Chastity prays for me, piety sings,
Innocence sweetens my last black breath,
Modesty hides my thighs in her wings,
And all the deadly virtues plague my death
From Lament, Dylan Thomas
The mission of NOLAscape is to send out clear reports when our latest model Swiss-engineered Firebolt BS meter starts ringing off the hook. Sometimes that may compel us to step on a few social toes or coax an angry moo out of a sacred cow, but . . . a mission is a mission.
Disclaimer: I have never been very good at belief. I have made a few stabs at it, but after a week or two, I always revert to Hume, Darwin, Einstein, Russell and Neil de Grasse Tyson. Maybe the Dalai Lama gets some space. Most recently, I have been trying to believe in Zeus, Apollo, Athena and that crowd. They are elegant, if a bit cruel sometimes, and I figure, if I could believe in them, I could read the Odyssey and Euripides with the same passion I see some religious folk bring to the Bible.
I found the Hellenic effort useful in understanding the arguments a clutch of our Priests and Pastors have been bringing to the latest episode of their crusade against the strip clubs. Their reasoning helps me. Following their patterns of thought, I can use the syllogism:
- Poseidon is the god of the sea.
- There is a sea.
- Therefore Poseidon.
The Knights of NOLA Christendom have girded up their l**ns against their enemy. Or is it The Enemy? Or is it life, or just nearly-naked life? The padres, pastors, priests and preachers have laid such a cumulative load on my imported precision Meter of Reason that it may need a service call. Specialists from the 21st century have to fly in with coolant chemicals. It is not clear whether the coolant is for the machine or the overheated imaginations of the Crusaders..
Let’s tell it as I saw it unfold instead of from the top. One day, when this essay is included in the best-selling anthology of Bob’s Uncollected Stuff and assigned to advanced students in top universities, they should have the opportunity to watch the story emerge as I saw it.
8 March 2016, at City Planning. The Council Chamber, City Hall, New Orleans.
I was there on another matter, but Robert Watters of Rick’s, French Quarter Management District and the Bourbon Street business associations was in the house. What’s up? My thing finished, but I better stay. Mr Watters in the Council Chamber suggests some lively moments coming up.
City Council had smacked a wet, fragrant fish down on poor Planning’s desk: research into Adult Entertainment and sex trafficking. CPC was squirming. The entry point today was an IZD – an Interim Zoning District. In this administrative world, strip clubs have been assigned the passion-killer name of Adult Live Performance Venues – ALPV. So an ALPV-IZD would be the designation for where strip clubs are, and they would all be conditional use. Into such dry, scratchy hands has Burlesque fallen. It was also proposed on a yellow Power Point projected on the screen that the number of dance clubs be cut back 65%. It would be a shrinking IZD.
Robert Watters seemed to be okay with that, at least with the conditional use. One could test for an axe to grind there, because if new clubs had limited permitted space and had to run the conditional gauntlet, and others had to age or be harassed off the board, that could mean less competition for Rick’s, but I don’t think Robert Watters thinks like that when engaged in his public roles, so we can let that go. He is saying: let the ALPVs (gak!) go through conditional use so the Respectable Citizens can be reassured that they are good business citizens, so the Respectables will go watch the telly of an evening and let everybody alone..
Was he right to concede that? Was it a tactical compromise? I don’t know. One of my instincts is to say, strip clubs feature a kind of dancing frequently called “exotic.” Women – mostly women – take a lot, or maybe all, of their clothes off in the course of the dances. People like it, so they tip the dancers and pay a lot for drinks. What’s the problem? It’s a legal business, it’s fun, it’s good entertainment, so why does it need to be surrounded with this prairie puritan fuss? Let the municipal government get on with something important.
In between Watters and the grand finale of that day’s Opry spoke a series of pastors, preachers and faith-based operatives. They implied or asserted that pole dance clubs directly led to or were at least linked to sex slavery, drug trading and using and prostitution.
Something supposed to be unnoticed – but our Zurich-produced Meter was storing it up – was that the Church worthies never mentioned God, the Bible, sin, hell, perdition, salvation or any of the vocabulary of spiritual terrorism. Nope – all dry and sociological. Just folk of good will, here to help poor victims – who were notably absent. Peculiar, don’t you think? Not one of these damaged victims was brought into evidence. Where was the Poster Child? Their existence was asserted, but not demonstrated. (Remember Poseidon?)
