuits are a plague in the New Orleans restaurant business, and VCPORA is the main culprit and carrier, so clear law is important.
The FQP are turning this into soap opera. Maybe there is a market for local political melodrama. We are considering a NOLAscape reality show, Even Assholes Aren’t All Bad. Or depending on the time slot, Even A**holes Aren’t All Bad.
By the evening of CZO day, May 14th, when the restaurant amendments were up for discussion, the residentialists were beginning to sputter and rage. Over the next few weeks, they whipped each other into a satisfyingly shared froth, and got some of our more mindless media to give them space and time to spread misinformation and vitriol.
Before leaving her show, Angela Hill slipped one in, with four guests, all residents railing against the Ramsey amendments. No balance, no opposition and no challenging questions. Angela’s input was mostly “Oh, dear” and “Tsk tsk.”
Garland Robinette did another. He had at least made an effort, he said; he had tried to get Nadine Ramsey to come on the show. Robinette did nothing to represent an alternative point of view or challenge the residential guests’ claims with serious questions. He just lobbed some light softballs that would have drawn praise from Larry King. At least King did it for access to the big names. Robinette and Hill were creeping favor with local activists who love being on their shows. The magic of radio validates their positions. Was he afraid VCPORA would snub WWL?
On August 14th, less than a week before Amendment NMR-16 would be before council for a vote, The Lens published an attack op-ed by Meg Lousteau, Alpha Female of the Residential Jihad Movement. We’ll take a wander through it soon. I emailed The Lens asking, Since Meg’s article is highly editorial, would you publish a rebuttal for balance? I didn’t say I would write it. It would be too easy to dismiss me as an opponent. I would have tried to get someone else to write it.
No answer. I tickled it for a response. No answer. There’s your editorial policy for The Lens, which likes to claim noble purpose.
On the 18th, The Advocate published a florid Letter to the Editor that functions as op-ed in its layout, by an Eric C. Walton, attorney. I asked if the Advocate would publish a rebuttal or balancing position. No answer. I sent something as a draft. No answer.
How’s that for editorial policy? Even Fox News is fairly up front about its position. The Lens, The Advocate and WWL are taking editorial positions siding with the residentialists against the Council and normal people, but they don’t want to say so. As far as I can tell, the Times-Picayune rose above this behavior, sticking to reporting, mostly, and I think best, by Richard Webster.
In this article, I want to focus most on the process: how the hoodie jihadis communicate their message. We can’t avoid content all together, but we’ll come back to it in a separate chapter.
Let’s start with the good. Give them a break up front. Gail Cavett was on one of the panels, focusing on music in courtyards. Gail can speak logically, expressing thoughts in terms of cause and effect. The courtyard issue may have some merit. Her input stood out.
Meg Lousteau understands what she is saying too, but as a skilled soundbite engineer, generally does not use reason to get the effect she wants when speaking to the public. She has developed good vocal skills since the noise ordinance wars, and uses them to develop ominous visual images.
The Talking Points
The current campaign kicked off either late in the May 14th council session, when Chris Young explained the amendment to allow unopened beverages to be supplied with take-away meals, and Carol Gniady lost it. As executive director of FQC, Carol charged the lectern, voice shaking: “How can you even listen to that man. A paid lobbyist . . . . ” Of course, Carol is a paid lobbyist too, but this is the French Quarter Militant Tendency we are talking about. Belief trumps facts.
If they really had no advance knowledge of the proposed amendment, they did well, progressing from an innocuous statement to lift the outdated risk of criminal charge from something that all restaurants do anyway. But if Carol’s outburst was prepared, she might have had long immersion in The Method as part of her training for representing the FQC menagerie.
Since we are exploring process here, notice that there is almost certainly a coordinator keeping these clubs on message. “Morph into bars” can’t be just a spontaneous meme that erupted around the city in the space of a few days. They tell the same stories using the same words, almost the same sentences. Somebody is writing the script. My money is on Meg Lousteau. I can’t say for sure; they won’t tell me. Some evenings I languish by the phone, faint and pale, hoping Meg will call and tell me The Plan. But she never does. Languishing is the best I get.
I think the Residentialist General Staff first wanted no change. They wanted all of Ramsey’s restaurant amendments drowned in a bucket. In op-eds and interviews they never offered suggestions for improvement, modification, compromise or what they call protection. Just: No! CM Ramsey, they said, does not care about citizens. She only cares about “moneyed interests.” They mean the Louisiana Restaurant Association, I guess. Last year, when oil company stalker Stuart Smith seemed to be backing them everywhere, VCPORA was the “moneyed interests.” It’s a meaningless claim. The restaurant amendments have been proposed partly to avoid inappropriate risk and because restaurants think they are good for the restaurant business. Money is – ahem – incidental.
