The good news is that I've survived my very first Mardi Gras.

But the big news is that Mardi Gras itself is alive and well - and off to a roaring start.There were some nervous moments recently, thanks to a New Orleans city council member named Dorothy Mae Taylor, who has exhibited great skill at starting a political brushfire, then pouring gasoline on it.

Taylor, who is black, pushed through an ordinance in December that makes it illegal for social clubs and Mardi Gras parade clubs, known as krewes, to exclude members on the basis of race, religion, gender or national origin.

When enforcement begins next year, violators will face a fine of $300 and up to five months in jail.

The krewes of Momus and Comus, two of the oldest and most rigid in their white-males-only admission policies, promptly withdrew from this year's parade.

One member of several old-line krewes sniffed that being told to open the clubs' membership was like being told ``whom to invite for dinner.' Besides, he pointed out, there are already black krewes, women's krewes, even a gay krewe.

When the the old guard withdrew from a celebration that began in 1857, people took notice. The second Battle of New Orleans was joined.

The new law is not popular

This battle poses a question that is relevant to all Americans: Does the government have any business regulating the social life of private citizens?

Yes, Taylor has argued vigorously, because discrimination in any form is wrong. Furthermore, Mardi Gras is a public event, one that infuses nearly half a billion dollars into the local economy every year while the city pays for police and cleanup.

But there's growing evidence that Taylor's aggressive tactics have made her guilty not only of bad form, but of bad politics.

A recent poll commissioned by the Times-Picayune newspaper showed that:

Two-thirds of voters feel City Council should repeal the ordinance; only one-fourth say the ordinance should stand.

Repeal is favored by 86 percent of white voters and 51 percent of black voters.

Since the furor began, only 8 percent say their opinion of Taylor has improved, while 46 percent say it has gotten worse.

Privacy - not discrimination - is the real issue, according to Ed Renwick of Loyola University, who conducted the poll.

``People think, `If we're going to mess around with this person's privacy today, that means they might mess around with my privacy tomorrow,'' Renwick said.

Which is not to say that the old-line krewes' bid for martyr status has met with much sympathy.

Some two dozen krewes have agreed to parade during this year's festivities, and several say they will voluntarily integrate by the time the ordinance goes into effect next year.

After a rain-out last Saturday, the revelry rolled, undampened, on Sunday. It will culminate one week from today with the traditional Fat Tuesday finale, which ushers in the solemn Lenten season.

As the party revved up, it was apparent Dorothy Mae Taylor is not universally admired. Several saloons on Bourbon Street sported copies of a cartoon that showed Taylor in a harlequin's hat over the caption: ``The Grinch Who Stole Mardi Gras.'

Gary Burd's reaction to the brouhaha over the ordinance was typical. Tossing off a shot of schnapps during his break from waiting tables in a French Quarter oyster bar, Burd spoke for many locals - black and white - who know they'll never be asked to join the more exclusive krewes.

``You and me couldn't get invited onto those krewes because we don't have the right last name,' he said, making no effort to conceal his contempt for the old aristocracy.

But that contempt doesn't make Burd a supporter of the ordinance, either.

``I think it's a lot of crap,' he said.

Right to privacy cherished

That terse assessment is shared by most residents of this charmingly faded port city, where the Mississippi River slides into the Gulf of Mexico and where gusto - in food, drink and frolic - is an unofficial religion.

As pollster Renwick pointed out, privacy is highly cherished in this part of the world.

And though more than half of the city's residents are now black, loss of privacy is a high price to pay even for a cause as worthy as Taylor's.

``Let the good times roll,' is something of an anthem in these parts.

A good time is not only big business, it's serious business. And, in the eyes of the locals, it's none of the government's business.

When the majority of the citizens share a healthy attitude like that, Mardi Gras is likely to be around for a good long while.

And that's the best news of all.

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