As the worthies spoke and dropped in a few references, I was remembering what I knew about this. Jim Kelly, director of Covenant House, had been banging on for 25 years or so that the dancers should be employees so they get the “protection” of minimum wage.
Covenant House is a Catholic order or charity that shelters teenagers at risk and homeless. As far as we can see, it does good work – at home. But the game afoot here is not young people who come to Covenant House because they need help. This is Covenant House, accompanied by an ecumenical council of religions, perhaps most notably the powerful Southern Baptists, in missionary mode, reaching out to tell the city who the victims and victimizers are, and what has to be done about it. Reaching out, they use their religious badges to establish credibility but suppress their old pulpit language. They speak in the bland secular language of sociology, to tell us that a whole legal industry is tainted by drug trading and sex trafficking.
Wow. No matter how pale you paint it, and allowing for the free pass these guys are going to get from a lot of people (not me) for the religion shields they carry, that’s some heavy sh*t (asterisk out of respect for the churchmen and women) going down. God is wearing a velvet glove, but the meaning is harsh. Shut down the pole dance clubs not for crimes or infractions the club had committed, but for the infraction some other club might have committed – or not. A solution this twisted could only come from religion, where belief precedes thought. A destructive solution to a problem which might not even exist.
I remember that Jim Kelly is said to have been banging on about some aspects of this for about 25 years. He is reported to have said that the club owners deny the dancers their employment rights.. For all of that quarter of a century, Kelly seems to take no notice of the preferences of any actual dancers, who universally opt for contractor status in order to be free of the inadequacy of American and Louisiana minimum wage, the parsimony of labor law, the feebleness of our employee protection and the rigidity of standard employment contracts. No matter. People of the pastoral mindset nobly protect the interests of an imaginary essential victim, the Platonic Idea of a victim, in an imaginary world of victims and villains. Perhaps once in a while, they find a real person to cast in the role, who has been a victim of the sex trade and has also danced in a club. (Or perhaps a young person who just knows what the religious questioner wants to hear.) They have a heroine. They engage the logical fallacy post hoc ergo propter hoc but nem’mind. The churches and charities are presumed good, virtuous Crusaders.
Who will save the dancers, and even us, from our crusading saviors? Quis nos proteget de ipsis protectoribus? (Did I remember enough Latin to get that anywhere near right?)
Some of the Commissioners seemed quite impressed. I was wondering, do they really like Kool Aid, or is it just the done thing to act deferential to anyone claiming to speak in the name of a church, even when it is obvious that they are selling pure jive? Chairman Kyle Wedberg looked ready to genuflect to the self-proclaimed pious. Me, I was working on my gag reflex.
The Crusaders’ main reference point is a study, supposedly done by Loyola (a Jesuit institution) based on interviews with clients of Covenant House. It shows that a certain percentage claim to have been at some point victims of the sex trade or in danger of trafficking. The details do not matter, because the “study” was anecdotal, insufficiently supported and didn’t show anything like a causal link between strip clubs, drug dealing, drug use, prostitution or sex trafficking. The Faithful seem to believe that if you say two things in adjacent sentences or paragraphs, that constitutes causality and leads to meaning.
On the basis of this record of amateur imitation of investigation, the assembled pastors and priests as good as accuse the ALPV owners and managers of complicity in selling illegal drugs and sex trafficking. Recreational drugs is probably a bit of a ho-hum, but any kind of human trafficking is an ugly, brutal crime, closer to systematic murder than managing burlesque and enabling some fit women to earn a good living. Who could get away with that kind of slander but a religion?
Just to reassure you that I am awake: I know there is a church every couple of hundred yards in this city, that millions of Americans like religions socially and some even believe in it. Some people expect universal, automatic deference to the churches, but I try to keep my immunity to belief topped up, and I make sure that that fine-tuned Swiss measuring device is well lubricated.
Some of the speakers referred to Trick or Treat, an enforcement operation by Louisiana Alcohol and Tobacco Control. It’s bass was Troy Hebert. ATC investigated and raided strip clubs on Bourbon In November 2015. They found some illegal drugs and some prostitution, they say, in some clubs. The number varies from five to nine of those raided, depending on who is spinning, pretty much all of them owned by one company. (That made me wonder whether it was the crime or the company that was targeted, but my meter from Zurich could not confirm.)