Out there in FQP paranoia-land, the story supplanted the facts. That is the normal process. Not many people can sustain passion in a campaign in full awareness that they are talking jive. Iago in Shakespeare. Maybe Meg Lousteau. Probably Stuart Smith. Maybe Nixon and Kissinger. The rest of us have to believe, so we step into the narrative. We think it is real. Our leader spins us a web. Our friends and colleagues, and we ourselves, are eager to believe it, so we can share the awareness and earn praise from the maestra.
Josef Goebbels said getting people to follow you is easy. Convince them there is a threat, which is not hard. Free floating fear is close to the surface in everybody; just give them a target. Then convince them that you can save them from the barbaric enemy. And all advertising tells us that people respond to images, not reason and language.
Let’s look at some stuff. Generalissima Lousteau’s op-ed in The Lens:
“In a last-minute move, a City Council member has introduced a barrage of complicated amendments that, if adopted, will . . . scatter de facto liquor stores throughout the city and . . . “
The language – last-minute, barrage, complicated, liquor stores throughout – is visual, intended to leave you with scary impressions. Images are what modern politics is made of. Images, slogans and how they make you feel. “Make America Great Again.” Logic, reason – too much work. Too many big words. Honesty? Reality? We are bombarded with ads and political hogwash. Lies and fantasy supplanting truth and reality are no surprise. In Reality TV, reality means fantasy.
Let’s do some deconstructing:
Barrage: About 200 amendments were introduced on CZO day. They have boiled down to 74 on the Council web site, 18 are tagged NMR – Ramsey’s. 24%. Twenty-two are LC – LaToya Cantrell. 30%. Seven were from the Mayor’s office entered by CM Head, “by request.” So far, the LC amendments and the totality have not been called a “barrage,” but CM Ramsey’s amendments are characterized as an artillery attack.
They were introduced on CZO day because that is the way the council and the administration had decided to do it. Bob Rivers, exec of the City Planning Commission, and Leslie Alley, deputy, were on hand for guidance and to report on the CPC’s position when required, which was often. People from the Mayor’s office were there. The method and the numbers were within the law and agreed by the two branches of government.
“The proposed 11th-hour changes to the CZO are the work of Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey . . . Without warning or any kind of public notice, she tried to insert her liquor-friendly amendments into the CZO, effectively sabotaging . . .”
Meg knows the mechanisms of New Orleans city government a lot better than I do. She knows that blaming the amendment process on CM Ramsey is pure BS. “Without warning”? Ramsey says:
“The City Charter sets forth the rules for submitting and amending ordinances. . . . I initially introduced six amendments to be considered at the Special Committee of the Whole Public Hearing on the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance on April 17, 2015. These amendments were made available to the public on April 15, 2015 on the City Council website.”
Lousteau’s “without warning” claim refers to the CZO session of May 14th. April 15th was one month before. And for anecdotal support, I knew about some of Ramsey’s restaurant amendments coming into the 5/14 session just from coffee shop gossip, Meg has assistants and works this patch professionally. If she was not way ahead of me, something’s fishy on Rampart Street.
“Liquor-friendly.” Gratuitously inflammatory, throwing a cheap bone to the neo-prohibitionists. Let’s recognize in passing that most people are no longer so prissy about the distribution of beverages. Carrie Nation and Volstead were enough for a century or two. Inaccurate as well as inflammatory: the amendments are about restaurants being able to operate without fear of selective enforcement and legal attack by folks like VCPORA, who have a history of it. They will not increase sales of alcoholic beverages. What Meg is really protesting is losing some of her ability to threaten restaurant operators.
“The biggest bombshell in her misbegotten slate of amendments is Ramsey’s intent to allow every standard restaurant in New Orleans to operate as a liquor store.” [Emphasis mine.]
This may be the low point. The liquor-store accusation is from a different amendment. Let’s just say it is built on one of the FQP’s hot flash fantasies being mindlessly repeated far and wide, and no more intelligent for the volume. The novel additional insult here is intent. For one thing, it will be immediately apparent to anyone who reads the amendment that turning restaurants into liquor stores isn’t anyone’s intent, let alone a Council Member who does not own a restaurant or a liquor store.