The detail is unimportant, because whatever it is south of 100%, it could not possibly justify the solution proposed – imposing a reduction of the number of clubs by 65%, with no reference to whether the club engaged in or permitted illegal practices or not. I am not making this up – that is what the folk of Faith and their surrogates in the City were proposing according to the Power Point staff was putting up on the screens. But let’s be fair: CPC didn’t know what it was doing, knew that it didn’t, and would rather be out from under the whole thing.
Let’s explore some crime prevention techniques we could learn from this proposal:
• Repair garages can be fronts for car theft. They have the skills and materials to change the color, appearance, plates and so forth to disguise a stolen car, or take it down quickly to parts. So to reduce car theft, let’s reduce the number of car repairers.
• A major cause of drug dependency is doctors over-prescribing opioids. Because of the way the US allows the pharmaceutical industry to operate, the cost of legal addiction is high. Changing to street drugs offers significant savings. To choke off this route to addiction and illegal drug trading, let’s cut down on the number of doctors.
• Street drug retailing is a game of corners. We can cut down on drug abuse by making longer blocks, hence fewer corners. Or even round blocks, with no corners.
For convenience, let’s break the unities and flip forward: isn’t Troy Hebert, the state alcohol ex-czar who presided over Trick or Treat, the same guy who is now himself under investigation for using his position to extort sexual favors from permit holders?
Wait a minute! Isn’t Covenant House the Catholic charity started by an unlovable misery of a Franciscan and priest, Bruce Ritter, in 1972, who was subsequently exposed as a pedophile, sexual predator and financial finagler? Check him out.
So Trick or Treat offered up the Shock Doctrine opportunity, but its background blows a hole in any notion of moral superiority of the aspiring regulators. To even discuss it rationally, we need more information on who sicced Hebert on the clubs. And we need to know more about the game the religions are playing. Who organized a parade of pastors to get on the case of the strip clubs all at once? Why are they asserting a culture of victimhood without managing to adduce one victim?
The best suggestion so far says this sanitized Crusade against pole dancers and strip clubs has its beady eye on the collection plate. Puritanism pays. The strip clubs are a visible target. You can tell a story that will titillate the indignation of some well-heeled old refugees from American Gothic.
The NOLAscape question: If you turn over the wet rocks of churches and strip clubs, where are you likely to find the most sordid scandals? We will check with our Swiss machine.
The final gobsmacker of that day’s assault was an intense, personal presentation by former Council Member Kristin Gisleson Palmer. It was moving. I don’t want to intrude on it. You can watch it on http://cityofno.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=2&clip_id=2292 at 2:32:10.
Moving, yes. But did it have meaning in the context? “I believe,” she said, that stripping led to drug use, prostitution, depression and despair. People of religious inclination might soften toward a proposition so introduced. Me, I stick with my Swiss-made meter. It rings a warning bell when a sentence starts with “I believe.” (Except when Bernie Sanders says it in his stump speech. But that’s a different trip) Ani ma’amin. Credo. Pisteuo. Sometimes the BS meter’s screen reports: Gimme a break!
It tells me: I can’t demonstrate or prove what I am saying, but I believe it anyway. Have faith, act on it anyway, even if there is no truth in it and it harms others.
Interim. Okay, we are out of 8 March. Kristin Palmer, now really getting into her stride as Joan to Kelly’s Pope, started an online petition to activate sanctions against the strip clubs. You can pick it up on her Facebook page. I am sure she means well. Ms KGP is a complex character. She does some very good things, and some dumb stuff. She sounds totally sincere in her Crusade. Many of the faithful driven by the Pope to kill Cathars in the Albigensian Crusade were also sincere. Didn’t help them not be wrong.
In the petition, she refers to an article in the Times-Pic and Covenant House’s inadmissible “study” as authorities, when she could easily have spoken to any number of actual, live dancers just by wandering down to Bourbon and asking.
Leaving them out didn’t smother their testimony, though. Pole dancers can work Facebook. Some of them blasted her petition right on her own timeline. They were as much in charge of their own lives as Ms. Palmer. They didn’t want saving.