How would Meg know Ramsey’s intent? Illegal wiretap? Previously undisclosed mind-reading skills? If you don’t show evidence for a statement like that, it is just cheap politics. Meg Lousteau has better skills in writing and politics than this Trumpian rubbish. How many Meggites out there read a sentence of such tripe, nodding their empty heads in hypnotized agreement? It fits the story: They are trying to destroy our way of life. They hate our freedoms. It’s them. There is always a they. Who are they this time? I think VCPORA is a rat’s nest of poisonous ideas expressed in educated accents, but even they should consider this kind of fictional witchcraft beneath them.
Quick reminder: we are not focusing on content yet. We are looking at the techniques used to spread disinformation: barbarians at the gate, and visual language with images designed to manipulate fear.
Okay, let’s give Lousteau a break for a minute. The Advocate published a Letter from an Eric C. Walton, attorney.
“Nadine Ramsey is a tyrant,” is his opening. Of all the letters they may have received, this is what the Advocate chooses to publish.
“Tyranny is when officials refuse to do their electorate’s bidding and they satisfy their own interests under the color of law.” I didn’t make it up; that is what Eric C. Walton, attorney, wrote and what the editors chose to put in their comic. Leaving aside the illiterate construction, “Tyranny is when . . . ,” where did Walton learn about representative democracy? Is this guy trying to be an exhibit for the failings of American education? Or just trying to help Ms Lousteau manipulate the gullible?
“Ramsey – and others – began secretly crafting major amendments with bar and alcohol lobbyists before the CZO was even on the books.” He must mean the “secret” amendments that were on the web site on April 15th, then announced in the public executive session on April 17th. I would also be interested in any examples Mr Walton could give us of proposals which were published before they were written, which is what he seems to be suggesting is the right process.
But facts bore Mr Walton, attorney. He is channeling the Greater Truth. Think about “secretly crafting with . . . lobbyists.” Can you think of any ordinance proposed in council that does not involve communication or consultation with somebody? Stakeholders, we usually call them. From the simplest tiny zoning variance to rebuilding South Rampart or the North Rampart streetcar or the infamous Hospitality Zone, council does not work inside a plexiglass wall. People are involved. Using the word “lobbyist” to try to color the process with a watercolor wash of corruption on K Street is just a cheap trick. Walton should leave that stuff to NOLAscape; we do it better.
Walton’s fact-free sentence is structurally deceptive – and that, unfortunately, is the relentless pattern of the militant residents.
“Self-serving changes,” writes our propagandist. How self-serving? Does the expression have meaning, or is it just inserted to communicate negative feelings? Does Nadine Ramsey own some restaurants we don’t know about? What is Walton accusing her of? Come on, Mr Walton, attorney. If you have something to say, say it. Snide hints are cheap.
“Equally appalling” is the next paragraph lead, into an accusation that Lousteau used, and also Jason Berry (who I am told should know better) in an American Zombie blog – Ramsey refused to take questions about the CZO at her “Town Hall” meetings. It is a technical truth abused to generate misinformation: the Town Halls were fully scheduled for an entirely different purpose. I don’t think Town Hall was really the best name. Eight or nine heads of city departments or executives of contractors like Entergy or SWB had been invited to speak about their activities and to field questions about them. If my memory is right, the one I attended ran more than 90 minutes, not counting the feeble demonstration a small Size Matters bunch mounted in the back at the end. The audience had not come to discuss the CZO and the amendments, a controversial subject that would take a long time and had nothing to do with the planned event. “Arrogantly,” says Walton, Ramsey refused to discuss zoning. Not at all, Sir. Ms Ramsey explained pleasantly at the opening that the invited speakers had the evening, and this was not the time or place for CZO debate. Arrogant would have been to bring the speakers to the meeting and hijack their time for a zoning fight.
In fact – well, maybe in fact – I am going to go by memory – Mr Berry is a hot investigator; he can check it – the CZO session had been postponed. CM Ramsey’s Town Halls were scheduled to take place after the CZO vote.
“Her amendments let restaurants become bars and nightclubs and make all restaurants package liquor stores.” The talking point, word for word. The barbarian-at-the-gates image, to scare the children and the horses. It’s rubbish, and if they really believe it, why not discuss it rationally by looking at the specific language of the amendments, showing where they think the weak spots are, and suggesting language that could satisfy requirements of the restaurant owners and the anxious residents? I suspect their pretended fear is more emotionally satisfying than acting in an intelligent manner.
In the same paragraph, without a break, Walton says, “She allows developers . . . to build jarringly out-of-scale luxury high rises flanked by parking lots.” Maybe my browser has gone funny, but what I see on the council web site, not to mention this week’s hearing before Judge Kern Reese, is that the outline of the building rules for the Riverfront Overlay are on an amendment called MJL-6 – Mitchell J. Landrieu 6 – introduced into the CZO by Stacy Head at the Mayor’s request.
Okay, let’s get off of Walton. His piece is florid, fact-free rubbish, but it shows what can happen when the FQP’s agitprop office scores a hit on the malign or the gullible. And when the Advocate falls short of an editorial policy with journalistic integrity.
I won’t take it apart but take a look at Jason Berry/American Zombie http://www.theamericanzombie.com/2015/08/new-orleans-neighborhoods-commentary-i.html to see the same tripe recycled in more literate words. Investigative, people call him. I suppose checking out Chris Young’s brother, a totally irrelevant topic, is Berry’s bid for the Seymour Hersh award, while uncritically reprinting another version of the FQP talking points. If this piece communicates effectively to you, maybe we are all zombies. He may have scored one touch, with the “liquor lobbyist” line. Chris Young’s firm has more than one client. One or another alcoholic beverage company or organization may be among them. But he stated each time speaking on these amendments that he was representing the Louisiana Restaurant Association. That is not a “liquor” group. This puritanical neo-temperance movement is seriously boring.
Let’s flick forward either four months, if you start when the material of the amendments was first generally published, or three months from CZO day when they were acrimoniously discussed and referred to CPC by CM Ramsey, to the August 20th council session, when NMR-16 came up for a vote.
First of the FQP reps was Carol Allen, former president of VCPORA, now with an uptown address and title. Carol “implored” council either to defer NMR-16 two weeks, or vote it down. She had a list of 22 organizations that supported her position . . . shades of Nathan Chapman and Joe McCarthy. Carol asks for deferral based on Ramsey’s statement that there was misinformation about. But Carol’s people created, wrote, published and disseminated the misinformation! Why do they deserve a deferral based on refusing to come to sensible grips with their perceived issues, instead trying to rile up a crowd of misinformed residents?
Second: Ms Lousteau herself. Wait a minute! Change of message, change of tone. She says that she can see that there is legitimate cause for concern about unintended consequences on both sides! If I remembered to wind my calendar, it was just six days before that Alpha Meg thundered of malign intentions from the Restaurant Association and CM Ramsey. That she was declaring not unintended consequences but clear intent to turn every restaurant into a liquor store. Is she “evolving,” in the current jargon? Or was she inciting hatred for PR advantage for the last three months, now offering an olive branch, as if she was willing to be magnanimous and let Ramsey and the LRA off the hook she had skillfully set, writing in the image language of people who watch TV 6 hours a day. If she had not meant it, how about an apology to Ms Ramsey for the incredible rudeness by Meg and her eager followers? Or would she say, It’s just politics, not personal? Now without warning (does that ring a bell?) she changes the narrative to say it should only take two weeks deferral to reach a cordial compromise.
Then came Carol Gniady into court to say the same thing, more or less.
Then the high spot – Albin Guillot tries for the Oscar. He’s pretty good.
He opens with, “Council Member Ramsey, I am sorry that you feel . . .” unjustly maligned and insulted. No, Monsieur Albin – she doesn’t just feel it. It is out there in print. Your colleagues and allies did it. Apologize for what you did, not for the fact that CM Ramsey noticed it.
“It is hard to be a preservationist in New Orleans. We get criticized . . .” Well, whaddayaknow. If you run campaigns of misinformation and downright lies, some people are going to think you are a dick, right? Is that hard to take on board? Either roll with it or clean up your act.
We are not against visitors. We give the Convention Bureau the product to sell. Visitors don’t come for bars, I can assure you . . .
I was on Bourbon Street last night, to hear an excellent band at the Sonesta. Standing in front of the hotel at about midnight among the thousands of people loudly, enthusiastically, vulgarly enjoying the Bourbon Street party, I looked up and down to see if i could see any of those charming old houses that supposedly bring everyone here. Couldn’t see ’em. Just bars everywhere. I wandered up to Dauphine and Burgundy. Classic old plain front FQ houses with little stoops punctuating narrow sidewalks, and pretty much nobody there. There is a bar or two, so there were some Saturday night people. But you can’t compare it to the thundering herds of Bourbon.