KGP led with, “We have a problem in this country that permeates our society and our city. It is the objectification of women that leads to their exploitation.” As a non-woman, I know I am going to be pilloried for saying anything about this, but here I go, head on the block: this is Early or First Phase Feminism. Gloria Steinem/Andrea Dworkin feminism. To update this, check out the sharper mind and hugely greater knowledge of Camille Paglia, an art scholar as well as a ferocious feminist. Objectification? Of course! Greek sculpture objectified men and women. Socrates objectified young men all the time. Didn’t stop him being the reference point for all Western philosophy, and being objectified in the Symposium didn’t stop Alcibiades from being a tough general who managed to get a major ass-whupping at Syracuse. If I watch a lawyer who is a woman running a great case, I can handle that without qualifying it by her measurements or turn of leg. If she had an after-court gig in a burlesque show, asking to be objectified, I would be rude not to do so. Objectification is not a permanent state, for either the subject or object. If an observer or an observee cannot handle that, how is the problem of inflexible perception or stunted intellect cured by reducing the number of strip clubs?
May Council have the wisdom to blow off this stuff, I thought. It is stroking for the preachers and pastors and their favorite flock, not civil society. They want their religious freedom; I want my freedom of clarity and logic. Freedom from cant in sheep’s clothing. The religious want the State out of their private fantasy; I want religion out of our civic life.
Jump-cut to 28 June – a red-letter afternoon at City Planning. Watch the video when you get a chance – it’s fun.
The chamber was full, mostly with attractive, fit young women (I know, I’m objectifying; sorry, Kristin) who work as dancers in the Bourbon Street clubs. Some of them travel the country and even other countries on a gig basis, like musicians. They earn a living far above average. They make their own business decisions. Since they are not employees of the clubs, their relationship is with their customers, the audience. They make their own decisions on how to relate to them.
The clubs understand the problems the women have. Most give them solid security. They are safe within those walls and some of the clubs have security escort them to their cars or homes after work. Security stops offensive customers. One of the women got a round of applause for saying, I wish I could feel as safe walking in the French Quarter as I do in the clubs.
The women were articulate, intelligent, strong and independent. They buried the condescending saviors. Buried them. Game effing over. Every one of the preachers, every single one who joined in this foolishness, stood exposed as ill informed and out of his or her depth.
Jim Kelly, the man himself, came to the mic at one point. He is a good communicator, a smooth player. First he did a commercial for Covenant House – irrelevant, but well-presented. I even believe it. I can accept that Covenant House does fine work. Then he seemed to be saying, Covenant House is ready to help and protect any young man or women, regardless of history, race, creed, etc., who is victimized by sex traffickers or even by the New Orleans strip clubs.
That is a huge walk-back! His and Palmer’s claims were left threadbare by the powerful counter-attack of the dancers and some of the club managers. Kelly basically gave in, and unless they resurrect themselves with a better story, or don’t notice what happened, this absurd time-waster of a campaign should be over. Maybe it had worked for the church organizations by then. Maybe they had reaped some contributions between March and June, and could afford to retire gracefully in decorous defeat.
Commissioner Nolan Marshall chaired the session of the 28th instead of Kyle Wedberg – refreshing change. In his summation, Mr Marshall said that it had become unmistakably clear that the worthies attacking the strip clubs had very little understanding of the “adult” industry. In short, they did not know what they are talking about.
What we, the city, need now is for City Planning and Council to put this thing back in the drawer, forever. I suspect that is not what they will do. I suspect they may be buying into this fairy tale, or possibly exploiting it for other reasons. Or somebody else’s reasons.
One of the first women who spoke said the arguments of the religious were laden with confirmation bias. That is so, but the confirmation-biased arguments are almost certainly not even their real positions. They are just overlays on the old missionary position. Bring The Message to the barbarians, the inferior, the benighted, the infidel.
It is of exactly the same order of mendacity as the Texas laws, just struck down by the Supreme Court as transparent lies, that laid unreasonable demands on abortion clinics in the name of “women’s health.” They are of the same order of thinking as “Intelligent Design,” thrown out of school curriculum as thinly designed incursion of religious doctrine into public education. Let’s hope our Council and administration have the wisdom to follow the Courts’ decision, not Puritan moralizing thinly disguised as sociology.
And if I find myself in need of some spiritual restructuring, I think I would be at lower risk with Zeus, if I can find a temple around here, than in the hands of people trying to put others out of work on pretexts most of them must know are false.
The pious and the pretenders to piety and purity have been fighting against the life of New Orleans for generations.
“And all the deadly virtues plague my death.”
Don’t let them gain ground.
© NOLAscape July 2016