In normal conversation, I would not disparage the FQ residential side, For visitors, it is mostly a daytime thing. Maintaining the old houses is expensive, and the residents pick up the tab. Good for them. But the commercial end for the most part takes care of its properties, too. The building that collapsed on Royal was a private property, not in commercial use. The residential FQ is significant, but keep it in proportion. Its appeal is a long way from outstripping the great restaurants, bars, music venues and the Bourbon honky-tonk section. You may not like it, but there it is – tens of thousands of people telling you that they do.
Monsieur Albin said he knows most restaurants would not morph into bars, but there is always that one . . .
Wait a minute: I am reading these attack pieces and listening to interviews where youse guys say all restaurants are going to morph into bars, and then into package liquor stores. Even that there is a plot to get them to do so. Is it all or one?
Guillot wants a deferral for compromise too.
Keith Hardie, a consistent anti-beverage, anti-music campaigner for years, uses his legal skills to demonstrate that the original CZO language would not be precluded by the state law, which nobody had said it would. Two minutes of irrelevance.
There was one common stylistic theme that connected these speakers, besides the coordinated content: superciliousness. Condescension. They instruct the Council Members and most especially CM Ramsey on the law, on public opinion, on the traditions of New Orleans and their neighborhoods. They lecture. I don’t know about Nadine Ramsey, but I was beginning to feel offended. In what world have Carol Gniady or Albin Guillot or Carol Allen earned the right to figuratively finger-wag at CM Nadine Ramsey? Ramsey finally saw off Jackie Clarkson, who held back city progress for years, bringing a light whiff of brimstone into the council chamber. Do they want that back? Probably, because Clarkson seemed to love sucking up to the French Quarter gentry and carrying their water into council. Ramsey was instrumental in closing the curtain on that ugly era. If you can’t say Thank you and speak with respect, you don’t deserve any yourself.
To be fair, Meg Lousteau doesn’t. She has a permanent archness in speech, that she has managed to reduce but not eliminate, but it is democratic. She speaks to everyone like that.
If you keep watching the video, the supporters of NMR-16 come to the lectern, managers and owners of restaurants, officers of the LRA and FQBL. None of them show a trace of that condescending pomposity. Not one. Many of them are significant figures in New Orleans commerce, not just neighborhood gadflies and trouble makers, yet they manage to speak eye-to-eye, with consistent civility.
So the theme had morphed to compromise. Either vilification and misinformation were not polling to win, so the FQP was groping for a more intelligent approach, or a cease-fire was in their scenario.
I got in touch with Chris Young, the FQP’s guest villain of this series. I asked whether any of the leaders had been in touch to discuss the amendments, to see if they could work something out with the LRA.
> Nope. Nobody. Nada.
Wait – it’s been a bit over three months since the big CZO day that’s driving them bonkers. Not one of them has reached out, even for clarification?
> Not even a text message.
So now they need two more weeks, because these two more are the crucial weeks. As opposed to the 13 preceding weeks, in which they did nothing but Chicken Little messaging fueled with hot organic BS – and now the arch, condescending tones implying that it is all CM Ramsey’s fault.
I’m thinking: statute of limitations. And for having played it real bad, you lose.
Maybe the Council noticed it too, because NMR-16 passed, with the two usual Nays, Head and Guidry.
The “French Quarter People” claim to be activists in the city’s interests. Albin Guillot brought up their opposition to the riverside freeway as a show of virtue. It was about fifty years ago. VCPORA did oppose it, can’t deny that. But it was a Robert Moses project. His nemesis and leading strategist for how to oppose his stuff was Jane Jacobs of New York, the great urbanist of national renown. It would have been nice to hear an acknowledgment, It would have been even nicer, a whole lot nicer, if VCPORA had kept on opposing re-routing the I-10 to an elevated freeway that crippled Claiborne Avenue. I wonder what the difference was.
It is hard for them to bring up a record of civic benefit, because they generally act on behalf of their own narrow interests, either against or with no care for the bigger picture of the city. Not much different than Moses’s freeway, really – just stick it somewhere else, not in our sacred fragile bird of a neighborhood. How about linking an apology for where the I-10 is to your self-congratulation about where it isn’t?
They get a lot of mileage out of bad ideas, because although few, they are organized and determined, while the sane people of New Orleans – which I hope include you, gentle reader – who will be adversely affected, are diffuse and just stand by.
We should change that.
Bob Freilich, 8/30/2015